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).

The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).


Neglected Georgey

One of the main concerns for the characters in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret is that of how Lady Audley left her son and husband to go and start a new life. Little Georgey, however, was not only abandoned by his mother, but neglected by almost everyone he came across, showing how this ideal for women was one that men could ignore without any consequence.

Lady Audley herself admits to not having a connection with her son. In telling her story to Robert and Sir Michael, she states “my baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to my mother arose in me” (Braddon 361). Of course, not all mothers are happy to be so when they first become mothers and have to readjust to their new lives, but Lady Audley here never does. She sees her child as “a burden upon [her] hands” and seems to have no trouble leaving the boy with his father, even though she knows that Mr. Maldon has used up her money in going to bars (Braddon 364). She eventually does check up on her son, but only after she is forced into seeing her father by the return of the elder George Talboys. Gerogey himself never knows this woman as his mother, or at least does not remember it, and therefore is neglected by her.

The men in the novel blame Lady Audley for leaving her son, even if it seems to be only an addition to her leaving her husband, but they also neglect the boy. Mr. Maldon does not take great care of the child, as seen by his house being “shabbily furnished, and disorderly, with a child’s broken toys scattered on the floor, and the scent of stale tobacco hanging about the muslin window curtains,” (Braddon 79). That coupled with Maldons repeated sale of little Georgey’s watch to get money proves that this certainly was not the best environment for the child [Braddon 191]. Of course Mr. Maldon is poor and stuck in bad habits, but this does not excuse the fact that he is bringing up his grandson in a poor environment, even if he loves the lad.

The boy’s father, however, does the same. When George gets home from being in Australia, he is stricken to learn about his wife’s alleged death. He does not, however, think of his son until he actually sees him. In fact, at first George is only talking to his father-in-law before little George speaks, and only then does the father call out “my darling! My darling! … I am your father” (Braddon 83). He even leaves Georgey with Mr. Maldon since the boy “is very fond of his grandfather” (Braddon 83). There is no thought of how the environment is bad for the boy. !t is only when Robert, now the boy’s guardian, sees a child’s coffin being carried out of the neighborhood that Georgey is removed from it (Braddon 188). Neither George or Robert are criticized for leaving, neglecting, or otherwise not doing right by the child, however, unlike Lady Audley.

Lady Audley did wrong by leaving her son, especially in the care of her father who vexed her so much with his money issues and bad habits that she herself left. However, George did the same, leaving his wife and son to live with Mr. Maldon. Maldon himself did not take proper care of the lad, even though he did love him, and Robert Audley, the boy’s guardian, did not start protecting him until he realized the lad could die. None of these men are criticized for leaving or neglecting Georgey in the way that Lady Audley is. Only George has to bear some criticism for leaving, but he is often forgive for it mush quicker than she is. In the end, it is the woman who is blamed for leaving while the men don’t concern themselves too much with the needs of the child. Thus this standard of making women and only women in charge of the children leads, through one woman not living up to her gender norms and several men not stepping in to fill that roll, to young Georgey being neglected.The gender norms lead to an innocent child being neglected, and so the novel displays how these norms can be harmful.

Anvilicious Narm in Mary Barton?

With dramatic phrases and pauses, with rhetorical flourishes and sensational descriptions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton veers dangerously close to that scorned genre, melodrama. Chapter twenty-eight, in particular (the chase after HMS John Cropper), is a fast-paced, emotional, adventuresome, high-stakes, life-and-death escapade full of tears and breathlessness. Similarly, the courtroom chapters stage scenes of sentimental theatricality climaxing in a last-minute entrance and a fainting woman. The novel wraps up with a deathbed confession and reconciliation, a long-delayed marriage for love, and the curing of blindness. These are sensational events indeed.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is a work of literature that excites its audience “by exaggeration and sensationalism,” or, “More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement” (OED). With the exception of “lurid” excitement, these descriptions fit Mary Barton, particularly the chase scene. Chapter twenty-eight, “John Cropper, Ahoy!” is full of sensational diction. There is even a gothic tone to Mary’s fear when “a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that every thing animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will…. she sat silent with clenched hands…. But she was sickening all the time with nervous fear” (370). Here is the damsel in distress, motionless in a boat, at the mercy of men and nature. Yet the girl’s suffering is in the context of a high-speed inverted escape trope nearly as pulse-pounding as a “Follow that car!” chase scene in a modern heist movie. The little river-boat struggles to catch up with the ship, and “as they looked with straining eyes, … they saw her sails unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point, they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off” (371). Dramatic sensationalism is located in the elements, as the wind picks up, and in the vessels, as boat and ship compete against each other and against time, tide, and tempest. Such an unconventional vehicle chase is certainly an example of a sensational incident heightened by exaggeration.

Furthermore, not only the situation, but also Mary’s emotional actions during this hot pursuit are dramatized and sensationalized. Not content any longer to sit still and await the men’s initiative, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (371). Those outstretched arms, those tears streaming down cheeks, are the classic stuff of melodrama, as is the diction of what happens to Mary next. The captain shouts down to see what she wants, but “Her throat was dry; all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship” (372). The adjectives here are themselves melodramatic—dry, musical, loud, harsh—especially ‘musical,’ which hearkens back to the origins and etymology of melodrama as musical theatre. The captain’s harsh rebuff and Mary’s traumatized, religiously-tinged response also heighten the tension and enlarge the scale of ordinary interactions:

He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with a single hand, whoever swung for it. The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound. Mary sat down, looking like one who prays in the death-agony. For her eyes were turned up to that Heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her head and hid it in her hands. (372)

This purple passage seems dangerously close to ham-handed bathos, and indeed “melodrama” is typically used as a term of insult, suggesting ineptitude on the part of the author or poor taste on the part of the reader. However, Mary Barton’s reception is not that of a dime-story bodice-ripper or cheap true-crime thriller. It is treated by academics as a serious work of literature and enjoyed by thoughtful readers as a lively but sophisticated novel. However, then, does it escape from being melodrama?

One possible feature that raises this novel above heavy-handed sentimentalism is Mary’s active, heroic role. She is not the standard, passive, damsel-in-distress of Gothic horror, macho Westerns, or lurid warning tales like The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall with its defenseless maidens and their infamous virgin bosoms “that rose heaving above the border of lace” (Lippard 73). Instead, Mary Barton is a proactive, sensible protagonist who makes plans and executes them in order to save her helpless lover and help her guilty father. I recently heard a very persuasive paper by my colleague Nichole Bouchard arguing that Mary Barton is a remarkable example of a nineteenth-century heroine who overcomes hysteria, manages the bodily symptoms of anxiety, and retains her wits under great strain (in the courtroom scene), and that Gaskell made this character choice at a time when most other writers were showing their female characters as victims of these very ailments. Perhaps such fortitude is what raises Mary Barton above melodrama.

