Tess, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss: The Endings 

In modern storytelling, the ending is usually wrapped up in a pretty bow with loose ends being tied, generally leaving a satisfied and happy ending for the reader.  However, in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Frankenstein, and Mill on the Floss, this is not necessarily the case.  All three authors included the tragic deaths of the main characters, with Tess being the only one who had just one protagonist die and not two of them, like Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss.  All the deaths throughout the three books (Tess, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s creation, Maggie, and Tom) serve as the reason for the endings to contain themes of grief and injustice, as the main character usually lives to the end and has a happy ending, especially in modern works. 

 

In Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Tess is executed for stabbing Alec to death in the end of the novel.  This death can initially be viewed as a justified death, but because Tess is the main character of the book and subject of the title, the reader is inclined to observe her death as unjustified.  The author, Thomas Hardy, intentionally makes Tess the character that the reader focuses on to possibly affect this response to the ending specifically.  Her death, although technically justified because she murders Alec, can be seen as injustice because she is the protagonist, and this is essentially her story being told.  Tess herself is “almost glad – yes, glad” to die, which makes the reader feel sympathy for her because she thinks that dying would be an end to her suffering (580).  This might help pull the reader in the direction of Tess’s side of the story because it pulls on the emotion of sympathy from the reader.  This death in the end is the best ending in Tess’s mind, although it may not be the stereotypical happy ending for the protagonist.     

 

In Frankenstein, both Victor Frankenstein and the creature tragically die in the end, Victor succumbing to illness and the creature committing suicide after the death of Victor.  These untimely deaths serve as the loose ends being tied up in the novel, but this does not instantly mean that the ending is a happy one.  The gothic novel starts and ends with misery and dismal themes, with Victor feeling the “thirst of knowledge”, which resulted in him attempting to create life and then the dread that followed his success (Ch. 2).  This ending may have been created by Mary Shelley to correct the initial wrong done by Victor, creating an unnatural life, by forcing Victor to die a natural death and then killing off the creature to show the reader that it should not have been given life in the first place.  The reader might feel grief and sorrow for the two main characters because Victor is trying to correct the wrong that he made by creating the monster, and because the creature shows true love for his creator in the end by killing himself out of pain. 

 

Mill on the Floss, written by George Eliot, is similar to Frankenstein in regard to having two of the main characters dying tragic and untimely deaths in the end of the novel.  However, the reader feels the most sympathy for Maggie and Tom, as they die in a horrific flooding accident and were not executed for a crime, like Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  One reason for this ending would be that Maggie and Tom, who had been apart emotionally and physically, would be finally reunited by Maggie attempting to save Tom.  However, this reunion is cut short by the debris crashing into their small rowboat, effectively killing the two.  The reader, not expecting this ending, may be shocked by the deaths but could also take comfort in the possibility that Maggie and Tom “had gone down in an embrace never to be parted” (Ch. 5).  This is the only comfort that the reader can have regarding these deaths because the incident was so sudden and unjustified, and this theme of being together eternally shows that they at least were reunited in the end, both in life and in death.   

 

Tess of the d’Ubervilles is similar to these two novels, Frankenstein and Mill on the Floss, because all of the deaths were not fully expected by the reader and seemed to be very tragic events.  Tess’s death can be seen as unjustified to the reader because of the use of sympathy because of the rape, much like the deaths of Maggie and Tom pulling on the same emotion because they are finally reunited in order to convey the deaths as unfair.  While Frankenstein’s ending may have been more predictable than the others, all three novels did not explicitly hint at the turn of events at each ending, with both Victor and the creature dying, Tess being executed for the murder of her rapist, and Maggie and Tom being suddenly crushed by flood debris.  Tess is different in the sense that it is a more singular death in the end, even though Alec is killed somewhat close to the end.  The reader may not be inclined to include his death as a tragic one because of the rape and his overall character presentation in the novel.  Overall, the deaths in these three novels are similar in many ways, with a few exceptions.   

