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).

 

The Carson Women

Harry Carson’s death is first introduced in the Carson home. Though he makes sense as a target for the union’s assassination plot, Gaskell does not provide this information in that scene. Instead, we only really know that Jem and Harry have had a fight in the streets, that Harry has shown himself to be particularly unconcerned with the plight of the working men, that someone has been chosen to assassinate a factory owner, and that John Barton has been acting strangely. While John’s murder of Harry neatly ties the already interwoven plots together in ways that make it almost predictable, it is not given to the reader. Part of the reason for Gaskell’s careful presentation and revelation is likely from a desire to create some suspense, but her decision to first reveal to the readers that Harry was the target of the union’s plot through his family’s discovery of his death also suggests that the Carson family’s reactions to his death are of greater significance than his actual moment of death. Given the importance of the event in Mr. Carson’s growth and reconciliation at the end of the novel, it makes sense that his initial reaction would be pertinent in moving the reader toward sympathy so that the resolution is believable. However, Harry’s mother and sisters receive considerable attention in this scene but never reappear. In a novel whose narrator asks readers to consider “the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street,” what do Sophy, Amy, Helen, and Mrs. Carson reveal to readers (101)?

The Carson women are only mentioned or appear in a few moments in the text: Amy is present when George Wilson asks Mr. Carson to have Ben Davenport admitted to the infirmary, one sister was mentioned as being with Harry when he sees Mary, and their extended scene in which they discover Harry’s death. When the scene opens, Amy, Helen, and Sophy are discussing Harry’s behavior toward a popular girl in their circle and criticizing his flirtatiousness. At least one of the sisters has seen his attentions to Mary, but they only consider his attentions to girls of their social standing (177). The readers have seen the full extent of Harry’s flirtatiousness and know that he had shown Mary affection without intending to marry her, which would likely shock his sisters if they knew, considering how they respond to his more subdued efforts with Jane Richardson (187, 266). Amy defends Harry against Sophy’s criticism simply because he is a good brother, to which Sophy replies, “…He is a good, kind brother, but I do think him vain, and I think he hardly knows the misery, the crime, to which indulged vanity may lead him” (266). Here Sophy shows herself to be the more level-headed of the three sisters, but it is also an interesting rhetorical technique to have the family criticize Harry’s actions right before he is revealed to have been murdered. The rest of the scene shows the family in extreme and understandable grief, but Gaskell reminds readers that Harry is not a particularly upright man, though Sophy uses similar language about vanity and flirting that the narrator uses to describe Mary Barton’s own actions. At his death, he cannot be seen as a villain but simply errant — readers are reminded that he is no angel but that his death is still a tragedy. This is in keeping with Gaskell’s portrayals of people as flawed but redeemable and of violence and suffering as tragic no matter who they affect. Yet, to have his sisters unknowingly speak ill of the dead creates an uncomfortable tension.

When the family enters crisis mode, Sophy plays a significant role in spreading the news and caring for the other family members. Once they receive the news from the nurse, she is assigned to tell Mr. Carson (269-271), and she later takes action when Mrs. Carson’s grief prevents her from recognizing the reality of Harry’s death (274-275). Mrs. Carson’s reaction certainly inspires readers to sympathy and compassion, but what about the sisters? Shortly after telling her father, he sends her back so that she does not see the body. The narrator states, “Miss Carson went. She could not face death yet” (271). However, after Mrs. Carson has seen Harry’s body and believes him to be simply sleeping, the narrator describes the sisters’ reactions: “Then the three sisters burst into unrestrained wailings. They were startled into the reality of life and death. And yet in the midst of shrieks and moans, of shivering and chattering of teeth, Sophy’s eye caught the calm beauty of the dead; so calm amidst such violence, and she hushed her emotion” (275). One particularly striking phrase in this passage is “They were startled into the reality of life and death” (275). The Carson family, until now, had four children survive past childhood. Readers have learned of the deaths of Tom Barton, Mary Barton’s unborn sibling, the Wilson twins, and Esther’s child, as well as the deaths of many adults, like Mrs. Mary Barton, Margaret’s parents, George Wilson, and Ben Davenport. While the surviving working class characters are certainly grieved by the loss of their friends and relative, “the reality of life and death” has been perpetually present for them throughout the novel. The reaction of grief does not differ between classes, but the regularity of it seems to plague the working class more than the employing class.

