Sequels of Suffering

The opening scenes of Jane Eyre offer an interesting commentary regarding the discourse of nature verses nurture, a query that also imbues the narrative of Wuthering Heights. Like Hindley and Heathcliffe, Jane was raised under the heavy hand of physical and emotional abuse. She, too, experienced bitter estrangement and pure disdain from family members. Yet while Hindley and Healthcliffe suffered under one or two abusers, Jane received such treatment from the whole house. Mrs. Reed, as well as her children and (often) the servants, regarded her a a scape-goat and impressed in her the idea that she was both wicked and “not worthy of notice” (85).

While similar treatment warped and perverted Heathcliffe and Hindley, despite the fact that they were shown love by other household members, it seems for Jane to establish a deeper sense of and thirst for justice.  Wuthering Heights ushers the reader to justify the antagonist’s actions due to their oppression, but Jane proves an anomaly within this schema. If Emily’s Bronte attempts to warrant the effects of abuse on Heathcliffe and Hindley, Charlotte presents an illustration of a women (who would have then been understood as the weaker gender) remaining reputable under persecution. Instead of losing her moral compass, as seems to be the effect of despotism on Heathcliffe and Hindley, Jane’s conscious preserves her and affirms the injustice of her situation as she suffers silently. It seems that nature, namely the sincere sense of right and wrong that all humanity innately knows, prevails over the abusive nurture that Jane experienced at Gateshead. This observation does not neglect the reality and intensity of Hindley and Heathcliffe’s suffering nor the undeniable impact of nurture on children. Yet it demonstrates that, despite oppression, it is possible for the oppressor to maintain their sense of justice and their longing for goodness.

Later on, Helen demonstrates another example of how abuse does not necessarily always bring about the debasement of the abused. This character presents a stark contrast to the Earnshaw boys, for her very oppression actually refines her virtue and integrity, rather than simply preserving it. She responds by forgiving sincerely, again and again, and by returning good for evil. One evening near the fire, after Jane has described her sufferings at Gateshead, Jane advises her new friend: “Would you not be happier if you tried to forget [Mrs. Reed’s] severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in ursine animosity, or registering wrongs” (120). Helen views suffering, an experience to which she is not unaccustomed at Lowood, as an opportunity for patient endurance and a means of sanctification. Perhaps it would have proven interesting to witness a conversations between Heathcliffe, Hindley, and Helen, the latter of whom would calmly, sympathetically entreat her fellow-sufferers just as she did Jane by the fire that night: “It is far better to endure patiently… than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you” (117). For the men of Withering Heights, Helen would have offered timely counsel.

A Desire Disguised

The strange narrative of Nelly Dean poses an interesting question, “What comprises a duty?” Who and what determines its parameters? Is it subjective to the one upon whom it is placed?  Most would say no. Yet, the justification for all of Nelly’s undertakings bank upon duty’s subjectivity to the one upon whom it is placed.

From a young age, Nelly’s mother instills in her a devotion to duty and a caution towards pursuing desire when duty crosses it. As the novel continues, Nelly, fearful of the farmer’s tale that forewarns the danger of desire, extends the framework of her duty as servant of Wuthering Heights to encompass her deepest wishes and, in doing so, quiets her conscience.

Nelly’s understanding of her duty can be summarized as such: to save the Earnshaws from themselves. This responsibility, and her adoption of it, issues originally from Mr. Earnshaw’s sincere remark in his belief that she  was “born to be the salvation of [the] house” (105). Nelly, in turn, banks her life upon this statement. Henceforth, she endeavored to save them, and from that salvation to attain her heart’s yearnings: the love of Hindley. Upon discovering that he is returning with a wife, Nelly walks the moors to clear her head and choose a course of action. Resolving to stay her post, Nelly “tells herself “that [her] prior good influence with [Hindley] and [Heathcliffe] made it [her] duty to stay and bring about peace between them” (237). She later discerns that “in truth it was compounded in equal parts of selfish interest and pride” (237).

