The usage of setting as it relates to characterization

An author’s use of form in his or her creation of a novel’s setting is of course necessary for any plot-driven text, but it can also strengthen the development of its characters and play a role in the novel’s thematic points. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Frankenstein, and Mary Barton, each author uses setting to further develop its main characters. Thomas Hardy uses setting to illustrate his protagonist’s purity and normalcy, while Mary Shelley does the exact opposite to characterize Frankenstein’s monster and the detachment from the world around him. Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, uses her setting as a middle ground from which Mary can experience a spectrum of settings and their designated social and monetary statuses.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, setting plays an important role in demonstrating the heart of Tess’s morality. Hardy uses the environment as an interesting parallel to Tess, making her a part of nature and of the novel’s setting. She is a farm girl, and is comfortable around nature as such – making it a contrast as she finds similarity to the portraits in the ancestral mansions. Instead, Tess “felt akin to the landscape” (Hardy 61) in the country. Hardy illustrates how Tess and nature are related in purity, as they are both of this earth and, by definition, natural. While Tess often takes omens from the behavior of animals, she is also often wrong. The narrator explains that “it was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time” (Hardy 63). By allowing the environment to mirror Tess, he transcends her over the social climate of the time and makes her everlasting, just as the laws of nature are. Any rejection of her from the environment is false, and “this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy…it was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she…she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly” (Hardy 51). This mirroring can also be seen in the tragic darkness of Tess’s original fall at the hands of Alec, where “everything was blackness alike” (Hardy 44) in that forest. Through his descriptions of setting and nature, Hardy provides the reader with further characterization as to Tess’s humble purity and her congruence with the natural world.

Shelley’s use of setting is emphatically different from Hardy’s, as she uses the gothic imagery of the monster’s surroundings to illustrate how he is unable to assimilate with others. On his own, the monster is immediately subject to the dark and cold, without shelter. The harsh environment rejects him, mirroring his isolation but condemning his unnatural being. Following the additional rejection from the De Lacey family, darkness falls and “as the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods, and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens; the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche, and produced a kind of insanity in [the monster’s] spirits” (Shelley 151). As anger and betrayal excite him, so too does his surroundings surge with this emotion, and the wind and clouds mimic the monster’s strong feelings of isolation and paranoia. Even though the monster finds refuge in the forest, he recognizes that there is no place for him. Frankenstein’s monster reflects that “with the world before [him,] whither should [he] bend [his] steps? [Although he had] resolved to fly far from the scene of [his] misfortunes…every country must be equally horrible” (Shelley 151). Therefore his ending is somewhat fitting, as the monster resolves to commit to the eternal surroundings of the endless ocean. He places himself “upon the ice-raft…[and] he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (Shelley 221). Although both Hardy and Shelley do allow the description of setting and nature to deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters’ places in their world, they do so by expressing its acceptance or rejection of the character, respectively.

Gaskell’s use of setting differs from both Hardy’s and Shelley’s in that it does not take an extreme stance. Where Tess exemplifies the normality of nature, and Frankenstein’s monster represents the opposition to normal natural law, Gaskell’s protagonist Mary Barton finds herself in middle ground. The setting passively accepts her, as Gaskell does not use setting to comment on Mary’s specific place in her world. Instead, Mary here represents the entire middle class as a whole, and these surroundings illustrate that Mary is an “every-day-man” of sorts that can transcend social class boundaries because of it. The setting of Mary’s house allows the reader to look into her private life and character, as the interior is described, that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The warmth and simplicity of the house mirrors the comfort of Mary. However, this middle-class setting is contrasted by two sides of the spectrum, and Gaskell shows the reader two other households and how they compare. In the Davenport home, the door “led to a black cellar, with a grating instead of a window…the floor was one mass of bad smelling mud…[and] there was not an article of furniture in it” (Gaskell 60). Through seeing the pitiable living conditions of the Davenports, the reader can contextualize the privilege of Mary’s upbringing, and how this corresponds with her perspective. On the other side of the spectrum at the Carson house, it “was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense…[where] a roaring fire burnt merrily” (Gaskell 63). Through being able to experience the other neighborhood surroundings of different class distinctions, the reader is better equipped to perceive the world as Mary does. Therefore, through exposing these three different settings, Gaskell caters sympathy to Mary and the goal of the middle class to blur the lines among these settings.

