What it Means to be Human

The narrative of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exudes tension. This theme (tension), which we’ve been analyzing in different forms and measures all semester long, bellows from every page as it composes not only the predicament of this novella, but the predicament of every human life.

It is the internal warfare between good and evil that wages within the breast of every human being. This combat, which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde highlights, constitutes the fundamental friction responsible for every other character tension we have noted in previous books. This battle, inherent to man, propels the plight of Dr. Jekyll and rouses every reader.

From the first introduction, Mr. Hyde is presented as a creature bereft of humanness, as he is described as “troglodytic”. This description aligns with the theory of de-evolution that was circulating during Stevenson’s time. De-evolution surmised slum inhabitants, but more specifically criminals, were the pinnacle of biological human regression. Within this context, Hyde represents an erosion of human nature.

The textual allegations of Hyde being sub-human raises the reverse question: what does it mean to be human? As one traces his de-evolution, one can likewise discern what true human nature means, for it is against this standard that Hyde’s behavior appears starkly fallacious and inhuman. These two subjects— the definition of humanity and the definition of inhumanity— prove inseparable.

In his narrative, Jekyll himself pinpoints perhaps the cardinal characteristic of human nature: the very duplicity with which he struggles. He laments how his transformation to Hyde “severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature” (76). Furthermore, Jekyll contends it “the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling” (77). In his attempt to separate these natures, then, Jekyll takes a deathly stab at his humanity. To be only wholly good or only wholly evil would eliminate the humanity from that being. If humans were morally perfect, with no inclination towards evil, they would be gods but not humans. If humans were solely desiring of evil and had no inclination towards what is good, they would be devils. The ability to discern between right and wrong, the inner conscience of man that compels us towards what is right and burdens our hearts and minds with guild when we have done wrong, is largely what it means to be human. In his final descent, as Edward Hyde takes over Dr. Jekyll more completely and as he becomes only evil with no inclination towards good, he becomes a “child of Hell” with “nothing human” within him (88).

While every human struggles with the internal combat between right and wrong, redemption, as Jekyll finds, cannot be found formally detaching these two natures. His discovery poses another question: if detachment proves not the redemption of this dilemma, what redeems us? While duplicity marks human nature, there is also a longing within every breast to be redeemed. This desire to be redeemed, in some shape or form, also cardinally constitutes what it means to be a human.

Jane Eyre and the Macabre

It’s difficult to pin down Jane Eyre. I mean that both in reference to the character and to the book itself. Jane Eyre (the person) straddles the line of servant and victorian noble, while Jane Eyre (the book) straddles genres. It’s part Gothic, part Romance, part fictional autobiography. The book can not seem to decide what it wants to be, just like the main character. Clever, Brontë, I see what you did there.
Now, it is very apparent how the romantic and autobiographic elements play into the narrative. The entirety of the novel is written as an autobiographical tale from Jane’s perspective and a large part of the novel is dedicated to her romance with Mr. Rochester. Personally, however, I am much more interested in how Brontë incorporated the gothic elements into her story. Partially because it is still to early in the year for me to funnel my macabre fascination into halloween decorating, but mostly because I have just recently completed Wuthering Heights, written by none other than Charlotte Bronte’s own sister, Emily. I have had an ongoing fascination regarding why Jane Eyre became so popular while Wuthering Heights withered in comparison. The two were written and released very close together and many people believed at the beginning that they had been written by the same person. Now, this topic is a very complicated one and so deserves it’s own full discussion, but I do think it had something to do with the differing in application of gothic elements. Wuthering Heights, of course, was much more heavy-handed in it’s use of all things dark and spooky, but I argue that Charlotte is the more creative of the two in regards to how she incorporates it into other elements of the narrative.
Charlotte Bonte is fantastic at using imagery to set a mood. She brings you in and makes you sit in the tension of the world she has painted. Part of this is the limited first person perspective — we are learning at the same time as Jane, and so whenever she feels uneasy, we also feel the tension. The most obvious example is the scene at the end of chapter twenty where Jane is left with an injured Mason as the mysterious figure that attacked him is just next door. Jane is left with what seems only a single lit candle. She describes the room as a terrified person would, seeing Mason himself as “eyes now shut,  now opening, now wandering through the room, now fixed on me, and ever glazed with the dulness of horror”. Now, I know from that description that I would not want those eyes looking anywhere near me. She continues about the room, turning particular care onto the image of Christ and the twelve apostles. She goes about, describing some in detail and others not, as the light flickers in and away from their faces, describing Judas’s face in particular as “[growing] out of the panel and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor — of Satan himself — in his subordinate’s form”. Now, I highly doubt that Judas is literally about to jump out and get her, but the thing making noise in the next room just might. She is terrified, and so we the audience are also terrified. It is very effective.
I really enjoy how Charlotte uses the gothic is to subtly undercut romantic ideals. For example: Rochester, the main male love interest, meets the heroine as he rides in on a horse. Pretty classic romance there, except that his entrance does not excite nor entice the ever wary Jane. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the first image she (and we) get is that of his dog — a great spectre of a beast that she at first mistakes as an evil spirit. When Rochester does appear shortly thereafter, it is his voice and not his appearance that reaches her first. Then the valiant steed proceeds to buck its rider onto the ground, breaking Rochester’s leg in the process. The scene up to this point is rather eerie — we don’t know what to make of Rochester or his hellhound, but we can assume that he holds some importance on account of his grandiose entrance. Then he hits the ground and the spell is immediately broken. The scene thereafter is actually pretty mundane: the conversation they have is based firmly at the task at hand, although the manner in which he speaks to Jane is very telling of his character. This pretty much sums up Rochester’s interactions with Jane — equal parts mysterious and mundane. The fact that he can so seamlessly transition between normal and near psychotic behavior so quickly and easily left me uneasy, and I have spent much of the novel wondering if Rochester was going to pull a page out of The Shining and attempt to hack our heroine to bits for discovering his secret in the attic. I know he won’t, simply because Jane must still be alive to write this ‘autobiography’ later in life, but the idea still leaves my stomach turning every time he enters the scene.

