The Tragedy of the Misunderstood Mrs. Clare

In considering whether or not Hardy’s novel is a tragedy, we must recognize that the most common trait of a tragedy is the steady decline of a main character over the course of an agonizing and unfortunate journey. This is most popularly represented in Shakespeare’s stage tragedies: the steady decay of the mad King Lear, or the horrible deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Hardy incorporates this sorrowful journey for his main character Tess, as well as her fateful demise at the novel’s end. But he captures this tragic story while still maintaining a sense of realism that had existed throughout the 19th century. He does so by creating a character that is totally misunderstood by society, and it is this element of misunderstanding from society that seems to have grown over the course of realism in the 19th century that reaches its full tragic potential in Tess.

To be frank, Tess’ entire story is the epitome of depressing. When your main character is brutally raped at the end of Phase One, it is a pretty clear indicator that they will be leading a tragic life. Hardy even prefaces this scene by asking “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” (104). This simple question is a notion that there is a devoid of “angelic protection” from Tess’s life. She has no positive force watching out for her, meaning that her life is going to be full of suffering all the way up to her inevitable death at the novel’s end. Even more tragic regarding her death, is that it is the price she must pay for the sake of her “angelic covering.” Her situation is impossible; in Hardy’s world, Tess is not allowed to be happy. Before she is taken away from Angel, she states, “I am almost glad… This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough” (395). Angel symbolizes Tess’s happiness, and the only way she can ultimately be with him is once she has essentially sacrificed away her own life.

With regards to Tess and society, Hardy uses the tragic elements to increase a misunderstanding amongst herself and those around her. There is nothing more agonizing than watching Tess have to put on an act to everyone because her husband has abandoned her. “Who would think I was Mrs. Angel Clare… I don’t wish people to think who I am by marriage, or that I am married at all; it would be so awkward while I lead my present life” (291-92). She must try to fake it in front of society, and even in front of her family. This is evident in the scene when Tess returns home after Angel has left her. “‘D’ye think he really have married her? – or is it like the first-‘ Poor Tess, who had heard as far as this, could not bear no more” (270). Here, Hardy uses the tragic element of Tess’s situation to show that even her family doubts her innocent nature. She is secluded from all of society and Hardy’s tragic truth about Tess is that her purity is misunderstood. She cannot be what love intends her to be (Mrs. Clare) because society says that her purity already belongs to d’Urberville.

Novelists we read earlier in the century seemed to have an evolving tragic element that grew over the course of their realism. For instance, Jane Austen’s novel early in the 19th century had Emma dealing with serious relational flaws in her society. However, the novel’s ending has a comedic tone in that she eventually makes peace with those she clashes with, and everyone ends up happily ever after. Moving deeper into the century, George Eliot took Maggie’s relational circumstances with Philip Waken and Stephen Guest and used society’s misunderstanding to isolate Maggie, and while she did die tragically at the end, there was a redeeming grace for her in that she died trying to save her brother. Hardy brings the hammer home by bringing this tragic realism to its total fruition. There is no saving grace for Tess. She is killed by society because she killed her rapist; there is no greater misunderstanding left unjustified.

The Marriage Debate in The Odd Women

In Chapter X of The Odd Women, Rhoda Nunn, Mary Barfoot and Everard Barfoot engage in a conversation that illuminates the social issue of the woman being empowered to support herself outside of the institution of marriage. Miss Barfoot would “have no girl, however wealthy her parents, grow up without a profession.” Rhoda Nunn takes this a step further, stating she “would have girls taught that marriage is a thing to be avoided rather than hoped for… that for the majority of women marriage means a disgrace.” She claims that “when all women… are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honorable to them.” In response, Everard Barfoot is left “seemingly impressed” by Miss Nunn (120). This conversation not only reveals certain motives of each of these characters, but also indicates the idea that marriage had become a dishonorable system.

Miss Barfoot’s statement that she would have no girl grow up without a profession, regardless of class, reflects her actions throughout the novel. She proves this in her treatment of Bella Royston. Bella was the definition of failure in Miss Barfoot’s system, the lowest of girls, yet still Miss Barfoot did everything in her power to support Bella and try to train her up. And it was not because she wanted Bella to be as successful as men in the workplace, but because she genuinely loved and cared about Bella. In her speech after Bella dies, Miss Barfoot proclaims: “I am not chiefly anxious that you should eaarn money, but that women in general shall become rational and responsible human beings” (152). Miss Barfoot is not about financial gain, only character growth.

Rhoda on the other hand is radical for the independence of woman. She has no desire for marriage and believes that women are most likely to thrive independently if they learn to do so without relying on a husband. We learn later that “no man had ever been tempted to (love her)… she derived satisfaction from this thought, using it to strengthen her life’s purpose” (163). Rhoda’s viewpoints on this social issue seem to be driven by her personal experience. Yet the “impressed” Everard mentioned above, will have influence in faltering these hardened beliefs.

