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).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Narrative Perspective

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is a mystery novel. Therefore, the structure of a mystery novel dictates that the reader’s viewpoint must be limited, especially in the beginning, and then slowly move outwards until the entire picture is revealed. DJMR follows this quite closely, allowing us (the reader) to only see what Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer, also sees. The way that Stevenson chooses to do this, however, breaks with traditions by combining the third and first person perspectives and directly interacting with the audience through the text.

At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Mr. Utterson, the viewpoint character, through an external description. By external, I mean that we are introduced to him as another character might be. We are still able to see his thoughts and follow his perspective, but Utterson is his own person separate from the reader. Likewise, we are introduced to the story of Jekyll and Hyde as Utterson is directly told by his friend, Mr. Enfield. These take the form of dialogue, temporarily switching viewpoints to the first person. These bouts of dialogue, however, can run for several pages at a time. The story of how Enfield saw Hyde beat a child in the streets runs for two full pages without stopping, only breaking whenever Utterson interrupts him. In this way, Stevenson embeds the first person within a larger third person perspective. We receive information at the same time as Utterson, but we are not fully brought into his thought processes. In this way, Utterson is limited in how he may be realized as a character, but it also allows for the reader to implant themselves emotionally onto Utterson. Such as when he goes to visit Jekyll at his home, upon which he is brought into the laboratory. We are told rather directly that it “was the first time the lawyer had been received in that part of his friend’s quarters”. A small detail, but quite telling. It is a statement lacking sentimentality, a strait-forward explanation of facts. However Utterson feels about this fact is left for the reader to interpret based on their previous understanding of the character and, more importantly, how they might feel if they were put in the same position. In this way the story keeps us at arm’s length, not allowing for the reader to become emotionally attached to the main character.

Stevenson makes attempts to interact with the reader directly throughout the first part of the novel. These come in the form of asides, which are written in parenthesis amidst both dialogue and narrative. The asides are directly linked with the topic being discussed, and are often an anticipated response to how the reader or speaker is feeling. This is introduced in Mr. Enfield’s speech about Hyde in chapter 1. Sevenson adds “what makes it worse” in parenthesis amidst Enfield’s raging about Hyde’s terrible behavior. It is framed as if Enfield were saying it to Utterson but in the choice of parenthesis denotes that Stevenson himself is speaking. This is characteristic of stage performance, where the audience is often treated as an acknowledged part of the show and therefore asides are tolerated. In novels (and novellas) however, an acknowledgement of the reader is rarely seen. Such an interruption therefore grabs our attention, allowing Stevenson to direct or mislead us as he sees fit.

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.

“Bucket is so deep”

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Does Mr. Bucket actually conceal more than he reveals?

Bleak House is not simply a novel in which mysterious events take place, but a novel in which EVERY event is cloaked in mystery. From the opening pages, we understand that everything is covered in a fog – not just the thick London fog, but a moral fog and darkness that permeates the entire life of the novel, emanating from the Courts and the Aristocracy. There is not just one character that holds a secret – all the characters do. With such a backdrop, one would assume that the character of a detective would aid in clearing the fog – “solving the mystery” – but Mr. Bucket seems to not bring truth to light, but only further conceal it.

 
The name of the detective himself, perhaps the most clearly metaphorical name in the novel, speaks not only of ‘depth’, but of ‘concealment’. Just as Tulkinghorn is a repository of the secrets of the landed gentry, Bucket conceals in his ‘depths’ the secrets of the City of London itself – and seemingly, all who inhabit it. He goes into those places – Tom-All-Alone’s and the poorer areas of London such as the Shooting Gallery – where Tulkinghorn will not go. Bucket is able to go into these secret places because, unlike a man with Tulkinghorn’s status, he will not be seen. More importantly, he will not be recognized.

 
If Bucket is a master of concealment, the thing he conceals most effectively is himself. When we first meet him, it is as if he has simply appeared in the room: “standing with an attentive face between himself and the lawyer, at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in, and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows” (355). It is not surprising that the darkness of the ‘inner city’ streets of London at night is where Bucket is most at home, as Dickens based the character on a real detective, Charles Fielding, with whom he took many night patrols along London streets. Add to this the fact that, like a real-life Sherlock Holmes, Dickens had the layout of city of London practically memorized.
Bucket conceals himself, but also his motives. Whenever he ‘questions a suspect’ or hopes to draw information from a source, he does so in the most strangely conversational and non-combative of ways. The most interesting (and simply enjoyable to read) example of this is when he gathers information from one of the Dedlock servants, moving from ‘small talk’ about the servant’s height to direct questioning:

“’You’re so well put together that I shouldn’t have thought it. But the household troops, though considered fine men, are built so straggling. – Walks by night, does she? When it’s moonlight, though?’
O yes. When it’s moonlight! Of course. O, of course! Conversational and acquiescent on both sides” (814).