There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Gaskell does not shy away from melodrama in this book, but rather shows that the genre has been unfairly maligned. Or, more subtly, she may use Mary Barton to reveal hypocrisy in the hearts of many academics, who claim to have exalted literary tastes, but who really like a cheap, page-turning, romantic beach novel as much as anybody else. Such a strategic move would be in keeping with Gaskell’s social agenda throughout the book, as she strives to arouse in middle-class readers sympathy with and understanding for their economically underprivileged neighbors. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gaskell cleverly drawing her snobby, bourgeois audience into enjoyment of a much maligned, supposedly low-class genre.


Many thanks to that inestimable site of wisdom, TV Tropes, which I consulted freely while writing this post.

Wherefore the Sybil?

If a reader, frantically eager to begin reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, were to inadvertently skip her prologue she would not intuit that she had missed anything. Admittedly, the same could very nearly be said for a number of other, not unsizable, portions of the novel throughout, but it is particularly true of the prologue, which feels awkwardly fitted to the succeeding story. In the prologue, Shelley, or a fictional persona she adopts, claims that she stumbled upon the scattered Sybil’s leaves while flagrantly flouting the directions of her Italian tour guides, and it is through the fruits of this transgressive spelunking that the author manages to piece together and then relate the tale of humanity’s end which makes up the novel proper.

The result of this peculiar framing device is a rather complex layering of narration in the novel. Lionel Verney is the narrator of the novel proper and the titular “last man,” but he is writing this account well after the time at which the author finds (apparently) a transcription of Verney’s future book recorded centuries earlier by the mythic Sibyl. Certainly an odd turn of affairs! Verney’s narration is told through the Sibyl’s leaves as translated by the author, and the author makes it clear that she performed a significant work of interpretation in piecing together the leaves, claiming, “Certainly the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion…in my hands” (7). Presumably all of this business is meant to somehow shape the reader’s experience of and engagement with the novel, but answering exactly how it is supposed to shape that experience is not easy. The prologue might seem insignificant or even distracting upon first glance (and possibly still after further inspection), but considering the influence of the multi-layered narration does suggest some possible ways that Shelley might have hoped to alter the reception of the text by the reader.

One effect of the author-Sybil-Verney narration could be to render Verney’s account ambiguous enough to make the novel a warning of potential danger rather than a statement about a certain future. Frequently, futuristic and dystopian novels seek to depict a terrible outcome in the future in order to warn about errors in the present. As a forerunner of the dystopian novel genre, Shelley would not have been drawing on this generic tradition as such, but she might nonetheless have tapped into a similar impulse. Perhaps she hoped to write about a catastrophic future for humanity without removing all hope of changing that future, so that her audience might feel compelled to act in order to change the outcome of humanity.

However, this reading is complicated by the fact that the novel does not seem to be primarily, or even very significantly, focused on highlighting humanity’s errors and warning about their destructive tendencies. To be sure, Verney has his fair share of critiques leveled at human foibles and follies, and Shelley does use the collapse of civilization to point out the absurdity of class distinctions and other such distinctions (although the protagonists remain rather distinctly aristocratic in their own perception). But it is never suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that human error is the catalyst of the catastrophe. To the contrary, the origins of the plague are entirely unknown and human conduct, good, bad, or somewhere in between, is all equally incapable of speeding or slowing the spread of the disease. Those who band together in the face of disease, die. Those who selfishly take advantage of the disease, die. Human action is not highlighted as an agent initiating or exacerbating the apocalypse; instead the novel emphasizes humanity’s lack of agency in relation to the plague. The point is not that humanity could have prevented the plague; the point is that they could not have done so.

Thus, rendering the account of the future ambiguous might play a part in Shelley’s motivation, but it does not seem to be a major part. So why else might Shelley employ this complex, rather unintuitive, narrative structure?

Well, perhaps she was simply trying to find a way to write about potentially “unbelievable” events in a future world. In the mid-nineteenth century, the novel was still a relatively young genre, and many novelists had chosen to somehow couch their story in the guise of a true account in some way. Shelley employs such a technique but is hampered by the fact that she cannot very plausibly present the text to her readers as an authentic recording of true events if those events take place in the future. And who better to relate the future than the Sibyl? There is no point dealing with second-rate future-gazers when you can just send your author straight into the Sibyl’s cave. This practical strategy for evoking a sort of “truthiness” might well explain Shelley’s layered narration in part.

However, we ought also to consider the inverse of the first possible answer we pondered. We have asked whether Shelley might have wanted to make Verney’s account questionable by the ways in which she drew it from the future to the present, but she might also have wanted to obscure her novel’s biographical elements by pushing present and recent past into a far-off future. Clearly, Shelley is not laboring to conceal the parallels between Lord Raymond and Lord Byron or between Adrian and the similarly sailing-accident-prone Perce Shelley. However, she is also not writing a straight biography or some kind of biographical allegory. She could have expressed her complex feelings about Byron and her somewhat perplexing feelings for Shelley by writing about them as themselves, but such writing is, in some ways, uncomfortably confined by facticity. To simultaneously write about and not write about the passing of the Late Romantics, who made up so significant a part of her life, she may have had to create enough distance between her fictional subjects and factual friends so that her readers would not draw too direct a correlation between them. Lord Raymond resembles Byron in many ways, but he is not Byron. As such, he can be better than Byron, while still modeling his faults and his fall. And the divorce between the angelic Adrian and the errant Perce seems much greater. Perhaps, by placing these departed figures in the future, Shelley was able to not only reflect on what they were but also imagine what they might have been. In some ways, dark though her plague-wracked future is, it at least allows her drowned Perce a chance to shine in a new light.

Shelley’s novel is many things. It’s a bit of biography. A bit of tragic romance. A bit of social critique. And a lot of apocalypse. And perhaps that variety is, in the end, what her framing device enables her to accomplish. The novel feels a bit oddly patched together at times, but then she frames it as something almost literally patched together from leaves and scraps of leaves gathered off the floor of an Italian cave. Her layered narration secures her freedom, and, while there is probably much more we could say about what Shelley might be doing with that freedom, we could at least perhaps conclude that that freedom is likely, to some extent, an end in itself.

