The Way We Perceive

Throughout the narrative of Jack Maggs, there are several significant sways among the characters’ perceptions of one another. For their frequency and weight, these alterations, or revelations, become key narrative strategies. There are multiple instances where one character’s personal desires influence their impression of another character. These impressions endure until daunting circumstances challenge and crumble those views.

The first notable shift is Mercy’s altered perception of Mr. Buckle, a man whom she had hitherto worshipped, body and soul. As she grows acquainted with Jack Maggs, seeing his strength and the safety it wields, Mercy’s confidence in her savior dwindles. In light of Maggs, a formidable force, Buckles is exposed as a coward. The comparison between the two men akins a candle before a bonfire. In light of this contrast, her liberator loses his luster. Mr. Buckles transforms before her eyes. Observing an exchange between Maggs and Buckles, Mercy notes the similarity between Buckle’s face and that of a ferret. Here,  “she [sees] him as she had never seen him before”, and though “she wished it were not so”, “her saviour had begun to cut a pathetic figure in her eyes” (175)

A keenly similar alteration occurs before the eyes of Lizzie Warriner regarding Tobias Oates. After informing Tobias of her pregnancy, Mercy watches as he responds in agitation and anxiety. Mercy then lies to her sister, who inquires the cause for the tears on her cheeks, and in her cover story about her necklace being stolen, Lizzie makes an all-too-accurate comment about Tobias: “He cares only for his own pleasure”. The silence following this statement confirms its truth and the recognition of it by both sisters. Undoubtedly realizing the truth of her utterance, Lizzie describes an altered perception of Tobias: “He had always appeared to her as fierce and fatherly, but now she saw how the mantel was too tall for him, and how he stretched to accommodate himself to its demands” (213). Unnerved by this new view, Lizzie accounts it as “a vision profoundly discouraging, and one she wished to God she had not seen” (213).

These occurrences call into question the nature of reality. Is truth malleable according to our hopes and desires? Or do those desires simply encourage or impede our acceptance of reality?  I would submit the latter to be true. Buckles is a coward, but it took a contender to reveal this to Mercy. It took a reorientation of her desires to reveal how those desires had filtered her view of her master. Likewise, Lizzie’s revelation concerning Tobias proves on target, yet had the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy not occurred, her infatuation and sexual intimacy with Tobias would have continued to idealize him in her mind.

It must be acknowledged that not all revelations sully impressions of the characters, for as Oates grasps more of Magg’s suffering, his heart towards him softens and he considers him, at least for a time, his companion. A realization of shared experiences shift Maggs in Oates’ from a monster to a man, a man for whom he feels pity and grief. For Maggs, empathy is the agent that alters his perceptions: “I’m sorry, Jack, from the bottom of my heart. I also have a son. It is not hard for me to understand your feelings. I would never make light of your misfortune” (275). Previously, his desire to write a killer novel about the criminal mind obstructed Oates from seeing Maggs as a creature worthy of his sympathy.

Details Witheld

The purposeful concealing of information proves unusually significant and recurring throughout the narrative of Great Expectations. Whether the characters withhold information for the good of their peers or in hopes of their demise, the intentions vary. Yet almost all of the characters ascribe to this action at one time or another. It proves a central theme and behavior for the cast. The story commences with Pip aiding a convict, an event of which he does not tell his sister or Joe, continually fearful that his actions might be discovered. His secretiveness at this moment commences the successive series of secrets throughout the novel.

Other significant untold intelligence includes the mysterious identity of Pip’s benefactor, as well as the fact that Miss Havisham knew she herself was not the benefactor. She withheld this information and instead led him on to believe it was her. In London, Wemmick hides his pleasant home life and gentle, devoted disposition from Mr. Jaggers, desiring to keep the two spheres entirely detached. Other crucial secrets include Pip’s refusal to tell Magwitch that his inheritance will be taken from him, his desire to make Pip a gentleman razed, upon his execution and death. These are merely a handful of the multitude of secrets threaded throughout Pip’s account.

This abundance of withheld information, in addition to a small passage towards the end of the novel made me question Pip’s reliability as a storyteller. The narrator of the novel, Pip’s method of delaying answers to plot questions proves instrumental for the story’s trajectory and suspense, but it causes reservation regarding Pip’s absolute dependability as the relator of events. While Magwitch lays in the infirmary, awaiting his fate, Herbert asks Pip to join him as a business partner. Pip defers the offer for the time being, informing the reader of his reasoning for doing so: “Firstly, my mind was too preoccupied to be able to take in the subject clearly. Secondly—Yes! Secondly, there was a vague something lingering in my thoughts that will come out very near the end of this slight narrative” (471). Thus, he delays clarity for the sake of suspense, yet, in the end, Pip never reveals exactly what that “vague something lingering in [his] thoughts” was. This vague notion could have been anything. It could have been a an acknowledgment that he needed to redeem his relationship with Joe, or a plan to marry Biddy, or a still strong desire that he might one day have Estella. Whatever that vague lingering was, Pip never explicitly tells his audience. This proves not the sole instance in which Pip leaves readers in the dark without ultimately enlightening them of his meaning or personal revelation.

This specific occurrence is rather harmless and unintentional, however, it attributes to Pip an inconsistency that affects his relationship with the reader. It causes one to question if Pip left out other details, whether intentionally or not, that would change one’s interpretation of the story. Pip’s past of withholding information for the good of those around them bolsters this suspicion of his reliability. Perhaps he left out some details for “our good” as well. By no means does this reservation spoil my view of Pip or thwart my joy in his reconciliation and redemption towards the end of the novel. Rather, it simply causes me to question what other details and stories may be floating out there that Pip did not see fit or profitable to tell us in his account.