Gaskell seems to be using this scene to accomplish a wide variety of aims: to remind readers that Harry’s death is still tragic despite his flaws and to remind readers that death itself is a tragedy, no matter the class of the person who died. Using the sisters to illustrate these concepts and speak to these concepts works well to remind the readers to be sympathetic toward the Carsons in this moment, but why do they disappear after this? Where are they in the trial or in their father’s new approach to the working class at the end of the novel? Why do they appear to inspire a moment of difficult compassion only to fade completely from view during their father’s character growth? Their function within their scene raises some questions, but what is their function within the novel as a whole?

 

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Broadview, 2000.

Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

For much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, religion seems to play a fairly marginal role in the novel and in most of the characters’ lives (with the notable exception of Aunt Alice). However, in the climax of the story, this relative silence on religion is, in a way, identified as the primary source of the societal and personal problems at the heart of the novel. In the moving final exchange between John Barton and Mr. Carson, both men see each other anew through the Christian gospel and discover that gospel anew through one another. After this event, the reader, looking back at the novel, is led to read many of the characters through a Christological lens, identifying some characters with Christ through their suffering and some characters, often the same characters, with Christ’s crucifiers through their violence or neglect of others. This crucifier/crucified duality transcends the boundaries between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the masters, showing Christ and thus humanity in all of them. However, the titular Mary Barton does not seem to fit into this paradigm of crucifier/crucified as tidily as many other characters, particularly the male characters. This leads to the question of whether this Christological connection is reserved for male characters, while female characters enter into the Passion of the novel differently or whether Mary too can be read, in a subtler way, as being linked to Christ in her suffering.

After Mr. Carson states that he would rather bear the burden of unforgiveness himself then extend forgiveness to his son’s murderer, Gaskell writes: “all unloving, cruel deeds are acted blasphemy” (342). This is what John Barton has come to understand in the light of the murder he has committed, especially after witnessing Mr. Carson’s anguished suffering, and it is a truth Mr. Carson realizes, to some degree, after this first brutal exchange between himself and John Barton. Carson’s revelation is inspired by the example of a little girl forgiving the rough young lad who knocked her over and especially her words “He did not know what he was doing,” which send him back to the gospel account of Christ’s salvific suffering (345). In thus seeing Christ through the little girl’s action, Carson comes to see Barton’s humanity through Christ, finding the strength to forgive the dying Barton in his final moments. It might seem arrogant to say that Carson sees himself linked to Christ through his own suffering, thus extending forgiveness to Barton who has inflicted that suffering on him, but the words through which he offers forgiveness simultaneously recognize his own need for forgiveness of trespasses: “God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!” (346). Carson’s later actions reveal that he has not only seen himself as linked to Christ through his suffering but has also seen others, the poor whose needs he has neglected, as equally human by virtue of their shared connection to Christ through suffering. Thus, Carson and Barton are united as crucifiers and crucified alike.

In light of this climactic revelation, we are led to read Jem Wilson through a Christological lens as well. Jem, innocent and falsely accused, standing trial before a hostile court, is characterized particularly by his silence, much like Christ before Pilate and Herod. Indeed, Mary interprets Jem’s gaze as questioning, “Am I to do for what you know your—” (306). The unfinished words her are presumably “father did,” but the ambiguity suggests the possibility of connecting Jem’s sacrifice to the more broadly substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

So then what about Mary? She is our protagonist after all, so it might seem odd that we do not seem to be clearly led to locate her in this Christological framework, which comes to almost define the novel and in which each of the major male characters can be situated. There are a few different possible answers to this seeming issue.

