A Pure(ish) Woman

The claims Hardy so boldly asserts in his sub-title he then spends the rest of his novel hedging and explaining. Tess is “a pure woman” he declares as he writes away her virginity and detail’s Alec’s murder. Setting aside our thoughts of Tess shaped from the inner dialogue to which we are privy, the facts are startlingly damning in the eyes of Hardy’s society. Tess is impure in the sense that she loses her virginity and has a child out of wedlock, which turns her from a pure woman to a fallen one. She also entraps a gentlemen, an “Angel” no less, into marriage under false pretenses (Ch. 2). This further moves her from fallen woman status into scheming temptress territory. Finally, Tess commits what many, especially the Christian audience Hardy faced, would consider the ultimate sin – murder. Murder is the most brutal manifestation of violence, which makes the act furthermore a violation of her own femininity. Now we’ve moved from temptress to murderess.

Yet Hardy, through the guidance of his narrator and the musings of his characters, continues to assert the innocence of his “dear Tess” (Ch. 8). Tess does, in fact, remain pure, although the criteria for purity to Hardy is different from those of his audience. He replaces moral law and religious order with natural law, often juxtaposing the two. We see this when Tess decides to leave the church where “the people who had turned their heads turned them again as the service proceeded” (Ch. 13). She seeks refuge “out in the woods” where she becomes “an integral part of the scene” (Ch. 13). She is isolated and ostracized among the community of believers, whereas she is connected to the woods, “the haunts of Innocence” (Ch. 13). Hardy closes the scene by finally articulating “she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment” (Ch. 13).

Equating naturalism with purity we can see how Hardy’s ending leaves his “heroine” not doomed but set free (Ch. 10). The murder of Alec is significant not for its violence, but for its symbolism as the means through which Tess “extinguished her moral sense altogether” (Ch. 47). She returns to the woods with “the one man on earth who had loved her purely, and who had believed in her as pure” (Ch. 47). Her death sentence is then not moral justice but a consequence of the clash between social law and natural law.

The Unnatural Man

In another story, Mr. Widdowson might have been named Prince Charming. He swoops in, the rich man saving the poor factory girl and introduces her to a life of luxury and comfort. But this is not that kind of story. In this story, Prince Charming lurks in the shadows, stalking Cinderella and bullying her into submission. In this story, our hero is much closer to a villain.

Monica recognizes before even agreeing to marry Mr. Widdowson that “he had come to look at the place where she lived—possibly to spy upon her” (Ch. 7). Oh Monica, he was definitely there to spy on you! Mr. Widdowson’s dark attentions only grow in marriage as he attempts to “play the tyrant” (Ch. 18). The more progressive Monica becomes, the more primitive Mr. Widdowson. His actions demonstrate his belief that “the natural law points out a woman’s place and… commands her to follow her husband’s guidance” (Ch. 16). He also thinks that “girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural” (Ch. 15). To Widdowson, a “perfect relation of wife to husband” involves the wife as “benefactor” and the husband as “her providence” (Ch. 15). In order to enforce his ideology, Widdowson dictates Monica’s schedule and insists on accompanying her whenever she goes out. Yet, the more control Widdowson gains over Monica, the unhappier they both become.

So why does Widdowson feel such “insufferable misery” (Ch. 19)? Gissing’s constant invocation of what is natural and unnatural begs us to direct our question to Aristotle. Aristotle proposes that man can only be happy (achieve eudaemonia) if his actions are aligned with reason (arête). Widdowson’s unhappiness is therefore an indication that his actions are unreasonable, as in unnatural. That is to say, Widdowson’s attempts to dominate are against his own true nature.

Gissing subtly confirms that throughout the text, always carefully exonerating Widdowson for his “doggedness that now and then became violence” (Ch. 22). We feel the weight of Widdowson’s imagined responsibility as he struggles with the “feeling of inability to grapple with such an undertaking” (Ch. 15). Widdowson himself has moments of clarity, as “for a moment he thought himself capable of accepting this change in their relations” which included “the marvelous thought of equality between man and wife” (Ch. 16).

If Widdowson is representative of the everyman of this period, he is an image of inner tension between what man is taught and what is natural to man. Violence, restlessness, and irrational behavior are then manifestations of this internal conflict. Considering this, our villain may be more of a victim after all.

Guilt from the Graveyard

The opening scene of Great Expectations is one of the most iconic moments of the novel. It is a moment which Pip himself calls “my first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things,” showing us that it is this moment which shapes his character throughout the text.