Pulling Up a Sibyl by Her Own Bootstraps: Narrative Contradictions in “The Last Man”

by Sørina Higgins

The Last Man is constructed as a tri-partite narrative whose fictions are mutually contradictory, lacking closure, inhospitable to the reader, and difficult to interpret. The three putative narrators are “Mary Shelley,”[1] the Cumaean Sibyl, and Lionel Verney. “Shelley” begins by claiming: “I visited Naples in the year 1818.”[2] She describes her explorations of a cave complex in Baiæ Bay that turns out to be the ancient haunts of the Sibyl. Here, “Shelley” collects leaves “traced with written characters” (3).[3] She spends time “deciphering these sacred remains,” editing, translating, organizing, adding material, and shaping the fragments into a narrative (3). Indeed, she admits: “Sometimes I have thought … they owe their present form to me, their decipherer” (4). Shelley thus uses this first frame to plant suspicion in the reader’s mind about the accuracy of the story displayed within: not a welcoming move.

The second narrator is nearly subsumed into the first: the Cumaean Sibyl is not allowed to speak for herself, but only as channeled through “Shelley” (who is, of course, channeled through Shelley). Within the frame, the reader is meant to believe that the main components of the story originated in Sibylline oracular writings—i.e., that they are divinely inspired and inescapably true. This origin story renders the embedded tale of humankind’s devastation by the plague as a warning. Many predictions of disaster include a comforting caveat; after Jonah’s declamation to Nineveh—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—repentance led to God’s “relenting” and holding back “the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The readers of The Last Man, however, have no such option. No repentance is called for. No method of avoiding destruction is offered. Their only hope, oddly, is to disbelieve the story and put its inaccuracy down to the distortions introduced by “Shelley” during her process of “adaptation and translation” (4). This is a strange way to frame a novel: By encouraging readers to disbelieve it. Clayton Carlyle Tarr writes that frame narratives “frequently disturb narrative cohesiveness,” and that is certainly the case here.[4] From the very opening of The Last Man, the reader is encouraged to trust its veracity as a divinely-inspired prophecy of the future and simultaneously to suspect its accuracy due to its dubious reconstruction.

The third narrator is Lionel Verney, the main character, and his account contradicts the other two. Those may be harmonized with each other (the Sibyl could have written the leaves and “Shelley” could have transcribed them), but if his account is true, theirs must be ignored and erased to make space for his supposed authorship. When he is the last person alive on earth (as far as he knows), he decides to write a book dedicated “to the illustrious dead,” speculating that “the children of a saved pair of lovers” somewhere will re-populate the globe and read his book (339). In it, he narrates his life from solitude through young love, domestic life, and political action to solitude again. His writing of the book introduces a strange loop somewhat similar to the variously-named bootstrap paradox that bedevils time travelers. If the Sibyl wrote the leaves and “Shelley” edited them, then Lionel did not write the book; but then the prophecy is false, because the prophecy includes and is in some way predicated upon the book’s being written. If Lionel did/will write the book, then the Sibyl did not write it, and it is not a divine prophecy.

The Last Man’s frames, then, contradict one another; the first two are historical, the last is prophetic. One scholar asks: “Do prophecy and history contend as narrative modes?”[5] They certainly do in Shelley’s novel. This book “complicates conceptions of history and authenticity, and, because the opening frame never returns, Shelley leaves us with a perplexing understanding of what we have read and how we have read it.”[6] Have we read a prophecy of our own future? Or a fictional account of future we need not fear? The most crucial question raised by these debating narrative personae may be: Why did Shelley write a book whose conflicting frames alienate a reader via skepticism?

Scholars have wrestled with the destabilizing implications of The Last Man’s narrative frames. They may be merely a pragmatic writing technique, allowing the past-tense narration of events in the future.[7] But more is going on. Morag Veronica McGreevey thinks that “the novel’s annihilating conclusion denies the possibility of an audience,” which then forced Shelley to create the Sibylline frame as an excuse for the book’s creation in the past so that it may have an audience in the present (before the plague-ridden apocalypse).[8] But this ignores Lionel’s hope that survivors might still exist to be fruitful and multiply. Emily Steinlight takes the opposite approach, arguing “The Last Man does not foretell a destiny, much less an end of history,” because it assumes a present audience.[9] This ignores the story’s claim that it was written (by the Sibyl) in ancient times and edited by “Shelley” in 1818 and thus could easily be read in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Many scholars read the open-ended narrative frame, with its account of questionable editing practices, as a destabilization of faith in authors, editors, or publishers.[10] The most dramatic of these is Tarr, who argues the lack of closure is “an enduring horror.”[11] This reading sees the conflicting frames as Shelley’s intentional device, either to protest her mistreatment by the literary industry of her day or to question her role as Percy’s literary executor.

There is a way to reconcile the varying frames, but it is inhospitable to narrators and reader alike. It requires believing (contrary to her report) that “Shelley” copied the Sibyl’s prophecy exactly—that’s what we are reading—and the prophecy will be fulfilled in our future, when Lionel Verney will write, word-perfectly, the book predicted by the Sibyl, constructed by “Shelley,” and written by Shelley. It could all be true, and we are awaiting our doom. It’s coming soon, in 2100.


[1] I use the quotation marks to distinguish this character from Mary Shelley and to acknowledge the many scholars who read this narrator as an ungendered fictional figure.

[2] This is, in fact, true of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[3] I am using this edition: Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. New Introduction by Brian Aldiss. London: The Hograth Press, 1985.

[4] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. “The Force of a Frame: Narrative Boundaries and the Gothic Novel.” University of Georgia Dissertation, 2013. Abstract.

[5] ENG 274 notes: “Mary Shelley in Context.”

[6] Tarr 36

[7] Franci, Giovanna. “A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) p. 186., qtd. in Albright, Richard S. “‘In the mean time, what did Perdita?’: Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Romanticism on the Net. Issue13, February, 1999.

[8] McGreevey, Morag Veronica. “Reading Apocalypse: Ruptured Temporality and the Colonial Landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia, 2013. 1.

[9] Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life. Cornell University Press, 2018. 72.

[10] Zolciak, Olivia. “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: A Critical Analysis of Anxiety and Authorship.” Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2017. 50-51. Webb, Samantha. “Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Webb, Samantha Christine. Literary Mediators: Figures of Authority and Authorship in English Romantic Prose. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999. 129. Tarr 36, 138.