Even when questioning / gathering information, Bucket not only conceals his motives but his methods. He questions without questioning, making direct statements when he has a suspicion (i.e. “Your name, old gentleman, is Smallweed; that’s what your name is; I know it well”). Again, a great example of this is when he ‘questions’ the servant, providing an alibi for Lady Dedlock’s innocence based on a suspicion:
“’To be sure,’ says Mr. Bucket. ‘That makes a difference. Now I think of it,’ says Mr. Bucket, warming his hands, and looking pleasantly at the blaze, ‘she went out walking, the very night of this business.’
‘To be sure she did! I let her in the garden over the way.’
‘And left her there. Certainly you did. I saw you doing it.’
‘I didn’t see you,’ says Mercury.
‘I was rather in a hurry,’ returns Mr Bucket” (814).

Bucket conceals himself, his motives, and even his solutions. In a trope that will become a staple of the detective genre, Bucket does not reveal the solution until the end. As Agatha Christie will make famous with her own detective, Hercule Poirot, Bucket gathers all suspects into the ‘accusing parlor’ and only reveals the murderess at the very end:
“’The party to be apprehended is now in this house,’ proceeds Mr Bucket, putting up his watch with a steady hand, and with rising spirits, ‘and I’m about to take her into custody in your presence’” (829). Even near the end of the novel, Bucket does not reveal to Esther that she is actually looking at the body of her mother but urges her to ‘think a moment’ (914).

At the end of the novel, it is not even Bucket the detective that can solve the mystery. He is too much a part of the mysterious world and can only further conceal. Ultimately, it takes the “Summer sun” to clear away the fog from Bleak House.

Childhood and Childishness

Why does Esther bury her doll in the first chapter of her narrative?

In the third chapter of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, we are first introduced to Esther Summerson, the character who can be said to be the heroine of the novel – though quite an untraditional one. When Esther’s godmother dies suddenly, before she is moved to Greenleaf, the young girl does something that is never fully explained. She takes her doll, which she would talk and cry to as a means of working out her own trauma, and buries it in the house’s garden: “A day or two before, I had wrapped the dear old doll in her own shawl, and quietly laid her – I am half ashamed to tell it – in the garden-earth, under the tree that shaded my old window” (36). Why does Esther feel compelled to perform this action? The incident is mentioned at the end of a paragraph where Esther details the selling of the property of her old house. One explanation could be that she simply did not want the doll sold or lost in the move. At fourteen, she had outgrown the doll, but why not keep it with her and give it to a child at the boarding school? Or, if she has truly lost interest, why does she not just throw the doll away rather than giving it this strange, formal burial? Esther’s own phrase “I am half ashamed to tell it” suggests that she herself did not truly know or understand fully why this action was performed.

Without knowing it, Esther is making a formal declaration of her own maturation process. She is signaling to herself and the readers of the novel that she has made the choice to move from childhood to adulthood. Throughout the novel, there is a very clear distinction drawn between what does and does not constitute ‘childishness’. 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. Once arrived at Bleak House, her maturation is in a sense ‘rewarded’ by being made not only Ada’s companion, but caretaker of the entire house: “ … a maid … brought a basket into my room with two bunches of keys in it, all labeled
‘For you miss, if you please,’ said she” (88).

Esther’s acceptance of the keys and her oft-repeated phrase: “Duty Esther, duty!” is a reminder of the promise she made to her doll just before parting – like a child promising parents he or she will do their best and make them proud. Work itself is one mark Dickens uses to distinguish between child and adult in the novel (Richard cannot, Turveydrop will not, etc.). The other marker is empathy. Esther always thinks of the care of others – at the Jellyby’s, at Bleak House, in the home of the bricklayer, and in Bell Yard – while other characters work (or choose not to work) only for themselves, many simply waiting for the return from the Jarndyce case. But Esther cares nothing for personal fortune, and is happy only to have a home with her new surrogate family. It is a place where she can care for others, and she takes on this role so well that the members of her family begin to refer to her by names of iconic matrons from fairy tales (Mother Hubbard, Dame Durden …). With the world crumbling around them, it is Esther that keeps Bleak House together. Something that she could not have done if she did not choose, at the right time, to grow up.

