Rape Culture in the 19th Century

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?” cried Tess, our protagonist, desperately trying to blame someone for her rape (112). Even if it was Alec’s actions, Tess absolutely believes that there was some fault in her for it, even if we know she’s not to blame for Alec’s actions. Did the 19th century audience believe the same, though? How could they, when Tess herself is trying to explain to her mother why she ‘hadn’t been more careful’? And later, to Angel, she repeats that she was “a child when it happened” (246), with no knowledge of men and their awful ways, as if she’s trying to excuse herself of blame. Because men are naturally awful, apparently, and women have to be smart or else it’s their fault. (125 years later, and I can recall arguments I’ve had where the other side argued the same. If I had a mind to be cynical, I could have a field day.) This is what Tess believes, and this is what pretty much all characters in the novel believe, so presumably our 19th century audience thinks the same.

Our author and narrator make their stance on Tess quite clear: she is a pure woman, and stays so throughout the novel (even after she murders someone (383), which is a totally questionable move, but okay, sure). Pretty much everyone else in the novel, however, including Tess herself, disagrees. The tension between narrator and characters plays into the author’s commentary on society and societal expectations, which he thinks are narrow and incorrect. He doesn’t outright attack the rape culture of the time (as our protagonist herself is a part of it), but he does try to undermine it by making the audience empathize with Tess and her unfortunate situation. If they don’t believe she deserved her lot in life, then how could they think her impure? When Angel adopts this way of thinking (343), and agrees that Tess is still a pure woman at the end of the novel, we’re meant to be happy that the couple can get back together. Of course, they can’t be, because tragedy societal expectations say Tess has to be with Alec now that he’s ‘won her back’ (379). Alec says Tess and he were meant to be together by natural law in the first place (336), and Tess herself has had the same thought many a time (162; 195; 252). How can the true love couple be together now? Murder, obviously They can’t, and the novel ends with Tess executed and Angel mourning her – but also with him moving on and leaving her behind (398), because this is the tragedy of Tess, not of Tess-and-Angel.

Angel is depicted as a completely stand-up kind of guy – he’s obviously never someone who would rape anyone, which already puts him ahead of Alec and apparently a lot of other men. Angel is “a man with a conscience” – meaning he sees Tess as a person, with a life as “great a dimension” as his own (177), an unfortunately rare quality for the time since our narrator makes the point of remarking upon it. I’d say this puts him in the same league as Jane Austen’s heroes, who are all pretty much wonderfully moral human beings and end up marrying the heroines of her novels. Of course, he also “plunged into eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger” (241), so he’s not actually as perfect as an Austen hero. Maybe that’s why Austen’s novels end with weddings and this novel ended in death. And maybe that’s also why it takes Angel so long to figure out that Tess’s ‘actions’ (like she had any choice) didn’t actually taint her, because beauty is in the “aims and impulses” of a person (343). Meaning, I think, that Angel’s finally reached the point in his life where he can say ‘she meant well’, and judge her on that (I believe this is stage 3 of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development). I’d definitely rather have a Darcy or Knightly any day, but Tess is stuck in love with a guy named Angel (a name I think is meant to be unironic), who tragically takes too long to get his act together.

The last corner of this awful love triangle is Alec, who was way too creepy in Phase 1 than I’m comfortable spelling out. No one else seemed to notice, except maybe his ma, who did nothing. He’s still creepy in Phase 6, when we meet him again. He literally asks her to swear to him that she “will never tempt [him] – by [her] charms of ways” (317). ‘It’s all on you, for making sure I behave’ is what he’s actually saying. And Tess, poor Tess, swears, and then tries to get him to leave her alone. (I’d like to take this moment to say that, when she slapped him with her “warrior’s” gauntlet and he started bleeding (335)? That was really, really satisfying. I was very proud.) When he ‘won her back,’ she actually liked him at that point. She didn’t hate him until Angel came, and she realized that Alec had her trapped. She was happy with him before that, though, and. It’s a very awful situation, being told you should be with your rapist and believing it. She probably shouldn’t have murdered him (not just because murder is wrong but also because he wasn’t worth losing her life to), but I can see how a woman in a culture like that could have felt desperate enough to do it. (Still murder, though.)