As time goes on, contemplations and conversations continue to reveal the latent desires that drive Nelly’s understanding of her duty to Wuthering Heights. When Mr. Earnshaw was dying, Nelly admits her dream of delivering him, through her committed care, from his illness in order to win his approval and thus earn the right to Hindley’s hand in marriage. Later, she likewise acknowledges her initial supposition that, if Hareton embraced her as his mother, Hindley would follow suit and embrace her as his wife.

Several characters challenge her notion of duty, beginning with Heathcliffe, who, as a child, furious at Nelly’s nursing of Heathcliffe, asserted, “it’s all very well to say you were only doing your duty, Nelly,… but you half killed yourself to save him” (110). Likewise, Bodkin urges her to remember that she is not “obliged to keep working” at Wuthering Heights, to which she simply responds of her affection for the residents and their need of her (117).

Nelly’s undertaking to bind Hareton to herself through Elspeth’s means prove telling portent of her muddling of duty for desire. Though her endeavor to sustain his life is honorable, her duty as a servant did not necessarily warrant her actions at Pennington Crag. Instead, they were driven by her deepest wishes, which in turn imbued her view of her role in at Wuthering Heights.

In the end, Nelly concedes what drove her all those years, for what she had wanted “more than anything, was to be one of the Earnshaw’s to be truly a member of their family (447).

Pamela’s Extended Happy Ending

Having concluded Pamela’s correspondence and himself recounted the generally happy fortunes of most the characters in his novel, Richardson declares that he has “brought this little History to a happy Period” (500). Richardson’s approach to ending the novel here would seem to be in line with D.A. Miller’s observation that comic novels are necessarily ended when the troubles are resolved and a happy ending is achieved.

However, many readers may find that Richardson has actually transgressed Miller’s formula quite egregiously. Miller argues that, after a happy ending has been attained, the novelist must stop writing since the happy ending itself is non-narratable. Narrative requires difficulty or conflict, but happiness makes for a stultifying story. To the modern reader of Pamela it might appear that the novel bears out Miller’s thesis quite painfully (for the reader) by negative example. The first three fifths or so of the story are driven by Pamela’s battle of wit and will to preserve her virtue from the lustful Squire B, but after the first three fifths of the novel this issue has been rapidly and implausibly resolved and Pamela has been joined in holy and happy matrimony with the now (allegedly) praiseworthy squire.

However, Richardson does not seem to regard this event as adequately constituting a “happy period” and thus sets about a project for nearly two hundred fifty pages which looks an awful lot like narrating a happy ending and which, in this reader’s humble opinion, attains nearly to the levels of boredom predicted by Miller. Nonetheless, if we clear from our vision the obscuring mists of irritation, it may be possible to determine why Richardson chose to include in the narrative several weeks after the joyous (insert sarcasm) wedding of Pamela and Squire B.

I believe the answer is that Richardson understands himself to be following Miller’s formula, but he considers the essential movement of the novel to be not merely Pamela’s preservation of her virtue or her attainment of love in wedlock. Rather, as Nancy Miller recognizes in “How Novels Think,” the essential movement in Pamela is Pamela’s progress from a lower social position to a higher one. To be sure, this movement is one and the same with the testing and rewarding of Pamela’s virtue (it’s in the title after all), but for Pamela’s virtue to be fully rewarded, as Richardson for reasons probably more religious than aesthetic desired it should be, it is necessary to establish Pamela in her duly earned social promotion.

We can see that this is what Richardson is up to in the latter part of the novel through the several minor sources of tension which occasionally raise the narrative from mind-numbingly dull to marginally interesting. These tensions all involve threats to Pamela’s happiness and especially to her acceptance in her newly elevated social status. Much of the narrative is dedicated to revealing whether Pamela was accepted by her Lincolnshire neighbors (no real tension there), by Lady Davers (a refreshing amount of tension!), and finally her Bedfordshire neighbors (little more than a smidgeon). Most of these obstacles are overcome quite simply through the sheer magnitude of Pamela’s virtue, and any confrontation ultimately resolves in an exchange of rather extreme compliments, although Lady Davers’s resistance (by far the most exciting post-wedding event) requires a one-two punch from both Pamela’s virtue and one of Squire B’s stately temper tantrums.

