Tess Takes Control

Throughout Tess of the D’Uberville’s, Tess Durbeyfield is a victim. From the very beginning of the novel, when we meet Tess and her drunkard parents, Tess is presented at fate’s punching bag. However, despite her perpetual victimhood, Tess presents a significant amount of agency at different times in her life. At first, Tess is a capable farm girl. Even after Alec takes advantage of her, Tess still shows that she can take care of herself. It isn’t until Tess falls in love with Angel that she becomes an (almost) totally passive protagonist. In these scenes, we can track how Tess has changed in a way that illuminates themes femininity and power.

Soon after meeting Tess Durbyfield, the audience learns that the young lady serves often as her sibling’s primary caretaker. Tess’ parents go off to drink and dream, and Tess is the one who must stay at home and finish the work. After her drunk father sleeps in, Tess takes it on herself to take the bees to market. Even after she accidentally kills the family horse, Tess is responsible for earning the extra income to supplant the loss. Throughout the first phase of the novel, Tess shows that she is capable of acting decisively and independently. Even when faced with Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows agency. The narrator describes Tess’ “eye lit in defiant triumph” after she escapes Alec’s speeding trap wagon (84). In these scenes with Alec, the narrator shows us that Tess has confidence in her decisions and is ready to make decisions on her own terms.

Perhaps the best indicator of Tess’ early agency is the christening of Sorrow. Tess, in great anxiety and fear for her baby’s soul, chooses to christen the baby herself, rather than waiting for an ordained minister to perform the holy act. (123). In this, Tess shows herself to be capable and confident enough to perform one of the Church’s most holy sacraments.

This capable and decisive Tess all but disappears when she falls in love with Angel Claire. Suddenly, Tess begins to listen to and obey everything she is told. Tess totally accepts Angel’s theology, his likes and dislikes, and even his mannerisms (222). In Chapter 35, Tess is absolutely passive as she allows Angel to wrap her like the dead, carry her (in the snow) across a river, and place her in a coffin. Tess appears to have lost all agency. While she’s in love with Angel, Tess seems to have lost the capable farm girl attitude that so defined her in the early chapters.

Near the end of the novel, Tess takes charge once again. After seeing Angel in Sandbourne, Tess takes the carving knife from a breakfast tray, and kills her rapist-turned-husband (383). Let’s talk about power moves. In killing Alec D’Uberville, Tess shows that she is once again in control of her fate, and she has accepted herself as a capable and decisive woman. It’s interesting to note that in almost all scenes where Tess acts out her will, she does so in a taboo or criminal way. Christening a child without the help of the ordained, marrying a man without telling him that you had a baby who died, and most obviously, murdering a wealthy man in a hotel, are all acts that society views as abhorrent. In showing Tess’ agency, Hardy also shows the difficulties working class woman face when attempting to take control over their own lives.

Everard and Rhoda; Secret and Opposite Lovers

Perhaps one of the most passionate conversations in Gissing’s social-problem novel, The Odd Women, was Everard Barfoot’s confession of love for Rhoda Nunn. This conversation, which may be said to go on for two separate meetings and a letter, show Barfoot’s love towards Rhoda; a love that transcends traditional gender boundaries in favor of an intellectual pairing of individual personalities. These conversations also display Rhoda’s commitment to her lifestyle of helping the “odd women” in British society.

Rhoda Nunn is established in The Odd Women as the epitome of the proud and independent woman in English society. Rhoda is described of as “full of practical expediments. The most wonderful person! She is quite like a man in energy and resources” (57). This explanation of Rhoda illustrates her as the quintessentially independent woman. Additionally, Virginia describes Rhoda Nunn as “the first woman [she had seen] daring enough to think and act for herself” (52). Rhoda don’t need no man…until she meets Everard Barfoot.

Everard Barfoot initially presents himself as quite opposite to Rhoda Nunn. Everard is remembered as having committed an immoral act with a young woman in his youth, and is regarded as a rascal by his cousin and Rhoda’s mentor, Miss Barfoot.

Considering the initial characterization of these two important characters, the conversation in which Everard Barfoot explains his love for Rhoda becomes one of the most important scenes in the novel. In these three stretched-out scenes, Barfoot attempts to explain to Rhoda the serious and untraditional nature of his love. One very early example of the untraditional nature in which Barfoot courts Rhoda is in asking her for flowers very early in their relationship. Women at this time, and in our time, would typically be presented with the flowers, but Everard flips this tradition to show Rhoda that he is not the average man. Everard Barfoot also explains his openness in allowing his potential wife (Rhoda) absolute freedom in marriage. Barfoot says: “If my wife should declare that she must be released…I should admit that the suffering couldn’t be helped” (161). In this, Everard attempts to show Rhoda how serious he is about expanding upon traditional gender stereotypes of love, to allow her the freedom any woman of her disposition would desire in a relationship.

Of course, Rhoda denies Everard’s affection in these preliminary conversations, although the narrator describes her lip quivering and her cheeks blushing (163). Despite her coy smiles and hints at interest, Rhoda denies Barfoot in his offer of love and marriage, and, in doing so, fulfils her role as the example of the “odd woman,” oddly unhappy. Everard, on the other hand, appears to grow out of the younger self his reputation supposes him to be, and in these conversations with Rhoda, he opens up to new possibilities of marriage.