One possibility is that Mary is actually linked thematically to Christ through her suffering after all. Even as Jem acts as a Christ-type in court, Mary is arguably sacrificing herself for him in turn. Mary’s successful efforts to prove Jem’s alibi, push her to a point of physical and psychological exhaustion that seriously threatens her life after the trial. While Jem, unlike Christ, goes free after his trial, it seems that Mary comes close to fulfilling the Passion by dying, and her recovery from that state of near-death resembles, perhaps, a kind of resurrection.

However, Mary’s return to life can, probably more compellingly, be read as a rebirth into new life. To be sure, this too is a kind of resurrection, a resurrection of the believer with Christ in traditional Christian theology, but the language of new birth is associated with the role of the Christian rather than Christ, the saved rather than the savior. When Mary first wakes up after her long feverish delirium, Gaskell writes, “Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant’s” (324). Gaskell continues to describe Mary in this way, remarking later that “she smiled gently as a baby does” and describing her gaze as “infantine” (325). Clearly, Mary’s recovery and return to life are linked to a rebirth and, given the religious reading suggested by the climax, it seems natural to link that language to the idea of spiritual rebirth in Christian soteriology.

Might Mary then be thematically related to one or both of the two major Mary’s of the gospel accounts: Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene? Mary’s appearance in the court is compared not to any madonnas but instead to Guido’s Beatrice Cenci, an interesting connection in the ways that it positions Mary as a potential victim of her father and of a detached aristocracy. However, the choice to describe Mary’s melancholy beauty in terms of the Guido painting, when plenty of madonnas could fit the bill, suggests that the Marian connection is not one Gaskell was particularly pursuing. Mary Magdalene, however, seems to offer a more promising parallel. After Jem’s arrest, many try to cast Mary as sexually wanton. She is judged and denied grace by others, linking her perhaps to the reputed backstory of Mary Magdalene. This, in conjunction with the emphasis on Mary’s baby-like birth into new life, might seem to connect Mary to Christ in a more removed and more passive way, linking her to a woman adjacent to Christ rather than to Christ himself.

However, we might be falling into something of a false dichotomy if we reach this conclusion. Carson’s and Barton’s connection to Christ through their suffering and to his crucifiers through their cruelty does not conflict in any way with their simultaneous identities as believers, being born again into new life. To the contrary, all of these aspects of identity are part and parcel of being a believer, and thus we are not constrained to choose one of these several options for reading Mary’s identity. Mary can be linked at once to Mary Magdalene and to Mary Magdalene’s redeemer, just as Mary Magdalene herself was before Mary Barton ever entered the scene.

 

Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ware, UK, Worsworth Editions, 2012.

Gentelman Pip

The societal class of a gentleman is a controversial topic at the time Dickens writes Great Expectations. So, how does the filtered voice of Pip show the conundrum people made of the matter? A major study beyond the scope of this post might explore how we are to see the stakes presented in Great Expectations. Alternatively, on a minute scale, the text gives plenty of context and contrast to make this argument of what beholds a gentleman come to life. Through the bias of the author’s desire to be called a gentleman, Pip is a true captain of the vessel.

The craft of writing a gentlemanly character probably came second nature to Dickens due to his own chronological placement in history. Attributes that Pip displays, his personal knowledge of his societal placement by birth, the environmental conditions and social inadequacies are put on full display for the reader to understand the intentional starkness of separation.

An example, [“Whom have we here?” (Jaggers) … “A boy,” said Estella. “Boy of the neighborhood? Hey” said he. … “Well! Behave yourself.” (p. 117)] The answer given by Estella is a degradation of personage given on the heels of another social slight by the adults in attendance, “…they all looked at me with the utmost contempt,” (p. 116). The address given by Jaggers is equally degrading as he infers that ‘boys of the neighborhood’ do not know how to behave properly in the society of the higher classes.