Hardy’s use of setting in Tess of the D’Urbervilles differs from the other two novels’ usages in that its layers radically help illustrate the notion of purity in Tess. The setting as it relates to nature makes claims regarding Tess’s normalcy and place in the world, and argues against any social stigma. The added layer of setting includes its Victorian landscape, and the present social climate that had every preparation to condemn Tess for the so-called “seduction,” while preserving Alec. Unlike in the other novels, the setting both sets up an argument against Tess, while also making a case for her. Whereas one factor of the novel’s setting speaks to her breaking of social code and social law for females at the time, the other factor of the novel’s setting speaks to how this perception will come to pass, but that the natural world claims Tess’s purity as its own forever. Hardy’s duality of setting only deepens the reader’s relationship with Tess, as her surrounding either condemns or accepts her, and attempts to sway the reader into a side as to her intentions, personality, and purity.

Think about the children!

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational Lady Audley’s Secret features twists and turns, conniving plots, and multiple identities. Among the insanity, the reader may forget about the effect on a character outside of Lady Audley’s domestic sphere. This character, being the direct product of one of the most central of the dramatic storylines: Georgey. What is the ultimate role of Georgey in the novel? Perhaps Braddon intended for him to provide sympathy and show a different family dynamic and its effect on the young boy.

Georgey, as a relatively minor character, garners much sympathy from readers and characters alike as he plays the innocent bystander and byproduct of his parents’ troubled relationship. George leaves his wife and their weeks old infant, and in turn, she leaves as well. This abandonment illustrates the complete lack of power that Georgey holds over his life trajectory, which serves to indicate the extent of Braddon’s sympathy rhetoric. His grandfather supports Georgey, but he grows up without much structure and in poverty with his alcoholic family member. Georgey does elicit much sympathy for himself, but ultimately, he may serve to also elicit both sympathy and resentment from Lady Audley and George. While both parents have wronged their son deeply, could Braddon also be using Georgey as a plot device that not only creates sympathy, but also enhances it? For example, the first conversation between Georgey and his father begins with George’s outcry to him,“‘I am your father, come across the sea to find you…will you love me?’” (Braddon 83) which is sad enough on its own, but then amplified by Georgey’s response. Uncertain, he “pushed him away” and said “‘I don’t know you’” (Braddon 83).The heartwarming tenderness of a father and son reuniting is as absent as George during Georgey’s early childhood. Georgey’s purpose in the novel may be to strengthen the readers’ emotional response to George and to Lady Audley.

Although initially the parents have wronged him, Braddon complicates the narrative with empathetic background motivations. George left his family, but only in an effort to support them. Lady Audley, then Helen, took drastic measures only because her choices as a single mother at this time were very limited. She returns to him in secret, and her son knows her only as “the pretty lady” about whom “Granpa told [him] not to tell anybody” (Braddon 191). He goes on to describe how she visited him when he was little, “came up into [his] room, and sat upon the bed, and cried—and she left the watch under [his] pillow” (Braddon 191). Through the relationships in the novel, Braddon allows Georgey to work as a central force of sympathy, as he increases the often bittersweet, sympathetic aspects to other characters. He does so namely for his parents, but also for his grandfather and Robert.

Georgey’s connections to the other characters are subverted from typical Victorian standards of the family unit. The inclusion of a child complicates the Talboys couple’s relationship and dynamic. Once uncared for by his parents, he is given to his grandfather. Now, Georgey’s upbringing was not ideal but was also not abusive, for he was “happy enough with his drunken old grandfather, who had always displayed a maudlin affection for the pretty child, and had done his best to spoil Georgey, by letting him have his own way in everything” (Braddon 201). Further still, he is then given to Robert, who enrolls him in boarding school. Georgey got quite unlucky and quite lucky with his family connections, as his family members both abandon and support him.

Ultimately, Braddon uses the character of Georgey to create higher stakes and more drama for his surrounding family. We are supposed to feel sympathy for him specifically, but it also seems to be intended that we mainly view Georgey as he stands in relation to the other characters. For this reason, Georgey remains a minor character, with long-reaching effects on how the readers view the surrounding George, Lady Audley, Robert, and Maldon. Fortunately, he does receive a happy ending and truly reconnects with his father George, as well as Robert and Clara. This is pleasurable, to see such a sympathetic character with continuously low power eventually reach contentment at the novel’s end. This ending is even more satisfying considering the heavy work of sympathy that Braddon used on him – and through him.

