Tess’s Consistency as a Sign of Growth

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s growth does not conform to the moral development characteristic of a bildungsroman. Hardy, through Tess, argues that bildungsroman is an inadequate understanding of personal growth. Tess’s growth is her ability to consistently retain her agency in the face of several different circumstances which temporarily rob her of it. For example, after Alec kisses her on the carriage, she chooses to get off: she “could not be induced to remount” and walks the rest of the way (86). She could not resist the first kiss, signaling her lost agency but recaptures it by getting off. After raping her, he offers to provide for her: “‘You need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best’” (107). Yet she retakes her agency by rejecting his offer and moving to the dairy.

Then her circumstances change. Instead of a villain taking her agency, it is a loved one. Angel Claire compels her to marry him, in spite of her multiple rejections: “‘I told you I thought I was not respectable enough long ago…I didn’t want to marry you, only—only you urged me’” (254). His refusal to accept her rejection removes her agency, giving her only one option: marry him. However, within that single option, she exerts her agency by making marriage as acceptable to herself as possible. She satisfies her conviction to be honest with him and tells him everything about her past. In the face of a circumstance which removes her ability to choose, she makes a choice anyway.

When Angel leaves her, she is left to either give up or wait for him and face several months of isolation. Instead of choosing what would be easier, she not only chooses to wait for him, she refuses to blame him for it. When speaking to Marian, she presents Angel in the best light possible, saying that “Wives are unhappy sometimes; from no fault of their husbands’” (292). In a situation in which she is being pushed to give up on him, she exercises her agency by waiting for him and defending him in front of others.

Yet one might note that Tess did eventually give up on him by moving in with Alec. However, she blames Alec for her decision, stating that he emotionally manipulated her; “‘you had used your cruel persuasion upon me…you did not stop using it’” (381). So when Angel returns from Brazil, she retakes her agency by killing Alec and running away with Angel. Even after her death, she retains her agency because she insisted that Angel marry her sister for “‘it would almost seem as if death had not divided us’” (393). Thus her agency remains active, through her sister, after she dies. While Tess stagnates morally, she consistently recaptures her agency in the face of various attempts to take it from her. This consistency is a form of growth which the bildungsroman does not account for, suggesting it is a limited understanding of personal growth.

Edmund Widdowson and the “Old Man”

George Gissing uses Edmund Widdowson to discuss how society leaves men with no way to cope with changes to the social order. First, Edmund tries to deal with the fact that society has no need for him to work or socialize. He begins the novel completely alone: “‘I have a housekeeper; no relative lives with me. My only relative in London is a sister-in-law, and we very seldom meet’…‘I’m very idle’” (67). As he is financially self-sufficient, he is neither obligated to engage in social activities nor work for a living. The only option left for him to explore is becoming the head of a family. So after meeting Monica, he follows (or stalks) her, seeking companionship that would fill him with joy and purpose thus ending his isolation and idleness.

Yet once he attains this lone outlet of social participation, he finds himself jealous: “‘I am absurdly jealous when you want to get away from me and amuse yourself with strangers. I can’t talk to such people’” (182). Yet this desire to fulfill a sense of purpose becomes jealousy for Monica. Edmund is encouraged (forced?), due to his position, to marry so as to become a consistent participant in society. Yet his jealousy and anxiety make his marriage so taxing that he cannot ultimately become that participant. He even refuses to accept the role of father, giving his newborn child to Monica’s sisters.

Second, Edmund finds his position as husband threatened when Monica refuses to follow his command. He believes husbands need to, as superiors, control their wives through strength: “Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and keep them out of mischief” (245). Yet Monica refuses to be controlled. Faced with a crushing powerlessness, he tries to eschew his ideas of male dominance, claiming “‘It is I who am your servant, your slave’” (182). However, he reverts to his position of control several times throughout the novel. Monica consistently refuses to submit, leaving Edmund, as a husband, confused and powerless.

Lastly, he cannot adapt to a change in socially accepted moral expectations. Edmund believes, following commentators like John Ruskin, that men can slip up and be forgiven while women must maintain an infallible purity of moral behavior. Yet Monica refuses to grant him the grace he “should” have as a man. After physically threatening her for “deceiving” him, she refuses to return; “‘But she won’t hear of going back to live with him. He has offered to let us have the house to ourselves, but it’s no use. He writes to her, but she won’t reply’” (291). He uselessly tries to bring her back, unable to understand why she will not forgive him. All the while, he never forgives her. His double standard keeps him frustrated and her away from him. Ultimately, Edmund is a product of the Victorian era and cannot adapt to a society which begins to accommodate new ideas about women at the expense of men.