In the third volume, Dickens presents the wonderment of Pip as an unobserved reaction when Magwitch presents himself as Pip’s benefactor. In the historical context of the novel, Magwitch being unobserving of Pip’s trembling at his presence may well be intentional by Dickens. The purpose of the omission shows how a gentleman is known to show true sensitivities, hence Magwitch’s lack of reaction. In the Broadview appendix C, a gentleman of pure breeding is arguably superior in sensitivity to those of mixed heritage. “…fineness of structure in the body, which renders it capable of the most delicate, sympathies” (p. 565).

Dickens shows the contrast between the higher class and common folk as given great weight by one’s actions rather than breeding. The images of Mrs. Havisham’s actions are far from a sensitive nature. Dickens gives Pip equality to the higher class in this, and many other, ways. An example of Mrs. Havisham’s character, “But perhaps you can never believe, now, that there is anything human in my heart?” (p. 419)

Therefore, the image of Pip is elevated as one of a gentleman in the end of the novel when Dickens has Pip and Estella meet in the dilapidated garden of the old house. Estella is an heiress of familial fortune, though, it is known now that she is not of a higher society’s definition of pure bred. Pip is not wealthy, a working man, a noble endeavor to not be an idle person of wealth, as is the ‘code’ of a true gentleman. In this way, I believe, Dickens intends to show that the Estella and Pip can be elevated with her wealth and there gentile manners to that of higher society as defined by those outside of a pure bred culture.

Gentleman, Pip.

The Secret Identity of Jane Eyre

The secret identity of Jane Eyre

By Megan McAllister

 

Jane Eyre is a narrative of her own autobiography as she calls it. As the reader we got to watch her grow up as she matured from childhood into adulthood searching herself and the world around her for her identity. At one point in the novel she states that, “I had given in allegiance to duty and order; I was quiet; I believed I was content; to the eyes of others, usually even to my own, I appeared a disciplined and subdued character.” This quote comes from chapter during a time of disruptive transitions in Jane’s life. She has just lost one of the only people in her life that we have seen not be cruel to her. It is obvious that Jane admires Miss Temple deeply and is saddened by her moving off with her husband This quote speaks to Jane’s self-identification of herself as a now eighteen-year-old. For the first time she is off sort of on her own without anyone to guide her. She seems more self-assured and confident than she was as a child who had just lost her only friend to Typhus. She is also more subdued and quiet as she herself writes. This is a great contrast between the incident where she screamed at her aunt and now a school teacher. She obviously is in a good state mentally and emotionally since she was able to overcome to events of her traumatic and horrific childhood. However, I’m not convinced she is as well put together as she may seem. In that same paragraph as her previous quote is another that reveals a startling discovery about her supposed identity. She writes, “From the day she left I was no longer the same: with her was gone every settled feeling, every association that had made Lowood in some degree a home to me. I had imbibed from her something of her nature and much of her habits: more harmonious thoughts: what seemed better regulated feelings had become the inmates of my mind.” This quote reveals that Jane found her identity in Miss Temple. Her feelings towards Lowood which before seemed a sign of maturity and forgiveness are now revealed to only be caused by her relationship and feelings toward Miss Temple. She got her nature and habits from her as well. Miss Temple was more than simply a mentor she was someone who Jane strived to be like and embody. Jane was not concerned with being her own person because no one had liked her as a child for who she was; because of this she succumbs to the temptation of trying to copy others and be like others. This is proven further in a later chapter when she discusses goodness. She writes, “ I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adele.” This statement made in chapter 12 proves even more that Jane defines who she wants to be and what she takes her identity in by others and not herself.

 

 

Purity; In the Eye of the Beholder

Image result for purity

Hardy’s description of Tess in his sub-title to the book, calling her “a pure woman”, getting lots of criticism does not surprise me. However, I think it’s important to think about the adjective, “pure” that Hardy uses. What is pure? What are the constraints of being pure? I believe Hardy was not only speaking in terms of sexual purity, but a sense of purity in being a well-rounded human being, a sense of purity in being a loving person, and a sense of purity of one’s mind.