[11] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. Gothic Stories Within Stories: Frame Narratives and Realism in the Genre, 1790–1900. McFarland, 2017.

Stepping into Secularism: Complicating Jean-Luc Marion’s Post-“Charlie Hebdo” Advice to Muslims

Jean-Luc Marion is best known for his influential works of philosophy, phenomenology, and theology, but, after the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo,” he wrote in a far less (although still somewhat) abstract vein, identifying the tragedy as an incident in a long-ranging conflict and recommending a path forward for followers of the Muslim faith in French society. According to Marion, the most essential step for the Muslim faith to take, in order to successfully step “into the secularism that the other religions embrace in France,” is to open “itself up to a close analysis” (Marion). Marion sees this “opening up” as a necessary step for Islam to be incorporated as a peaceful and functional part of French society, positioning the analysis as temporally and causally prior to the “secularism.” With respect to Marion’s eminence as a philosopher and his emotions in the moment of this response’s composition, I would like to argue that Marion’s recommendation to French Muslims (and Muslims generally) is impossible to realize, because of the way he inverts the necessary causal relationship between secularism and the kind of analysis he describes. This does not necessarily indicate that Marion’s end-goal of integration within a secularist framework is not a worthy one, but this complication of the means he recommends does force us to reconsider how (if at all) that end can be attained.

Marion’s description of the analysis that Islam must undergo implies the operation of a certain critical mindset. Marion refers to this process, one already undergone by Catholic traditions, Protestant traditions, and Judaism, as “tests of their religious validity” (Marion). This testing of Islam should include “philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretation of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.” (Marion). Such a process might sound quite natural to those shaped by traditions that have already undergone it, and the component steps laid out by Marion might sound to many of us essential to any such study. And indeed they are, but in order to embrace, or even make sense of, such a study certain assumptions about the nature of belief and truth as applied to religion are necessary. The kind of analysis Marion speaks about here cannot be undertaken unless one adopts a critical lens that holds simultaneously the possibility of a religion’s truth or falsity. Even if one already believes in the religion under investigation, the intellectual process of analysis must be understood as causally, if not temporally, prior to belief. The religion in question must be viewed as a thing, like many other things, that may or may not be believed, contingent on the results of analytical inquiry. Reality apart from the religion must be conceptually accepted as a possibility before such an analysis can be begun.

However, according to the eponymous Charles Taylor and those who follow his influential definition of secularism, the mindset that I have described above is precisely what constitutes secularism itself. In Taylor’s A Secular Age, he offers a hefty analysis of the origins of that titular phenomenon, finding that the critical difference between secularism now and secularism as it has been understood in the past is the fundamental assumption that belief in a particular religion (as well as non-belief in any religion) are equally viable possibilities. Not believing in the religion in which one believes is always understood as a possibility, and belief is thus seen as a choice. This way of thinking, as we have seen, underlies the kind of analysis and testing that Marion contends Islam must undergo to become a thriving participant in secular society.

But this is a problem since it means that, before undergoing the kind of analysis Marion mandates for induction into secularism, the mindset of Muslims (a rather nebulous body referred to by Marion) must be secular. In other words, secularism becomes a prerequisite for secularism. Marion identifies the problem underlying the discord between secular French society and Islam as the fact that Islam is not secular, but his plan for bringing Islam into the fold of secularism requires a condition which, by Marion’s own reasoning, cannot be fulfilled. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Marion might well be roughly correct in his diagnosis of the problem, even if his solution is lacking. Saba Mahmood has pointed out, in her incisive analysis of the Muslim response to the depiction of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, that responses of this kind arise from a Muslim understanding of faith that stands in contrast to the secular conception of faith as a choice (Mahmood 844). Indeed, Mahmood goes on to consider the ways that imaging Muhammad can affect Muslim believers, ways that are reminiscent of Taylor’s distinction between the porous self and the modern, secular buffered self.

So where does all of this leave us? The answer might seem to be “nowhere particularly good.” It appears that Marion might be right insofar as he suggests that traditional Islam remains incompatible with key aspects of French (and generally Western) society, because that society is secular and Islam, traditionally conceived, is not. However, secularism cannot be tidily manufactured through the process Marion recommends, nor through any similarly timely and intentional program. Western secularism evolved over centuries through a very particular series of events, culminating in a mindset incommensurable with many other modes of thought. Of course, Marion rather ignores a great deal of scholarly analysis of Islam already being undertaken by individuals who have accepted the necessary secularist positions, so perhaps we could look toward such trends as a potential solution. On the other hand, such academic inquiry, like most academic inquiry at present, is far removed from the lives and habits of most people and thus from most sincere followers of the Islamic faith. At present, the best that seculars and non-seculars can do might be to simply agree to disagree, but even such a goal as that is a fraught one when the very idea of “disagreement” itself is understood fundamentally differently within a secular or non-secular framework.

Works Cited:

Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect.” Critical Inquiry. Summer 2009.

Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself to Critique–Jean-Luc Marion.”

“Some folks ’ud say”: Narrative Scorn at the Sign of the Rainbow

The narrative structure of Silas Marner seems crafted to draw the reader in and hold the reader at a distance; to create sympathy and to facilitate an alienating sense of otherness, in alternating scenes of rushing suspense and of dispassionate narrative. Reading the novella in light of Hollander’s Narrative Hospitality suggests that these shifts are either reflective of or contributors to changing Victorian philosophies about the Self and the Other, about sympathy and hospitality. Even given that understanding, however, Chapter VI is jarring.

Chapter Six opens in the midst of building tension as Silas discovers his gold has been stolen, then rushes off the to pub to declare his grievance. But then, in a sudden change in tone, the narrative screeches to a halt, the chronological sequence goes into retrogression, and the perspective is wrenched from a singular intense focus on Silas’s distress to a dispersed comic scene among the rustic personages gathered at the Rainbow. The narrator refuses to offer continued narrative drama and chronological continuity just when readers most want them, pursuing an unrelated side-track for nine pages before deftly weaving together the villagers’ stories about ghosts with Silas’s uncanny appearance. However, even though the thematic connection via tales of the supernatural is clear, the chapter-long divergence appears to damage the compelling forward momentum of the story. Might it serve to heighten suspense by postponing the moment of dramatic satisfaction? Might it serve a subtly didactic function, frustrating the readers’ desire to know something on a small scale as a metonym for general epistemological uncertainty?