Everard finds Rhoda “attractive both physically and mentally” (162) and is intrigued to see “how she received a declaration of love” (162). Yet his impressions of her and curiosities to try to tempt her only lead to both of them falling for the other. Ultimately, this curiosity lets them both down, as they miss their chance of love.

This social issue seems to be depicted as being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Miss Barfoot seeks to redeem the odd women by providing them a profession to support them in the harsh world of singleness. Rhoda Nunn wants to empower women so that their profession will keep them from settling into a confined marriage. Either way, both suggest that the solution to the issue is the training up of women in order to form a society of capable, rational and responsible individuals who are capable of living on their own.

Pip’s Bildungsroman

There are many characters in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who undergo a drastic development over the course of the novel. Miss Havisham’s bitterness and desires for vengeance are eventually softened by her sympathies towards the love-sick Pip. Estella also arguably grows out of her deceptive treatment of men into a better understanding of Pip’s feelings towards her. However, none develop more so than the central character Pip. His bildungsroman is measured specifically in the quality of his relationships with both Joe and Magwitch, and in how these relationships come to settle his great expectations.

Once Pip establishes himself at Satis House, an awareness in him is sparked regarding the poverty of his best friend Joe. He refers to Joe as “aggravating” (133) when he first takes him to meet Miss Havisham. Through his interactions at Satis House, specifically from the judgement he receives from Estella, Pip becomes aware of this societal distance between himself and the gentleman he wants to be. He sees Joe as holding him back. “I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society” (142). When Pip does miraculously come into the gentleman class he so desperately has desired, he discards Joe without a second thought. “O dear good Joe, whom I was so ready to leave and so unthankful to” (173).

Ironically, Pip probably looks even more downward upon the man who gave him the money that pulled him out of the poverty class. When Magwitch reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor, Pip is absolutely abhorred. “With my heart beating like a heavy hammer of disordered action… all the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces” (345). Pip thinks even worse of his benefactor than he does of the poverty class. There is nothing worse to him than this realization of where his money has come from.

Yet by novel’s end, both of these relationships are mended by the humility that Pip finds over the course of his journey. He comes to understand the true loyalty that Joe embodied towards him. “I had never been struck at so keenly, for my thanklessness to Joe… my heart was deeply and most deservedly humbled” (442). This newfound humility then spills over in his relationship to his benefactor. When Magwitch is ultimately taken away in chains, Pip tells him, “I will never stir from your side… Please God, I will be as true to you, as you have been to me!” (468). The loyalty Pip learns from Joe, ultimately spills over in his affections towards Magwitch.

This humility instilled in Pip ultimately heals him of the expectations that have consistently misled him through life. These expectations caused him to be ignorant of all Joe meant to him. They also deceived him of the identity of his true benefactor, and thus caused him to create a fantasy in his mind of the romance awaiting him. Humility is the great moral that Pip learns in his story. His bildungsroman is fully realized in the contented state in which he accepts an honest job rather than being a beneficiary, as well as his contentment in bachelorhood (until Estella conveniently shows up in the garden at the end and reveals that her husband died, but that’s another matter).

Resolution in the Ending of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss concludes with an ending that could largely be labeled unsatisfying to most readers. Very rarely is a reader content when the novel’s two main characters are suddenly and abruptly swept away and drowned by a flood that comes out of nowhere. However, when considering the grand pattern of the novel, it can be argued that Tom’s and Maggie’s demise actually provides resolution to their relationship as well as to their character arcs. And though the reader is given little preparation for the ending, this falls in line with the realist nature of the novel.

A reoccurring element in Eliot’s novel is the constant disagreement of ethics between Tom and Maggie, followed by their reuniting during times of great strife. In Book Five, Chapter Five, Tom and Maggie have a great dispute over Maggie’s relationship with Philip that largely highlights their differing emotions and opinions highly influenced by their placement in society based on their gender. Yet this book ends with their reconciliation after their father passes away, “and they clung and wept together” (372 Broadview Version). In Book Seven, the ending of the novel perfectly replicates this pattern in their relationship. They are divided by Tom’s rejection of Maggie after the incident with Stephen, “I wash my hands of you for ever. You don’t belong to me” (483) in the first chapter of Book Seven. Then in the conclusion of Chapter Five, after they are drowned in an “embrace never to be parted” (517), their tomb reads, “In their death they were not divided” (518). In this way, the ending perfectly resolves the relationship between Tom and Maggie over the course of the novel.

The greatest conflict one might have with the ending is the lack of preparation the reader is given. Perhaps the most preparation we are given is through Maggie’s internal conflict with life right before the floodwaters come. “But how long it will be before death comes!… Am I to struggle and fall and repent again? Has life other trials for me still?” (511). One might suggest that Eliot ironically grants Maggie’s wish. But it is hard to argue, other than for Maggie’s consistent sorrowful tones, that the reader is prepared for the death of such young characters.