If we first look at this prudish form of purity that many Victorians of the time would have wanted, it’s not a secret that Tess is pure until her rape by Alec. BUT, even though technically she has lost her sense of sexual purity, I would call her still pure because she did not want that to happen to her and we indefinitely see that in the naming of her child, “Sorrow”. To me, that name goes against societal archetypes which could only make sense to someone in her sincere grieving position.

Next, if we look at Hardy’s “pure” adjective as someone who is a well-rounded, loving person, I think Tess fits pretty well. Although, in retrospect, Tess was used and abused by those in society, particularly men. Tess finds love and eventually opens up her feelings. She helps those she comes across and likes to enjoy the smaller things in life, like nature. She’s not a bad person.

Lastly, if we think about Tess having a pure mind, I can’t completely agree with Hardy giving her the title “pure”. I only say this because she is always at a war with her thoughts. Whether it be her rape, Sorrow, or hiding this secret from Angel, she is not free from the guilt in her mind enough to say she has a pure mind.

However, no matter what, she is more pure than the men who use and abuse her in the society. Tess began her life as a nice girl who trusted men, and didn’t associate her body with sexual desire. Tess got victimized, and essentially trapped by the men in this novel which makes society and the ability of men to manipulate her innocence what was not pure, not Tess.

 

 

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 Face to Love: The Problem of Female Relationships in Bleak House

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“My God!”

Mr. Guppy stares. My Lady Dedlock sits before him, looking him through, with the same dark shade upon her face, in the same attitude even to the holding of the screen, with her lips a little apart, her brow a little contracted, but, for the moment dead. (430; ch. 29)

 

If readers had been bored to death with Lady Dedlock’s character before this scene, we are not yawning during our visits to Chesney Wold any longer! After over 400 pages of Lady Dedlock’s boredom, my lady’s uncharacteristically sudden exclamation jolts us out of the mental dead-lock we were trapped in whenever she deigned to make an appearance on the page. Readers knew several pages before this moment that Lady Dedlock is not as two-dimensional as she at first appears. But until this scene, my lady had not publicly broken rank and disturbed the perfect ladylike placidity befitting her aristocratic station:

 

He sees her consciousness return, sees a tremor pass across her frame like a ripped over water, sees her lips shake, sees her compose them by a great effort, sees her force herself back to the knowledge of his presence, and of what he has said. All this, so quickly, that her exclamation and her dead condition seem to have passed away like the features of those long-preserved dead bodies sometimes opened up in tombs, which struck by the air like lightning, vanish in a breath. (430; ch. 29)

 

Mr. Guppy’s speculations about a distant connection between Esther Summerson (actually Esther Hawdon) and the illustrious Dedlock family tree have exhumed my lady from her grave existence. Dickens illustrates the shock she feels primarily through the change in her typically expressionless face. She has lost her grip on the immovable, marbleized expression usually locked onto her face, the same face that first pricked Mr. Guppy’s suspicions. In fact, it is only by the resemblance between the face of Lady Dedlock and the face of Esther Summerson that Mr. Guppy suspects a connection. There seems little else to link the two of them – their social classes are far apart and Dickens does not merge their daily worlds – and we as readers are left to wonder if their connection is only skin-deep.

 

Are Lady Dedlock and Esther Summerson only linked by their similar physical features? Does their potential reconnection depend solely on the appearance of their face? Throughout Bleak House Lady Dedlock’s refined beauty recurs in the story as a representative of her fashionable life, while Esther Summerson is plain Dame Durden next to the golden Ada. Nevertheless, Mr. Guppy has recognized the similarity between the two, but their similarity cannot reunite them in a happy future. As the only link between this ill-fated mother and daughter pair, their faces become a danger to them and expose the deeper problem facing women in Bleak House who struggle to form more than surface-level relationships.

