When Suffering Enters A Christmas Carol

In the commercialized Christmas we have come to know and love (?), we often frame A Christmas Carol as full of cheer and goodwill . . . an old man moved by the intervention of ghosts to care for a young crippled boy in the spirit of the holiday. When we call someone “Scrooge,” we usually mean they are not being cheery enough: perhaps they are refusing to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. This collapse of emotions into “cheer” is why I was surprised by the range of emotions represented in A Christmas Carol when I came back to it this year. Difficulty and grief are placed alongside brilliant happiness and cheer. I’d like to explore how the cheer and troubles are placed together, though, since there is danger in representing suffering and pain in art. Does A Christmas Carol ultimately handle suffering ethically?

One of the biggest hurdles for me in saying “yes” is that the most vivid moments of people suffering are within the ghost sequences, not the “real present” of the frame, and all the suffering is very immediately solvable by personal action. In the “real present,” the gentlemen request funds to support the poor and describe “Want” as “keenly felt,” and we see Bob shivering at his small fire, but that is all (45). If Scrooge simply gave them money and wasn’t rude, then those problems would go away. If we view A Christmas Carol as tackling the problem of suffering and poverty in general, this is dissatisfying: the text would seem to be saying that if we individually just gave more money, there would be no suffering.

Within the ghost sequences, we see more moments of people suffering—like Tiny Tim dying—but even these are then alleviated or are “what ifs” that Scrooge’s actions can stave off. What if Scrooge met more people than could be supported by his personal generosity? All the suffering people he sees in the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present are ultimately made cheerful by the Ghost’s happy blessing: “the Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge . . . he left his blessing” (99). They are fixed. The two sad figures at the end of the stave might complicate this, because they are not helped, but they are not even individual humans but allegorical figures of Ignorance and Want. They do not have hopes and dreams; they do not have stories with which to grab the imagination, and so they do not complicate the narrative as much as they could. If Scrooge met more poor individuals suffering in poverty instead of allegorical figures, he would also be prompted to help them, and his own financial resources would eventually run out.

This raises the question: would running out of personal financial resources actually be problematic for Scrooge’s attempts to alleviate suffering? Perhaps not—the Spirit does not sprinkle money on the people he spreads cheer to. The problem is, though, that in the last stave Scrooge fixes the suffering around him by giving money to the boy, to the Cratchit family, to the gentlemen representing the charity, and to Bob Cratchit. So it does seem that representing larger suffering would create difficulties: what does one do with suffering that refuses financial solutions, and how would that frustrate the text’s tone?

Please understand me, dear reader: I am not trying to cry “humbug!” on the tale. But it does seem important to ask the question of how we should portray suffering and its solutions, and what the consequences are of doing so. How does one include suffering in a text that ultimately seeks to persuade us that our actions can remove suffering …when those actions actually can’t remove it completely? Tiny Tim lives in the end because Scrooge helps provide for his family. What if he had a terminal illness and could not have been saved by financial help?

Perhaps I am asking the tale to bear a weight it was not trying to—not all works involving suffering have to be theodicies or be comprehensive.

Or perhaps I am overly limiting my definition of suffering. What if I broaden my definition from physical want to emotional pain? Maybe it is also tackling the problem of dealing with our own experiences of emotional suffering.

In my summary of that last stave, I left something off of my “things money helps to fix” list, and it’s a big one: it is Scrooge’s acceptance of Fred’s hospitality. Scrooge does not fix this relationship with money—he does not even show up with a host gift. But here there is “wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!” (122). There was not suffering in Fred’s house before, but now Scrooge is included in the happiness. To me, this hints that part of the happy ending is that Scrooge is no longer suffering, and that reframes the tale not just as one of a man ignoring the physical suffering of others but also one of a man ignoring his own emotional suffering.

At the beginning of the book, Scrooge asserts, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly” (45). This tale obviously shows how “interfering” with others is actually good. I think it is equally important to see that the text also proves false another aspect of this statement. Scrooge implies that he understands his own business. If we take “business” to mean what he means when he refers to other people’s business (their lives), then his implied claim to understand his own business is patently false. He ignores many aspects of his life…who he has been, who he is to others now, and who he might be becoming: what life is left in that construction? His healing comes when he reintegrates those selves, and he does so via grief. When the ghost takes him to his past, he “wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be” and “he said, in pity for his former self, ‘Poor boy!’ and cried again” (65-66). In the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he feels “penitence and grief” over his own cruel words the ghost repeats back to him (89). With the Ghost of Christmas Future, he is confronted with his own lonely death and his sadness at that way of dying. He can no longer equate money with happiness as he does at the beginning (42). He has to own his unhappy state. This explains why the lesson he repeats at the end of the tale is “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” (117). Instead of focusing on what he will do for others, he focuses on an integration of his various selves, past, present, and future, despite the painfulness of owning who he has been and the pain of his experiences. This adds additional weight to his words “I am here” near the ending, when he realizes he is back in the true present (118). Of course, this integration then leads to helping others in the rest of that final stave.