“The Romantic Side of Familiar Things”

At the end of the Preface to Bleak House, Dickens writes a statement that I believe is the key to how we talk about representation and realism in his work: “In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (emphasis added). This statement becomes more interesting when taken in the entire context of the preface. For several paragraphs, Dickens has just vehemently defended his narrative choices, arguing that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an accurate representation of real cases that have embroiled the Court of Chancery, writing that “everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth.” The second detail that Dickens defends is the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook, which George Lewes had criticized as unrealistic. He writes, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject,” and then cites a handful of documented examples, including a woman who died in France and an alcoholic man who died in Columbus, Ohio.

I am curious about why Dickens decided to defend these two elements of his narrative above all else. Was it simply because others criticized these parts of his story as unrealistic? Why not defend other, more fantastic parts of the narrative, like the character of Miss Flite and her garret of caged birds? And why, indeed, worry about “truth” in a work of fiction at all?

But, judging by the way he defends his story, Dickens is indeed concerned that his story be “substantially true, and within the truth”– or, at least, that readers perceive it that way. He writes that he doesn’t willfully mislead us, the readers, while at the same time writing over 800 pages of events that didn’t really happen. We know they didn’t happen, Dickens knows they didn’t really happen, but for those 800 pages, we like to play along in our imaginations and pretend they did. In the end, however, the novel form itself is one big deception. So what kind of representational truth is Dickens hoping to achieve?

One obvious answer, judging by Dickens’ research of deaths similar to Krook’s, is that he wanted to limit his story to the realm of things that possibly could happen, or things that are like events that really did happen. Of course, we will never meet Esther Summerson walking down the street (even if time travel to Victorian England were possible), but as we read her narrative, we buy into the fiction and believe that she really could exist, and that we could meet her, if only we could step through the looking-glass. This is the beauty and magic of fiction, that for a moment allows us to buy into Esther’s character, to believe what she tells us, and to gain a new way of looking at the world.

This brings us back to Dickens’ closing statement: “the romantic side of familiar things.” One of the tactics that his fiction employs is defamiliarization: the act of presenting situations like our own in a completely different context, to break down our pre-formed conclusions and encourage us to rethink our established ideas. In the pages of Bleak House, we may laugh at Harold Skimpole or the ridiculous Mr. Guppy, but then we return to our world to find people who, in certain moments, remind us of Harold Skimpole or Mr. Guppy (or, worse yet, discover that we ourselves share some of their unfortunate characteristics!). Dickens’ reader may come away with a critical suspicion of the real Court of Chancery, or a wariness of the overwhelming allure of an uncertain fortune. Though the novel events are romantic– exaggerated, even– the events in our world are not, which (perhaps) prevents us from seeing them as clearly as Dickens would like us to. Thus, while the truth Dickens tries to present is not exactly representational, it allows us to better interpret and represent our own world within the space of our minds.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Page

“My writings are public property: it is only myself apart from my writing that I hold private and veto about as a topic.” (George Eliot qtd. in Dillane, 145)

 In a letter to Elma Stuart, George Eliot penned the above quotation, permitting us a brief glimpse into her rather elusive attitude towards any kind of public image. In her examination of Eliot’s complicated relationship with the press, Fionnula Dillane points out that Eliot was one of the few authors at the time who enjoyed the “unique distinction” of completely avoiding any prying photographer’s lens (145). Was George Eliot photogenic? Sadly, we will never know for sure, and Dillane argues that the nagging lack of any photographic embodiment of George Eliot, the celebrated and occasionally controversial author, resulted in an effort by initial reviewers to embody Eliot through mining her fictive works for “the authentic visual image that acted as a ‘genuine’ copy for the real author” (149).

The convergence of cheap photography and emphasis on the visual in empirical sciences created a precarious dilemma for Eliot and an irresistible temptation for her fans and reviewers to equate the personas of her fictional narrators with the camera-shy authoress (Dillane 145). Yet, our discussions of Eliot’s fictional and journalistic work challenge any one-to-one correlation between the narratorial and authorial voices. Moreover, ‘George Eliot’ is only an “illusory mask” for Marian Evans, and Dillane highlights the additional complications Eliot’s gendered identity as an authoress posed for her or for any woman who wanted to enter into the man’s world of letters (149, 151). How then are we to arrive at any kind of knowledge of the authentically embodied George Eliot? If Eliot’s gender and unorthodox lifestyle precluded her from engaging with her public directly (along with her own personal aversions to the public limelight), what avenues are left to us to encounter the true Eliot?