We are first introduced to our little narrator as he huddles around the gravestones of his family, surrounded by the “dark flat wilderness” of the graveyard (Ch. 1). Strangely, Pip’s “childish” innocence protects him from the solemnity of the situation and he seems to be at home amongst the tombstones (Ch. 1). The introduction of the convict, “a fearful man,” into the scene ushers in a tone of oppressive “helplessness and danger” (Ch. 1). Pip is confronted at once by both threats of violence and the very first of his great expectations, the promise to return with sustenance for the convict (Ch. 1).

Pip’s response to this request is pivotal. Logistically, it catalyzes the events of plot. But it also shows us much about Pip’s character. He perceives the convict as his superior, and he therefore acts with immediate acceptance, responding with many a deferential “There, sir” and “Yes sir,” (Ch. 1). We see echoes of this in Pip’s interactions with Miss Havisham and Estella. He sees the women as above him, Estella even as that of “a queen” (Ch. 8). Subsequently, he accepts their values and behaviors similarly without question, demonstrated in his quick switch from jacks to knaves in cards. Almost instantly he believes jacks “ought to be called knaves” (Ch. 8).

In agreeing to steal food for the convict, Pip’s life is marred by “the dreadful pledge… to commit a larceny” (Ch. 2). He thereafter characterizes himself as “larcenous” (Ch. 2) and is cursed with “a guilty mind” (Ch. 3). The theme of guilt carries him throughout the novel. Even as a successful gentleman, Pip cannot shake the grime of his crimes. This guilt, never explicitly stated after these initial childhood scenes, often shows glimpses of itself in Pip’s feelings of inadequacy or of not belonging. In deciding so easily to obey the convict, Pip examines himself for the first time and finds “mortal terror of [himself]” (Ch. 2). Guilt and fear are inextricably tied together in Great Expectations, glued together by this initial scene in the graveyard.

The Girl She Should Have Been

The pairing of Maggie and Lucy brings a touch of the gothic into George Eliot’s realist novel The Mill on the Floss. Maggie and Lucy fulfill the gothic trope of doubling and help teach us what to fear and how to avoid it. Lucy represents the good, the normal, the idealized daughter and woman. Maggie’s character is the uncanny double and she fails to fulfill her place in society.

Maggie Tulliver is bright, bold, and ambitious, characteristics which make her “too ‘cute for a woman” (Book 1 Ch. 1). Maggie’s father may prize his daughter’s intelligence, but we see through Mr. Riley’s and Mrs. Tulliver’s perspectives from the very first chapter that this is regarded by most as a shortcoming. In feminine expectations Maggie is “half an idiot,” and is nothing in comparison to Lucy. Where Maggie is “too big a gell, gone nine, and tall of her age to have her hair cut short,” Lucy has “a row o’ curls round her head, an’ not a hair out o’ place” (Book 1 Ch. 1). Lucy succeeds where Maggie fails, and the two are immediately compared as the right and wrong version of a young lady. From a bildungsroman perspective, Lucy represents the finalized version of what Maggie must become to accomplish her personal transformation.

The contrast between the two women becomes a central focus during Maggie’s stay with Lucy in the sixth book. Stephen recognizes Lucy as “accomplished, gentle, affectionate, and not stupid” and thus considers her “a little darling, and exactly the sort of woman he had always most admired” (Book 6 Ch. 1). Maggie is certainly not stupid but her intelligence categorizes her as the sort of “remarkable rarity” (Book 6 Ch. 1) or “peculiarity of character” (Book 6 Ch. 2) which makes a woman threatening and unsuitable for marriage. Stephen’s initial judgements show societal expectations of femininity and courtship.

In addition to doubling, the gothic also often includes some transgression of the characters over a boundary, which leads to punishment. In The Mill on the Floss, this is Stephen’s preference for Maggie over Lucy. His choice flies in the face of what society values in woman and is also a transgression over the boundary of social class. The result is “the flood,–that awful visitation of God” which wipes away the town and Maggie herself (Book 7 Ch. 5).

We are told in the epilogue that “nature repairs her ravishes,” signifying that the flood was an intentional cleansing of some malignancy – perhaps the threat of a woman with a sharp mind and a man willing to upend the hierarchy. Stephen visits Maggie’s grave “with a sweet face beside him,” showing that he has chosen a more suitable mate. After nature’s cleansing, one half of the double has been wiped away, leaving us with who we can only infer is Lucy. Lucy, the woman Stephen should have been with all along, the female upholding submission and tranquility, the girl Maggie should have been.