Richardson probably considered each of these events necessary to narrate because, in that period, it would have been very uncertain whether a woman who advanced socially as Pamela does would be accepted in that position by her new peers. In fact, it would probably be rather unlikely for her to be accepted. Thus, the sources of conflict which seem inadequate to some modern readers (like myself) might have been sources of more immediate worry to Richardson’s immediate readership. In attending to their concerns for Pamela then, Richardson is able to not only address these threats which precluded a happy ending but to address them in a way which makes it clear that Pamela’s social advancement is validated only because it is the result of her truly vast reserves of virtue.

If Richardson’s readers were left wondering whether Pamela had only earned a lifetime of social ostracization, Richardson would not have fully achieved either his artistic or his moral purpose. If the novel were merely Pamela perhaps it might resolve earlier, but the subtitle at least requires a more extended exposition.

Resolution in tragedy?

Despite his stated ambition of writing a true history, Henry Fielding routinely (and playfully) reminds his reader of the creative process behind the fiction he presents. In Tom Jones this authorial unmasking (insofar as Fielding ever bothered to disguise his authorial role in the first place) occurs principally in the introductory chapters to each book, where Fielding glibly preempts his critics and theatrically toys with the reader’s expectations.

In the first chapter of Book XVII, for example, Fielding laments that he might never be able to extricate Tom and Sophia from their misfortunes and achieve a happy ending. Fielding’s fear for his characters is, of course, feigned, but he raises an intriguing point about resolution in the novel (or in story in general).

He starts this chapter by stating: “When a comic writer hath made his principal characters as happy as he can, or when a tragic writer hath brought them to the highest pitch of human misery, they both conclude their business to be done, and that their work is come to a period.”

This all concurs strikingly with D.A. Miller’s basic thesis in “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller starts with the fairly apparent reality that it is “unhappiness,” in all of its infinite variations, which makes the stuff of plot. Once happiness is achieved, there is nothing more to say and, as Fielding pertly explains, the “work is come to a period.”

Miller goes on from that point to explore the difficulty of resolving the novel given the inherently unstable nature of the climactic “happiness,” concluding that novelists have been forced, in various ways, to deal with the fact that happiness always contains the seeds of some new disaster or disappointment.

Fielding, however, points not just to happiness as a means of resolution in the novel but also to alternately misery. The tragic author can achieve an ending by reducing the characters to despair, just as the comic author ties things up by dispensing satisfaction and good will all around.

In light of Miller’s point then we must wonder: is the tragic ending of pure despair unstable in the same ways that the happy ending is? If every state of happiness conceals misery in potentia, does every state of (allegedly) pure sadness conceal the possibility of future happiness?

Fielding might seem at first to provide little in the way of an answer to this question, since his concern is focused on his own predicament as a comic author attempting to extricate his heroes from a terrible situation which might have been contrived by “the devil, or any of his representatives” but which was, in fact, contrived by himself.

Nonetheless, in discussing this difficulty, Fielding declares that his hero’s circumstances are so bad that, if he were a tragic author, his work would be more or less complete. In short, he claims that things have gotten so out of hand that he has to find a way to craft a happy ending out of a tragic one!

Might this hint at an answer to our question? Fielding, despite his own purported fears of failure, achieves an unequivocally happy ending for his novel, and, if we are to believe Fielding, he brought his heroes out of a tragic ending to get there. Does this mean that a tragic ending contains not merely the seeds of some small happiness but even the seeds of a straight-up happy ending?