Dillane outlines for us two alternate reductions of Eliot commonly perpetrated by her initial critics and fans: planting Eliot in her “native setting” as displayed through her earlier, more pastoral-like works to deduce her implicit biography or suppressing the existence of any physical origin or body of Eliot to transform her into “a Sibyl or Sage” of moral authority (154). Dillane derides both of these approaches for attempting to dissect Eliot’s mind through pages as two-dimensional as photographs. Yet I wonder if we can legitimately find clues of Eliot’s experience as an author in her writing, if not an exact blueprint of her thought. In a letter written on February 24, 1861, during the process of publishing Silas Marner, Eliot tells John Blackwood, her publisher, that she prefers her works to appear in the order in which she wrote them because they “belong to successive mental phases.” Perhaps we cannot measure the precise degree to which these “successive mental phases” are apparent in her works, but if we permit Eliot to know her own mind and writing more intimately than we ever can, then we may find many reflections of Eliot, the woman and the author, in the multiple mirrors of her journalistic and fictional writing.

Any reflections we find are certainly not as stable and fixed as a photograph, but neither are they so stagnant and paralyzed, impervious to the changes of time. In the artistry of her early fiction such as Silas Marner or the narrators of her later fiction such as Middlemarch, we can find traces of a mind that wrestled with social structures and moral responsibility. In her essays and reviews, such as “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” her views on art and education are implied beneath the layers of wit and irony. And if her published works are insufficient, her prodigious output of letters offers another mirror for us to peer into and steal a glimpse of her authorial embodiment. This tripod of fiction, journalism, and letters might be a more viable platform than the tripod of “the goddess, the witch, [and] the celebrity” that Dillane finds to begin attempting to understand George Eliot in any of her many roles and works (165).

 

 

Disparities Between Theory and Practice

Why did George Eliot portray peasants as she did in Silas Marner? Well, why not look at her comments in “The Natural History of German Life”? This hermeneutic appears neat and systematized, but at the same time, it highlights the difficulty in constructing a consistent system to interpret an inconsistent human being. In “Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context,” Lyn Pykett examines the complications that ensue when literary critics attempt to read and digest Victorian periodical writing. The temptation to use nonfiction as “secondary confirming evidence” of an author’s fictional views and ideas is strong– and it happens much more often than scholars would probably like to admit (Pykett 102).  Like Pykett, however, I agree that an author’s nonfiction must play some role in our understanding of that author’s other works; how important that role is, exactly, is harder to pin down.

These periodical writings are useful as cultural artifacts. Yet when determining how much an author’s periodical writing is a product of her culture, we run up against a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario: does the press shape society, or does society shape the press? It’s almost as frustrating as asking whether novels shape our theoretical framework, or whether our theoretical framework shapes how we read novels. Pykett quotes James Mill, who observes, “Periodical literature depends upon immediate success. It must, therefore, patronise the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power” (105). At the same time as the periodical press provided an avenue for those not in power (i.e. Victorian women) to challenge the majority opinion, these marginalized opinions began to push their way to center stage and effect change. The answer to both questions, of course, has to be yes; the influence is mutual.

I believe that one solution is to read these Victorian periodicals as an indication of what topics possessed cultural relevance. Like we read Middlemarch, we should not seek to systematize “Victorian culture” as a monolithic entity; rather, we should seek to enter each article as a different perspective on the same body of current social issues. When applied to individual authors, then, I believe that periodical articles are useful insofar as they highlight what topics were in that author’s mind at the time. Though nonfiction pieces such as Eliot’s “Natural History” or “Notes on Form in Art” should not be used as a systematic proof of an author’s consistent approach to writing, they are useful if we view them as explorations— tentative theories or approaches that the author could challenge or revise at a later time.

While this approach does not provide a satisfying, tidy hermeneutic, I do believe it is more holistic. We’re all human. We make mistakes; we revise our ideas when we encounter new evidence or gain new experiences. It’s certainly unfair to interpret an established literary critic’s theories by a paper he/she wrote in grad school, yet we tend to hold our authors to an unrealistic standard of consistency (and perhaps even possess the illusion of our own eternal consistency). Giving up our need to systematize might just help us remember to accept what we don’t understand, explore mysteries (but admit our limits), and remember to enjoy texts at face value again.