 

When Esther and Lady Dedlock encounter one another for the first time as mother and daughter, it is something in Lady Dedlock’s face that resonates with Esther: “I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her hurried gesture of entreaty . . . as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child” (536; ch. 36). In this moment as in so many others, it is Lady Dedlock’s face that speaks with a louder voice than any words she says. Esther is overcome with her emotions and the disconcerting display of turmoil from Lady Dedlock, but once Lady Dedlock falls to the ground, entreating Esther to forgive her, Esther’s thoughts turn from Lady Dedlock’s face to her own:

 

. . . when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness; as that nobody could ever now look at me, and look at her, and remotely think any near tie between us. (537; ch. 36)

 

Esther has already passed through her battle with smallpox, but has not emerged unscathed. Her face is drastically altered, so much so that when Mr. Guppy sees her after her illness, he hastily and insultingly insists that she recognize he cannot ever renew his proposal of marriage to her. Esther does not express any indignation or pain towards Mr. Guppy’s indecent behavior, and in this encounter with Lady Dedlock, she characteristically finds the silver lining, thanking God that her scars will prevent her mother from experiencing any future shame on her account. As Lady Dedlock tells Esther of her pain and despair, she covers her face with her hands and mourns the miserable bonds of her position that make any public reunion between them impossible. In this scene, Dickens’s narrative emphasizes the cruel reality that bonds between mothers and daughters are only as strong as the circumstances surrounding them.

 

Throughout her narrative, Dickens continually describes Lady Dedlock as a woman behind a veil; in this encounter with Esther, Lady Dedlock discards her veil of “proud indifference” for a brief moment but cannot linger in exposed freedom from her past sins. Even Esther must don a veil to hide her marked visage from the gaze of the world. Esther’s literal veil and Lady Dedlock’s figurative veil indicate a larger problem of establishing relationships and connections for women. In Dickens’s world, where propriety required the proper dress, the proper manners, and the proper expressions, communication for women becomes closely tied to the nonverbal, to the appearance of faces. If faces become obscured, then the means of connection are lost in the fogs of circumstance and secrecy. Through the women of Bleak House, Dickens asks us as readers to consider the inaudible power of faces and the grave injustices that arise when women are both voiceless and faceless.

The Fall of the Moon Out of the Sky: Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn

Chapter 41 of Bleak House shows what is certainly one of the novel’s key scenes: a riveting power struggle between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, after he has revealed that he know Lady Dedlock’s guilty past. Why is the tension between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn so compelling? It has something to do with these two figures’ power and restraint, but also with their hidden vulnerability. Lady Dedlock is a powerful personality, who governs her small world by a distant grandeur that impresses her superiority upon those around her. Tulkinghorn is a powerful holder of secrets, who, like a spider quietly spinning a web, wields the secrets to entrap an increasing number of individuals into his control. Each shows a remarkable ability to restrain emotion—these two are unflappable, distant, reserved. Nothing can touch them; one can hardly imagine either one breaking down.

The pair’s evenly matched superiority and self-control raise the level of tension in this scene—raise it through the roof, so to speak. The interview’s rooftop location, with the balcony in view of the night sky, refers pointedly to the distant grandeur of both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn: Lady Dedlock, the “star” of the aristocracy and, Tulkinghorn, the calculating observer (and downfall?) of such stars. But the emotionless Tulkinghorn, pacing on the balcony, may have met his match in Lady Dedlock: “As he paces the leads, with his eyes most probably as high above his thoughts as they are high above the earth, he is suddenly stopped in passing the window by two eyes that meet his own.” When he sees the lady’s eyes so suddenly, he—the immovable Tulkinghorn—has a visceral reaction:

The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year, as when he recognises Lady Dedlock.

Lady Dedlock, by surprising him in this way, gains subtle but significant power over him; even in her hemmed-in situation, she is able to bring her force to bear upon her persecutor. Startled and intimidated by her gaze, this imperturbable man flushes uncontrollably, revealing vulnerability for the first time in the novel.

Tulkinghorn fears Lady Dedlock.

He, who knows her secret, cannot yet wield its power because he cannot read the lady herself:

There is a wild disturbance—is it fear or anger?—in her eyes. In her carriage and all else, she looks as she looked down-stairs two hours ago. Is it fear, or is it anger, now? He cannot be sure.

