Fate and injustice in three parts

When looking back at the novels we’ve read this semester, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness welling up from within.  It is possible that this sadness is sparked by a sense of finality in the closing of the semester, but it could also be the progressive downward, depressing spiral that we, as a group, have experienced through these readings.  It is unlikely that this emotional response was the intended result of the order in which these novels were assigned, but the order was indeed intentional.  The obvious comparison that one could draw between the novels we’ve read this semester, is their tragic endings.  These tragic endings come in different shapes and resolve themselves in different ways, but a strong element that runs like a blood red thread throughout is the cruel nature of fate.  For this final blog post, I will look at how this cruelty is made manifest in the endings of Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

 

The first novel we read for class was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I struggled assigning blame to a single individual in this novel.  I think Shelley presents all the characters as flawed human beings, or in the case of Victor’s creation, an approximation of a human being.  Focusing on Victor’s creation, we find a being that was brought into a painful, certainly deformed existence without any consideration of how wretched his life would be.  There is no other place that this is more evident than in the quote from Paradise Lost on the title page of Frankenstein. “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”  In this sense, the creation possessed zero free will and was fated for misery.  When he finally takes agency and performs actions driven by his desire, we find that those are, again, simply a response to some external stimuli of which he has no control over.  Victor refuses to provide his creation with basic human needs.  The creation’s only power is that of consequence.  Consequences can only be reactionary responses to actions that are out of our control.  With this, the creation strikes out like a rabid, helpless animal to inflict pain on anyone within striking range.

 

In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s fatal end is a result of multiple intersecting circumstances of fate conspiring to her and Tom’s death.  Eliot presents this death in peaceful terms, with brother and sister embraced in a final reconciliation.  “In death they were not divided (657).” We can choose to agree with this perspective, or we can look at the suffering of Maggie throughout the novel.  The poor girl, turned woman through the course of the novel, never finds her place in the world.  The apex of this life is a frustrating failed relationship with a fancy boy, Stephen, and the fallout created is the final insult to Maggie.  Her life was filled with a struggle against a forceful patriarchy that beat against her like the flood waters that finally freed her from her suffering.  A force of suffering to which she recognized would be a lifelong affliction.  “I will bear it, and bear it till death… (649)” This force requires Maggie to submit to powers that are greater than her will.  Her fate was to be born in a time and to a family that had certain expectations of her.  A set of expectations that were not like those whom her brother was able to enjoy.  These gifts, we find, were wasted on a man-child, undeserving of such. His development is stunted before we even reach the middle of the novel.  Maggie’s family, which stifled her development, remains a constant force that persistently draws her back, closer to a watery grave.

 

The final novel, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s tragic end is an almost sweet release from a life ripe with cruel suffering.  She grieves the most under the will of fate – “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will (231).”  Her guilt and obligation further disconnect her from autonomy.  Self-denial leaves her unloved and penniless.  Tess’s life filled with suffering and grief caused by a willful violation perpetrated by a representative of fate.  The moment she takes agency, she damns herself to death.  The killing of Alec is met with swift “justice.”  A Justice which is only afforded to those in the good graces of fate.  Tess attempts to enact her own form of justice by murdering Alec.    Alec absolves himself of the sin, but the pain caused is not so easily washed away.

 

The sense of injustice grows with each novel.  The one thing that truly differentiates Tess of the d’Urbervilles from the other two novels is the sense of hopelessness.  In Frankenstein the characters are all so flawed that we are not blindsided by the tragic ending.  We expect that the people who behave in this way, or flawed creations are bound to end up on the wrong side of providence.  In Mill on the Floss, we feel for Maggie, but her potential was stunted by her parents from the point of her creation.  Her behavior is rash and reactive.  She has agency, but she chooses to rebel in a destructive manner. Her life is a tragedy which presents itself in a slow, protracted, struggle leading to a train wreck of an ending.  Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents a young woman with potential, even if it isn’t real or wouldn’t amount to much by some standards.  However, Tess truly exists in a hostile world.  All people and forces conspire against her and her womanly obligation only serves to rip away any last semblance of free will she may have had.  None of the authors give the reader a sense of hope in the end and there is no justice enjoyed.  Certainly not justice that isn’t the result of someone death.  Justice for Victor’s creation is the death of Elizabeth and Clerval.  Justice for Tess is Alec’s death.  Justice for Alec is Tess’s death.  It is hard to find hope in these works, but realism and naturalism doesn’t always want to give that to the reader.

Sympathy for the Lady

Braddon’s carefully architected portrayal of Lady Audley becomes infinitely more successful when the reader chooses to be complicit in her crimes.  Braddon compromises the reader with her subtle attempts to elicit sympathy for Lady Audley and distaste for Robert.  I think that the novel’s “success” is directly proportional to the sympathy or distaste created in the reader.  In this blog post I will identify several methods and examples employed by Braddon.