 

The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas time hardly ever rolls around that does not find me enjoying Charles Dickens’ delightful tale in some form or other, whether for private reading pleasure, in a read-aloud gathering, as an adaptation for stage or screen, or at the very least in many shared allusions and quotations scattered liberally over family festivities, like drops from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch. It is, of course, one of the best of books for inspiring holiday hospitality. It encourages readers not to look on the poor as strangers, but “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (42). The story closes, memorably, with Scrooge’s overflowing acts of charity and generosity, as he provides food, warmth, and medical care to the poor from whom he was formerly estranged. He no longer desires to banish the unwanted, unknown masses of the poor into prisons and workhouses, for now he knows them as individual human beings. He knows them as friends.

And yet, in some ways A Christmas Carol is a strange book to incorporate into a Christian holiday celebration, because it does not “keep Christ in Christmas.” While it might make the poor appear as friends, it makes Jesus into a stranger. It banishes him to the corners of chapters, leaving Him to shiver in the margins of the pages like a refugee outside a border-wall, looking in. It seems odd that in a book whose quintessence is the birth of Christ, without which event the story could not in any sense exist, the name of Jesus is never evoked. Not once is His name mentioned. Nor is the title “Christ” used anywhere except in formations such as “Christmas.”[1] There are no sermons given. No one recounts the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus. There is no stable, no manger, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds.[2] Indeed, the Jesus-shaped hole at the center of the story is called out by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round,” he exults, “—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” (42). Those em-dashes contain the whole question I am asking: How can this book, framed and invested, as it were, with that sacred name and origin, fail to mention them? How can it leave Jesus out in the cold?

Not only is Jesus never mentioned and His salvation never laid out plainly in this novella, but it may even preach an anti-Christian gospel. Rather than faith in Christ, A Christmas Carol appears to credit good works with the ability to reconcile people to God. In begging the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to give him a chance to change the future, Scrooge cries out: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (117). When he awakes and finds that he has been granted that chance to repent, he repeats his resolution, then faces this new Christmas morning “glowing with his good intentions” (118). Rather than trusting Jesus’ atonement to save him, Scrooge immediately and busily sets about saving himself by the works of his hands. “He did it all, and infinitely more” (123). Not only does Dickens appear to make Christ a stranger to the reader; he seems to go further and banish Him as an outsider, replacing His sacrificial crucifixion with a rich man’s alms-giving actions.

Why, then, this cross-shaped hole throughout the book, filled up with human works rather than God’s grace? Why so many casual exclamations referring to God—such as “God save you!” “God bless it!” “Lord bless ye!” “Lord bless me!” “God forbid!” “God bless my soul!” “God love it” “Oh God!”, or “God knows”—throughout the text, but so few serious ones that might point readers to a God they may not know? Why do characters so often go to church, but there is no report of what they heard there? Why does the cold caroler at Scrooge’s door sing “God bless you, merry gentleman! /  May nothing you dismay!”, but Dickens stops before quoting the next lines: “Remember Christ our Savior / Was born on Christmas day”?

There are certainly cultural explanations available for this lacuna. Anglophone readers in 1843 would have been extremely familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas’s “sacred name and origin.” They would not need accounts of what church-goers would hear, because they were likely church-goers themselves. At the very least, England was still culturally a nominally Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Bible occupying a central place in standard education. Dickens could not predict that his book would be popular years later with a biblically uninformed audience.

Furthermore, Dickens himself was not enamored of what we now like to call “organized” religion, and perhaps held some less-than-orthodox beliefs himself. In The Life of Our Lord, he rewrote the birth of Jesus heretically, making the angels say to the shepherds: “There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son.” And while the doctrine of good works can perhaps be ascribed to denominational differences (historically, Anglican preaching has focused more on outward than inward signs of regeneration), Dickens himself went even further, arguing that “because [Jesus] did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.” This is the heresy of adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism. Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with this unmistakable adjuration to his children: “Remember! – It is christianity [sic] TO DO GOOD always.” In short, Dickens’ stated version of Christianity posits a non-divine Jesus and a works-based soteriology.