Hindley of the Post Modern

In the early chapters of Nelly Dean, we are introduced to the character of Hindley, the oldest living son of the Earnshaws and therefore the heir to all they own. This, obviously, is the same Hindley from Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. To call him the same person, however, would be quite the stretch. In Nelly Dean, the character of Hindley is expanded in ways that were originally left to the reader’s imaginings.
A large difference is that we experience Hindley before Heathcliff interrupts the family dynamic. We witnessed this in Wuthering Heights, but only briefly. Here we see a Hindley that is much more open, imaginative, with a wild streak very similar to his sister. When reading these passages, the most burning question in my mind is thus: why does Alison Case feel the need to explain and expand Hindley, who in the original text is a pernicious and violent man, into a character that we can empathize with in this way? The most obvious answer is that she wants us to better understand why Hindley behaves the way he does. But why do we need to understand Hindley or his phycological nuances? To me, this is an example of the social differences from the gothic-romantic nineteenth century to the post-modern twenty-first. Post modern media, books and otherwise, often attempt to persuade the reader in the favor of unlikable characters by explaining their behaviors as being the result of childhood trauma or mistreatment. Hindley, with his insecure attachment to his father, the loss of his older brother, and the invasion of another, younger child into his home (who very clearly is his father’s favorite, despite not actually being his child) fits into this category quite nicely. There is also evidence that Hindley could be diagnosed with ADHD, with his extreme energy, violent tendencies, and inability to “keep his mind to a schoolroom task for five minutes together”(Chapter 5). It makes sense that Bronte did not expand on these ideas because, frankly, people during that time did not generally understand the nuanced nature of the human psyche. It wasn’t until much later in the eighteenth century that the study of psychology rose to scientific respectability.
Alison Case, however, absolutely had these developments available to her, having lived and written in the twenty-first century. In short, the Hindley that we see here is one built for the modern reader. We as modern readers and writers like to analyze how a character came to be as they are, and if they happen to be deeply-troubled and a bit traumatized, all the better. Trauma and PTSD have become a narrative short-hand for characters with a troubled mind. So it makes sense to create characters or in this case, recreate. This Hindley, therefore could be considered a completely different character, written for a post-modern interpretation.

“Let’s Just be Friends”: Camilla and the Circumscribed Desire for Male-Female Friendship

Throughout Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, the societal constraints on male-female friendship quickly become clear. Once Camilla reaches marriageable age, the possibility for friendship with Edgar is completely erased– the persecutions of Mrs. Margland and Indiana ascribe romantic meaning even to something as small as a geranium. There is no longer room for kindness untainted by suppositions about one’s romantic affections.

Does Camilla understand that male-female friendship is impossible in her society? On one level, it appears that she does– she recognizes, for example, that there may be something improper, or at least unusual, about Mrs. Burlinton’s intimate correspondence with her mysterious friend (who, spoiler alert, turns out to be the infamous Bellamy). Yet she defends her friend’s practice despite Edgar’s condemnation:

"Yet, in the conversations she held with him [Edgar]
from time to time, she frankly related the extraordinary attachment of
her new friend to some unknown correspondent, and confessed her own
surprise when it first came to her knowledge.