The Nuances of Maggie and Tom’s Relationship

The relationship between Maggie and Tom, arguably our two most vital characters, provides an interesting – if odd – dynamic. They are siblings and often act as such, but The Mill on the Floss seems ultimately centered on the proximity of their relationship. This usually depends on Tom’s everchanging view of his sister, as Maggie seems to always hold an extreme love for him. Maggie’s loving and sensitive nature pervades the novel, but only Tom is first in her heart. The novel opens with the relationship between the two while young, setting a tone for the pairing. Maggie begs for his love, crying and declaring “I…lo-lo-love you so, Tom” (Eliot 79). He is often manipulative with the power he holds over her, declaring “I don’t love you,” which upsets her. Eliot shows the reader how deeply Maggie wishes to please her brother and receive love from him. The love between them is fraternal, although several points in the novel may cause the reader to question their closeness. I do not believe that Eliot was intentionally making claims or insights to incest – however, I do see some parallels between Maggie’s relationship with Tom and a romantic but non-sexual connection.

Eliot’s narrative relies on Maggie induce sympathy and better illustrate the traditional characteristics between a non-related couple that the relationship shares. The narration, while third-person, focuses on Maggie in these sections so as to bring the reader closer to her and view the relationship through her. Her intention here is to characterize Maggie in relation to Tom, which makes the reader sympathetic to the protagonist’s simple and childlike desire to be loved by her brother. Because we often see Maggie rejected, Eliot further illustrates her thematic use of rhetoric to induce sympathy in the reader. Maggie does not always face rejection, however. Her heavy inclusion into the narrative of the novel provides detailed description of her other relationships with young men. She has two suitors, Philip Wakem and Stephen Guest. Despite her other relationships, however, Maggie continuously demonstrates how deeply she cares for Tom above all others. “‘I love Tom so dearly…better than anybody else in the world. When he grows up, I shall keep his house, and we shall always live together’” (Eliot 26). Since childhood, Maggie has not been able to imagine a future without Tom, and therefore wishes to forever live under him and his roof. Tom, however, never has any romantic conquests. He imagines the same life for them, and personally “meant always to take care of her make her his housekeeper, and punish her when she did wrong” (Eliot 83). Here in lies Tom’s motivation of a traditional and patriarchal seat of power. Unlike Maggie, driven by love, Tom focuses more so on himself. Eliot describes this through traditional roles and active diction. He resigns Maggie’s future under him, and demonstrates his ultimate need for power through active verbs like “take,” “make,” and “punish” (Eliot 83). Although they arrived at this symbiosis in different ways, they both desire and consent to a relationship that they hold above all others. Eliot concludes the novel through the dynamism of Maggie and Tom’s relationship.

The ending of the novel reinforces the idea that Maggie and Tom have a relationship that transcends all others. Eliot solidifies the bond between them through their intimate sharing of death. She describes that “brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted— living through again in one supreme moment, the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (Eliot 467) This eternal embrace mimics that of the eternal physicality and spirituality in marriage. God ordains these connections through marriage ceremony, but also through the fact that Maggie and Tom walk together in the afterlife. The culmination of the novel acts to illustrate that through the entire narrative, Tom and Maggie are meant to be together, and will forever remain as such.

The Setting of the Home in Mary Barton

In her industrial novel Mary Barton, author Elizabeth Gaskell effectively uses a realist setting of home life through imagery and diction so as to illustrate the class distinction of the owners. Throughout the novel, Gaskell guides the reader through the homes of the Bartons, Davenports, and Carsons to demonstrate the class to which each house belongs. In the Barton’s home specifically, this realistic and vivid description of home life depicts the effect of the strained economy on the working class through the changes that the indoor endures.

Initially, the Barton home is described as comfortable and in little want. When entering, the family brings life into the house, shown when “Mrs. Barton lighted a dip by sticking it in the fire…on hospitable thoughts intent” (Gaskell 14). The reader enters with them, now able to see that “the room was tolerably large, and possessed many conveniences,” such as “a longish window, with a broad ledge,” “blue-and-white check curtains, which were now drawn,” and “two geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill” (Gaskell 14). This ample imagery rhetorically provides a realistic portrayal of the home. The reader is almost privy to this home tour through its vividness of detail. The specifics of the Barton’s home even go so far as to describe that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The diction of “bright green,” “fire-light,” and a “richness of colouring” all contribute to the happy and illuminated sense of home life. The further claim that “the place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure sign of good times among the mills)” explores the monetary consequences of indoor decoration. This description changes, however, as the novel continues and the economy’s poor state affects those in the industrial working-class realm. As the story progresses, the house is “dingy and comfortless” (Gaskell 109). Gaskell recalls the past, noting that “the house wanted the cheerful look it had had in the days when money was never wanted to purchase soap and brushes, black-lead and pipe-clay” (Gaskell 109). Through exploring the physical changes in the home, she also aids the political plot in the narrative by illustrating the direct effect of the increasing poverty. Even the bright nature of the past is sorely missed, as now “there was not even the dumb familiar home-friend, a fire” (Gaskell 109).