Well, certainly, no reader is likely to actually have experienced Tom’s distress as anything approaching a tragic ending at any point in the novel; but even so the dramatic fluctuation of fortune evidenced in Tom Jones and many other novels is evidence to consider and might well suggest that despair is as unstable as happiness.

The constant factor which propels plot toward either happiness or misery and likewise renders those resolutions unstable is basically change. That is what prompts the reader on every page of the novel to begin to imagine the next page for himself and to imagine an imaginary next page even as he reads the last page of the novel. Perhaps no author could achieve a truly stable resolution, whether of happiness or despair, without subduing the reader’s imagination which conjures hope as much as it generates fear and catastrophe.

Containing a question, and a brief appreciation of the Author’s Wit

Operating under the assumption that it is “much easier to make good men wise, than to make bad men good,” Fielding establishes from the onset that his chief purpose is to instruct through displays of wit, and his emphasis therefore is on observations of folly rather than of vice. Or, to word it more precisely, Fielding’s aim throughout his narrative is to show the folly of vice, because he does display vices—hypocrisy, gossip, and violence—in an extremely entertaining way. Fielding is a master of his novel’s tone and structure and surely exemplifies Joseph Addison’s description of true wit: “For Wit lying most in the Assemblage of Ideas, and putting those together with Quickness and Variety, wherein can be found any Resemblance or Congruity thereby to make up pleasant Pictures and agreeable Visions in the Fancy” (The Spectator 62, 1711).

In the dedication, Fielding writes that the novel is “sincerely designed to promote the cause of virtue” (5, emphasis added), and he certainly does so masterfully and humorously. He lampoons the judgmental impulses of women like Miss Bridget Allworthy and Mrs . Deborah Wilkins, the violence and duplicity of Molly and her enemies in the hilarious church-war scene, the inconsistency of the mob-like townspeople, and the Tartuffian hypocrisy of MasterBlifil. He supplies the reader with a rich, many-layered satire on society, but with each portrait of a fool, he also makes sure to provide some insight into the person’s character and failing. For instance, Thwackum, who prides himself on his Christian faith, criticizes Tom for “disputing with Master Blifil that there was no merit in faith without works,” and he accuses Square, who also blindly opposes the doctrine, of teaching him such an erroneous precept” (141). This is one of many ironic situations in which Fielding promotes a virtue by having ridiculous or corrupt characters attack it.

But even though the novel so far promotes a comic approach to instruction, in which even Allworthy and Tom aren’t exceptions to Fielding’s scrutiny, the question, What is honor? still seems to be somewhat unanswered in the first six books of the novel, even though the theme comes up at several points of the narrative. To some extent, Tom displays a sense of honor in being flayed by Thwackum rather than betraying his friend, the gamekeeper. His sense of honor is so strong, that he would rather transgress other Christian morals (lie) and be tortured than see a family reduced to extreme poverty. However, his strong sense of honor does not seem to extend to Molly quite as perfectly. I don’t yet understand why he takes advantage of a girl with no immediate intention of marrying her, and this problem seems to highlight the incompleteness of the novel’s understanding of honor.

I certainly cannot depend on Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square for a definition of honor. In their philosophical discourse, Thwackum defines it as “that mode of divine grace which is not only consistent with, but dependent upon the…Church of England” (109). Square unhelpfully replies that honor is the natural beauty of virtue, which seems only to describe the effect of honor, and not its motivation or cause. They are both meaningless definitions. This dialogue, which Fielding apparently thinks more significant than over a decade of the protagonist’s formative years, may be his way of marking the shifting attitudes of his time regarding moral conduct and manners that his audience would unquestioningly tie up with their definition of honor.

Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding Tom’s sexual exploits with Molly, and his pursuit of Sophia is what elicits a strong reaction against the novel by his readers (though it’s possible I might come across more shocking things in the 600 pages remaining). As the back of the book informs us, the novel was attacked as a “motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery.” I take it that Fielding is far more concerned with the disturbing prevalence of dead Christian faith than with Tom’s sexual purity. The “treacherous friend[s]” to Christianity are everywhere in the novel, hurting the religion more with their hypocrisy and polite civility, absent of charity. (111). But it’s hard for me to tell, still, if his comparative lack of judgment of Tom’s actions is intentional or not. If Fielding’s purpose really is to show “nothing prejudicial to the cause of religion and virtue, nothing inconsistent with the strictest rules of decency, nor which can offend even the chastest eye in the perusal” (5), then why does Tom Jones sleep with Molly and come out relatively unscathed?

He “Found [God] in a Hopeless Place”: The Miracle of Sanity for Robinson Crusoe

This is my first time reading Robinson Crusoe, and as I made my way through the first half, I couldn’t help but miss our multi-personality heroine from last week’s reading, Fantomina. If I had world enough and time to compose 18th century related fan fiction, I would drop her on the island with Crusoe, and, quite economically, provide the reader with four fascinating characters in one person. To my dismay, I found out very early that Crusoe is not as fascinating and scandalous as Haywood’s protagonist. Really, Crusoe is rather a bland heathen, whose worst sins are materialism, despair (understandable), and solipsism. But Defoe’s hero has a nuanced wickedness, and I was most intrigued by his faults and spiritual weakness as well as his unstable mental state before his conversion.

We don’t get many details from Defoe, but according to subtle (ish) tidbits of Crusoe’s narration, he was allegedly a very wicked man for at least eight years. Unfortunately, Crusoe spares us the exciting details in his narrative, hoping we’re satisfied with the assurance that he was “wicked and prophane to the last Degree” (120). At the beginning of the novel, he acknowledges his tendency to act “the fool to my own interest” (80), and as readers, that’s really the only perspective we get—his internal sinful life. He’s pretty unbearable before his conversion on the island. He lacks human sympathy, and fails to consider Xury’s feelings, for instance, when he sells him into slavery. Crusoe’s only regret for selling the boy is that he could have used him on his plantation (unlucky man!). And when he is first alone on the island, he alone matters. Instead of reflecting at this point on what he has done to deserve his predicament, he instead feels that he is the chiefest of sufferers, “singled out and separated, as it were from all the world to be miserable” (101).

It seemed fitting to me that the very solipsistic and materialistic Crusoe, who seems devoid of true love for his parents, and mercenary in his friendships, would be punished by God by being alone on an island and forced to obsess, for the sake of survival, over his material supplies. The editor of my edition, Evan R. Davis, states that Crusoe’s solitude is “psychologically unrealistic”, and that Defoe knew that castaways who were alone for too long typically lost sense of their mental faculties (Appendix D, 350). The text suggests Defoe’s awareness of the negative effects of solitude on Crusoe’s mind. Reason aids Crusoe for a time (99, 103), but since it cannot give an overarching meaning or significance to his suffering, he becomes subject to despair and fear. When “sudden griefs . . . confound” him, Crusoe loses all perspective and suffers terrible “agonies of Mind,” behaving and thinking “like a Mad-Man” (85). Crusoe realizes, “it could hardly be rational to be thankful” for his situation, and we can assume that these self-destructive patterns of thought would eventually lead to his insanity (98).

It certainly would be a shame if Crusoe’s mental health did not have the same shelf life as his carefully stowed gun powder, and I was grateful for the terrifying angel of God who made this narrative a little more interesting, and rendered Crusoe’s character a little less annoying. If it weren’t for his trippy tobacco spiritual vision (fun!), I don’t think he could have lasted very long. It’s interesting that though this novel was written in a time when the importance and power of Reason was increasingly emphasized, what saves Crusoe from madness is not the sharpening of rational thought, but his repentance to God. The preservation of Crusoe’s mind, then, is not “psychologically unrealistic” so much as it is a divine miracle. Now I can only hope that when he meets Friday (spoiler, sorry), he’ll treat him with the same dignity and love he received from his Maker. Fingers crossed!