After all this, though, I am still unsure if this emphasis on Scrooge owning his own emotional suffering makes the text more of an ethical representation of suffering or not. Could it be it terribly solipsistic to focus on Scrooge’s suffering in this way? Hopefully the way he moves from reintegration of his self to providing for others means not. Either way, though, I should hesitate before casting the first stone: I too have been guilty of limited vision. In remembering A Christmas Carol, I had forgotten the different types of suffering hidden within it. Whether this misremembering is all my own fault or is encouraged by the text—well, I leave that up to you.

On Endings and Being Out of Reach

The happy ending of Mary Barton follows quickly on the heels of Esther’s tragic death. “I see a long low wooden house, with room enough and to spare,” the narrator announces, with no transition besides the Bible verse that appears on the tombstone of John and Esther. After the suffering and pain of the text, the idyllic nature of the scene that follows is surprising and—to this reader at least—a bit jarring. Mary, Jem, and Jane seem firmly and happily established in their new life, and have been joined by a happy child. To round out this happiness, letters appear from Margaret and Will: Margaret has regained her sight, and they and Job all plan on coming to Canada. It is the ultimate instantiation of hospitality and happiness: there is space enough in Canada for all, and they are all welcome, and providence (if that’s the word) has seen fit to make things go very well indeed for them.

This happy ending for two of our main female characters, Mary and Margaret, contrasts sharply with Esther’s death, which seems to be a “first ending” of the text—just a page before. The unrelenting sadness of her death seems unnecessarily harsh when compared with the overabundance of happiness of the second ending. She dies, crying constantly: “she cried feebly and sadly as long as she had any strength to cry, and then she died” (481). There is no happiness here. Why must Esther die so pitifully? Was an alternative open to her? And at the risk of being crotchety, why did Margaret regain her sight when this is the fate of Esther? It seems an unnecessary boon, since Margaret has come to terms with her loss, it has freed her to discover her talents at singing, and she has found a beau. Her sight does not seem like a good that is necessary for the novel to end happily, since she has what truly matters . . . could not some of these characters’ happiness be diverted to Esther?

At a first glance, the difference between the two endings—between what might be seen as gratuitous happiness and gratuitous grief—might be simply due to how Margaret has not sinned. Margaret is upstanding and virtuous, stable and secure in her innocence: she has “ no sympathy with the temptations to which loveliness, vanity, ambition, or the desire of being admired, exposes so many; no sympathy with flirting girls, in short” (318). And Mary, though tempted, fights through unseemly conduct to uprightness. Perhaps Margaret receiving her sight is a bonus to distinguish her absolute innocence, and that’s all there is to it. Pure woman, fallen woman: good input, good output; bad input, bad output . . . it’s a simple enough equation for life.

The implications of this seem problematic, though. Within the novel, does sin always bring on personal suffering—and is one’s suffering always one’s fault, and relief from it one’s fault too? If true within this text, we should expect an economy of sin and justice in which suffering afflicts the guilty and relief from suffering is granted to the innocent.

This narrative would fit with Mr. Carson losing his son after years of ignoring the plight of his workers, with Henry Carson dying after seeking to seduce Mary and drawing the nasty caricature, John Barton experiencing anguish and dying after murdering someone in cold blood, and Mary experiencing difficulties for favoring her secret admirer and not acting as a “good girl” should.* It would also fit with how these characters receive rewards after repentance: Mr. Carson finds meaning and significance in working for good relations between masters and workers (475-476), John Barton receives the comfort of forgiveness on his deathbed after confessing and being willing to go to trial (457), and Mary is rewarded with a loving family after she recognizes the errors of her ways. Esther experiences the pains and degradations of street life because she falls into prostitution, and she dies still sad because she will not answer Jem’s call to a new life. This would be a very crisp and clean system…perhaps problematically so when compared to the messiness of life and suffering.

But can we really say that captures this book’s perspective on sin and suffering? The main hurdle for this idea is Jem: dear, perfect Jem, who is dragged through awful suffering because of the sins of others. However, he is ultimately rewarded for suffering well with a new life of marital and pastoral bliss, and what seemed bad (losing a factory job) is actually a gift because it helps his family escape the industrial city. He does not even have to wait for heaven for this reward. Suffering extends to the innocent Jem, but it ultimately helps him to a happy ending here on earth and within the text.

I think, then, what actually seems inconsistent to me is that the text implies it has eternity in mind (with its emphasis on sin and grace) yet favored characters (characters who commit what must be the less-bad sins) all receive happily-ever-afters in this life and within this text, and the others (worse sinners) have to hope that the angry God will one day posthumously and post-textually be appeased. As the scripture verse that is the fulcrum between the sad and happy endings of our texts states: “For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger for ever.” Why does his anger last longer for some, so this promise of anger ending at some point (it is not even an affirmative promise!) has to appear on Esther and John’s tombstone, when the other main characters receive grace and happiness on this earth and in this book?