The Greater Good

By the time she finishes dragging her main characters around the world, locked in a life or death chase and traps them in ice, Mary Shelley has lost all subtleties. The question of Victor’s duty drops all drama and he comes straight out with it: “I created a rational creature and was bound toward him to assure… his happiness and wellbeing. This was my duty” (Ch. 24). The question has been answered – creation begets responsibility to the creation from the creator.

Yet, what comes next spins the dial completely. “My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention,” Victor says (Ch. 24). While Victor does have an obligation to take care of the monster as his creation, he must look after his fellow man first. Victor refuses to create a “race of devils” in order to “buy [his] own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race” (Ch. 20). But this refusal is not without bloodshed; Victor loses William, Justine, Henry, Elizabeth, and his father for doing so. He has to sacrifice his duty to the monster and to everyone he loves in order to protect everyone else.

Walton’s actions also reinforce the idea that one’s duty to mankind is primeval. Although it might appear to be the fulfillment of his quest, Walton’s primary duty is to secure the safety of his crew. This charge is complicated by Victor’s dying declaration for Walton to “undertake [his] unfinished work,” which bequeaths him with the duty of killing the creature (Ch. 24). These duties are in immediate conflict, as pressing on to kill the creature would place the crew in almost certainly fatal conditions. Therefore, Victor advises “the well balancing of what you may esteem your duties” (Ch. 24).

Walton’s choice is less blatant than Victor’s. Whereas Victor makes a conscience decision and carries this out through action, Walton’s choice is conveyed by his inaction. He consents to return to England in order to return his men to safety. When faced with killing the monster, the “duty of obeying the dying request of [his] friend in destroying his enemy, were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion” (Ch. 24). Considering that Walton has spent almost the entire story listening and scribing, conscious suspension of action is as much as we can expect from his character. It is certainly enough to serve as the “well balancing” of his duty to his crewmen as above that of his duty to Victor.

Man has a duty to those he loves and those he creates. He must nurture them and protect them, beyond anyone or anything, but the balance shifts when the stakes expand. Sacrifices must be made for the greater good when the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.

The Evolution of Emma

Jane Austen’s nineteenth century novel Emma is an excellent example of a bildungsroman. The novel begins at a catalytic moment in Emma’s life, just after her governess marries. While Emma never leaves the nest, Mrs. Weston’s departure represents the removal of direct oversight from her life. Now Emma must make her own choices and act independently. Initially, Emma uses her freedom and power to control and manipulate the lives of others. While she claims to act for the good of others, her projects revolve around her own self-interest by fulfilling her inescapable boredom. Her lack of perception and maturity coupled with an overabundance of self-confidence makes Emma a powerful but immature driver of the social scene of Highbury. As described by Mr. Knightley, Emma is “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child” (Vol. 1 Ch. 12).

Several events mark the evolution of Emma from childishness to maturity. The first is when Emma misreads Mr. Elton’s attachments not towards Harriet but towards herself. Through this experience, of which “every part of it brought pain and humiliation,” she learns that she is fallible and that her actions can have ruinous consequences (Vol. I Ch. 16).

Another incident is when Emma tests and finds her limits when she is cruel to Mrs. Bates at Box Hill. In a poignant, reflective moment after the incident, Emma realizes “she had been often remiss, her conscience told her so… scornful, ungracious” (Vol. 2 Ch. 8). With this epiphany she decides to “call upon [Mrs. Bates] the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse” (Vol. 2 Ch. 8). Emma’s walk to Mrs. Bates’ door represents her first steps into adulthood. Here we see Emma humbled to the point of apologizing to a women she previously considered ridiculous and pitiable. Yet the focus – for once – is not on Emma’s externalities, such as beauty or position, but on the internal emotions of another.

Finally, Emma realizes her feelings for her longtime friend and confidant Mr. Knightley. This realization marks Emma’s newfound ability to be introspective. In a final act of maturity, Emma even decides to postpone her marriage until her father passes so she may be able to care for him and make his last days pleasant. Emma exchanges her ignorance and selfishness for self-sacrifice and perception. Mr. Knightley even remarks that Emma is “materially changed” (Vol. 3 Ch. 18). This evolution marks the novel Emma as a clear and powerful nineteenth century bildungsroman.