Pip: Held by his Ankles in a Graveyard

Great Expectations is certainly a novel with many important settings. The marshes, Satis House, and the Castle all stick out as memorable and vivid locations. Despite these notable settings, in my reading of Great Expectations, the graveyard stuck out as particularly interesting and important. The graveyard is the first place the audience meets Pip, and Pip is given an interesting characterization there as an innocent orphan. Additionally, the graveyard is the location where Pip earns his expectations, and therefore serves as a sort of petri dish, or launch pad, for the plot.

Dicken’s novel traces the growth of an orphan who comes into manhood and realizes his true place in society. In the beginning of  the novel, in the graveyard, we meet Pip as a young boy who has effectively named himself in lieu of parents (Dickens 39). Pip knows nothing of his parents, save what he can glean from the font on their gravestone. This detail serves to illustrate Pip as a character who knows nothing of his own background or place in society. This characterization of Pip is a core aspect of Great Expectations, since throughout the novel, much of Pip’s distress stems from his insecure social standing. In his early life, Pip takes an apprenticeship with Joe, and plans on following in Joe’s footsteps. After receiving his expectations from Jaggers, Pip begins to see himself as a true gentleman (175). In the end of the novel, Pip is secure and “doing well” as a clerk (503). These different stages in Pips life might be traced back to the first scene in the novel, where we find Pip to be a boy without a place, and with an uncertain future.

The graveyard scene also serves as a starting point for the plot of Great Expectations. When Pip meets his mysterious benefactor, Magwitch says that Pip’s kindness in the graveyard was the cause of his newly bestowed wealth. Although Pip mistakenly believes he earned his expectations in Satis House, it is in the graveyard where his life begins its strange trajectory. Although this fact is hidden to readers of Great Expectations for most of the novel, Pip’s older and wiser narrator builds the graveyard as an important site by constantly referring to Pip’s jarring memories there. The graveyard scene haunts Pip throughout his young life in the same way his expectations do.

The graveyard establishes Pip as a character at the mercy of others. Pip feels helpless in the graveyard when the convict holds him by the ankles, and Pip continues to feel helpless,  and  at the mercy of others, throughout the novel. In the last pages of Great Expectations, Pip takes Pip Jr. to the graveyard, and in this ending scene, the audience gets to see the Pip’s maturity in full effect as Pip has become a man who finally knows his place in life.

Childlike Obstinacy and Maggie’s Bildungsroman

One characteristic aspect of the Bildungsroman story is an account of mistakes the character makes on the way to adulthood. The Mill on The Floss certainly fits into the category of a Bildungsroman novel because the story catalogues Maggie Tulliver’s mistakes, and subsequent growth, on her way to adulthood. We first meet Maggie as an impudent, mistake making, little girl. By the end of the novel, Maggie Tulliver still makes mistakes, but her behavioral errors no longer trace back to her bold childlike behavior. I suggest that Maggie’s growth in The Mill on The Floss isn’t marked by a decrease in behavioral mistakes, but rather in the changing motivations behind those mistakes.

In Book One, Maggie lets Tom cut off her thick black hair as an adolescent sign of rebellion. The narrator tells us that “Maggie thought chiefly of her own deliverance from her teasing hair and teasing remarks about it, and something also of the triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this very decided course of action” (Elliot 105). In this statement, readers learn that Maggie cuts off her own hair out of spite for the rules and the familial society that created them. Maggie cuts off her hair to make a statement.

Another of Maggie’s more eventful errors was when Maggie pushed Lucy into the mud outside the Pullett house. Before Maggie pushes her cousin, the Narrator tells the reader, “There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy” and goes on to say that the situation would have been a greater tragedy but Maggie was too small a child to do any real damage (140). Again, Maggie acts out her bold, childlike impulses and makes a serious mistake in doing so. Maggie’s second ‘big mistake’ echoes the same motivations as the first. Yet again, Maggie attempts to strike out at the society she thinks so oppressive.

In Maggie’s last mistake, the motivating passions she acted on as a child are all but gone. Maggie agrees to accompany Steven on the boat because she simply gave in. Throughout that chapter, Maggie is described as drifting in a dreamlike state. The narrator tells us, “All yielding is attended with a less vivid consciousness than resistance; it is the partial sleep of thought” (470). Rather than lashing out passionately and willfully against oppressive societal forces, Maggie makes her last mistake because she submits.  The motivations behind her actions show the audience how Maggie is growing. In this last action, Maggie relinquishes her childhood boldness and finally gives in.

Despite the fact that Maggie’s last action proves even more fatal than the first few, the more mature motivations behind it (i.e. submission of the will) signify that Maggie has grown. Additionally, Maggie’s aunts show us that Maggie’s last mistake is different, and somehow more respectable, than her others. Maggie’s aunts were horrified when Maggie cut her hair and pushed her cousin. They took every chance they could to criticize her as a willfull, obstinate, wild child. After her last mistake though, Maggie’s aunts seem to take her under their wing as a family member who deserves their love. Perhaps the change in the aunts’ perceptions towards Maggie is due to that change in the motivations behind Maggie’s actions.