Is it that Esther mourns, but she did not work off her sins? True, Esther did not leave the streets. Her ending emphasizes her lost innocence, when she wanders back to her old home “to see the place familiar to her innocence, yet once again before her death” (481), and when she has “fallen into what appeared simply a heap of white or light-coloured clothes, fainting or dead, lay the poor crushed Butterfly—the once innocent Esther” (480-481). Her lost innocence is repeated a third time before she dies: “all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed” (481). She is not “innocent,” though she is deeply saddened. Mary, in contrast, does work off her sins (via her work on Jem’s behalf, physical suffering, and mental anguish), Mr. Carson does (by doing good after his son’s death), and John does (by confessing and being willing to stand trial). Does grace, then, require our work to reach us?

Yet the novel’s grace seems to have only made abortive effort to reach Esther. Esther was only asked by Jem on the one occasion to return: why could they not find her when they looked again? The novel could have allowed Mary to find her again, and provided a scene where Mary showed grace to her aunt. Why could a recovered prostitute not go to the new world with them? Are prostitutes outside the scope of forgiveness?

Can the world, and our novel, not bear the weight of Esther’s sin, so that she has to die unhappy before the text wraps up? It seems so, which is an odd message to receive in a novel that ultimately seems to propose grace and forgiveness and brotherhood. Esther, alienated in her prostitution, has committed the sin that exiles a woman from normal society and from the people that she loves. Mary recovers, because she did not quite fall and then works hard, and Margaret flourishes, because she is never even tempted. Even John has a moment of forgiveness and brotherhood before he dies. Esther, however, remains out of reach of our characters and out of reach of any earthly forgiveness or happy ending.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

A few pages from the end of The Last Man, our beloved narrator Verney stumbles across a dog. The dog has been herding sheep alone, engaged in “his repetition of lessons learned from man, now useless, though unforgotten” (468). This relic of a previous age and an old relationship between humans and the nonhuman is ecstatic to join Verney, and Verney initially names him as “my only companion” (467). (The Adamic language of naming and companionship here is no accident: stay tuned.) Verney says he will take the dog with him to explore the empty world: “I would with a few books, provisions, and my dog, embark” (469). However, slippage occurs over the next few pages, and the dog disappears completely by the final paragraph. When he describes his actual preparations in the final paragraph, he carefully lets us know that all is ready. Notice he mentions the books and provisions again, following the structure of that previous statement—but drops the dog: “I have chosen my boat, and laid in my scant stores. I have selected a few books” (469). The paragraph ends by focusing on Verney alone, and how “angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the Last Man” (470).

The dog’s absence evokes questions: Why does a dog suddenly appear in the penultimate pages, and then get left out from the final description of our dear narrator braving the seas? With that absence, should we read the dog ultimately as a source of consolation—or as one last sign of alienation?

The absence alone is not the only indication that the dog is limited as a companion. Although Verney and the dog have both been shaped by human society in such a way that exacerbates their loneliness as remnants, and they share a similar fate, Shelley does not detail their tie in such a way that it provides meaningful and lasting solace. Instead, although the dog does provide company, Verney still emphasizes that he is “a solitary being” (468). And when Verney’s reflects on the future, the dog is dismissed from companion-status: Verney declares he is seeking “a companion” without mentioning the dog whom he previously called one (469). The dog is not enough. This may seem an obvious point: a dog is not human, and cannot provide the companionship a human does. But this switch in language combined with the dog’s absence in the final paragraph seems telling, emphasizing the gap between the human and nonhuman, and emphasizing the alienation of Verney.

This companion’s insufficiency seems to echo back to the beginning of Genesis, which is appropriate since Adam—the first human to have animal companionship and to feel that it is lacking—is also connected to Verney in two passages. Verney discusses Adam and Eve back on page 322, when other humans were still alive, crafting a tie between humanity and the first parents: “He is solitary; like our first parents expelled from Paradise, he looks back towards the scene has has quitted. The high walls of the tomb, and the flaming sword of plague, lie between it and him. Like to our first parents, the whole earth is before him, a wide desart. . . . Posterity is no more” (322). When all the others die and Verney is alone and seeking to convey his absolute loneliness, he picks up this language of Genesis and Eden again. He, however, now reaches for prelapsarian language, framing himself implicitly as Adam through comparison with the animals: “Have not they companions? Have not they each their mate—their cherished young, their home, which, though unexpressed to us, is, I doubt not, endeared and enriched, even in their eyes, by the society which kind nature has created for them? It is I only that am alone . . . I only cannot express to any companion my many thoughts, nor lay my throbbing head on any loved bosom, nor drink from meeting eyes an intoxicating dew, that transcends the fabulous nectar of the gods?” (459). Verney thus creatively expands on the language of Genesis 2: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him” (Gen 2.18-20). Both Adam and Verney are companionless, though they are with animals. Verney thus frames himself implicitly as another Adam: he is Adam before Eve, companionless and without an equal.