Edgar listened to the account with the most unaffected dismay, and
represented the probable danger, and actual impropriety of such an
intercourse, in the strongest and most eloquent terms; but he could
neither appal her confidence, nor subdue her esteem. The openness with
which all had originally and voluntarily been avowed, convinced her of
the innocence with which it was felt, and all that his exhortations
could obtain, was a remonstrance on her own part to Mrs. Berlinton.

She found that lady, however, persuaded she indulged but an innocent
friendship, which she assured her was bestowed upon a person of as much
honour as merit, and which only with life she should relinquish, since
it was the sole consolation of her fettered existence" (Book 6, Ch. 12).

 

From her defense of this uncommon practice, what are we as readers supposed to gain? On one hand, this sets up Camilla’s fateful naivete. No matter where she looks for friendship– Sir Sedley, Hal Westwyn, and even crusty old Lord Valhurst– she is not safe from romantic proclamations, and it is naive for her to even think so. Her kind, but merely friendly, actions cause others, including Edgar, to label her a “coquette.” There’s no such thing as the “friend zone” for Camilla, and she’s always the last to realize that she is sending the wrong social messages.

On the other hand, could Burney be setting up a social critique of the societal constraints set up to prevent and circumscribe male-female friendships? Every time Edgar and Camilla have a chance to talk to each other, they are interrupted and prevented from communicating fully. Even Edgar has this desire to remain Camilla’s friend, to give her counsel (of course, though, this is tainted by romantic interest). When he warns her against Mrs. Arlbery and Mrs. Burlinton, he consistently appeals to her on the basis of friendship:

"Tell me, candidly, sincerely tell me, can you
condescend to suffer an old friend, though in the person of but a young
man, to offer you, from time to time, a hint, a little counsel, a few
brief words of occasional advice? and even, perhaps, now and then, to
torment you into a little serious reflection?" (Book 4, ch. 1).

It seems that both Edgar and Camilla are longing for a different kind of relationship, or at least a venue for more open communication between the sexes. If so, would this perhaps change our reading of the novel from a critique of Camilla’s and Edgar’s respective misreading/naivete to a critique of their society’s constraints upon friendship?

Distance and Sympathy in “Camilla”

Frances Burney’s Camilla is, almost from beginning to end, a long (very long) series of misunderstandings. While personal defects and even deviousness do play a part in the novel, the vast majority of the plentiful conflict arises from well-meant but poorly executed interpretation. Camilla misreads Edgar’s intentions, Edgar misreads Camilla’s every action, Eugenia misreads Bellamy’s professions, and Dr. Marchmont misreads the entire female sex. This basic formula of increasingly disastrous misunderstanding is a common one, especially in comic drama such as Shakespeare’s where it always culminates in a rapid resolution of the near-catastrophe when the disguises are removed and everyone resumes their original genders.

However, while Camilla does at long last resolve in a similar way, the progression toward that point is not experienced in nearly so lighthearted a manner as is typical of a comedy. Unlike the “comic equivalent of fear” which R.S. Crane describes as the result of similar misunderstandings in Tom Jones, the reader of Camilla is likely to feel genuine concern, perhaps disappointment, and almost certainly frustration. I believe that an important reason for this less comical readerly experience can be found by considering the various distances at work in the novel.

In Wayne Booth’s seminal Rhetoric of Fiction, he describes a number of kinds of distance in the novel which shape the reader’s experience. These distances include the distance between the reader and the narrator, between the implied author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Booth explains how different combinations of these kinds of distances mold almost every aspect of a novel, and one critical aspect of the novel experience determined by these distances is sympathy (particularly sympathy between the reader and the characters). Booth notes that, in Tom Jones, it is the closeness of the narrator and the reader which makes possible the “comic analogue of fear” described by Crane, and he considers how Austen must maintain a closeness between Emma and her readers without letting them ever get too close, in order to maintain Emma’s appeal.

Booth’s observations provide insight into why we experience the complex web of errors in Camilla so differently than similar plots of error in other works. Unlike Tom Jones, the author and the narrator of Camilla both remain fairly undeveloped and unobtrusive. Burney implicitly acknowledges her creative role in the first paragraph of the book, but beyond that point she assumes the voice of her narrator who, while not dispassionate, could hardly be identified as a “character.” Thus, although the reader is close to the narrator insofar as they trust her and hold knowledge in common with her, they are not close to her in a way which shapes their expectations for the characters. The frequent intrusions of Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones assure the reader that Tom will be just fine, but Burney’s narrator becomes little more than an accurate lens through which to view the characters and their world.