The two study one another, mentally circling each other like wild animals. Move and countermove. They fight with words, while each maintaining an almost perfect self-control, a cool reserve and immoveable carriage.

As the lady turns to leave, intending to have her way and leave Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn quietly and politely deals the final blow:

‘Lady Dedlock, have the goodness to stop and hear me, or before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and raise the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman, in it.’ He has conquered her. She falters trembles, and puts her hand confusedly to her head.

By threatening to tell her guilt to her husband’s household, he has exposed Lady Dedlock’s own vulnerability: her loyalty to her husband Sir Leicester.

As Tulkinghorn assures her, “the fall of the moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.” Tulkinghorn’s power prevails: he compels Lady Dedlock to stay…for now. By causing her downfall, though, Tulkinghorn prepares his own fall. He also has met his match: this lady, when caught in his web, dissolves it entirely.

Are You Bored to Death?

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 “My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been ‘bored to death.’” (9; ch. 2)

 

Lady Dedlock is bored with the rain, bored with Chesney Wold, bored with the fashionable society, and basically just bored with her entire existence. And so are we! If any Victorian author could manage to merge the attention span of a two year old with the disdainful elegance of a lady, Dickens is the man who could and who did. The life Lady Dedlock leads is full of nothing but the uninteresting and unimportant, and Dickens does not pass up any opportunity to highlight her dreary days: “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (161; ch. 12). In the world of Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s lethargic life contrasts sharply with the care-worn days of those who are indefinitely caught in the unending cycle of appeals in the Court of Chancery, even though she too is involved in the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Dickens clearly critiques the fashionable, upper-class through Lady Dedlock’s days of frivolity and selfishness.

 

But as Dickens depicts Lady Dedlock in all her vanity and carelessness, I wonder if Lady Dedlock could be anything more than just a spoiled social-lite? Does she serve any function in Bleak House beyond enabling Dickens to lower a social critique upon the life of the upper-class? As the fog over-saturates the streets of London and the rain over-saturates the grounds of Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock is so over-saturated with lethargic boredom that Dickens reduces her to little more than a caricature. Crafting one female character, or even a few, as over-blown caricatures is not a crime, and certainly Dickens often creates caricatures in order to address larger issues through his work. However, can we as readers identify any woman in Bleak House who is a fully formed, three-dimensional character? Are Dickensian women merely reduced to either their foibles or their virtues in order to advance the social agenda of Bleak House?

 

So many of Dickens’s female characters are larger-than-life, but perhaps the two that rise to the foreground are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. Like Lady Dedlock, they are defined by their idiosyncrasies. We are introduced to Mrs. Jellyby as the last reservoir of peace amidst her chaotic family and home: “Mrs. Jellyby whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces . . . received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if – I am quoting Richard again – they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (38; ch. 4). Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed by her pet-project of charity to African people that she grossly neglects her home and children. In her negligence, Dickens critiques the kind of missionary fervor that supersedes the duties and calls of a woman in her household. Mrs. Pardiggle appears in the story as another means for Dickens to make the same critique but through a contrasting angle.

 

Mrs. Pardiggle’s charitable projects do not prevent her from shirking her familial duties, but instead they engulf her children into the inexorable perseverance which she applies to her work. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly declares to Esther and Ada, “But they [her children] are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general – in short, that taste for the sort of thing – which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves” (108; ch. 8). Although Mrs. Pardiggle spends her time far more actively than Lady Dedlock, Dickens critique is implicit in Esther’s observation that she, Ada, and Richard had never met such wretched children before as Mrs. Pardiggle’s children: “We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shriveled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent” (107; ch. 8). In Dickens’s following depiction of Mrs. Pardiggle’s trip to the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle’s over-zealous evangelicalism is exposed as an egregious flaw rather than a Christian virtue. Like Mrs. Jellyby, she is reduced to a comical tool for Dickens to condemn Christian charity which does more harm than good.