Narrator and Narration in The Odd Women

When we start our story with Doctor Madden, he talks a lot about his daughters (naturally). There’s a little 15 year old girl who’s visiting at the moment – she makes him a bit uncomfortable with her “radical notions” (Chapter 1), so he doesn’t really invite conversation with her, but she’s a friend of his daughters, and that warrants invitations to dinner. His oldest daughter occupies his thoughts more, because she’s his confidant to his hopes and dreams for the family. Quite clearly, in Doctor Madden’s view, Rhoda Nunn is the periphery character, while Alice Madden will have center (or slightly off-center) stage. Then he dies, and our narrator switches – or, perhaps more accurately, our narrator changes focus, and our narration shifts. By the end of the novel, we know that Rhoda is the star, and Alice is a background character (who spends most of the novel not there). But is that true? Can there be a protagonist in a novel where overlapping narrations and changing perspectives muddle things up to the point where we have to figure things out for ourselves?

Our narrator doesn’t have much of a personality – he flits from character to character, and sometimes to outside-of-character, such as our awareness of Rhoda’s witnessing Everard’s confidence with Monica, without glimpsing her thoughts (but oh, we can guess them) (Chapter 18). We are often introduced to a character several times, sometimes before we come to them ourselves. For example, we see Monica the five-year-old from her father’s eyes (Chapter 1), Monica the twenty-year-old from her sisters’ comments (Chapter 2), and Monica herself from her own views of her life and of others’ (Chapter 4). We don’t stop there, however. We get her from Miss Barfoot (Chapter 6), Rhoda (Chapter 7), and Everard, who is the first to introduce us to her as “Mrs. Widdowson” (Chapter 14). Monica has to reintroduce herself to us as Mrs. Widdowson, too (Chapter 16). So many different views of a character, and not all can agree. She’s merely on the periphery of Everard’s story – a sad creature, with a sad story, who he decides to trust. Rhoda doesn’t think of her at all, or thinks very little of her (at least until the end). Her sisters think her lucky, then stubborn; her husband thinks her both perfect and confounding, then a liar. We know her better, but only because we’ve heard her narration, which we know we can trust in relation to her own thoughts and actions (at least, when she’s honest with herself). In relation to other characters, though, how much does she really know?

She and Rhoda often share the spotlight, as side-characters in each other’s stories, and these narration shifts emphasize, I think, the realism of this novel. Little worlds are contained to their star player, and outside of themselves they are smaller, and their problems smaller (if they exist at all). We have so many big characters, whose perspectives shape so much of the narrative, but our narrator also gives us smaller characters, like Virginia, who’s unnamed drinking problem exists from almost the beginning, and is obvious to us in the background of other narrations. She is very much a realist element, too, because she’s so, so small in the narratives we’re given to focus on, but still very much there, with her own problems, which go unnoticed for so long. And we know this problem before so many of the ‘main’ characters do, just as we know about Rhoda’s misunderstanding and Everard and Monica’s innocence.

We are left in the dark about some things, however. Miss Barfoot’s feelings for her cousin she was very good to never show us until it was most convenient (and maybe most shocking) (Chapter 21). Rhoda, evidently, was also aware, because she knew Miss Barfoot so well as to read her manner. This just shows us that, while in some ways we’re more knowledgeable about both characters and situation than the characters in the book, we actually don’t know everything. We think we’re learning all about them, but still they manage to hide themselves from us.