The Problem of Problemlessness in Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey”

Sterne’s brief novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, comes pretty much precisely as advertised. The narrator, Yorick, journeys through France and Italy and shares a variety of sentimental experiences with the reader. Especially to the modern reader, however, this formula might seem to present a problem, and that problem is basically the fact that, colloquially speaking, nothing happens. D.A. Miller explains in “Problems of Closure in the Novel” that plot depends upon difficulty and trial, and as such there might appear to be a problematic lack of problems in Sterne’s account. To be sure, the plot does become problematized from time to time, such as when Yorick fears the Bastille due to his passport-less condition, but, as John Mullan explains, the primary interest for Sterne’s readers would simply have been participating in Yorick’s many sentimental encounters. Nonetheless, such attractions offer little to contemporary readers so how does the novel still “work” today? I think that a partial answer might be found in an incident which at first appears to be a problem in itself.

This incident is Yorick’s quite obviously unkind and entirely unsentimental first engagement with the poor monk in Calais. This meeting happens very early in the book before Yorick writes his “Preface in the Desobligeant” where he establishes himself as a sentimental traveler, inviting the reader to join him in a journey not so much of development but of sequential incidents of sentimental sympathy. The sentimental reader is little more nor less than a guided sentimental traveler, one whose experience of the sentimental is filtered through one more additional teller. Thus, as John Mullan makes clear in “Sentimental Novels,” the reader’s primary source of enjoyment comes both from appreciating the sentimental disposition of the narrator/protagonist and from partaking themselves in that disposition by sympathizing with the narrator and the other characters of the book.

However, another important shift also occurs in the desobligeant. It is only at this point that Yorick begins his narrative in earnest. This beginning indicates that the account which we were reading before the desobligeant was conceived differently and, perhaps, intended for a different purpose or even a different audience. Our narrator is the same but his narrative purpose may have shifted. In fact, in the first entry, prior to the “Preface in the Desobligeant,” Yorick makes a direct address to his Eliza which might indicate that he is addressing her in that narrative, perhaps in a letter or at least in a journal intended for her eye. However, the account which Yorick begins to keep in and after the desobligeant is intended, not only by the author Sterne but by the narrator Yorick, for us, for the readers.

The incident of the monk and this shift in narratorial audience work jointly to complicate the relationship between the reader and the narrator. The reliability of the narrator is subtly but continually called into question, such that the reader’s surface level enjoyment of sentimental experience is accompanied by an underlying tension arising from the narrator’s questionable motivations. Thus, Sterne’s story attains greater staying power than later more simply sentimental novels, as Mullan observes, because Sterne compensates for the lack of any consistently problematized plot by problematizing the narrator himself. Just as Yorick is fascinated by the mystery of the man who implores charity from women only, so the reader is fascinated by the mystery of Yorick, as they watch him dance an often very fine line between noble sentiment and not-so-noble sensuality.

The way that the incident of the monk accentuates this ambiguity of motivation can be seen clearly by examining Yorick’s second encounter with the monk. This second encounter where Yorick apologizes for his previously unkind behavior occurs in conjunction with Yorick’s meeting with the Calais lady and the first of his several extended hand-holding sessions. On the surface level, Yorick’s second encounter is a perfect example of an incident attuned to cultivate sentimental enjoyment. As Yorick holds the lady’s hand, the monk approaches them and offers Yorick a pinch of snuff to which Yorick responds by offering the monk his own silver snuff box in its entirety, declaring, “when you take a pinch out of it, sometimes recollect it was the peace-offering of a man who once used you unkindly, but not from his heart” (99). With these words, Yorick suggests that his prior harshness does not detract from his supreme sentimentality on display throughout the story because it was not a natural outpouring of his heart. This account seems to be validated by the earlier incident in which Yorick describes how he formed a premeditated conviction to not be moved by the monk’s story, and the story waxes more sentimental yet as the monk and Yorick exchange snuff boxes and Yorick recalls how sweetly he wept at the monk’s grave some year afterward with his snuffbox in hand.

However, this sentimental sweetness cannot be accepted without reservation. At the very end of the entry prior to the one in which the snuffbox exchange occurs, Yorick is concerned about whether the monk might have told the lady about his cruel conduct, and he declares, “I set myself to consider how I should undo the ill impressions which the poor monk’s story, in case he had told it her, must have planted in her breast against me” (98). This confession casts an undeniable shadow over the snuffbox exchange. Yorick contrasts that action with his prior behavior by implying that his kindness comes from the heart while his avarice did not, but his earlier remark indicates that his kindness, at least in this incident, might be every bit as premeditated as his unkindness was before. Indeed, since he has a particular object in mind for his kindness (the good favor of the lady), it might seem to be more calculated than his unkindness which, to all appearances, actually did arise from an immediate impression.

Furthermore, that aforementioned object of Yorick’s perhaps premeditated generosity, casts even more doubtfulness on the purity of his sentiment. It is only after the shift in narratorial audience which occurs in the desobligeant that Yorick begins recounting the many sentimental incidents which put him in emotionally, if not physically, compromising positions with various ladies. Somehow Yorick’s sentiment always seems to culminate in him holding the hands of attractive women, and it seems unlikely that these incidents would be mentioned so freely were Eliza still the narratee.

Thus, this exchange with the monk aptly captures the tension in Sterne’s novel which solves the problem of problemlessness. The reader, prompted to suspicion by this early incident, is left wondering throughout the account whether Yorick’s sentiment might be more strategic than he claims or if even the natural outpourings of Yorick’s heart might not be accompanied by equally natural outpourings of desire from other less pure quarters.

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.

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.