With these concerns in mind, it almost seems as if it is erroneous to read A Christmas Carol as a Christian book. However, whether by design or in spite of himself, Dickens did include the saving shape of the cross in his story in the form of an important chiasmus. When Scrooge awakens after the three marvelous encounters with the spirits and cavorts joyfully around his room, “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” (119). This beautiful palindrome with its arrangement of words crossing in the middle creates a cross-shape out of the sounds of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, thus telling the whole Gospel story from Jesus’ birth through His death and resurrection down to the church as His body in that day. And of course, the most-quoted line in is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” (89), which the narrator echoes to conclude the book, expansively: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In short, while there are still valuable questions to be asked about the orthodoxy or denominational nature of A Christmas Carol, it really answers my concern itself, in Fred’s wise words: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” With these words, Fred welcomes Jesus as friend, family, and savior who both gives and receives Christmas hospitality.

[1] There are several oblique—but important—references to Jesus without using His name. Tiny Tim told his father, coming home from church, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The narrator comments upon adults playing games, claiming that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (96). When Scrooge enters the house of the bereaved Cratchits in one of the Christmases of the future, he hears a Scripture quotation read aloud: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them’” (Mark 9:36, qtd. in 112).

[2]  There is one mention of the Magi, spoken by Marley’s Ghost: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” (56), and one rather facetious reference to “Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds” depicted upon Scrooge’s fireplace-tiles (50).

Happily Ever After, Or Maybe Not?

Happily Ever After or Maybe Not?

 

Is Heathcliff’s ending happy or sad?

 

At face value the ending of Wuthering Heights seems to be happy. Catherine and Heathcliff are reunited in death and Cathy and Hareton are going to be united in marriage. However, that does not mean that all is at seems, especially for Heathcliff.. The first instance we get of this is when Nelly is speaking to Heathcliff before his death. Nelly tells Heathcliff that, “’You are aware, Mr. Heathcliff,’ I said, ‘that from the time you were thirteen years old you have lived a selfish, unchristian life; and probably hardly had a Bible in your hands during all that period. …Could it be hurtful to send for some one–some minister of any denomination, it does not matter which–to explain it, and show you how very far you have erred from its precepts; and how unfit you will be for its heaven, unless a change takes place before you die?” Heathcliff responds a while later with “No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me.–I tell you I have nearly attained  my  heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me.”

In this particular conversation Nelly is forwardly telling Heathcliff that for most of his life he has been an ungrateful heathen whose every actions have been for the wrong reason. She goes on to tell him because of that he is going to Hell. Despite this Heathcliff doesn’t seem to mind because he has already attained his heaven. So what does this mean? This questions opens a lot of potential possibilities none of which are fully addressed in the novel. So does Heathcliff end up in heaven or hell? Is it his own personal heaven where he is reunited with his long lost lover? To answer that one would have to questions if Heathcliff was in a right state of mind at all. He spent most of his life seeking vengeance against all who wronged him and punishing those with no part in it. To make a 360 at the end of ones life and claim that he has, “lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing,” seems miraculous. If Heathcliff says he has achieved his own personal heaven perhaps we, as the reader, should believe him; but at the same time, at the end of his life he has lost his purpose and will to live. Can achieving a goal of destruction really be celebrated or should pity be taken upon a character who lost so much?

Readerly Vanitas

After reaching, at long last, the final page of the many pages of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, many readers might find the novel’s resolution (or lack thereof) to be a bit unfulfilling. After all, it seems reasonable to think that with more than eight hundred pages to work with Thackeray should have been able to tie things up pretty tidily. We might expect to be devastated by a crushingly tragic outcome or to be sated by a graciously comic reward of virtues (such as we can find them). And we do see a bit of both. But, on the whole, the ending feels rushed, following from some climactic (more anti-climactic) crisis and resolution for Amelia and none at all for Becky with whom we have spent a majority of our time.