But—and this seems key—if we go back to his earlier reference to the first parents, he is also Adam after Eve, and after expulsion, pushed out of his paradise by the plague. He is now alone in an empty natural “paradise,” where beauty abounds and companions do not. Adam in paradise could conceivably be a hopeful connection for Verney and Shelley to make, just as the dog could conceivably be a true companion and a reason to hope. Adam, after all, made connections with animals by naming them, and when he and Eve were expelled from Eden, they survived and built the human paradise that Verney now laments the loss of. But in the world of the text, it seems unlikely an Eve will come.

After all, instead of being given an Eve, Verney was given a dog. And so we are left with the image of Verney and his dog, riding into the waves.

Except—the dog isn’t really there, either, in that final image given by the narrator. The reader could plausibly mentally add in the dog, but the words of the text just describe Verney, the solitary hero and abandoned Adam, wandering and alone.

The reversal of creation is complete: from a peopled earth, to a brave few, to one man and the animals, to “Adam” alone, Shelley has apparently moved us back to the first days in paradise. If the reversal of the steps of creation continues to follow the pattern of Genesis, all that remains is for the only human to disappear, for earth to return to its emptiness, and then for it all to collapse into formlessness. This might not happen: perhaps earth will remain in its beauty without humans. (Verney hints at that.) But to me this examination of the dog makes the consolation of the nonhuman seem ephemeral and slippery…hinting at hope but ultimately ending in nothingness.


(For the source of this post’s title, see Willis’s excellent book.)

Trusting a Benign Power

In contrast to its cheerful and trusting ending, Silas Marner opens with a sense of mystery, strangeness, and suspicion, as the narrator describes how the villagers view each weaver and his “mysterious burden” as ticking time bombs that explode any moment (3). When explaining how that distrust centers on Silas, the narrator connects it to the villagers’ ingrained perception of the world: “Such strange lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic religious faith” (4). From the beginning of the story, then, we have a sense of not being quite at home with the invisible powers of the world. In other words, these people do not see the world (“world” here used as shorthand for the forces that control events and circumstances) as benignly hospitable. What sort of host, after all, needs to be convinced not to harm guests?

The villagers at first transfer a distrust of the mysterious world to Silas as an embodiment of the mysterious and strange. He also, however, struggles with trust and distrusts the world in general. He thus bears a double-portion of distrust: the villagers’ and his own.

What makes it worse (and evokes our sympathy) is that his distrust is founded on his personal experience, unlike the inherited superstition of the villagers. His best friend, to whom he opened himself completely, betrays him, and his community thrusts him out. If he or the community was a bit more suspicious of his friend, he could have been okay. And when in his new community he trustingly tries to help heal Sally, it blows up in his face. And so distrust seems confirmed as the right response in a world with “a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent” (11). Fool me twice—but no more, Silas seems to say.

To me, these distrusts seem rather different: In one relationship (the villagers and Silas), it seems that more trust is needed; in the other (Silas and his friend), less. One is based on superstitions (that the reader is supposed to disagree with) and the other is founded on experience. (Even with Sally, perhaps Silas trusted too much in the villagers’ understanding.) Why, then, are the villagers’ and Silas’s distrusts brought so closely together throughout the text, with both being called into question? In the end, the finale of the text is both the villagers and Silas opening themselves up in a type of unqualified trust. The village accepts Silas, and Silas decides to “trusten” the good of the world despite a lack of understanding (159). Why is the solution to both portrayed as more trust?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the complicated connection between Silas and the invisible world. Silas as the village’s stranger-guest becomes the stand-in for that world and its powers, and in a way, then, Silas is identified with the very power he struggles to trust. So when the villagers trust him, perhaps they are trusting that power too, and calling him to trust it as well. (What could that odd merging do to our understanding of Silas?)

Another factor is that in this novel, sometimes the world uses pain to open up humans even more. Silas’s loss of the gold cracks his heart and leaves him open to Eppie’s influence and arrival. If we see that as the forces behind the world operating as an aggressive host to Silas, and making the guest more receptive to hospitality, then it seems that part of the hospitality of the world is, in fact, pain. The pain seems positive, for Silas grows in happiness and relationships due to it.

Yet this host’s ability and privilege of causing pain raises questions, especially since there is not much indication that the forces behind the world are affected in turn by humans. Is this ability to cause pain and remain a trusted host a privilege reserved for the invisible powers, with pain a burden falling solely on the human guests? How could the powers of the world take on pain and risk in this text that only mentions Christ in one carol? And is it still hospitality if the host is unaffected and reciprocity is lost?