A closer examination of the passage in question reveals other problematic elements in addition to the postponement of narrative satisfaction. It is not clear what the narrator’s (or the author’s) stance is on these “lower-class” characters. The narrative tone, the phonetic presentation of dialogue, the absurd content of their conversation, and the caricatured portraiture combine to give the impression that the narrator holds them in great scorn. For instance, the conversation begins with an argument ostensibly about a cow, but really about these neighbors’ faith in one another’s word. Mr. Snell, the landlord, opens proceedings by asking: “Some folks ’ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?” (40). The spelling, diction, and grammar suggest a working-class dialect quite different from the narrator’s smooth, sophisticated, sometimes facetious prose. This continues in Bob’s answer: “And they wouldn’t be fur wrong, John.” This apparent mockery is not confined to dialogue. The narrative descriptions read like satire. The landlord considers people “beings who were all alike in need of liquor,” and Bob is “not disposed to answer rashly” (pausing a long time to smoke his pipe), and the farrier looks around “with some triumph” after making an inane remark. These techniques leave this reader in some doubt whether the narrator (or Eliot herself) is writing for pure fun, or out of gentle love, or from a sense of social superiority. This ambiguous attitude calls into question the narrator’s hospitality; is s/he Othering these people to the extent that they are outside the readers’ range of sympathy?

The setting is also jarring, causing the reader’s re-orientation to the novella’s spatial and environmental elements. A police station, courtroom, or other official functionary location would seem more suited to Silas’s tale of crime, at least to a 21st-century reader. This shift of setting is also concurrent with—or perhaps the cause of—a change of generic features. Chapter V suggested that the story was becoming a mystery novel, but then Chapter VI suddenly presents a scene of rustic realism in stark contrast. Questions about hospitality remain, as the reader is thrust into the setting and genre that have hitherto been inhospitable to Silas and whose borders he has been unable to cross. But at the same time, the narrator’s troubling inhospitality continues towards the very people whom the reader has hoped would welcome Silas into their community. This is perplexing indeed.

There are several possible solutions to this dilemma about a troubling shift in setting, genre, and narrative perspective. One is to take the suspension of narrative closure in the Rainbow as a foreshadowing of the sixteen-year postponement to come. Just as the reader is frustrated by having to slog through a whole chapter of casual neighborhood chat while chaffing to know how Silas will be received, so the theft of Silas’s money and the mystery of Eppie’s paternity remain unsolved for sixteen years. This narrative frustration mirrors Godfrey’s refusal to let down his boundaries to his father, brother, and Nancy—and both are examples of the failure to fully open up to community and to strangers when the chance is first offered.

A second possible reading considers the weaving together of narrative threads. This is a macrocosmic metaphor of Silas’s microcosmic literal weaving. The story presents first a single-stranded thread: Silas in Lantern Yard. After following this thread for a time, it shifts to a double- or triple-stranded thread: Godfrey’s, Dunstan, and perhaps Molly’s situations. Finally, in the chapter in question, the third many-stranded thread of the whole Raveloe community is braided together with the others. These men in the tavern will be Silas’s friends once Eppie unites him to them. Hospitality is thus enacted in the text as his life is woven together with theirs, raveled together in Raveloe when he thinks his life has unraveled.

However, neither of these readings explains the apparent scorn in the narrator’s tone or what seems to be Eliot’s mockery of lower-class characters. It may be that she did consider herself superior to uneducated villagers, or it may be that she is teasing out the reader’s own prejudices, revealing our unwillingness to spend time in a common pub with these folks, encouraging the reader to open mental doors and welcome these rustic characters in with intellectual and readerly hospitality. Perhaps the very frustration this scene raises is meant to create general epistemological uncertainty—can we ever truly know another human being?

~ Sørina Higgins

Generality in Theory and Specificity in Fiction

In her chapter “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists,” Rae Greiner explores the idea of realism in fiction as an effect that the novel has upon the reader. She argues that “realism in the nineteenth-century British novel … is best understood as ‘sympathetic realism,’ not simply because the novels promote or are about sympathy … but because they employ forms designed to enact sympathetic habits of mind in readers” (15). She understands sympathy to be not purely emotive, but cognitive, with emotional response brought about by cognitive assent to and entrance into the mental state of another. She suggests that realist fiction is the best platform for sympathy, for “fiction alone grants ‘nobodies’ … specificity that distinguishes them from the (fictional) generality out of which they emerge” (47). That is, only in the context of fiction is the other able to gain selfhood in the mind of the reader, for in fiction alone does the individual other become distinct from the general, typical other.

It is interesting to consider Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism in relation to Harriet Martineau’s sociological observations in How to Observe Morals and Manners in comparison with her novel Deerbrook. Does this idea of a notion of the selfhood of the other as gained only through fiction hold true in Martineau’s works?

My first response, based upon my own reaction to the works and upon the conversation that we had in class way-back-when we were reading Martineau at the beginning of the semester is an emphatic yes. Martineau’s sociological treatise is interesting and provides the reader with valid points as to how to charitably observe and judge the actions of others. However, this treatise neither presents us with others to view as selfs, nor encourages us to view others in that way. Instead, it assists us in the task of scientifically categorizing and labeling others in order to further our own agenda—even if we are to do so in the most charitable way possible.

For example, Martineau writes of how “popular songs are both the cause and effect of general morals” (83). She goes on to explain how this is the case, and why it is therefore important for the observer to pay careful attention to these songs “as an index of popular morals” (83). While these instructions are good in their way, and while they do to a certain extent encourage an impartial view of the situation, they do not help the reader to see the other as a specific self. Instead, they encourage the reader to read other human beings as they would scientific data, categorizing them under a set of undefined criteria based upon the reader’s personal experience of the world. Thus, in Martineau’s nonfiction, we see not people, but data; individual others become nobodies and are consumed into the generality.

In contrast, in Deerbrook Martineau aims to help the reader to enter into the experience of the other, thereby encouraging the recognition of the specificity and selfhood of the other that Grainer suggests is attained only in fiction.

One of the most striking examples of this is in Maria Young, the invalid governess who doesn’t on the surface appear to get the happy ending that her merits warrant. Though we may be tempted to classify her under the general, stereotypical category of “unlucky single woman who is destined to become bitter and unhappy after her former lover marries her best friend,” Maria’s final conversation with Margaret suggests otherwise. Maria explains to Margaret, “you are no fair judge of my lot. … If you could, for one day and night, feel with my feelings, and see through my eyes … you would know, from henceforth, that there are glimpses of heaven for me in solitude, as for you in love” (599). In this passage, supported by the several instances of Maria’s heavenly solitude that are provided throughout the book, the reader is encouraged to see Maria as removed from the generality in her actual peace with the lot that she has been granted. Though throughout the book these instances may seem unrealistic and idealized, in this final passage the reader is given one last encouragement to read Maria as actually unique within the category of invalid single women. Maria becomes through this work of fiction a nobody who ahs been granted “specificity that distinguishes [her] from the (fictional) generality out of which [she has] emerge[d]” (Greiner 47).