We seem to have a pretty satisfactory wrapping up of things with the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia, and in several ways their union does curtail the tragic direction which the novel seemed to be heading for a while, by putting young George on the right track (or at least edging him off the wrong one) and by rescuing Amelia and Dobbin from their stupidity and “spooney”-ness respectively. But Rebecca remains in a decidedly ambiguous position socially, a somewhat obscure one financially, and a pretty dismal one morally (having profited from if not orchestrated the great Waterloo Sedley’s demise). Nothing has been resolved for Rebecca, and Thackeray undercuts even our resolution concerning Amelia and Dobbin, by hinting at the imperfections of their marital state on the final page! The very last thought we hear from Emmy, or from any of the novel’s characters, is her reflection on Dobbin’s fondness for their daughter: “Fonder than he is of me” (809). Clearly, Thackeray does not intend to let marriage stand as a shining signifier of the long-sought happy ending.

In short, the novel does not seem to end so much as it does simply stop. As such, we might pause to consider whether this sense of some incompleteness, even arbitrariness, is a failure in Thackeray’s masterpiece or an essential part of his novel’s structure.

It might be particularly useful to ponder this question in light of D.A. Miller’s “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller considers the difficulty which every novelist faces in ending her novel which arises from the non-narratable happy ending. Miller argues that because the movement of a novel arises necessarily from conflict, trouble, or problems of some kind the happy ending cannot be narrated in the same way as the preceding plot. In fact, the novelist must be careful not to attend to her happy ending too closely or its imperfections will inevitably be disclosed, since any presentation of life requires the implicit recognition that life is a process of change and the reality of change reminds us that happiness can go as quickly as it came. Thus, a novelist can only really resolve her story by a sort of sleight of hand, defining the happiness against the conflict which came before while distracting the reader from the many perfectly apparent ways in which the happy ending could be, or already is, problematized.

However, Miller’s “problem of closure” is not a problem for Thackeray at all. If we consider the stated context of the novel along with Thackeray’s narrator’s final words it becomes apparent that the lack of resolution in his novel is no accident but rather an essential part of the novel’s plan. After describing Becky’s rather paltry and unstable success and problematizing Amelia’s marriage by noting her jealousy of her own daughter, Thackeray concludes his novel by reminding us once again that what we have been observing all along is merely the foolish play of Vanity Fair:

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. (809).

Here, Thackeray recognizes with Miller the impossibility of really resolving a novel. There is no ending which can really bring full satisfaction. Or, at least, there is no such ending in Vanity Fair and thus, correspondingly, in Vanity Fair. The very meaning of “vanity” includes the inability to provide ultimate satisfaction or meaning. Thackeray has shown his characters in quest of satisfaction for eight hundred pages, and, while his ending is by no means tragic, it could not be called comic either. Amelia and Becky are still in pursuit of their happy ending, and the readers are shown that that pursuit will likely continue forever uncompleted.

Thackeray not only explicitly denies his readers a happy ending to his story but actually denies them a happy ending in their own lives as well! The narrator’s rhetorical questions clearly imply that it is not only Becky and Amelia who cannot achieve finally satisfying desires but also each of us reading this novel or watching this “play.” We, as readers, might all along have been waiting for, perhaps expecting, satisfaction of our readerly expectations, and Thackeray achieves his ends by purposely flouting those hopes. We have been led to identify, sometimes uncomfortably, with the characters throughout the novel, and now we identify with them in their experience of that nagging feeling that something is still missing.

And if a frustrated reader were to splutter out that, after all that time and effort spent, he felt as if he’d gotten nowhere, we can imagine that Thackeray might well smirk and satirically query, “Do you mean, perhaps, it was all in vain?”

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.

A Matter of Trust

There’s a lot of pressure in choosing a topic for the last blog post of the semester, and choosing from the many crazy and brilliant scenes/characters of Bleak House doesn’t make it any easier. There’s Mr. Guppy—the man who can’t stop (won’t stop) proposing, Mrs. Flite and her creepy collection of birds, and Mr. Bucket, the detective at the center of the first ever police procedural in literature (or so the internet tells me). So, out of all these characters, I have chosen to write about the narrator. Writing about the narrator is basically like choosing vanilla ice cream when you could have chosen, well, anything else, but here it goes anyway.