From another angle: is the trust and openness potentially hollow, when the invisible powers can be touched and felt but not affected in the full way that humans can be? The happy ending seems to say no, but there is still “an open fence” to the happy garden on the last page (161). The abrupt changes in fate, the malicious thief in the dark, the killing cold, the disappearing homes, the stakes through a horse’s heart, the betrayals of friends and brothers, and unexpected revelations are all still in the text. Does the text really provide a secure reason that similar things should not erupt again, with this gate left open for their entry?

Readers, in fact, seem to have more assurance of the happy ending than the characters do, since readers have the narrative security of form and genre. The novel has ended, and on the happy note of marriage. As readers, we tend to trust the author to include the major events of these characters’ lives in the text. The characters have no such assurance in that final moment of text, and no mutual, reciprocal relationship with the forces that direct their lives. Without the assurance of such a truly hospitable relationship with a host, why should they trust, and why should this not simply be a temporary happiness?

No Man is an Island Entire: Vanity Fair, Community, and Melancholy

For pages and pages, disaster after disaster hits our characters, as they marry the wrong people (or don’t marry at all), fight with relatives, and race into bankruptcies. In the end, however, (spoiler!) Amelia and Dobbin end up together and have a lovely little family, seemingly safe from money problems. Yet the novel starts with a theme of melancholy and ends with a sad refrain, asking “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” (809). This—along with the many misfortunes and rapid ending—raises the question: how sad is Vanity Fair?

As I read, I kept waiting for the reversal that would fix things and redeem the characters (and the hours spent reading), but when that reversal comes, it feels rushed and incomplete, and I almost would rather it not happen: Amelia and Dobbin seem like they should, at this point, stay apart. (Or at least change more before coming back together.) I don’t want to overgeneralize my experience, but it seems troubling that any readers would cheer against the match that so much of the novel has been building to.

Part of the answer seems to lie in the development of solitude and community in the novel. From the start, Vanity Fair presents a vision of life that is solitary at its core, despite the many characters filling its pages, for each of the main characters lives apart from the rush and movement of the world in some fashion. This is set up from the very beginning, where “as Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and, looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place” (5, emphasis added). He sits; the fair bustles, and that contrast creates a type of sadness and emphasizes his solitary nature.

Similarly, Thackeray presents us with multiple communities and bonds that should be true and beautiful and provide community, yet don’t. Even though Amelia and Becky are very different mothers, their bond with their children ultimately does not provide much fulfillment or community: both give up their children (though for very different reasons), and Amelia’s George does not mourn her absence, and Becky’s son rejects her after being rejected himself. The bond between a mother and a child should be close, but Thackeray shows it as one-sided and painful. In a similar way, the husband and wife pairs are shown as failing at community; Becky looks down on her husband who loves her, and they never truly understand each other; George fails Amelia, and Amelia does not know him truly till the end. Female friends are notoriously treacherous (Amelia and Becky as the prime example, but Thackeray often expounds on women’s hatred of each other), and male friends fail each other (see George and Dobbin, who deceive each other). Other prominent examples of loneliness appear on pages 29, 196, 211, 245, 292, 533, 535, 607, 625, 669, and 751. Can anyone love truly and be loved truly in return?

That background sets up the ending of the novel and the “happy” marriage. Amelia’s and Dobbin’s community seems incomplete and very imperfect: in the end, they go to a fair with their children, but are not grouped together as a couple (though they are before they are married—see page 729, where “this couple were very decently contented”), and Dobbin is more connected to his daughter than Amelia. Amelia notices this, thinking that he is “fonder [of Janey] than he is of me,” even though “he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle; or thought of a want of hers that he did not try to gratify” (809). This expresses that type of alienation that is very much part of this novel.

At this point, we’ve learned the deeply flawed nature of these human, Vanity-Fair relationships, so it’s not surprising, though it may be saddening, that Amelia is not content in this relationship and that Dobbin may or may not be. They seem independent, individual, and alone, even within this familial community. In contrast, Donne writes that “no man is an island entire of itself” and asserts that “any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind.” Vanity Fair’s characters seem to fight against this and pretend that they are not, in fact, involved. Does this stem from the rise of the modern, atomic individual? Individualism is developing more and more in the nineteenth century, and in this way, Becky and the self-centered characters could be participating in that development.

What I am not sure about is how Thackeray desires us to read this: does he wish to negate the possibility of a charitable, life-giving community? Or can one read Vanity Fair as portraying the despair of alienation as support for a charitable community and an attempt to teach us how to create one? Could we combat vanity with true community? Or is that too redemptive of a reading? The narrator is slippery, and I’m left unsure. A friend said that reading Vanity Fair made him feel dirty and despairing. I am still trying to decide what I think of it in general, but I do think that Vanity Fair is ultimately sad—how can it be otherwise, when it portrays each character as an island entire, left isolated and disconnected from others, even though yearning for community?

The World Was Not Necessary to Me: The Dubious Claim of Mrs. Elton

How independent should one be of society?