The Bildungsroman of Miss Havisham

Miss Havisham has the clearest and most convincing bildungsroman of the characters in Great Expectations because she comes to recognize her malice-fueled mistakes, repents of them, and tries to do good to others. At the beginning of the novel, she acts horribly to those around her out of her feelings of despair and anger. For example, she grooms Estella to break the hearts of men as a twisted revenge against Compeyson who left her at the altar. That way men (though not Compeyson himself) would feel the same emotional pain she endured. She encourages Pip to fall for Estella so he would be heartbroken by her: “‘Love her, love her, love her! How does she use you?’” (269). She revels in Pip’s love of Estella knowing it will lead to emotional anguish.

Miss Havisham also leads Pip, Sarah Pocket, Georgiana, and Camilla to believe that she is Pip’s patron. This causes Pip to (painfully) misinterpret her intentions about Estella and himself while also misleading the women as to their financial expectations. When Pip asks her about the kindness of this deception, she responds “‘who am I, for God’s sake, that I should be kind!’” (383). She does not think any imperative of kindness to others applies to her because of how much she has suffered.

However, after so many pages of bitterness, anger, and pain, Miss Havisham finally recognizes she made a mistake in how she raised Estella when Estella’s cold heart turns against her; “’Estella, Estella, Estella, to be proud and hard to me!’” (332). She sees that Estella became vindictive and emotionally unaware woman which is cold to everyone, not just men. Yet it is not until Estella marries Drummle that Miss Havisham demonstrates remorse; “‘What have I done! What have I done!’ She wrung her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again” (421). She ultimately recognizes the evil that she has caused, leaving her to deal with guilt and remorse.

Finally, Miss Havisham seeks reconciliation by doing good for others, particularly men, against whom she had acted so harshly. She agrees to help Pip’s friend Herbert by funding his business proposal. Yet she wants to do even more for Pip, trying to make up for her past mistakes: “‘Can I only serve you, Pip, by serving your friend? Regarding that as done, is there nothing I can do for you yourself?’” (419). Her gift helps Herbert and Pip start their business which provides them with a living for years to come, demonstrating genuine generosity. Upon her death, she also provides Estella with Satis House as an apology for her misguided upbringing and gives four thousand pounds to the upright Matthew Pocket, on Pip’s advice. Her final act is an attempt to reconcile with Estella and reward Matthew Pocket for his selflessness. The emotional growth she undergoes through guilt, repentance, and generosity clearly delineate a moral growth that categorizes a bildungsroman.

Tom’s Failure to Achieve a “Bildungsroman”

Tom’s development in The Mill on the Floss indicates that, if he has a bildungsroman, it entails no moral growth. He begins the novel with no concern for the welfare of his sister. For example, his apathy allows young Maggie to run away from the family. So he ignores where she went; “‘I don’t know,’ said Tom; his eagerness for justice on Maggie had diminished since he had seen clearly that it could hardly be brought about without injustice of some blame on his own conduct” (142). Tom only cares because he will get blamed for losing her and thus have a worse reputation.

As Tom ages, he takes on the responsibility of providing for his family. While this might signify moral growth, his motives indicate that he does so primarily to protect his future, not to care for his family: “He would provide for his mother and sister, and make every one say that he was a man of high character” (252). He wants to be recognized for taking care of them which would boost his sense of self-worth and his social standing. His actions are motivated by concern for self and ensuring he has a promising future. As far as Society is concerned, he is growing into an accomplished young man. Morally, however, he is questionable.

When Tom owns the mill, he refuses to house Maggie after her shameful return from her boat trip with Stephen. Tom interprets Maggie as a threat to the welfare of his mother and himself because her tarnished reputation could damage theirs. As a result, he willingly sacrifices his familial bond with Maggie to protect the family’s interest by spurning an undesirable. Even Aunt Glegg is willing to house Maggie. She accuses Tom of not upholding the value of family: “If you were not to stand by your ‘kin’ as long as there was a shred of honour attributable to them, pray what were you to stand by?” (496). Aunt Glegg argues that even the harsh judgment of society should not violate the integrity of the familial bond. In order to protect his future as a wealthy, connected young man, he spurs his sister. In doing so, he foregoes an opportunity for moral growth.