There is no question as to the guilt of Lady Audley.  The only item therefore would be the justification for her actions, those criminal, immoral and unethical.  A method Braddon uses to portray Lady Audley as a victim is to paint the men around her as immoral, unethical and misogynistic.  Robert repeatedly offers to the reader accounts of his vile views of women.  He shamelessly states that he “hate[s] women” and that they simply act in self-interest and are calculating mercenaries (229).  He laments that women control men like marionettes, pulling their strings, forcing men into undesired behavior and actions at a whim.  Men may be the head, but women function as the neck, driving them to action.  He evokes Tennyson, “men might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses, and fancy it ‘always afternoon,’ if his wife would let him! But she won’t, bless her impulsive heart and active mind (228)!”

Braddon’s narrator often breaks action of the novel to provide an observation or create perspective for the reader.  On Page 243, the narrator interrupts the seemingly mundane to express the sacrifice women must make and the continuously shifting gender expectations placed on women.  Lady Audley is preparing tea, where “she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable.”  The choice of words expresses the shrinking sphere of influence and the small arena that women are allowed to control.  Fear exists that even this task of serving tea may be stripped away.  “To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire (243).”  “Better the pretty influence of the teacups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman’s hand, than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sexy (243).”  Men legislate away everything from women, leaving them the remaining scraps to rule over.

Lady Audley is described as victim of uncontrollable circumstances, cast upon her by fates beyond her control.  Her beauty was her fatal flaw.  After her encounter with Robert in the lime-walk, she reflects on “that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her liveliness as a right divine, a boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish short-comings, a counter-balance to of every youthful sin (310).”  The narrator personifies character flaw to remove guilt from Lady Audley.  “Surely, if her thoughts wandered so far along in the backward current of her life, she must have repented in bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity, Selfishness and Ambition had joined hands and said, ‘This woman is our slave; let us see what she will become under our guidance (310-311).’”

I’m not certain what Braddon was attempting to do in this last passage.  I personally found it more revolting than humanizing.  I still believe that the success of this novel is directly linked to the response of the reader and how sympathetic they feel for Lady Audley.  However, I think that gender, class and time alter this success.  With many of the novels we have read this semester for class, I think we must recognize that as modern readers we were not the intended audience.  We should understand who the intended audience would have been and make every attempt to view it through that lens.

 

 

Struggles Between Family Duty and Personal Desire

Eliot’s Mill on the Floss may not seem like a typical bildungsroman, but it does contain all the necessary elements.  Eliot presents Maggie’s “life course” from childhood, school years, relationships with potential mates, the “fates that life brings”, her “works and deeds” and, of course, her death.  Her development does take place over a lifetime, her lifetime.  Throughout the novel her development stutters and stumbles, as she experiences setbacks that plague her with unrelenting hardship.  She never achieves the success in life that she wishes for, but she does discover what is most important.  Eliot’s novel presents love of family as a core tenet of moral and ethical responsibility. As a reader, I tend to prefer a character’s development to arc positively upward, but the type and trajectory of development may be less important than the result itself.  This posting will focus on several episodes of Maggie’s story that make this novel a bildungsroman.  These represent a lifelong struggle between her personal desire and family duty.

Throughout the novel, Maggie is presented as rebellious and rash, but starves for affirmation.  Her place in society is defined by her gender, class and the stifling expectation of her parents, primarily her mother.  The description of Maggie tends heavy towards her outward appearance.  Her hair is wild and untamed, much to the irritation of her mother. Her impulsive and egocentric behavior blooms, starting with the cutting of her own hair.  Maggie views this act as one of rebellion towards her mother.  Before cutting her hair she imagined the “triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this decided course of action.”  The narrator describes the moments following the passionate frenzy of snipping “with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain.”  Unfortunately for Maggie, just a child, her act of sudden defiance results in teasing from her brother, Tom.  In this moment we see that for Maggie, the opinions of others are most important, especially those of Tom.

This desire for Tom’s approval has put Maggie at odds with her extended family.  The aunts’ disparagement and refusal to truly help pull them out of dire financial hardship crushes Tom’s spirit.  Maggie experiences his agony, and with “eyes flashing like the eyes of a young lioness,” “bursts out,” scolding her aunts for their dereliction of family duty.  In this moment the sphere of family contracts.  For Maggie, there is realization that dependence can only be sought within her immediate family.  This sphere continues to tighten as we near the end of the novel.