This question echoes throughout Emma, and a blog post doesn’t give quite enough space to cover it fully, but I’d like to begin thinking about it in connection to some specific statements of Mrs. Elton, that social climber/butterfly. At various points Mrs. Elton asserts her independence from society, saying “Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me” and “a woman cannot have too many resources—and I feel very thankful that I have so many myself as to be quite independent of society” (253, 276). We are not really meant to like Mrs. Elton (forgive the understatement!), so are we to dismiss her statements out of hand? Or are there elements of truth hidden in them, about independence and the value of society?

Because our dear narrator is tricky and embraces tensions, I think we should err on a more nuanced take on these statements. Parsing Mrs. Elton’s statement, the first thing to establish is that she does not in fact have many inner resources (this is just another example of her words running contrary to reality—see also her claims about Mr. Knightley and Mr. Elton being great friends). But that does not necessarily negate her general pronouncement. This raises more questions: If one has inner resources, does one need society? Is it good to be independent of society? Can one be independent of society?

Mr. Knightley, our (supposed) paragon of virtue and moral center, does have inner resources, as shown in his ability to move in a different direction from the crowd and from others (see his resistance to Mrs. Elton in the arrangements about the strawberry picking on pages 310-312). He carves out a position of independence, and yet he nevertheless takes part in the social events and is an active member of the community (he arranges carriages for women without them, protects Jane from singing too much, attends dinner parties, and even dances when absolutely required by duty). This independence yet participation in society actually seems to contribute to his weighty place in society and the approbation of its members, a conclusion he seems to suggest when he discusses duty and independence from others’ demands. When talking of Frank Churchill, he says that he should assert his independence and visit his father—if he does, then the people around him would end up respecting him more and “their little minds would bend to his” (161). And yet even Mr. Knightley’s independence is attenuated by his connection to Emma. Because of her opinions, he reexamines the evidence and shifts his opinion about Miss Smith, which the novel seems to applaud (398).

Is he independent of society, then? If we deem society the world outside of the home, then he is not (but perhaps could be, if he wanted, unlike Mrs. Elton). Yet a tension develops at the end of the novel, when he ends up incorporating the most important people to him into a home: when he and Emma, he agrees to move in with her and her father. But we are given no indication that he will turn out like Mr. John Knightley, surly at anything that removes him from his domestic comforts.

Mr. Knightley, then, has inner resources—he is well-read, intelligent, and even wise. Yet he seeks out the companionship of others, and even commits to the small society of a home while remaining integrated into the larger society of the town.

The questions of independence and society are vitally important to the novel, because Emma is set up from the start as the story of Emma and her relationship to the people around her. The tension between society and independence also connects to other themes of the text—outward appearances versus interiority and the inner life, relationships with others, social status and ranking, and even to knowledge (what people know about you matters; who you know affects your knowledge; sharing knowledge is important). Emma seems potentially about how an individual navigates the tensions between self and others and how he or she can become incorporated into society rather than continually asserting his or her independence. Mr. Knightley has already done so.

Applying these ideas to our title character, Emma has to learn to use her inner resources and independence wisely (see especially Harriet Smith and Miss Bates) and in a way that promotes the well-being of the society at large. For example, in the first few pages, we learn that because her governess has married she is “in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude” and Highbury can give her “no equals” (56).  She also permanently aligns herself with Mr. Knightley and marriage, and their individual, independent lives become combined. While marriage is not exactly incorporation into society writ large, it does entail less independence—but both Mr. Knightley and Emma see it as worth the cost and seem to think that pooling one’s “inner resources” with another enriches life. Nonetheless, they are very much part of the social life of the town, and Austen spends some time on society’s opinions of their match.

Perhaps the novel suggests it is important to develop one’s self and to have those inner resources, but to do so while acknowledging the importance of others. Mrs. Elton’s assertion of independence, then, is flawed both because she has no inner resources and because it seems to value a type of disconnect from the world—although independence is valuable, it is not an absolute good. Playing one’s role in society is equally important.

Communications Overheard

For characters who place so much weight on measuring their words, the characters of Camilla seem to much more easily accept the sincerity and honesty of words betrayed. Edgar, for instance, desires “willing communication” from Camilla but time and time again is willing to take words out of context, trust words that are forced from her, or words that are overheard (555). The ultimate reconciliation between Camilla and Edgar comes from the letter meant only to be open on her death; yet Mrs. Tyrold refers to it as “some fortunate hazard” that Edgar is near when the letter is found and thus receives it (898). Her father reports that because of this Edgar says “every doubt was wholly, and even miraculously removed, by learning thus the true feelings of her heart” (898).

The happy ending comes about through such unintentional communication, and other such instances occur in the text as well. The three main means of communication in Camilla (the spoken word, the written word, and body language) each are complicated by the novel’s division of the private and public and the natural and intentional. Here I want to focus on the private, written word and body language betrayed, both of which ultimately bring about good in the story. The question: Why is it necessary for good, well-intentioned characters to rely on such shenanigans in order to understand each other at the end of the book—especially in such a moral novel, and one where Camilla is criticized for lack of thought? And what does that do to the ethics of the position of the readers, who are situated as eavesdroppers themselves?

