When looking back at the novels we’ve read this semester, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness welling up from within. It is possible that this sadness is sparked by a sense of finality in the closing of the semester, but it could also be the progressive downward, depressing spiral that we, as a group, have experienced through these readings. It is unlikely that this emotional response was the intended result of the order in which these novels were assigned, but the order was indeed intentional. The obvious comparison that one could draw between the novels we’ve read this semester, is their tragic endings. These tragic endings come in different shapes and resolve themselves in different ways, but a strong element that runs like a blood red thread throughout is the cruel nature of fate. For this final blog post, I will look at how this cruelty is made manifest in the endings of Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
The first novel we read for class was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I struggled assigning blame to a single individual in this novel. I think Shelley presents all the characters as flawed human beings, or in the case of Victor’s creation, an approximation of a human being. Focusing on Victor’s creation, we find a being that was brought into a painful, certainly deformed existence without any consideration of how wretched his life would be. There is no other place that this is more evident than in the quote from Paradise Lost on the title page of Frankenstein. “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” In this sense, the creation possessed zero free will and was fated for misery. When he finally takes agency and performs actions driven by his desire, we find that those are, again, simply a response to some external stimuli of which he has no control over. Victor refuses to provide his creation with basic human needs. The creation’s only power is that of consequence. Consequences can only be reactionary responses to actions that are out of our control. With this, the creation strikes out like a rabid, helpless animal to inflict pain on anyone within striking range.
In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s fatal end is a result of multiple intersecting circumstances of fate conspiring to her and Tom’s death. Eliot presents this death in peaceful terms, with brother and sister embraced in a final reconciliation. “In death they were not divided (657).” We can choose to agree with this perspective, or we can look at the suffering of Maggie throughout the novel. The poor girl, turned woman through the course of the novel, never finds her place in the world. The apex of this life is a frustrating failed relationship with a fancy boy, Stephen, and the fallout created is the final insult to Maggie. Her life was filled with a struggle against a forceful patriarchy that beat against her like the flood waters that finally freed her from her suffering. A force of suffering to which she recognized would be a lifelong affliction. “I will bear it, and bear it till death… (649)” This force requires Maggie to submit to powers that are greater than her will. Her fate was to be born in a time and to a family that had certain expectations of her. A set of expectations that were not like those whom her brother was able to enjoy. These gifts, we find, were wasted on a man-child, undeserving of such. His development is stunted before we even reach the middle of the novel. Maggie’s family, which stifled her development, remains a constant force that persistently draws her back, closer to a watery grave.
The final novel, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s tragic end is an almost sweet release from a life ripe with cruel suffering. She grieves the most under the will of fate – “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will (231).” Her guilt and obligation further disconnect her from autonomy. Self-denial leaves her unloved and penniless. Tess’s life filled with suffering and grief caused by a willful violation perpetrated by a representative of fate. The moment she takes agency, she damns herself to death. The killing of Alec is met with swift “justice.” A Justice which is only afforded to those in the good graces of fate. Tess attempts to enact her own form of justice by murdering Alec. Alec absolves himself of the sin, but the pain caused is not so easily washed away.
The sense of injustice grows with each novel. The one thing that truly differentiates Tess of the d’Urbervilles from the other two novels is the sense of hopelessness. In Frankenstein the characters are all so flawed that we are not blindsided by the tragic ending. We expect that the people who behave in this way, or flawed creations are bound to end up on the wrong side of providence. In Mill on the Floss, we feel for Maggie, but her potential was stunted by her parents from the point of her creation. Her behavior is rash and reactive. She has agency, but she chooses to rebel in a destructive manner. Her life is a tragedy which presents itself in a slow, protracted, struggle leading to a train wreck of an ending. Tess of the d’Urbervilles presents a young woman with potential, even if it isn’t real or wouldn’t amount to much by some standards. However, Tess truly exists in a hostile world. All people and forces conspire against her and her womanly obligation only serves to rip away any last semblance of free will she may have had. None of the authors give the reader a sense of hope in the end and there is no justice enjoyed. Certainly not justice that isn’t the result of someone death. Justice for Victor’s creation is the death of Elizabeth and Clerval. Justice for Tess is Alec’s death. Justice for Alec is Tess’s death. It is hard to find hope in these works, but realism and naturalism doesn’t always want to give that to the reader.