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.

On Education?

Even a cursory reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch reveals education to be a central topic of concern. Of the many (and lengthy) Victorian novels, Eliot’s classic seems to be among the most widely read and loved—even outside nineteenth century enthusiasts. I believe a large part of this is due to her complex and quite likeable characters, but right up there as well is her exploration of concerns at the forefront of nineteenth century society that persist into the present as well. The sticky issue of education is one of these. Case in point from my own experience is the selection of the novel as a primary text for a multidisciplinary learning/teaching fellowship summer conference. Middlemarch served as a middle ground for exploring what it means to be a student and a teacher for graduate students across the humanities. Thus, a pressing question that we are left with after reading the novel is just what is Eliot saying about education?

On the negative extreme, Eliot offers up Casaubon as the clearest illustration of “what not to do.” The man is so obsessed with finding “the key to all methodologies” and thus making a lasting mark on the world, that he neglects any other endeavor. Indeed when he marries Dorothea, it is because he sees her as an admirer of his work and as a helpmate to completing it. He even spends the near entirety of their honeymoon in Rome researching in the libraries. We see much of Eliot’s criticism of these life choices through their unhappiness in their marriages, but the cherry on top is Casaubon’s eventual death clearly linked to his dismal scholarship. In chapter five Eliot includes an epigraph from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that links a sedentary, scholarly life with ill health, which in Casaubon’s case inhibits him from continuing his work, turning him into an even crotchetier old man. In the end, despite his gallant academic efforts, it is futile and he barely leaves a nick in the surface of academia. Education as viewed through the character of Casaubon, has its clear pitfalls. Even scholastic prestige is not a safeguard against harm. Without perspective, without a balance of other character strengths and interests, education does Casaubon little good and plays a significant part in his downfall. While I find the character quite unlikeable, the growing academic in me cannot help but sympathize in part with his plight.

We also see a criticism of education with several of the other characters, such as Fred Vincy. In his case, the traditional gentleman’s education is not fitting for his life goals. His father is furious with his “wasting” his education (a concept those of us in the humanities may be all to familiar with), but as the novel leads us to believe, Fred doesn’t truly need it for the work he does with Mr. Garth. Indeed, the vestiges of this education—his poor penmanship—are even a hindrance to his ultimate path.

Though I’m running short of space in this post, I cannot neglect the women as well. George Eliot clearly valued some level of education (which complicates these negative depictions that dominate the novel), as her writing and translation evidence a clear aptitude as well a broad knowledge of classic texts. However, we see no female characters achieving this ideal (if an ideal it is). Rosamond is clearly none the better for her finishing school education (the narrator seeming to criticize both the woman and the form of education), and naïve Dorothea at the beginning of the novel tragically mistakes marrying Casaubon as a means to furthering her education. The latter we can admire for the attempt, though the strategy is pitiable. It would seem the most positive depiction of a woman’s education is that of Mary Garth, whose common sense reigns supreme, rather than any capability afforded to her by that education. We admire Mrs. Garth’s education of Mary, as well as the other children, but the dwindling pupils and economic hardship make a difficult argument for the superiority of an education.

So what are we left with? Certainly Middlemarch is a novel concerned with education—but what type does it value? Is it primarily a cautionary tale against the pitfalls? Perhaps we may locate the primary difficulty in answering this question with the absence of a Marian Evans figure in the text.

Martineau’s “Authorial Spectacles”

WHAT is the difference between a travel writer and a philosophical observer? Martineau would doubtless answer that there is no difference, yet in her autobiography, she describes periods where she traveled without her “authorial spectacles.”

Obviously, Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners argues that flippant judgments based on prejudiced morals and hasty generalization should be tempered by philosophical preparation. That is, bad reporters should consider that they don’t really understand even their own home town. Hence, an “unprepared” traveler, is contrasted to a “philosophical” one – one who judges not by their own specific morals and manners, but by universal ones. Martineau laments that the current travel writers are generally unprepared, and urges them to be more philosophical observers.  So much is nice and clear.

But in her biography, she notes that when she went travelling, she meant to leave her pen behind her. She claims to travel for “rest and recreation” and not to write.  She then asserts, “I am sure that no traveler seeing things through author spectacles, can see them as they are.” But is not the authorial gaze and philosophical observation basically the same thing?  Martineau thinks not.  And so I ask, what is the difference?