I believe narrators, especially third-person omniscient narrators. They speak with authority, and I totally buy into it. Maybe it’s because I like George Eliot. Maybe it’s because I’m traditional by nature. But whatever the cause, I tend to trust narrators until they give me a very specific reason not to, and the third-person narrator in Bleak House is no exception.

In the opening chapter, the narrator vividly describes the fog that permeates London, seeping into every nook and cranny, enveloping rich and poor alike. The chapter implies that the narrator, much like the fog, is everywhere. He (we’ll call him a “he”) is aware of the movements of every character and can perceive their inner motives and their darkest secrets. Although the narrator doesn’t let us in on every detail of every character from the beginning—if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel—his descriptions of each person we meet in the novel reveal quite a lot about character. When we first meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, the narrator tells us that he is “surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences” and that “there are noble Mausoleums rooted for centuries in the retired glades of parks . . . which perhaps hold fewer oble secrets that walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn” (23). He is immediately associated with secrecy, but not in a positive way. The association with mausoleums makes the reader skeptical of his character and the nature of the secrets he keeps. And we should be skeptical. The narrator gives us fair warning that Mr. Tulkinghorn might not be the most trustworthy.

However, there is one character description that makes me question my trust in the narrator—that of Sir Leicester Deadlock. By the end of the novel, I felt I had been led astray in my perception of Sir Leicester. I had been led to think poorly of him, to see little depth in his character, and while I was pleasantly surprised to learn of his genuine love for his wife, I couldn’t help but feel I had been set up.

When we first meet Sir Leicester, we are told, with a clear tone of irony, that “there is no mightier baronet that he.” The narrator states, “He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Deadlocks” (21). In summary, “He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man” (22). From this description, I fully expected Sir Leicester to be a flat character designed to point to the absurdities of the aristocracy. He seems unfeeling and full of himself. And this depiction carries for almost the entire novel as he proves his “might” in ridiculous squabbles with his neighbor. However, when he learns of Lady Deadlock’s past, a past that should be (in Victorian society, at least) a disgrace to him, he does not think at all of himself, his position, or his legacy; he can think only of her and her suffering. At this point in the novel, the narrator reveals, “It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love.” He is “oblivious of his own suffering” and feels only compassion for her (838).

To a certain extent, I don’t mind that I was misled. Sir Leicester’s compassion is more moving because it is unexpected. However, I feel guilty because I have judged him so harshly, but it was the narrator who guided me to that judgement. He wanted me to think the worst of Sir Leicester so that I could feel all the right emotions when his love is revealed. This is clear emotional manipulation, and ultimately, it makes me wonder if I have been too trusting.

Adultish Children and Childish Adults: Maturity in Bleak House

Last week, Chris posted on “Childhood and Childishness” in Bleak House, noting, “It is filled with adults that act like children (Richard, Ada, Skimpole, Lady Deadlock, Guppy, Chadband, Mr. Turveydrop, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Smallweed …), and children that act like adults (Charley, Jo, Prince, Judy). Yet, Esther ‘acts her age’, and is nearly the only character that does so.” I would like to probe that idea further, challenging the idea that Esther “acts her age,” and suggest that she, like the other adultish children in the novel, is forced to grow up too soon.

First, what makes adults childish? The main characteristic is dependence: Harold Skimpole, for example, is “a child” because he is utterly dependent on Mr. Jarndyce. Rick is also described as “an Infant” by the Chancery when he desires to select a career in the army; the Court perhaps enjoys having him completely dependent on its “parental” power (387). Mr. Turveydrop likewise enjoys his dependence on Prince and Caddy (who, regrettably, trades one unfortunate parent for another when she marries Prince). In addition to dependence, we also see these childish adults unaware of the world outside themselves, of the effects that their actions have on others. Take Richard’s obsession with Jarndyce, for example, or Harold’s neglect of his children, or Mrs. Jellyby’s inability to see her own children living in squalor while she feeds her ego on charitable projects. I believe Inspector Bucket has it right when he says,

“Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One” (875).

Rather than condemning certain childish individuals, this problem is endemic enough for Dickens to condemn an entire generation– his generation– of abdicating its responsibilities and forcing its children to take on a premature role.