I think Gissing uses his narrators to comment on society, with all its limitations. The multiple introductions to a character, seen through so many eyes; the differing narrations, that are limited to the one person at their center; the lack of character understanding, on both our behalf and on theirs. We can’t know each other, not wholly and perfectly. Maybe not even at all. Misunderstandings will abound, and we can see why, but we also can’t stop it. We have characters we focus more on than others in this story, but we also have characters that all matter in their own narrations. I don’t think there can be a protagonist, anymore than there can be one in life, because there’s no single narration, and no narration agrees with another on the main problem, and the main character with it.

Cain and Abel

Our first introduction paragraph to Orlick compares him to the Biblical Cain (Vol 1, Ch 15), and this is the only time Cain is mentioned in the novel. This might not have been a noteworthy comparison (the quick mention merely serves to emphasize Orlick’s general skeeziness) if there hadn’t been a character named Abel that was also in the story. The story of Cain and Abel is a well-known story of murder and brotherhood, and involves the first humans born to a sinful and broken world. Cain might have only been referenced once, but Orlick exists throughout the novel, just as Abel does. Both have their important roles to play in this ‘modern’ (19th century) adaptation of the Cain and Abel story, and they do it well, in the background of Pip’s narrative.

Both Abel Magwitch and Orlick are born to the same broken world, fully represented by the unforgiving streets of Britain. We know Magwitch was raised poor, and while we don’t know Orlick’s backstory, he definitely had no prospects of his own. Magwitch definitely had the worse end of it, though. His first memory was him “a-thieving turnips for [his] living” (Vol 3, Ch 3), meaning he was born hungry and at the bottom of the ladder, if he was even on it at all. He committed various petty crimes while Britain’s streets raised him to a man. He tried to work, as people in society should, but no one was “over-ready” to give him a chance (Vol 3, Ch 3). People looked at him as untrustworthy, or maybe even just unworthy of having a place among them.

Orlick is viewed the same way, despite his slightly higher station in life (and wider breadth of opportunities) compared to Magwitch. Orlick has a good, stable job – has actually had it for so long he’s called a journeyman blacksmith. He’s a part of society the way Magwitch was often denied. But Orlick “slouches” into work like it’s a “mere accident” (Vol 1, Ch 15), and is jealous of Pip in all things. He’s an unpleasant fellow to be around, and he and Joe actually get into a fight (and Joe never fights with anyone). Our narrator never liked him, never felt comfortable around him, and his unease is proved correct at the end when Orlick tries to murder him and reveals that he was the one to hurt Pip’s sister (Vol 3, Ch 14). We very clearly should not like or sympathize with Orlick.

Magwitch had to steal to survive, and he was always in and out of jail, and we are very clearly meant to sympathize with him. Our narrator even felt “great pity” for him back when he was ashamed of him (Vol 3, Ch 3), and the feeling is only stronger at the end, when Pip stays by him the whole time, and saw him “only as a man,” not a criminal (Vol 3, Ch 15). Magwitch was a convict, and has pretty much always been, but society forced him to be. Even after that, he was still a good, simple person, which is why it’s easy for us to sympathize with him. He did his best to help Pip raise in station and life out of gratitude for Pip’s kindness (probably other motivations, too), doing everything “for him” (Vol 2, Ch 20). Even back at the beginning he tried to keep Pip out of trouble by saying he stole the food himself (Vol 1, Ch 5).

This adaptation of Cain and Abel has both looked upon with disgust by society as a whole, but while Orlick’s reception was because of his actual character, Magwitch’s was for circumstances beyond his control. Orlick was just as jealous of Pip as Cain was of Abel, and refused to take any responsibility for his own shortcomings, blaming Pip for Biddy’s disgust and even his attack on Mrs. Gargery (Vol 3, Ch 14), and this is why he tried to murder him. Our narrator showed us that Magwitch was just as good as his namesake, and felt nothing but affection and generosity towards Pip (Vol 3, Ch 15). And just like their counterparts, Orlick lives on, in jail but likely to get out eventually and continue to wreak his awful havoc, and Magwitch dies, sentenced to death by society.