It would seem that the difference is partly in the order.  Philosophizing comes before travel.  It consists in (very simplistically) discovering what the universal morals are, and then in acknowledging that manners are changing symbols.  In Martineau’s own travels, she began writing this opinion on the ship to America, so just as she urges for her reader, a philosophical distance from her own culture was a necessary prerequisite.

The observation part is apparently what Martineau considers “rest[ful] and relax[ing].”  She did not stop observing the world, only writing books abotu it. This apparently means not judging the cultures she visited, but it does not mean that she did not hold opinions about their ideas.  In her autobiography, she notes that  “my opinions on slavery were candidly held, and … they offered no obstacle to the most friendly intercourse with friends.” I assume from context that the term “candid” is meant in the older connotation of a kindly, nonabrasive,  honesty.  In fact, this kind of candor about her opinions seems to have added to the enjoyment.  Her next statement implies too, that observation is another element of that enjoyment. “I should never succeed in seeing the Americans as they were, if my road was paved for me from one society to another.”  Though it is difficult for the modern culture of cruise vacations and beach resorts to understand, Martineau wanted the challenge, and wanted to study another culture – that was the fun of it.

The authorial gaze comes after the return from the trip and seems to produce the judging voice.   Martineau’s Society in America, though nicely tempered, certainly holds no punches in its condemnation of the slave trade (and more). In her introduction, she claims not to judge the American people and she urges other travel writers to do the same.  This must mean something other than judging actions and opinions, however, for list of anecdotes describing the deadened sensibilities of Southern culture toward the slave trade is not sparing. Her voice in this travel narrative returns to the philosophical and the critical, however kind and liberal that ultimate critique of the society might be.  She is shocked at the inconsistencies in their thinking even though she noted how difficult it is to see one’s own culture clearly, quipping that such observations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than the observed.”  But it is interesting that Martineau’s own observations do reveal a great deal of her own mind. Perhaps, though the division between observation and critique is necessary for both to be done well, that distinction is easier in theory than in practice.

Sexual Violence in “Goblin Market”

Christina Rossetti uses violent words with sexual connotation when describing Lizzie with the Goblins.  I found this quite shocking due to the fact that she was a female writing during the nineteenth century.  Upon first reading “Goblin Market”, I took the strange tale as a reflection upon the Adam and Eve story, but upon further reflection, I found sexual undertones of rape and other violent sexual actions.

The Goblins “trod and hustled her” (309) and “clawed [her] with their nails” (401).  These lines truly exhibit violation of Lizzie’s personal space.  Lizzie is the “Christ-like” character in this poem, but she is beaten by the goblins.  They mock her for her purity and want to stay pure.

The most disturbing line to me was when the goblins “tore her gown and soiled her stockings” (403).  This is the first line that made me think of sexual violation.  They are ripping her clothes off and violating her sacred temple.  My main question, after reading this poem a second time, was, why did Rossetti use sexual innuendos in her poem?  Is she trying to warn her young female readers to abstain for sexual temptation?  Is this a warning?

I don’t know if it is exactly a “warning”, but I think Rossetti is taking a strong stance on the importance of purity.  She finds virginity important and hopes to stay away from sexual temptation like Lizzie.

Duped!

After last week’s class discussion, in which we debated just what it is about our tricky narrator’s descriptions that makes many of us sympathize with that snake, Rebecca, I was on the look-out for a demonstration of his tactics.  I found just such a display in Chapters 48 and 49, “In Which the Reader is Introduced to the Very Best Company” and “In Which We Enjoy Three Courses and a Dessert.”

 
Let us begin by looking at the second of these two chapters, for it is in that one that Becky receives sympathy not unlike the kind I repeatedly find myself extending to her despite the fact that I have received ample evidence suggesting that, even if she “had five thousand a year,” she would probably still not be a “good woman,” as she supposes she could be.  During this chapter, Lord Steyne hosts a dinner.  When he introduces Becky to Lady Steyne and her daughters, Lady Steyne gives her a hand “cold and lifeless as marble.”  Nobody wants to be considered cold and lifeless, so I found that I immediately aligned myself with Becky instead of Lady Steyne (as if I really had to decide between the two).  In case I had hesitated, the narrator follows up the unflattering description of Lady Steyne’s hand by noting that Becky received it, ill-offered as it was, “with grateful humility.”  Of course I know she’s putting on a show, but, nevertheless, I found myself favoring the appearance of “grateful humility” over “cold and lifeless” marble.