Esther is the chief casualty of the abandonment of the older generation. Her own mother has never played an active role in her upbringing, and her cold aunt never let her be a little girl, saddling her with the guilt of adult actions. As a result, she skips the stage of the young woman entirely, becoming “Dame Durden” and “little old woman.”

This abdication of young womanhood and the absence of adult guidance in Esther’s life is symbolized by the doll that she cherishes as a child. When Esther buries her doll in the garden, it is more than her acceptance of maturation. The doll represented the adult presence and guidance that Esther never had; she tells it all her secrets, looks to it for the emotional support she would have received from her mother. This is why, when Lady Dedlock and Esther first catch each other’s eye in the church, the doll reappears:

And, very strangely, there was something quickened within me, associated with the lonely days at my godmother’s; yes, away even to the days when I had stood on tiptoe to dress myself at my little glass after dressing my doll.

The doll also reappears in Esther’s life as a symbol of young womanhood. Esther’s sped-up development has forced her to skip the stages of young courtship, to go straight to old-maidhood. While Ada and Rick experience the joy of young love, Esther is the one they come to for advice– despite the fact that she has never had this kind of experience. The description Dickens gives of young Charley’s care for her siblings could just as easily have described the unnatural responsibility Esther is saddled with, mothering both Ada and Rick:  “It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.” Like the doll, Esther has also buried her youth, taking on an adult role that is unnatural for her stage in life. This is why, when Guppy proposes, Esther again references the doll: the young woman buried within her has begun to awaken. “In short, I was in a flutter for a little while and felt as if an old chord had been more coarsely touched than it ever had been since the days of the dear old doll, long buried in the garden.”

It is only through her illness that Esther is able to reconcile all of her life stages, and to accept the one that is appropriate for her real age. She writes, “At once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman I had been so happy as, I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the great perplexity of endlessly trying to reconcile them” (555). With the first glimpse that she gets of herself in the looking-glass after the illness, she is able to come to a greater level of self-knowledge and acceptance, to “begin afresh.” Like the smallpox scars, her lost young womanhood will always be with her. Yet her resilience allows her to reclaim some of what has been lost, when she becomes a mother herself: her children will not have to face the abandonment of the adult generation.

A Story without a Hero?

If I could give a simple answer to the question “how do you feel now that you have read what is considered to be one of the greatest Victorian novels ever written?”, my response would be – a little disappointed. The history of how the novel came into being is the struggle between the Romantic and the Real. In Middlemarch, Eliot sets herself up firmly on the side of Realism – yet, the novel’s ending still feels, in some ways, contrived. In Eliot’s desire to move as far as possible away from ‘Happily Ever After’, has she sacrificed good narrative practices? Perhaps even worse, has she, in her desire to so write against the traditional Romantic narrative, placed her characters in situations which forces them to take a step down (which they all do in some sense)?

Of course, it is more important for Fred, Dorothea, and Lydgate that they are with the ones they love, not that they are wealthy. But again, the step down is so decisive, in addition to the fact that it impacts the primary characters all in nearly the same way, I cannot help but feel that it is a little contrived. Then there is this – in the third to the last chapter, after an epigraph that contains a lengthy passage from Pilgrim’s Progress, where a group of worldly-wise judges condemns Christian’s friend Faithful, Eliot states that it “is a rare and blessed lot which some greatest men have not attained, to know ourselves guiltless before a condemning crowd – to be sure that what we are denounced for is solely the good in us” (823). I cannot help but feel that the introduction to this chapter bears a heavy reference to Eliot’s own life, and that the putting on of a non-traditional Romantic ending for not just one, but all of her primary characters serves in some way to vindicate her own non-traditional relationship.