While he ultimately reconciles with Maggie, it only occurs as they face death: “brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted” (517). This seems like moral growth but Tom has previously done this in the face of trauma. When their father died, Maggie reconciled with Tom: “‘let us always love each other;’ and they clung and wept together” (372). Years later, Tom turned her away. Tom’s sudden reversal at the end of the novel does not seem like a true moral transformation. All Tom has displayed is hard work and a consciousness for his reputation. With only these characteristics to show for him, we can only call his story a bildungsroman if we require that he has wealth and a spotless reputation.

Walton’s Responsibility to Frankenstein’s Monster

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s critique of the criminal justice system’s consistency, her critique of retributive justice, and the death of Victor leave Walton with the responsibility to deliver justice to the monster. He is responsible for counseling the monster and restoring him to human society.

First, Walton must carry out some form of justice because the criminal justice system in Frankenstein lacks the ability to do so consistently. This system condemns Justine to death in the face of her own honest defense: “‘God knows,’ she said, ‘how entirely I am innocent…I rest my innocence on a plain and simple explanation of the facts which have been adduced against them; and I hope the character I have always borne will incline the judges to a favourable interpretation’” (104). In spite of her reasonable explanation and Elizabeth’s defense, she is found guilty and killed. Thus the law is not to be absolutely trusted in carrying out justice.

However, Walton is not responsible for killing or exiling the monster. The retributive system of punishment (matching punishment to crime) only results in more death and pointless suffering. Shelley emphasizes this through the monster’s murder of William, Elizabeth and Henry as he tries to retributively serve justice to Victor. Yet the monster reveals at Victor’s death that retribution is not satisfactory. The monster ends up wanting forgiveness; “what does it avail that I know ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst” (217). Retributive justice only destroys everyone involved; there is neither healing nor consolation. It only leads to more destruction and is therefore not just.

Walton instead has the responsibility to help the monster process his existence so he can best live for himself and for human society. The monster believes that his creator Victor is responsible for preparing him for a virtuous and happy life: “‘Remember, I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam…I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous” (118-119, 119). Victor did not befriend him nor guide him so the monster never learned how to live virtuously. It is fair to the monster that he be helped in this way and Walton is the last one who can help him.

However, this redemption would require detention. First, it would provide the opportunity for Walton to peacefully restore his feelings, for the monster lost some ability to empathize after killing Elizabeth: “then I was not miserable. I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish to riot in the excess of my despair” (218). Regardless if he lost all feeling or not, he would need guidance to learn how to feel sympathy, respect, and love. Second, it would help appease his fellow humans as they could see him “pay his debt to society,” helping them process his existence as well, though preferably in a monastery or small town where people could interact with him but stay away from large groups of people.

A Source of Errors in Judgment

Austen’s treatment of judgment centers on Emma’s inability to judge well. A passage from page 136 indicates that a lack of information is a key part of the issue: “she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretentions to judgment are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel” (136). The passage’s use of irony (and the coming revelation of Mr. Elton’s affection for Emma) suggest that her information about Mr. Elton’s love of Harriet is incomplete, throwing her method of observation and judgment into question. Emma collects information through the type of observation she implores Harriet to employ: “Be observant of him. Let his behaviour be the guide of your sensations” (301). While Emma relies heavily on physical behavior and manners of speech, she cannot gather enough information to make informed judgments.

Clearly, Emma errs, as in trying to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together: “it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much” (154). Even as Emma pulls away from meddling, at least somewhat, she still finds trouble in the form of Frank Churchill and misinterpreting his actions as romantic. This suggests her issue primarily stems from a lack of access to information. She, as a young, unmarried woman, does not have access to all of the interactions that married women, or men have with people to make better judgments.

For example, Mr. John Knightley’s comment about Mr. Elton suggests that he knows more of him than Emma could: “‘I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please every feature works” (136). In this case, Emma simply cannot see a holistic view of Mr. Elton and gauge his intentions well because she can only see him in certain environments.

Even in the environments to which Emma has access to information, cultural limitations often prevent complete communication. When she interacts with Frank Churchill, his actions seem to indicate infatuation because she’s been conditioned (primarily by Mr. Elton’s romantic advances) to interpret his actions and sincere talking as romantic advances: “‘It was something to feel that all the rest of my time might be given to Hartfield’…He [stopped] again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed.—He was more in love with her than Emma had supposed” (242). Emma thus incorrectly perceived Frank as being in love with her. Austen thus suggests that Emma is forced into poor judgments because she is not given access to adequate information to judge people, nor do social rules of propriety permit complete communication. She must make do, rather poorly, with what she is given.