 
Later on in the evening, “when poor little Becky” is “alone with the ladies,” she is treated with quiet disdain.  When she approaches the fireplace at which the ladies are gathered, they move to the table.  When she moves to the table, they return to the fireplace.  Becky is plainly shunned.  It is at this point that it becomes worthwhile to reflect on the preceding chapter.  In Chapter 48, while visiting Becky at her own home, Lord Steyne had warned Becky: “gare aux femmes [beware of the women], look out and hold your own!  How the women will bully you!”  He compares them to the murderous Lady Macbeth and the selfish, flattering daughters of King Lear, Regan and Goneril.  No wonder, then, that when, jumping forward to the dinner in Chapter 49, I once again side with Becky.  Who wants to be on the same team as Lady Macbeth?  Not me!  So when Lady Steyne at last extends some pity to “poor little Becky” by going to her and striking up a conversation about music (and complimenting Becky’s skill, no less), I extend sympathy right along with her.  I know that Becky sings “religious songs of Mozart” for Lady Steyne with masterful hypocrisy, and yet I sit with Lady Steyne and listen because the narrator has set up the scene in such a way that I either sit with the Lady Steyne or align myself with a murder of crows.

 

Throughout Vanity Fair, the narrator garners sympathy for Becky by presenting her in the context of other people’s faults.  By repeatedly doing so, he prompts his readers to choose Team Becky not because of any virtue in her but, rather, because the offenses of her opponents are so often more obvious at the moment the choice is made.

 

Duped no more, tricky narrator!

 

Works Cited

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. projectgutenberg.org. The Project Gutenberg, 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

The Effects of Serving a Life Sentence in the Friend Zone

My title is a bit misleading/incomplete in that it implies that I will only discuss the effects of Amelia’s behavior on Dobbin’s emotions. Rather, I intend to point out several of Amelia’s faults in general, ones which, whether evident to Dobbin or not, helps readers (okay, me) to let go of the notion that Dobbin ought to forever stay as greatly in awe of Amelia as he ever was in the beginning.

I felt let down the first time I realized (many years ago when I read this novel) that Dobbin’s love for Amelia had cooled – not when he tells her that she wasn’t worth his love, but later, when Thackeray deems it more important to talk of Dobbin’s affection for little Janey and the History of the Punjaub book rather than make any more mention of his undying love for Amelia. Having read the book again at a different age, I now believe that this makes perfect sense. Both Amelia and Dobbin are shown to be people of gentle and moderate temperament, and devoid of malice; Thackeray’s narrator sometimes refers to Amelia as “our heroine” (108, 109, 462) and although this novel is meant to be “without a hero,” there is much agreement amongst scholars and readers that Dobbin comes closest to fitting the bill. It is fitting for the two of them to be together, and perhaps we expect a romantic end to the novel, given that Dobbin is finally getting something for which he has waited eighteen years. Why then, the drop of lemon juice right at the end to curdle the milk?

To answer this, let us start by examining the ways in which Amelia puts us off. First, Amelia is blind to Becky’s manipulations. She lets Becky have the chance to influence many important things in her life, including the feelings of her husband and her brother. She doesn’t catch onto the fact that George was desirous to have an affair with Becky, and she doesn’t do much to prevent Jos from being crazy about Becky either. Dobbin is onto Becky from day one, and years of being made to see Amelia’s stupidity cannot help to strengthen his respect for her.

The only aspect of life in which Amelia is worth anything is in her role as a mother, and even in that, she is very impractical. She dresses up Georgy in fine clothes when they don’t even have enough to eat. Amelia, harshly speaking, fails to some degree in all of her roles: as a wife (because she is boring and clueless), a sister (because she does not do enough to protect her brother), and a mother (because she is unwise with money, and not much of a disciplinarian). She even fails as a friend to Dobbin before becoming his wife, constantly taking advantage of his kindness despite knowing that he is in love with her and therefore being led on. Thackeray’s depiction of Amelia as a “tender little parasite” (724) is right. Throughout the novel, Amelia is always dependent on others, starting from her parents and going all the way through a long line of people to whom she clings for support: George, Mrs. O’Dowd, Dobbin and even her own son. With regard to Dobbin in particular, she is quite selfish and cruel: “She didn’t wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not infrequently levied in love” (800).