It isn’t until the final moments of the novel that Maggie puts immediate family above her own desires.  As the rain starts to slowly invade, Maggie rejects Stephen’s final plea for her to ask him to “Come!” and is set upon sending him her “last word of parting.”  She struggles with the realization that this rejection will gnaw at her for the rest of her life.  The rushing currents pulled her “away from that life which she had been dreading…”  The water washes away the “artificial vesture” of life, leaving only naked “primitive mortal needs,” family.  When Maggie arrives at her family home, the sphere has constricted Tom and Maggie into a single unit.  Their lives were lost, but “in death they were not divided.”

Eliot chooses to end the novel with their unexpected death.  Family is the thread that traces throughout the novel and the only thing able to survive death.  We see the development of Maggie from a young girl driven by rash behavior, unthinking of the consequences, to a woman driven by rash, selfless love for her family.  In her final moments she realizes that she must put her desire and safety aside for the sake of those she holds most dear.  Her bildungsroman develops in favor of family duty at the cost of personal desire.

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Choice of Narrative Voice

The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton uses a technique that never allows the audience to fully experience the emotional range of Gaskell’s characters.  The feelings of tragedy, suffering, joy and triumph are present, but they linger just beyond the reader’s grasp.  This results in our narrator sounding like a tourist, remaining on the outside of the culture of the Manchester working class.  To further remove the audience, the narrator halts the action of the story to reassure the reader that the characters possess human feelings and that we should sympathize with them because of the complexity of their situation (342).

The question must be asked, why did Gaskell choose to use a detached third-person narrative voice?  Was there a specific reason that she chose to not tell the story from the perspective of one of the main characters?  How different would the story have been told or perceived by readers if the narrative voice belonged Mary or John Barton?

Elizabeth Gaskell felt that the working class and upper class were “bound to each other by common interest,” and commented on the frustration and hopelessness felt by the working class.  She writes that they “seem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.”  She strongly believed that both groups were dependent on each other and essentially wanted the same thing.  They wanted dignity and freedom, as all humans do.  Her fear was one of impending doom, a reckoning alluded to in the final lines of her preface in which she refers to “events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent.” She also recognized that they had no voice and would not be heard by her peers.  She refers to them as “dumb people,” with no voice, and she feels that she must “give some utterance to the agony” which they must feel.

The audience for her work would have been the middle and upper class.  Using a narrative voice removed from the characters facilitates, for the readers of her time, an easier approach to the challenging material that Gaskell presents.  Being shown the horrific conditions of the poor working class from their perspectives may have been too much to stomach or believed to have been twisted by the perspective of the sufferer.

Gaskell attempts to achieve much in her novel.  By showing the social injustice suffered by the working class, she intended to spark conversation and hopefully enact change.  The method in which she takes up the mantle can certainly be challenged, but her intentions seem pure.  Ultimately her goal was to present an honest picture of the working class, and she seems to succeed at that.

Sins of the Father

 

Shelley’s Frankenstein and her attempts to avoid the “amiableness of domestic affection,” portray, for the reader, many instances of domestic failure.  Shelley suffered the devastating loss of her mother, estrangement from her father and entered a marriage under questionable circumstances, all before she entered true adulthood.  Knowing this and gleaning bits of information from the footnotes, we can’t help but believe that this greatly influenced her work.  Shelley’s relationship with her mother would have been formed through her writings.  Unable or unwilling to speak with her father, she would again be forced to understand her father’s thinking by reading his written word.

Frankenstein presents the reader with a handbook of exactly what not to do as a parent.  From chapter one, Victor’s description of his “domestic circle” hints at a mother and father unwilling to allow their child to suffer any uncomfortable circumstance.  For Victor and his family, “care and pain seemed for ever banished.”  Even though Victor’s father attempted to discourage the study of alchemy by suggesting that Victor “not waste his time upon” this “sad trash,” he fails to recognize that this only sparked a deeper interest for his child.  Victor easily hid this continued study from his father and regretfully remarks that if his father simply explained that these were disproven theories, perhaps the arcane would have not taken residency in his psyche. The father’s inability or unwillingness to guide his child onto the safe path resulted in a perversion of knowledge.

Victor’s lifelong pursuit to create his creature filled him with purpose and drove a series of feverish attempts to fulfill his dream.  There is never mention of why he has chosen to do this other than for self-serving reasons.  The creation is about him and never about the spark of life that he, as a modern-day Prometheus, steals from the gods. Once the fruits of his labor are realized, he immediately becomes the prototypical absent father.  The ultimate sin of the father is irresponsibility and selfishness.  Victor’s creation yearns for companionship but is denied from the moment of creation.  The creature’s construction is not the genesis of his evil, it is Victor’s failure to fulfill his duty as a father.

Victor only dabbles in acknowledgement of his fatal flaw.  It isn’t until he is near-death that he finally acknowledges that he is ultimately responsible for all the death that resulted in his creation.