Including the ending, there are three main instances of the private, written word betrayed: Dr. Marchmont’s “Camilla” who is posthumously betrayed by her journal, where she writes of her love for another (643); Eugenia’s secret poem which betrays her love of Melmond to the household through Mrs. Mitten (675); and Camilla’s “posthumous” letter to Edgar (898). Dr. Marchmont’s discovery cements his distrust of women and his ill-applied advice to Edgar, but Eugenia’s poem, though the cause of temporary pain, much later assists in winning over Melmond, and Camilla’s letter is instrumental in her and Edgar’s reconciliation. These communications are not meant to be received by those who read them, and so they are unsanctioned.

Communication via body language is not safe from unsanctioned reading or overhearing either, and a central instance actually sets up the ending and creates a contrast—Edgar comes across Camilla in a private moment, when she has finds herself alone and can give herself over to her tears (542). She tries hiding her tears, but he announces, “you have been weeping!” (543). Her unintentional communication via her body betrays her, and evokes the first declaration of his love (545). This is a seemingly positive outcome, but its basis on incomplete communication actually undermines its ability to last, which we can contrast with the final revelation of the letter to Edgar and his eavesdropping on her conversation with her mother. In that final revelation, all is conveyed and the unsanctioned, unintentional communication is thus followed by thoughtful revelation.

Perhaps Burney implies that the unsanctioned communication is necessary in order to reveal the passions and the natural person, but that reflection and intentional revelation is necessary in order to engage the mind. Considering the ending in relation to other incidents throughout the text, she seems to be balancing the value of the private and the natural and the public and the thoughtful, and not deciding in favor of either.

Interestingly, the readers are pulled into this dilemma as well: the unobtrusive narrator rarely mentions the readers, who are participants in eavesdropping in all the characters’ lives. By not mentioning them, or referring to the characters as fictional (which Robyn R. Warhol says ruins the illusion of reality), she increases the illusion of immersion, making the eavesdropping more ethically dubious since we’re eavesdropping on characters portrayed as real. Yet, how are we to avoid such behavior in a novel communicated in the third-person?

Perhaps we are to find our answer, or at least some understanding, in seeing the similarities in the positions of the readers and the characters. Although it seems that the moral, conscientious characters would avoid eavesdropping and violating boundaries, some of the worst and best turns in the plot come with that sort of eavesdropping and invasion of boundaries, and whether the outcome is positive or negative, the characters rely on these unsanctioned moments to make their judgments.

This topic connects to some of the main themes of the work—the importance of words and language, the public and private worlds of the characters, the relationship of the body with the heart and the mind, and the contrast between the natural and cultivated. Fundamentally, however, it seems to come down to the importance of understanding. At the beginning of the book, Burney points out that “human heart” is difficult to grasp, and in the conclusion she asks “What, at last, so diversified as man? What so little to be judged by his fellows?” (8, 913). Burney desires for us as readers to understand her characters, and as serial over-hearers ourselves, it seems we can be somewhat encouraged: revealed words can be more instrumental in reaching understanding than direct communication, however morally questionable that may seem. Perhaps it all relies on the attitude of the eavesdropper: is it resistant and suspicious, as Edgar is for much of the book, or receptive, trusting, and accepting, as he becomes? But even that is complicated by those who betray trust, such as Eugenia’s first husband—it seems we need to overhear private thoughts and feelings to confirm stated intentions, but we need to be receptive and generous towards what we overhear and allow reflection to affect our interpretation and our readings.

Storms, Emotions, and Personal Responsibility

Dear fellow readers,

I must admit that Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded took me longer to read because of the outraged marginalia that seemed to rise unbidden from my pen. My cultural conditioning seemed to prevent me from fully appreciating the valiant Pamela, lauding Mr. B. for his change of heart, and celebrating their nuptials.

One of the more troubling scenes is when Mr. B. goes alone to the garden because of his anger at Lady Davers. Pamela and Lady Davers, reconciled, follow him, and he tears into them, saying to both, “I desire to see neither of you on this occasion,” and to Pamela, “how dare you approach me, without leave, when you see me thus disturbed! Never, for the future, come near me, when I am in tumults, unless I send for you” (454). After he “tossed” Pamela’s hand, he tells his sister Pamela “must take the consequence of a passion, which, when raised, is as uncontroulable as your own” (455). He barely manages to control himself at the end of the scene, and Pamela describes it as a “storm” which has “happily” passed (456).

Even more troubling, after his temper has cooled, he repeats his commands for her to avoid him in such moods.

My question is: Why is it all right for him to put the onus on Pamela to avoid him, rather than on himself? Why are his passions and emotions treated as storms and natural disasters that are just part of life, and why must Pamela adjust her course in light of them, tacking and jibing like a sailboat in a storm? Why do Mr. B. and Lady Davers get to have such uncontrollable passions (and remain admired by society), and Pamela does not?