After eighteen years of this treatment, Dobbin’s disappointment is necessary whether or not that makes the novel less romantic; he cannot be expected to consistently feel the same for a woman who has time and again proven unworthy of his love, and unworthy of any other admiration. Dobbin is heroic, helpful, discreet, discerning and many other things (perhaps his biggest fault is to be in love with an imbecile like Amelia), and therefore his disenchantment with Amelia, not just when he says he will leave, but even after his marriage to her, is quite natural. Amelia is, as Becky says, for too long “a silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature” and that takes too much of a toll to be forgotten just because Dobbin gets his prize in the end. There is something embittering in having to wait too many years for something that continually loses its luster, through faults of its own, during the wait.

By the end of the novel, Dobbin seems to be freed from the shackles of an obsession much the same way that Amelia is freed from her undue attachment to George. What makes Dobbin’s transformation more admirable is the fact that he comes to the realization himself that Amelia isn’t worthy – he does not have to be shown some example of questionable conduct the way George’s infidelity has to be shoved under Amelia’s nose (literally) to get her to see his true colors. In addition to that, Dobbin is superior to Amelia in my eyes in that he articulates his indignation at being treated poorly, whereas Amelia still has nothing bad to say about George after finding out that the latter had planned to elope with Becky.

Hence, I am glad that Dobbin’s love for Amelia cools. I would not want him to treat her badly, and Thackeray does reassure us that Dobbin continues to be kind to her and gratify her wants, but the evaporation of that worship that was there at the beginning needed to happen, and I am rather satisfied that it did.

Hot or Not List: The Vanity of George Osbourne and Joseph Sedley

To examine some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards vanity as evidenced by the descriptions and dialogues used in Vanity Fair, I would like to contrast the characters of Joseph Sedley and George Osbourne.

Joseph is in the unfortunate position of being “superabundant[ly] fat” (20) and “as vain as a girl” (21). Chapter Three begins with an opulent description of him: “A very stout, puffy man in buckskins and Hessian boots, with several immense neckcloths that rose almost to his nose, with a red-striped waistcoat and an apple-green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown-pieces was reading the paper by the fire…” (16). Joseph’s vanity stems more from a desire to look good than from the confidence of already looking good, and because he is so fond of eating and sleeping, he relies more on accessories than on physical fitness to improve his appearance. The extent of his success is questionable, as substantiated by the distinction made by Thackeray: “He never was well dressed, but he took the hugest pains to adorn his big person, and passed many hours daily in that occupation” (20). The fact that Joseph is shy and awkward in reacting to compliments shows his awareness of the fact that his appearance is not genuinely pleasing. Shortly after Rebecca, in her endeavors to seduce him, loudly whispers to Amelia that Joseph is handsome, the latter pokes at the fire to have something to engage himself with, then pulls the bell-rope and insists that he must hasten away to an appointment. Had he been fully convinced of his looks, he possibly may have not been flustered by such statements or even the presence of his sister. Joseph’s being frightened of any lady beyond measure (20) gives a general idea of his interactions with women, while the line, “Encountering the eye of Miss Sharp, he stopped all of a sudden, as if he had been shot” (17) is particularly effective in conveying the image of Joseph being rendered paralyzed or frozen with nervousness by someone who is a potential love interest. In any case, it is clear that the opposite sex makes Joseph uncomfortable, and it is safe to assume that his vanity is largely the source of his anxiety. Thackeray’s characterization of Joseph may be indicative of the idea that when persons have little to work with in terms of natural beauty or true physical manifestations of society’s ideals, (for example slimness), other efforts to look aesthetically pleasing are at best futile and at worst ridiculous.

George Osbourne is shown to be handsome through his own eyes as well as those of other characters in the novel. Dobbin thinks Amelia “worthy even of the brilliant George Osbourne” (51) and George says of Dobbin, “There’s not a finer fellow in the service, nor a better officer, though he is not an Adonis, certainly,” (47) while catching his own reflection in the mirror and simultaneously seeing Rebecca’s fixed gaze upon him. Amelia is also certainly smitten by his “beautiful black, curling, shining whiskers”; she does not believe that anywhere in the world there was ever “such a face or such a hero” (47). We come to the overall approximation that Thackeray feels it more admissible for George to have high opinions of himself, for he is constantly deluged with some form of admiration or another from people surrounding him, whether direct or indirect. We see a glimpse of George’s fashion sense when he buys a pin for himself, using the money he had borrowed from Dobbin to get a present for Amelia. The selfishness of such an act aside, this very stripped-down example is in direct contrast to Joseph’s tendency to go overboard with adornments. With the simplicity of the pin as an accessory, Thackeray shows that George needs only a minor embellishment to draw out the comeliness that he naturally has.