And through that lens we view a large array of characters and the activities of their respective hearts and minds. Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of Burney’s novel is the number of characters who are granted at least some interior exposition in the course of the story. Burney allows us more access to Camilla’s hopes and fears than to the others’, but, within the novel’s commodious narrative, there is still plenty of time spent in Edgar’s suspicious heart, Eugenia’s naively intelligent mind, and the feelings of many other secondary characters as well. Burney uses almost every instance of interior exposition to create sympathy for the character being exposited. In fact, almost the only character of import who is granted no interior exposition is Bellamy, such that all our knowledge of internal motivations is consonant with the overall impression of disastrously entangled good intentions.

This widespread interiority brings the reader fairly close to many characters but not very close to any one. We, along with the narrator, know a little bit about what everyone is thinking, and thus we are always kept somewhat distant from what any one character is thinking since we possess knowledge which allows us to see their frustrating folly or reasonable error. This distance might render the reader’s sympathy for the characters somewhat fragile so Burney’s challenge is to paint every character in as positive a light as possible despite the fact that they all succeed at damaging one another quite prodigiously. For example, if Camilla were to cause trouble with vanity like Emma’s, we would dislike her for it, since Burney does not bring us as close to Camilla as Austen brings us to Emma.

It is this almost overwhelming number of fairly sympathetic characters in Camilla which causes us to experience the plot of errors in a not entirely lighthearted way. The frustration we feel is not so much Camilla’s or Edgar’s, but rather it is our own, the frustration not of one character’s perspective of the overall mess but of our own perspective which puts us in contact with such a vast cacophony of voices, all of which we wish well, that, without direct assurances to the contrary by the narrator, we begin almost to fear that the disaster has gone too far and not even our unobtrusive author can entirely set things to rights.

Storms, Emotions, and Personal Responsibility

Dear fellow readers,

I must admit that Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded took me longer to read because of the outraged marginalia that seemed to rise unbidden from my pen. My cultural conditioning seemed to prevent me from fully appreciating the valiant Pamela, lauding Mr. B. for his change of heart, and celebrating their nuptials.

One of the more troubling scenes is when Mr. B. goes alone to the garden because of his anger at Lady Davers. Pamela and Lady Davers, reconciled, follow him, and he tears into them, saying to both, “I desire to see neither of you on this occasion,” and to Pamela, “how dare you approach me, without leave, when you see me thus disturbed! Never, for the future, come near me, when I am in tumults, unless I send for you” (454). After he “tossed” Pamela’s hand, he tells his sister Pamela “must take the consequence of a passion, which, when raised, is as uncontroulable as your own” (455). He barely manages to control himself at the end of the scene, and Pamela describes it as a “storm” which has “happily” passed (456).

Even more troubling, after his temper has cooled, he repeats his commands for her to avoid him in such moods.

My question is: Why is it all right for him to put the onus on Pamela to avoid him, rather than on himself? Why are his passions and emotions treated as storms and natural disasters that are just part of life, and why must Pamela adjust her course in light of them, tacking and jibing like a sailboat in a storm? Why do Mr. B. and Lady Davers get to have such uncontrollable passions (and remain admired by society), and Pamela does not?

Partly, this is just part of Mr. B’s modus operandi: throughout the text, Mr. B. seems to externalize responsibility for his emotions and his actions. He keeps repeating “in the mind I am” to protect himself if he changes his mind (275). So this is partly just a continuation of that—lust and love alike are out of his hands. (Pamela too claims that her love for him is not of her choosing, so there is at least some parity there, but she must still act controlled in a way he does not [284].)Mr. B. and Pamela, in contrast, trace it back to how well-off children are spoiled, which in turn connects to the very structure of society that drives much of the plot and machinations behind the scenes. Society is fundamentally unequal; wealth and status grant freedoms that create uncontrollable storms of emotions that others must weather.

Mr. B. and Pamela, in contrast, trace it back to how well-off children are spoiled, which in turn connects to the very structure of society that drives much of the plot and machinations behind the scenes. Society is fundamentally unequal; wealth and status grant freedoms that create uncontrollable storms of emotions that others must weather.

Oddly, this focus on spoiled children gives me a glimmer of hope, for Pamela asserts that she will not spoil her own children “if any part of children’s education falls to” her (467-468). Is that an implied criticism, however slight? Does she see some of the problems with this situation?

I hope so, for despite Mr. B.’s many compliments and his exhortation for Pamela to consider herself his equal, this passage demonstrates his deficient sense of responsibility for his more destructive emotions.

You, astute reader, might notice that I opened this post with disclaimers about my own responsibility for my response to Pamela. So let me correct it: I wrote the angry and aghast marginalia, I did not completely appreciate the rewards we were supposed to revel in, and I lost control over my emotions. I take complete responsibility . . . and wish Mr. B. would too, spoiled childhood and gentleman-status notwithstanding. Tell me honestly—do I ask too much?

Sincerely,

A Troubled Reader

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?