Thus, Martineau’s works support Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism as ultimately aimed at arousing in the reader an emotional sympathy with the reader through cognitive entrance into their experience of the world; it is indeed through fiction that one is best able to cognitively enter into the emotional state of another and thereby to view that other as another specific self.


Works Cited

Greiner, Rae. “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists.” Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. 15-49. Blackboard. Web. 2 April 2015.

Martineau, Harriet. Deerbrook. 1839. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

—. How to Observe Morals and Manners. 1838. N.p.:, 2010

The Artist and the Other

In “The Natural History of German Life,” George Eliot complains of the idealized portraits of the peasantry that so often appear in the arts. She argues that in order to truly fulfill their calling “of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (110), artists who depict the Other of the lower classes must do so accurately. As she writes, “our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil” (110).

This standard of creating “Art [that] is the nearest thing to life” (110) is high, and places the calling of the artist in a noble light. Her role becomes more than that of creating things that are beautiful to the senses; instead, she must also be accurate at a historical, sociological level in order to expand the experience of the one who is enjoying her work of art.

We can assume that Eliot held these criteria for her own artistic creations as well as those of others. Indeed, the subtitle of her novel Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, indicates that she approached this work at least as an opportunity to consider and critique the real experiences that her novel depicts. But does Eliot measure up to the standard of accurate reflection that she has set?

There is one scene in Middlemarch that is especially relevant to and in which Eliot seems especially aware of the standards that she set out in “The Natural History.” In this particular scene, Mr. Brooke approaches the homestead on his property that he has leased to the degenerate Dagley family. The narrator remarks at the opening of the scene on how “it is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freedman’s End” (327). The farm itself seems to match perfectly those found in the “idyllic literature” that Eliot critiques in “The Natural History” as “always express[ing] the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life” (109).

However, as she continues with the scene, it becomes evident that the hardships of the Dagleys are anything but delightful to the members of the family. The Dagley family is not composed of the happy, healthy, clean and cooperative peasantry that the picturesqueness of the scene might initially suggest. Mrs. Dagley is “[o]verworked … a thin, worn woman whose life pleasures had so entirely vanished that she had not even any Sunday clothes which could give her satisfaction in preparing for church” (329)—very far from the “usually buxom” depictions of peasant women to which Eliot objects (“Natural” 108). Mr. Dalgey himself is brusque and irritated with his landlord. He refuses to listen to Mr. Brooke’s (perhaps unreasonable) complaint of his son’s poaching, insisting that “you’d better let my boy aloan, an’ look to yoursen, afore the Rinform has got upo’ your back” (Middlemarch 329-30). In fact, Dagley is, after a meal at a public house of which he has partaken much to his wife’s chagrin, rather drunk. And the jovial Mr. Brooke, after mentioning this fact, you know, retreats with the promise of returning another day.

Though Eliot thus succeeds in presenting the socioeconomical Other in a (presumably) accurate light, her depiction of the national Other slips into the same over-dramatized stereotyping that she protests against in “The Natural History.” This is evident in her account of Lydgate’s first love interest Madame Laure, the French actress. Though the majority of Eliot’s characters are realistically complex, Madame Laure is nothing more than a beautiful “Provençale, with dark eyes, a Greek profile, and rounded majestic form” (Middlemarch 145)—and a murderously independent character. In this case, rather than painting a realistic portrait of the Other, Eliot falls into presenting the stereotypical French character that was common in contemporary novels.

Thus, though Eliot appears to be aware of the value of accurately presenting the socioeconomical Other, she fails to carry her conviction of the necessity of accurate artistic representations of the lives of others into other forms of Otherness. As a result, though Middlemarch may help to widen the reader’s experience of social classes in Victorian England, it should not be consulted if one desires to understand anyone outside that particular context.


Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Orchard Park: Broadview, 2004. Print.

—. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

Un-idealized Generalizations: George Eliot’s Implicit Criticism of Riehl in “The Natural History of German Life”


Idealized painting of Russian peasant life, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History,'” Fionnuala Dillane challenges those who would seek to forge a unified theory of writing for Eliot from her comments about realism in “The Natural History of German Life.” She quotes Michael Wolff, stating that Eliot “does not have a ‘theology of aesthetics'” (261); rather, Eliot’s “discomfort with the role of authoritative cultural commentator” and questioning spirit shrunk from spouting certainties in an uncertain world (241). While I believe that Dillane rightly urges critics to avoid proof-texting Eliot, I believe that Eliot’s thesis statement affirms her implicit criticism of Riehl’s generalization and her desire to see a more realistic portrayal of the poor.
Dillane argues that Eliot’s editors at the Westminster assigned her the review of Riehl, and that Eliot passively complied– because, like most journalists today, she probably wanted to keep her job. However, I don’t believe that her editors’ constraints stopped her from passively critiquing Riehl. The oft-quoted passages on writing and realism, I believe, stretch beyond what Dillane calls “an attempt to win over an English audience often hostile to relatively unknown German writers” (248-249). In these passages, she sets up her criteria for a successful representation:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals found on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such a s a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves. (110)
Eliot goes on to list several artistic (not sociological) works, and writes that these stories of individuals do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower… than hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (110). If falsification is, as she goes on to claim, the cardinal sin of representation, then the author who generalizes unfairly is duly condemned.
A couple points here are noteworthy: First, why acclaim the novelist and the artist in a review of a sociological treatise? Second, why condemn generalization so strongly, and then proceed to glowingly summarize an author who does just that? While Eliot praises the author who can engage her readers’ sympathies with individuals through art, she characterizes Riehl’s work as doing just the opposite. She summarizes and highlights his generalizations at length (e.g. “The peasant, in Germany as elsewhere, is a born grumbler” (123) or the Communist peasant living near the city who “has here been corrupted into beastiality by the disturbance of his instincts, while he is as yet incapable of principles,” (125) etc.) Far be it from us to sympathize with such lower, animalistic human beings, who are somehow incapable of morality or justified grievances! Rather than the sympathetic but realistic (and individualized) picture of the poor that Eliot envisions in the realist novel, Riehl’s poor are too far removed from the reader, and too far generalized in a corrupt direction.
If she was indeed bound by her editors’ constraints to write a positive review, Eliot subversively leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions, to tease out the latent dissonance between words and actions. Thus, while “The Natural History of German Life” should not perhaps be the sole proof-text for Eliot’s theories of representation, it should not be completely discarded, either.
Works Cited
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, ‘the People,’ and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-266.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” In Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Cranford’s Economy of Friendship