Gaskell’s use of setting to advance the invocation of sympathy in the reader is well skilled. I would love to further explore how deeply the setting of the indoor home life specifically influences this rhetorical goal, as well as how it speaks to the characterization of the owners. The contrast of the dynamic portrayal of the Barton house would be interesting to contrast between the two ends of the spectrum, with the Davenport and Carson homes respectively.

On the topic of responsibility and culpability

The topic of responsibility can be a difficult one to explore, because “responsibility” may heavily affect the view of one’s culpability for his or her actions – despite responsibility, one may be condemned or condoned. How deeply, therefore, must we take into account context and history when determining a sense of “blame” for these characters? Does an abusive childhood at all excuse, or at least contextualize, a serial killer’s actions? Does it lessen the blow of the gavel, and by extension, the punishment? If so – just how harshly should a reader judge the monster and his violent actions, and Victor Frankenstein for creating him?

Looking at their relationship in a family perspective, Victor holds as much responsibility for his creation as a parent does his child. This creature is a blank slate, confused and ignorant just as a newborn, and Victor plays the stereotypic role of absent father immediately by running away, “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] created, [rushing] out of the room” (84). This instantaneous rejection is certainly not lost on the creature, who will be experiencing this rejection for the rest of his life. It is, after all, what spurns the creature into exacting revenge upon Victor. In this way, Victor is directly responsible for the creation of the monster – of course – as well as the monster’s desire for violence towards the Frankenstein family and friends. Responsibility for this creature, however, is not culpability for this creature’s actions. Frankenstein’s monster has the gift of free will, which means that ultimately, his actions are his own and therefore he himself is responsible for them. This son’s sins cannot be solely blamed on the father! Those in connection to Victor, after all, are not the only ones who receive the monster’s wrath.

When searching for responsibility, is the victim ever at fault? One may argue that the De Lacey family is responsible for the creature’s pyrophilic actions due to their reactions towards the monster. The women flee at the sight of him, while Felix “tore [the monster] from his father…[and] in a transport of fury, he dashed [the monster] to the ground, and struck [him] violently with a stick” (148). As the reader, we know that the creature’s intentions are pure and the humans misunderstand him, but how much does this context excuse their frightened and violent reactions, or the creature’s scorned one? The monster, when he “reflected that they had spurned and deserted [him], anger returned, a rage of anger…and [he] turned [his] fury toward inanimate objects” (151). Now, these occurrences can be laid out in a clear cause-and-effect manner. The humans cause the monster to be angry, and the effect is the monster burns down their cottage. How much “blame” can be put on those who caused the effect? While it is understandable that the effect occurred because of the cause, the family does not have responsibility for the monster’s actions. Causation, in this way, does not invoke responsibility. Instead, the creature must take full responsibility for the fire, although he is not responsible for the poor way he was treated. That responsibility, at least, goes to the De Lacey family.

A similar thought process can be applied to the murder of Victor’s brother William. In the end, William is not responsible for his own death in any legal or moral way, despite the fact that his death occurs because he accidentally causes it. The monster is at first only wanting to connect with the boy, thinking him unprejudiced. He is proven wrong when William shouts at him “‘monster! ugly wretch! you wish to eat me, and tear me to pieces…” (154). At these remarks, the creature is not violent, although perhaps irritated. It is only at the familial reveal that he turns to violence. During his taunts, William yells at the “‘hideous monster!” that his “papa is a Syndic – he is M. Frankenstein – he would punish you’” (154). Because it is William’s tie to Victor that he is murdered, Victor himself is somewhat responsible for his death. Of course, in the end, actions must not be severed from its actor – the only one truly responsible for killing William is the killer himself. No matter one’s lot in life, and to whom blame is thrown, responsibility for your actions always points directly back at you.