Maybe that’s Dickens’ whole point – not just that Orlick was Cain, though he offered a nice foil to Magwitch by the comparison. But it was society that sentenced this Abel to death, not Orlick (though Orlick wanted it, since it would hurt Pip). Society is Cain, too – society failed Abel, by forcing him into criminal activities and refusing to take responsibility for the social dissonance that came from his existence. Society looked at him and said ‘Am I his keeper?’ Magwitch was murdered, and in this comparison Dickens is saying yes, society is his keeper, and their failure is murder. Good people are dying, and suffering, and they’re pushed into it, just like Abel was led out into the field. When the people’s jury looked at Magwitch and compared him to Compeyson, they made the wrong comparisons, and approved of the wrong man (Vol 3, Ch 3). England prided itself on its great civilization, but as our narrator notes, when you get down to it it’s just “ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty” (Vol 2, Ch 1). We are all Cains, is Dickens message here, and we are killing the good people of the world.

Suffering and Love and Abuse, for Maggie in Mill on the Floss

Maggie had a terribly awful, emotionally abusive childhood. Her mother implies that she would rather have “that pretty child” Lucy as her daughter (57), and literally tells Maggie “don’t make yourself so ugly” (125). Maggie’s aunts, especially her vocal Aunt Glegg, also talk often about how queer and naughty a girl she is. Both her mother and her brother also threaten to ‘not love her anymore’ if she doesn’t act as she should (71; 79). Any validation she does receive is usually from her father, who always qualifies his praise of her with “it’s bad – it’s bad…a woman’s no business wi’ being clever” (61). In an unhealthy environment such as this, it’s no wonder that Maggie treats her dolls as she does, hating them one moment and “lavishing” them with affection the next (63). She has an inner conflict between self-hate and a desperate need for affection. She would have actually starved herself that night in the attic if she wasn’t already so starved for affection that she needed people (82). Maggie swings back and forth between two extremes – a belief that she should suffer, and a longing for love.

Then poor Maggie is given a book with the teachings of St. Thomas of Kempis, and she gleams the wrong message. She thinks she shouldn’t have any wants or desires – that her self-value lies in denying herself and sacrificing for others. She begins to persuade herself that she is content with the “hardness” of those around her (313), and that she doesn’t really need anything, even their love. This is wrong of her, for two major reasons. First, St. Thomas’ message was one of accepting sorrow, and enduring it willingly, not of denying it’s existence. This is the core of Catholicism, which, of course, is the denomination St. Thomas belongs to, but there’s no one in Anglican England to teach her this. Second, what she attempts is actually impossible, which is why she fails so awfully at it. No one can deny a basic want like love and claim that they’re fine without it – it’s a performance, one of “willfulness…[and] pride” (313), and it can only create resentment (462), not contentment. Poor Maggie’s new philosophy only builds on her internal abuse – she now has constant reason to call herself a selfish, naughty girl, for wanting things like affection and books and friendship (341). She needs her suffering to be valid, to mean something beyond the apparent message that she is unworthy of love, because if her suffering doesn’t mean anything, then does she? She takes solace in the idea that suffering is strength, but in doing so she pushes her inner self further and further away. If she has any concept of self-love it is that it’s a bad, selfish thing.

Then Lucy reenters the story. She listens to Maggie’s secret about Philip, and the Red Deeps talks, and her lost friendship. Maggie “had never before known the relief of such an outpouring” (396) – she’d never had a friend and peer who she told her sorrows to. She never even owned her sorrows to Philip, because she was still in her self-denial stage. But here with Lucy she is tired, and so, so just wants to matter. And Lucy listens, and in doing so tells Maggie that yes, her suffering meant something. Lucy knows that Maggie matters as simply as she breathes, because Lucy has a rare quality, in that she loves and cares for “other women” (380), as if they were people.