The laissez-faire captitalist industrialization of the Victorian era created a strange, cold new world of railroads and factories, the rise of new money and the fall of old blood. Yet the inhabitants of Cranford launch a conscious subversion of the inhuman “invisible hand”– in staunch British conservatism, the females of Cranford refuse to believe that the free market acts entirely in their interests. Through the ladies’ “little economies,” Elizabeth Gaskell levels a critique against London society’s consumption and frivolity. She instead constructs a society where one can lose one’s fortune without losing one’s dignity, an economy of friends and community that withstands the economic pressures of the larger world.

In the first chapter, “Our Society,” narrator Mary Smith proclaims that the “gentlefolks of Cranford” who had fallen on hard times “concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic” (4). This elaborate charade is held up by societal consensus; for example, Mrs. Forrester “now sate in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up; though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes” (5). Despite the pointlessness of the charade, the women maintain it, as their “Spartan” resistance to the forces outside their society and control.

As the narrative continues, the outside economic pressure becomes more and more apparent. Captain Brown’s entrance into Cranford society is introduced as his views on money are contrasted with those at Cranford: In Cranford, “economy was always ‘elegant,’ and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious;’ a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied…. Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor– not in a whisper… but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house” (5). His financial situation, as “a half-pay Captain,” is no “disgrace” to him; yet later we find out that “unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor” (17). His situation, as part of the railroads, is hardly enough to support his daughters, yet he bears up bravely even when he is literally crushed by “them nasty cruel railroads” (17-18). Though the market triumphs over Captain Brown in one sense, his spirit lost none of its nobility.

Miss Matty’s lost living allowance demonstrates the triumph of Cranford economy. Despite the confusing, impersonal machinations of the financial market which deprive her of her living, it is the personal economy, the economy of Cranford, that she falls back upon. Though any kind of responsibility for the bank’s collapse certainly does not rest with her, she finds the need to repay whom she can with the little money she has left. The secret gifts of the inhabitants of Cranford offer another example of the insular economy of friendship and community. While the free market economy limits Miss Matty’s options, the economy of friendship sustains her. Her little tea shop sustains a sudden demand– “the whole country round seemed to be out of tea at once”– and rather than competing with her, the owner of the general store gladly sends her his customers. She is sustained not by her adaptations to the market, but by the society of friendship that she has built.

Despite the gentle criticisms that Gaskell offers of the Cranford community, she presents a world untarnished by outside economic forces. Cranford offers a solution to the changing economic world of the Victorian age, a solution that values people over paychecks and friendship over figures.

Literary Lionism and Longing to Be Known

Human beings have a remarkable tendency to attempt to re-make themselves, to form a cohesive narrative of their lives, and to make meaning of the world around them. In “The Authoress’s Tale,” Dallas Liddle accurately observes that Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography “is not in fact the story of Harriet Martineau’s life up to 1855, as scholars have not unreasonably assumed, but rather the story of her life as she wanted to represent it in 1855″ (67).  Martineau’s self-reflection was encouraged when she discovered she was facing a “mortal disease” (tumors and/or a severe heart condition) “which might spare me some considerable space of life, but which might, as likely as not, destroy me at any moment” (35). Though she lived fifteen years after this terminal diagnosis, it provided her enough uncertainty and urgency to begin the attempt to “clean up” her tarnished image, to fashion the legacy she desired to leave behind, and to determine what qualities she wished to be known for.

Harriet Martineau. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, surprisingly, the Autobiography voluntarily reveals Martineau’s vulnerability. She is no longer the character which my colleague Hannah Hannover describes in  “Angry Single Woman Seeks Basic Rights.” Instead, we see her as a nervous child who suffered from anxiety attacks and seriously contemplated suicide. She had “scarcely any respite from the terror,” avoiding contact with people at all costs until her aunt “won my heart and my confidence when I was sixteen” (Martineau, Autobiography, 40). We see her as the woman who fell deeply in love with a man who later went “suddenly insane” and died (Autobiography, 119). We see her grieving for her dead father and brother, persevering through her family’s financial ruin, and struggling with shame over her growing deafness.

After a career of passionate activism, why did she choose to portray this side of herself?

I believe the answer lies in the 1837 essay which she chose to reprint in her Autobiography, “Literary Lionism.” In this essay, she describes the female author thrust to the center of the drawing-room, the spectacle of entertainment, observed, praised, and engaged by all but befriended by none. She also wistfully describes an author on the other side of the publicity spectrum: the cloistered monk, secluded from all society.

Though she concludes that the ideal author strikes a balance between the monk and the lion, “active in some common business of life, not dividing the whole of his life between the study and the drawing-room, and so confining himself to the narrow world of books and readers” (228), her descriptions of the monk reveal a nostalgic longing for the seclusion and anonymity of the cloister.

“A Scribe or Copyist” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The monk has a unique “pleasure of intellectual exercise”: “We may even now witness with the mind’s eye the delight of it painted upon the face under the cowl. One may see the student hastening from the refectory to the cell, drawn thither by the strong desire of solving a problem, of elucidating a fact, of indulging the imagination with heavenly delights… One may see him come down with radiant countenance from the heights of speculation….” (213) Though he may perhaps hope that future generations will find his work useful, and though he may share his devotional insights with fellow monks, the act of composition for Martineau’s monk is completely insulated from the excessive, isolating praise received by the literary lion. Implicitly, he is also protected from vehement blame– which Martineau herself received in abundance.

Yet despite her longing, Martineau was denied this quiet, cloistered life.  And in many ways, the story she tells reveals the alienation of the literary lion. While fashionable society pumps her with questions about “her opinion of this, that, and the other book,” making painful small talk about “black and green tea, or the state of the roads, or the age of the moon,” (217) then roughly discards her with offhand comments (“O, I am so disappointed! I don’t find that she has anything in her” [222]), she really just wants to speak with the children. And for a person who struggled as a child with severe anxiety about social interaction, being the center of attention must have been very painful indeed.