Yet despite this lack of preparation, an argument can still be made for the ending bringing a satisfying closure to the novel. In Book Six, Chapter Six, Eliot makes an intriguing comment about Maggie’s fate. “Maggie’s destiny, then, is at present hidden, and we must wait for it to reveal itself like the course of an unmapped river” 409). This is undoubtedly the closest warning the reader is given about Maggie’s fate. It is ambiguous, but realistic. Outside forces are going to have their way with the heroine, no matter what the reader thinks of her character. We are helpless, just as Maggie is helpless, of the fates inflicted upon us by the outer world.


The Gothic Nature of the Monster in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein implements many elements of the gothic genre in order to enhance her horror story. The two elements that animate this genre within the text the most are isolation of characters and the dark, gloomy settings where they are isolated. Shelley also incorporates scenes containing a sublime nature (i.e. Mont Blanc scene) in order to make the monster appear more bizarre; however the scenes where he appears in a gothic setting provide a greater sense of terror for the reader, and increases the reader’s sense of his looming presence and vengeful spirit.

A scene where this incorporation is most powerful occurs in Volume III, Chapter 3 (174-175 Broadview). Victor sits alone in his lab on an island in Scotland, and after some internal contemplation, comes to the conclusion that he must take a stand and refuse the monster a companion. Yet to understand the significance of this setting, one must consider the events leading up.

In Volume I, Chapter 6, Victor has returned to the scene of the crime where his brother William was killed. “It was completely dark… I saw lightnings playing… The storm appeared… The heavens were clouded… I soon felt rain… its violence quickly increased” (8). The scene clearly holds a dark, gothic tone to it. “A flash of lightning illuminated the object” (9). This is the first time Victor has scene the monster since he created it, and considering this is where the murder happened, Victor instantly understands that his creation is an evil murderer.

Moving forward to Volume II, Chapter IX, the monster makes a promise to Victor. “I shall watch their progress with unutterable anxiety; and fear not but that when you are ready I shall appear” (159). This statement indicates to Victor that the monster will always be looming about, watching him. As Victor advances in the story, the reader always feels Victor’s own sense that he is being watched.

Returning to Victor’s lab, we encounter the monster when Victor looks up, and “by the light of the moon, the daemon at the casement… his countenance expressed the utmost extent of malice and treachery” (174). The monster perches above Victor, watching over him as if he were god. The “light of the moon” description is a key element in this gothic setting, and causes the monster to appear more looming. Victor must recall seeing the same object by the lightning earlier in the storm. And the fact that the monster is faithful to his promise gives him an omnipresence that makes him all the more terrifying.

The monster is a more effective character when he appears in these dark and gloomy settings. Sure, there is a sense of awe and grandeur when Victor encounters him on Mont Blanc amidst the beauty of nature. But the monster is Victor’s tormenter; a demon to haunt him until he has his vengeance. The essence of this horror is only captured when the monster appears in the gothic nature.


Emma’s Moral Stagnation in a Realist Novel

At the beginning of Emma, the reader is introduced to a character that is quite sure of herself. Emma Woodhouse prances around the small country town of Highbury as if she contains all of life’s mysteries concerning love and matching. In perspective, it appears that Emma, who does nothing in life other than look after her father, is just plain bored. She has nothing better to do but try to find a pair for everyone in her circle. She needs an enhancement in life. Levine would refer to this in his essay on Realism as “valuing the ordinary as the touchstone of human experience” (22). Jane Austen’s Emma is an example of a late 18th century novel that transitions into a realist novel that was more common of the 19th century.

Falling under the notion of Realism is the Bildungsroman; the idea that the main character in a novel grows or develops over time. Many arguments could be made for Emma’s growth. For example, she comes to be more open to love as the novel progresses. Also, her judgments of Jane Fairfax evolve over the course of the story. But in the case of her relationship with Harriet Smith, Emma’s morals seem conflicted. She does feel some guilt for her role in causing the consistent disappointments of her friend. But by the novel’s end, Emma has not allowed herself any conviction over this guilt, and rather tries to do away with her friend to London while she enjoys the love of her friend’s current crush, Mr. Knightly.

In Volume One, Emma reflects on her attempts to match Harriet and Mr. Elton. She acknowledges that it was, “foolish.. wrong, to take so active a part in bringing two people together” (154, Broadview version). Yet she continues to try to find a match for Harriet, until Harriet begins to fancy Mr. Knightly and Emma decides that she actually is in love with Knightly. After realizing he loves her back, instead of being truthful with her friend, she guiltily sends her away so that “she could talk, and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by… guilt, of something most painful, which has haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart was near her” (381).

Over the course of the novel, Emma’s moral convictions remain stagnant. There is no development to her character that indicates she has become a better person. While she does charitably look after the better interests of Harriet, she still considers Harriet lesser than herself and treats her accordingly.

Emma values the simplicity of matching with extreme ordinance, and Austen so cleverly crafts a work of fiction that simplifies the social conflicts which were familiar at this time. But by simplifying these conflicts, Austen masterfully unveiled purposes of judgment, love, gossip, fears and more. Yet her protagonist sadly grows very little as a human being, leaving this text a realist novel that lacks bildungsroman.