If the story did have a hero, it may actually be Fred Vincy – who breaks from tradition for the woman he loves. Lydgate is forced to give up his traditional ‘Happily Ever After’, and Dorothea, though not wealthy, only gives up what is hateful to her. Fred, on the other hand, must work to win his new station, though it is a step below what his family initially provided for. It is Fred’s future that Eliot gives the most detailed account of at the novel’s end, and we see Fred, in his new station, having a solid upward trajectory. Lydgate goes down, and Dorothea stays constant. What then is heroism in Middlemarch? Does it exist in Eliot’s world view? If so, it is not revolutionary or salvific. Some of the greatest turns in the novel result from Bulstrode’s scandalous past – hardly a knight in shining armor. Yet, at the end, each of these main characters sacrifice something for the person they love. If there is heroism in Middlemarch, it may not be salvific, but sacrificial.

Who is ultimately responsibility for the actions of Frankenstein’s monster? Although it is easy to attach blame to Victor, his complete responsibility for the actions of his monster is somewhat problematic. Much like the human population, the monster was given free will. In other words, it is entirely his choice to respond with evil to his unfortunate situation. Victor Frankenstein is certainly cruel to his creation; however, the monster further contributed to his creator’s disapproval when he murders many of the people for whom Victor cares deeply.  The monster does not approach his maker with civility, but he murders his younger brother instead.  As a result, Victor’s refusal to create a partner for this “devil” is not difficult to understand. The monster chooses the path violence to achieve his goal, rather than civilly requesting Victor’s audience. While Victor does not represent an overwhelmingly sympathetic character, his scientific advances present his with an exceptionally difficult situation. He does attempt to end the lineage of the “devil” he created by not allowing the monster to have a mate. As a result, Victor was taking a small amount of responsibility for the monster because he was willing to endure the monster’s vengeance for his disobedience. Nonetheless, the responsibility ultimately falls solely on the monster. As a creature independent of his maker, he chooses a life of evil and destruction rather than redemption. Consequently, the monster should alone be held responsible for his decisions. If the creator is held responsible for the actions of his or her creation, then it stands to reason that parents should be held responsible for the decisions of their children.

Rebecca West–Return of the Soldier

The Role of Kitty in Return of the Soldier

After completing West’s novel Return of the Soldier, I find it highly ironic that the wife of the title character, Chris, is rarely mentioned.  One would suppose that a loved one of the the title character would be mentioned more, but Kitty is not.  An obvious reason for this is because Chris does not remember his wife after returning to war.  He has no recollection of his past with her, so Chris does not remember his wife, West will not place her frequently in the novel.  Like in Chris’s mind, Kitty must be in the background of the plot.

By looking closer at the personalities and behaviors of Kitty, we see that Kitty is not very helpful or sympathetic towards Chris and his lack of memory.  She expects him to remember her, and when she discovers that he does not, she does not try too hard to understand.  Her first (and final, really) attempt to jar his memory involves Kitty dressing up in an elegant gown and covering herself with jewels.  “It seems so strange that you should not remember me,” she remarks and then indicates of the jewels:  “You gave me all of these” (27).  Perhaps our lovely wife is so disconnected from her husband that she does not deserve a place in the foreground of the plot.  Because Chris embodies the War in the novel, a parallel between Kitty’s disconnect with her husband and with an understanding of the War is present.

Thus far, Kitty has served as a symbol of Chris’ memory loss and a lack of understanding of the War.  It is true that she is not directly present in the novel, but how curious it is that West gives the closing lines of her novel to Kitty!  Once Chris is reminded of his past and remembers who he is, Kitty watches him walk back to the house.  Jenny believes that he looks “every inch a soldier,” and Kitty exclaims that “he’s cured!” (90).  West interjects a preposition in Kitty’s exclamation that reveals a bit more of character: with satisfaction.  How are we as readers supposed to interpret this?  Did all Kitty desire was for her husband to return to normalcy?  Why couldn’t she have accepted him in the state of mind that he was?

I believe that in giving Kitty the last line, and such a powerful last line, emphasizes an understanding of the War from a female perspective.  Judging by Kitty’s reactions in the novel, West feels that women do not fully understand the War or anything that caused the War.  Kitty is happy that her husband is “cured,” which means that he is back to his normal self.  We see a return of the soldier, but is this return good?  Are we to celebrate with Kitty, who appears to be wildly disconnected from reality, or are we to question this return?

West, Rebecca.  Return of the Soldier.  United States: The Century Co., 1918.  Print.