Partly, this is just part of Mr. B’s modus operandi: throughout the text, Mr. B. seems to externalize responsibility for his emotions and his actions. He keeps repeating “in the mind I am” to protect himself if he changes his mind (275). So this is partly just a continuation of that—lust and love alike are out of his hands. (Pamela too claims that her love for him is not of her choosing, so there is at least some parity there, but she must still act controlled in a way he does not [284].)Mr. B. and Pamela, in contrast, trace it back to how well-off children are spoiled, which in turn connects to the very structure of society that drives much of the plot and machinations behind the scenes. Society is fundamentally unequal; wealth and status grant freedoms that create uncontrollable storms of emotions that others must weather.

Mr. B. and Pamela, in contrast, trace it back to how well-off children are spoiled, which in turn connects to the very structure of society that drives much of the plot and machinations behind the scenes. Society is fundamentally unequal; wealth and status grant freedoms that create uncontrollable storms of emotions that others must weather.

Oddly, this focus on spoiled children gives me a glimmer of hope, for Pamela asserts that she will not spoil her own children “if any part of children’s education falls to” her (467-468). Is that an implied criticism, however slight? Does she see some of the problems with this situation?

I hope so, for despite Mr. B.’s many compliments and his exhortation for Pamela to consider herself his equal, this passage demonstrates his deficient sense of responsibility for his more destructive emotions.

You, astute reader, might notice that I opened this post with disclaimers about my own responsibility for my response to Pamela. So let me correct it: I wrote the angry and aghast marginalia, I did not completely appreciate the rewards we were supposed to revel in, and I lost control over my emotions. I take complete responsibility . . . and wish Mr. B. would too, spoiled childhood and gentleman-status notwithstanding. Tell me honestly—do I ask too much?


A Troubled Reader

On Onions and Knowledge

In Shrek, two of the main characters have an extended discussion about onions and layers: Shrek claims that he is like an onion, not because of smell or appearance, but because he has depths ignored by most. The character Donkey is skeptical and misses the point, but the viewer (hopefully) understands. To really know Shrek, one must pull back the layers.

But what, you ask is a discussion of Shrek doing in a blog post about the eighteenth-century masterpiece Tom Jones?

It is quite simple, dear yet impatient reader.

Shrek poses the question, “Why is an ogre like an onion?” I would like to ask, “How does Tom Jones resemble an onion?”

I think that this question, slightly absurd as it is, can actually illuminate some of the key questions and concerns of this novel. One of the mysteries of the novel, for instance, is Blifil’s ability to control the knowledge others have of him. He convinces everyone that he is good, even though he is primarily concerned with himself and his self-interest. Why does no one know him as he truly is?

A connected mystery is the narrator’s aggravating refusal to tell us all he knows. When he withholds information he explains “we did not think it necessary to assign this cause sooner” (203). If you think about it, this actually allies him with Blifil, the other master withholder of information . . . which is not a great place to be. Why would someone who shares so much with us, and shares so eagerly, refrain from sharing vital details . . . and highlight that fact?

Both of these mysteries—Blifil’s charade and the narrator’s stance on sharing information—share a connection with knowledge: What do we know? How do we know it? What if we’re wrong? This concern with knowledge informs the whole novel, with secrets and misrepresentations abounding, and it operates on characters and readers alike. The layers of the onion—if you will—are the layers of knowledge, and characters operate on different layers based on their knowledge or ignorance.

Many of the characters seem unaware that knowledge is not a simple, one-dimensional thing. Tom is the victim of the layers of knowledge/ignorance multiple times (Allworthy, Sophia, and the community all believe claims about him based on false knowledge, or based on limited knowledge). He himself buys into limited knowledge to the point of believing he has committed incest. As for the readers, the narrator forces them to take part in the drama of ignorance as well, by seemingly revealing Mrs. Waters’s identity, convincing them that he has slept with his mother, and then pulling another switch with the revelation at the end. (Blifil, of course, could have helped everyone avoid that particular heart-attack, but he is adept at keeping people at certain levels of knowledge.)

Why would Fielding do this? And why would the narrator operate like Blifil? Possibly he is Machiavellian or sadistic. But those answers seem shallow. Perhaps instead all these layers of ignorance and knowledge create the farce and the drama of the book, and perhaps they question our understanding of what we know and how we know, all in order to . . . I’m still working on that part, patient reader, but perhaps to convince us that knowledge is more complicated than we thought? (Why?)

One problem with the onion analogy: If you peel back all the layers of an onion, there is nothing left. Despite its many layers—or perhaps because of them, if these musings are accurate—Tom Jones and its layers of knowledge do not feel like they lead to nothing.*

So is this novel really like an onion? You tell me.

*One would sincerely hope an 871-page novel would not do that to us.