By The River of Ingolstadt, He Sat Down and Wept

Soon after his creation, after Victor Frankenstein fled his apartment in horror, the monster himself wandered out into the cold woods. The monster recounts this moment to Victor saying: “feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (Shelly 121). In a novel filled with allusions, this particular reference to Psalm 127 struck me as an interesting insight to the monster’s predicament. The monster’s story had a few similarities to the Israelites’ in Psalm 137: both the monster and the Israelites sit near a running body of water when they “wept,” both parties felt despair at being outsiders in a foreign and inhospitable land, and both the Israelites and the monster desire violent revenge on their enemy.

Psalm 137 begins: “By the rivers of Babylon- there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps 137:1). In this Psalm, the Israelites, captives in a strange land, lament the loss of their land and the diaspora of their people.  In Frankenstein, the monster tells Victor that after he entered the “forest near Ingolstadt” he “lay by a brook resting from [his] fatigue” (Shelly 121). The monster, like the Israelites, has sat down at the side of a river and begins to lament his situation.

The Israelites thought that they were God’s chosen people, but the fall of Jerusalem led them towards feelings of isolation and doubt. Like the Israelites, the monster finds himself alone in an unknown place. The monster recounts his earliest memories by telling Victor, “It was dark when I awoke; I felt cold also, and half-frightened as it were instinctively, finding myself so desolate” (121). Throughout the novel, the monster seems to have no proper home. He lives with the DeLaceys for a while, but even then his lodgings are outside the house and in secret (125). Victor repeatedly tells his audience that he couldn’t access the deep recesses of wilderness where the monster lived, that the monster lived in the most inhospitable places. How similar then, must the monster have felt, to the Israelites who thought themselves snatched from the land of milk and honey and forced to wander the wilderness once again after the fall of their kingdom?

During the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites felt isolated from God and from the seat of his majesty- the Temple. In Frankenstein, the monster repeatedly bewails his feelings of loneliness and seclusion. The monster says that, “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was” and later asks Victor to create a female monster to keep him company (145, 156). The allusion to Psalm 137 shows how, like the isolation from God and the Temple felt by the Israelites, the monster’s separation from society has led him towards misery and hatred.

Psalm 137 ends with the Israelites looking forward to the children of their captors being “dashed upon the rocks” (Ps 137:9). In this aspect, the allusion to Psalm 137 seems to foreshadow the monsters own actions towards Victors family, including the murders of William, Clerval, and Elizabeth.

Mr. Woodhouse as the Stereotypical “Little Old Lady”

In Emma, most characters provoke serious considerations of judgement and propriety. Most of Emma’s characters are fallible, most have some shade of ambiguity in character, and most characters experience change or growth in the course of the story. Mr. Woodhouse, however, is not one of those characters. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse acts ridiculously. Whether he’s urging his guests not to eat the cake they’ve been given, or panicking over the atmosphere’s influence on physical health, the scenes which prominently feature Mr. Woodhouse inject humor and absurdity into an otherwise serious story (65, 121). Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s ridiculous personality, a serious consideration of his role in Emma reveals that his character also provides a satire on gender stereotypes and of the stereotypical “Lord of the Manor.”

Of all the characters in Emma, very few didn’t change at all through the course of the novel. Mr. Woodhouse, obviously, is one example. In Volume I, Mr. Woodhouse worries about the air around the coast and the health risks of visiting a seaside location such as Bath. In Volume II, Mr. Woodhouse must be consulted to consider the drafts and microclimates of a ballroom before the location must be booked. Finally, in Volume III, Mr. Woodhouse receives special accommodations during his visit at Donwell Abbey, and must be placed inside by the fire despite the heat of the summer season. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is portrayed as a delicate, finicky, and anxious old person. In her characterization of Mr. Woodhouse, Austen intentionally endows him with many of the characteristics readers would often associate with older women, such as his anxiety on trivial matters, dislike of changing social situations, and old-fashioned anecdotes regarding health.

In Chapter III, the narrator introduces Mrs. Bates as “a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille” (67). Mrs. Bates is another one of the static characters in Emma, since she features such a small role and is portrayed as the almost perfect trope of a little old lady throughout the novel. Despite Mrs. Bates frailty, and despite her lower social rank, she seems to be great company for the anxious old man that is Mr.Woodhouse. The narrator tells us, “[Mrs. Bates] was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip” (67). Emma’s narrator tells us of Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates’ relationship early in the novel, so that the reader can begin to mentally connect the frail old widow with the anxious old widower. Mr. Woodhouse’s close connection to Mrs. Bates further exaggerates the stereotypically feminine aspects of his personality such as his love of the trivial and gossip.

In discovering Mr. Woodhouse’s traditionally womanly traits, and in laughing at his comical behavior, readers engage in a subversion of socially accepted gender roles. Mr. Woodhouse is the Lord of Hartfield, and ought to be seen as a gentleman and an authority. Instead, his character provides comedic relief for the more serious considerations being made by his daughter and caretaker, Emma.