 

Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are plainly secondary characters to the story of Bleak House, and it would not be fair to judge Dickens’s portrayal of women solely through them. However, even the principle female characters – Esther Summerson and Ada Clare – are characterized as limited, feminine types. Esther is dubbed “Dame Durden” and becomes the trope of the maternal care-giver, while Ada is the young, golden-haired angel who is cast as the virtuous and demure bride for the dashing Richard. Esther and Ada have more dimensions than Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, but their world seems to be just as narrow as Lady Dedlock’s world, although perhaps less boring than hers. They lead a happy life at Bleak House, but is it only a happy life because Dickens did not give them the complexity to desire a life different than the one readily available to them?

 

The humor and variety of Bleak Houses’s characters make them memorable and justify the popularity of Dickens’s novel. However, if we look to Bleak House for depictions of female characters that push the boundaries of stereotypical nineteenth-century women, then we may simply be bored to death.

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.: ReadaClassic.com, 2010

Silas Marner and the Limitations of Experiential Knowledge

The peaceful ending of Silas Marner, and the weaver’s ardent declaration that “I think I shall trusten till I die” seem tidy, neat, redemptive. However, I can’t help but feel/think that something is missing. I feel unsatisfied, and I think that George Eliot has intentionally left some loose ends. We are not meant to feel comfortable with Silas’s ultimate “redemption” because his closing affirmation highlights a textual problem: the uncertainty of experiential knowledge and the limits of experience.

The “Christianity” in this novel (as a few of my colleagues have pointed out) is inherently unsatisfying. If (as Megan says) Eliot’s “Christianity” is an excuse for easy endings and problematic moral platitudes, or (as Mackenzie says) Silas is redeemed not by Christianity at all, but by community– we still run up against the same problem. The knowledge and trust of Marner and the other characters in Eliot’s novel is based entirely on feeling and experience, with no basis in reason or understanding of the faith they blindly affirm.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, Silas’s last affirmation of faith should be troubling because it is faith without basis. At the beginning of the novel, Silas’s past faith has been shattered by his experience (being cast out), so that “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim” (86). The community that he shared in his former chapel no longer shapes his beliefs; thus, experience of people’s irrational, unjust, and contradictory actions is enough to destroy his moral core.

When Silas becomes a part of the Raveloe church, it is almost as if he has converted to an entirely different religion: “He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life… it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling… rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas” (125). The religion of Raveloe looks so different to Silas because his perception of religion is based on his differing experiences of the people in Raveloe. He has not looked into the religion itself; he instead places his trust in the good faith of the people around him, creating a dangerous, blind “groupthink” effect. Nobody is actually able to say what the community of Raveloe believes, beyond a general morality and the trappings of religion (christening, going to church regularly, etc).

The theft of Silas’s gold perhaps mirrors the first theft of Silas’s faith. He does not lock his doors against Dunstan Cass because “the sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction” (41). Silas is secure in his first community because it is habit. Likewise, as soon as he is “secure” in the habit of community again in Raveloe, he does not concern himself about what– or who– exactly he is trusting. Rather, he has a “feeling”: “There’s good i’ this world– I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness” (145). His trust is not based on revealed knowledge of God, God’s actions, or God’s character– things just “seem to work out” and so (of course) he feels like there must be a god of some sort who wants what’s best in the long run. This affirmation reminds one (uncomfortably so) of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy. And this belief is closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism than Christianity.

Who’s to say that Silas’s experience, his “redemption,” will be permanent? Silas’s final affirmation (“Now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die”) has a dangerous condition: it depends on the continuation of his present experience, just like his blind trust did in his previous community. What happens if Eppie dies young of a brutal illness? What happens if the fickle townspeople decide to cast Silas out of community again? Silas even admits, “if I lost you, Eppie[,] I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me” (166). The novel ends before this happens, of course, but is Silas’s “redemption” a “happy ending” after all? Can any ending be happy when faith rests on such shaky ground?

Perhaps this question is what Eliot wants us to wrestle with.

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.

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.