One sees in Martineau’s autobiography the simple human desire to know and be known, to experience genuine friendship without the social frippery. Perhaps the revelations of vulnerability are her attempts to “pop the bubble” of inflated fame and literary lionism, to come back down to earth and just be ordinary. And perhaps it is our place to read graciously.

Works Cited

Liddle, Dallas. “The Authoress’s Tale: The Triumph of Journalism in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography.” In The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. 46-72. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007.

A Utopian Vision for Travel Writing

I question whether Martineau reaches her own lofty goal of objective observation in her travelogue, Society in America. In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau aims to make would-be travel writers aware of the intellectual and moral training they need to record valuable observations about the people of other nations. To avoid hasty generalizations, her solution is for each traveller to withhold judgments, except for certain “safe means of generalization within the reach of all,” by which writers can “[inspire] men with that spirit of impartiality, mutual deference, and love” (9, 11).

Martineau’s descriptions of how to accomplish this are not always “safe” from prejudice and hasty generalization. Take just one instance, when she describes a who views the whole earth in contemplation. If one takes Martineau’s description at face value, the philosopher actually sees a grouping of grossly generalized stereotypes of the world’s peoples (How to Observe 17). The contradiction between her instruction and her attitude, already present in the treatise, becomes apparent in her own travelogue. In How to Observe, she states that travellers must interact with all levels of American society. From the parts of Society in America that I read, she references interacting with factory managers and with upper class individuals, but what about factory workers and slaves themselves?

It’s helpful here to compare Martineau’s theory of observing human “manners and morals” to her theory of social progress. Both theories are utopian visions—and therefore unachievable. A society’s view of “progress” is one of the main criteria that Martineau aims to judge as a travel writer. In her view, progress consists of equality among men and widespread, state-instituted charity. She envisions a world in which “the whole race could live as brethren” (How to Observe 124). She fiercely demands objectivity in the sphere of observation and a universal “fraternal spirit” in the sphere of social progress.

I’m especially interested in her focus on the “dignity of labor” as the central prerequisite for progress—a view that’s either socialist or democratic, depending on how you spin it, but a prejudice nonetheless toward a certain kind of society. And a utopian one, at that—Listen to this:

There is no drowning the epithalamium with which these two classes celebrate the union of thought and handicraft. Multitudes press in…to the marriage feast, and a new era of society has begun. The temporary glory of ease and disgrace of labour pass away like mountain mists, and the clear sublimity of toil grows upon men’s sight. (Society 2.2.5)

Because of this slant, her moral observation about America is rather simplistic: the North has a good view of labor and is therefore happily progressing, while the South has a bad view of labor and is therefore miserable. I’m not saying that she is entirely wrong—it’s a helpful angle and has truth to it, especially considering slavery—but it is based on hasty generalizations about people’s happiness.

My point is that, just as Martineau’s utopian fancies about society are unattainable, neither can human observation help usher in a future of worldwide fraternity and charity. The most one can hope for is improvement; Martineau’s mistake is to expect eventual perfection. As a result, her work—both treatise and travelogue—exposes a large gap between theory and practice.

That’s not to say that her observations are of no account: Martineau is one of those partially competent observers described in the introduction to How to Observe. But it is only in combination with other perspectives on America that Society in America moves us toward an accurate view.



Pamela’s Virtue

If you or anyone were to sit down and describe Pamela to me, I would insist that she is one of the most irritating characters I have ever heard of, and I would make a point never to touch a copy of Samuel Richardson’s first epistolary novel. She has wisdom beyond her years but digs herself into deeper and deeper holes with everyone around her. She is clever and pert, but so easily shaken by verbal abuse alone that she cannot leave a room without clutching the wainscoting and promptly collapsing outside. She is pretty and nice, and that seems to be all that most people who meet Pamela require of her. I cannot say as much, but I can say this: Despite all these qualities, I like Pamela.

When Mr. B. goes after her, I tense up. When Mrs. Jewkes is cruel, my face scrunches into odd and angry shapes. When even Mrs. Jervis occasionally betrays her, I am nearly as upset as Pamela is.

I think this is because Pamela is a critical thinker.

It can be very hard for readers in this day and age to relate to someone who is all virtue. I’m sure even readers in Richardson’s time would have had an issue understanding and relating to someone who was as morally strong as Pamela (this is not an indication of total support for Pamela’s moral compass, rather support for how voraciously she follows it), but the differences between socially popular moral theory in 1740 versus 2013 certainly increase the gap of understanding. However, Pamela has trouble with one virtue that was considered absolutely necessary in her time (especially for her station and her sex), and that is obedience. This is not to say Pamela is disobedient all the time, but she is certainly critical of her and others’ orders and instructions.

When asked to stay at Mr. B.’s to finish flowering his waistcoat, she does that; but when asked to stay another fortnight to consider a marriage arrangement, she tries to leave under the radar. Her pertness arises from finding clever and witty ways to be obedient and/or responsive without actually doing what Mr. B. wants.

Furthermore, it is clear that Pamela is not disobedient merely to push boundaries–that would make her more irritating, rather than more relatable–rather she disobeys because her moral compass is critical enough to tell her when she must disobey.

Despite the fact that Mr. B. is her master, and everyone else in the novel seems to think that his word is the word of God, she refuses his advances again and again. She refuses his gifts over and over and over. When Mrs. Jervis betrays Pamela’s confidence because Mr. B. asked to hide in her closet to listen to the conversation between them, Pamela cannot understand how Mrs. Jervis, a good woman plus or minus some blind obediance, would do such a thing. When he or Mrs. Jewkes (under Mr. B.’s orders) try to keep Pamela from writing, she divides her ink and pens and paper and hides them all variously, and this brings us to the matter of Mrs. Jewkes! It is in a particular dialogue between Pamela and Mrs. Jewkes that the matter of critical obediance and disobediance becomes all too clear. Pamela questions her whether Mrs. Jewkes would do anything, anything at all that Mr. B. asks–of course she would, he is her master. Would she slit Pamela’s throat, if commanded? Well, no, that would be murder– but then, would she assist Mr. B. in raping Pamela?

Well, yes, obviously.

Mrs. Jewkes says that men and women were made for each other, and Pamela is a pretty young thing and so Mr. B. must desire her, and if he sees it within his grasp to get what he desires, then Mrs. Jewkes sees no reason why he shouldn’t have it, with or without her help.

This above all is what disgusted me with Mrs. Jewkes, and this above all is what I found to respect in Pamela: that she not only cannot obey an order she thinks is morally wrong, she cannot possibly conceive of how anyone else could ever do so.