When Maggie comes back to St. Ogg’s without so much as a “trousseau” (488), she is scorned by her town and society. But here in this last book, Maggie also has others who listen to her, and validate her, and tell her she is loved. Her mother, who never understood her and never tried to, willingly goes into exile with her (she “[has] a mother” where she no longer has a brother (484)). Bob Jakin, who has never been anything but kind and respectful towards her, takes her in, and so do his wife and mother (he names his child after her (486) – there’s no greater proof of love, not to me). Aunt Glegg, who was always the worst, and loudest, of her aunts, refuses to blame her, and is more than willing to verbally slay anyone who says Maggie’s at fault (496). Finally, when Maggie saves Tom, in that moment both brother and sister realize Maggie’s worth (I believe Newton makes this argument, too). Maggie spent so much of her life conflicted and suffering, but that suffering meant something because she meant something. She was loved, even if it took time for people to show it.

Lightning and Fire

The monster and Victor both have first memories in the natural world that shape them quite profoundly – Victor has his lightning storm, with the complete destruction of a tree, and the monster has his fire, which warms him while it destroys and burns. Victor’s lightning storm is sublime, for he is in awe of as much as he is terrified by its destructive power. It is beautiful, untamed nature. The monster’s fire is in contrast, for although nature can make fire, it is generally thought of as a tool of man. And like men, it is capable of both good and bad, life and death.

Victor’s lightning storm was first witnessed by him when he was fifteen years old (Vol. I, Ch. I). It ended in a tree’s ruin; “nothing remained but a blasted stump.” Victor was enraptured by this happening, that he went into the science field because of his wish to understand its complete destruction. He wanted to create something equal to the grandeur of the storm, which was why he valued alchemy over natural philosophy (Vol. I, Ch. II). In his mind’s eye Victor only saw that storm, and natural philosophy seemed to attempt to explain the realities of it when what he wanted was “boundless grandeur” to emulate. The next lightning storm Victor relates to us is in Vol. I, Ch. VI, when he sees the monster for the first time since the night he created him. Victor still sees the sublime in the storm, that it is “beautiful yet terrific,” but the destruction he sees this night comes from the creation he made in his dreams of majesty. His monster, a being himself created from other beings destroyed, is here at the scene of his first murder. Victor succeeded in his grand scheme – he made a monster amazing in its impossible life and terrifying in its complete destruction. And it will teach Victor the understanding of complete destruction, by killing all those who are dear to him (except brother Ernest, but that’s a different issue). Victor will become the “blasted tree” that first ignited him so (Vol. III, Ch. II), destroyed by his own inspiration.

The monster’s fire is a different matter, though it affects him similarly. He came upon his first fire during his wandering days, when he was discovering his senses and vulnerabilities. He came upon a fire “which had been left” by humans (Vol. II, Ch. III), so a human tool left in nature. He was “overcome with delight” and joy, but touching it brought him pain. “How strange, [he thinks], that the same cause could produce such opposite effects!” He has learned the dichotomy of flame – to save and to hurt. The same can be said of men, he later learns with the DeLaceys. Men could be “so virtuous, and magnificent, [and] yet so vicious and base” (Vol. II, Ch. V). He wondered at the DeLaceys virtue, and grew to loathe their vicious disgust at his appearance. He used his fire to destroy their cottage, where fire had once kept him and the family safe (Vol. II, Ch. VIII). He used man’s tool to destroy, which was the catalyst for his becoming destruction himself. We’ve already talked about he destroys Victor – he is Victor’s lightning bolt, glorious and fatal all at once – but the monster also destroys himself. Just like fire will eat and eat until it extinguishes itself, the monster continued to destroy and destroy, until by the end his “insatiable passion” of rage has left him tired and purposeless (Vol. III, Ch. VII). He resolves to end his life in fire, and will burn himself to ashes to rid the earth of him.

This is Victor and the monster’s relationship with their most defining memories, and I’d like to end with a quick comment on the adaptations of Frankenstein I am more familiar with. In all versions of Frankenstein that I know (since this is my first time reading the book), the monster was created with lightning, and the monster feared fire. While the actual science behind the monster’s creation was purposefully vague in the book, I think that film adaptations of it, which focus on the creation, are right in giving the monster life through lightning, because lightning was Victor’s original inspiration for his lofty goals, and the monster eventually became the lightning that destroyed Victor himself. Similarly, the films I have seen often have the monster as a far simpler creature, who would thus be scared of fire, which brings pain. In these versions I remember, the monster was no murderer, at least not on purpose. A fear of the tool that can be used to destroy fits a monster who is not the destruction his book-self is. The book and the film adaptations are vastly different, but these two big symbols, I think, are done justice.

On the Character of Frank Churchill

In the first volume of Austen’s Emma, Frank Churchill is a character often mentioned and never met. The little town (village?) of Highbury “boasts” of him as one of their own (Vol. I, Ch. II), and he is a popular subject among the gossiping residents, including our heroine and the perfect Mr. Knightly, who’s judge of character is highly respected by all (especially by Emma herself). Slightly ironic, then, is Mr. Knightly’s insistent determination to dislike Frank Churchill before their meeting, which we are led to see is uncharacteristic, even “unworthy” (Vol. 1, Ch. XVIII), of him. Consequently, here at the beginning of volume II I feel we are being called to judge Frank Churchill for ourselves, with the understanding that both of our main sources of judgement (Emma and Mr. Knightly) are too biased to completely trust.

Emma eventually learns her own feelings for Frank Churchill and calms herself to the point where they are just friends in her eyes, and two chapters in volume III from Mr. Knightly’s perspective (Chapters V and VI) nicely explain that, while he is biased, he also has legitimate concerns over Mr. Frank Churchill’s actions toward his two favorite people, Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse, and has reason to suspect him of “double dealing” (Vol. III, Ch V). By this time, we have watched Frank be cruel towards Jane with Emma, with the two of them laughing over her and creating rumors over her supposed unrequited love with Mr. Dixon (oh, Emma and her grand fantasies). Frank Churchill has also demanded Jane play more music when she is recovering from a cold, which make the gallant Mr. Knightly angry on her behalf (Vol. II, Ch. VIII). It comes as quite a shock, then, when we all discover that Jane and Frank are secretly engaged (Vol. III, Ch. X).

Forcing Jane to keep an engagement secret is one thing – everyone can agree that it was an unreasonable decision (Mr. Knightly being the most credible source on the matter, of course (Vol. III, Ch. XIII)). Openly flirting with another woman in front of her, however, is nothing short of cruel, especially when much of this flirting is gossiping about Jane in general. There is also the point of the piano-forte. Frank Churchill sent Jane a rather extravagant gift, but because he sent it anonymously she could not refuse it and send it back, which he knew she would want to do (Vol. III, Ch. XIV). Perhaps in comparison with his flagrant flirting the piano-forte is a small slight, but the fact of the matter is he refused to give her the option of declining the gift. He made her uncomfortable and did so knowingly. I cannot forgive him.

Emma has a realization concerning the difference between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax and their “importance in the world….one was everything, the other nothing” (Vol. III, Ch. VIII). Though she does not really consider Frank’s opinions in relation to this thought, it is a response to Frank’s sudden quitting of Highbury to return to his sickly aunt, which we later realize was a snub toward sickly Jane (the parallels between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax really highlight their differences). I think it illustrates where Jane Fairfax falls in Frank Churchill’s affections, and while I cannot blame him for being worried about money, I also cannot forgive him for worrying about it to the point of neglecting his sick fiancee when he has already purposely hurt her.

Frank Churchill is young, and perhaps he will grow to be a better person after a bildungsroman of his own, especially with a friend like Emma, who is determined to be better and do better by Jane, and who he regards as a sort of sister. For now, however, I find myself disappointed, and wish that there were more consequences for his actions that affected him, when so many affected Jane.