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).


Anvilicious Narm in Mary Barton?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Readerly Vanitas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bucket is so deep”


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.

The Meaning of Esther’s Illness

Ironically, sickness seems vital to many of the Victorian novels we’ve read thus far. When characters get sick—and especially when they are gravely ill—insights are likely to occur. Not only do the ill characters themselves encounter that sharp divide between life and death, but so does the surrounding community; everyone is forced to grapple with the concept of mortality and by extension to define their relationships and reconsider their decisions. Think of Mr. Hope’s sickness in Deerbrook, or Mr. Casaubon’s in Middlemarch. Sickness is vital to the stories and the characters—it shapes and defines them, and, perhaps most importantly, it exists outside them…they have little control over it, so their reactions are what end up mattering.

Esther’s smallpox epidemic in nearly the exact center of Bleak House is no exception. Not only is it a plot device, but a primary way that Dickens shows character development. Most obviously, Esther’s sickness allows us insight into how other characters conceive of her. Their reactions to her disfigurement (initially but also ultimately) allow readers to understand their true characters. And Esther’s understanding of their reactions—what she attributes their actions to—is equally telling. Her illness becomes a litmus test for shallowness, a way of continually testing everything.

More importantly though, Esther’s sickness also allows us to understand her more deeply, especially her thwarted sense of identity. When she is sick, she can no longer do housework. Her work ethic, and the tasks that she so happily completes upon arriving at Mr. Jarndyce’s home, have largely defined her to others: they are what drive her to be called “Old Woman,” despite her young age. But throughout her sickness, she has to stop understanding herself primarily through this role: as she explains, she was “at once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman” (555). But instead of understanding the fullness of her many roles, Esther is confused by them: “I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the endless perplexity of trying to reconcile them” (555). Because of her smallpox, Esther literally cannot see—she is blind for a time—but she also cannot see herself as she used to. Her long-suppressed emotions about her past come to surface at this time. In her sickness, Esther seems to feel the weight of her childhood in a way that she will not allow herself to feel as an adult. She uses an image of a “flaming necklace or ring” with herself being one bead to show how she desires her own removal from the systems she is part of by asking if she dares hint at “when my only prayer was to be taken off the rest, and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be part of the dreadful thing?” (556). This seems telling for it allows us as readers to see some of the trauma that Esther won’t mention in her letters. She can blame it on her delusional state in her sickness, but her confusion here actually reveals the traumatic effect of never talking about her childhood, not acknowledging who she has become (or who she ever really was) up to this point.

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.

Judging For Ourselves

How truly delightful Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation is after Martineau’s Society in America. He seems at first to be pursuing an entirely opposite end from Martineau’s – that of entertainment rather than education.  Certainly, Martineau is not extremely interested in entertainment in that particular work, but I think Dickens is not uninterested in education either.  He simply educates his reader through narrative rather than argument. Even his journalism is more narrative and sometimes even fictional. This observation inspires many questions – whether Dickens did this on purpose, or whether he simply couldn’t help himself (or both), whether his first goal was entertainment, good sales, or social justice, whether the effect is more or less powerful than with Martineau’s style, whether Dickens’ appreciated Martineau’s more philosophical style… But here I am mainly concerned with some of effects of a narrative style as opposed to a more philosophical style like Martineau’s.

Dickens’ American Notes is certainly more anecdotal and specific than Martineau’s.  In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau encourages travelers to look for the general truths, and not to assume that one instance of, say, a river crossing, is representative of all instances of that event.  Dickens is more willing to describe one American mill town, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.  In the introduction, Dickens trusts that “my readers have opportunities of judging for themselves…” (59) And indeed, he does seem to allow a space for our own observation and interpretation while Martineau encourages writers to do much of that work for their readers. Though this quote is technically encourages readers to compare his observations to the actual “public career of that country since,” his open, amiable narrative, also provides an opportunity to make those observations within the narrative itself.  He does not blatantly tell us what to think about the mill town (as Martineau would). Rather, he gives us a less digested observation, allowing us to “judge for ourselves” as a fellow-traveler.

Dickens also delights in not observing certain things very accurately. The first chapter is a comedy of his disappointment with the size of the steamer’s accommodations, coming at last to the “unanimous conclusion that it was rather spacious than otherwise…” (115), though all the company actually believes it to be a poky hole of a berth.  Dickens is not interested in the facts of the berth, but in viewing it in the most optimistic manner, since nothing could be done about it.  He is more interested in how he and his companions felt about it, but he does not fail to describe the actual state either.  Quite clever.  A trick possible only in narrative.  It is a subtle interpretation of a fact which tells us more about the author and the fact than any straight-up interpreted observation could provide. It places the reader in a different relationship to the author – of companion, rather than pupil, again, encouraging our judgment.

Even the articles written for Household Words employ more narrative than Martineau and Eliot. This is perhaps not too surprising, since it is entirely possible to tell facts in the structure of a plot.  Many of his articles begin with variations of “On a certain Sunday…” (5183) and then proceeds to tell us the story of his “Walk in a Workhouse.” But more surprising than this is the way in which he uses hypothetical claims to tell us what might have been which has the effect of a fictional narrative within the non-fiction. This can have many effects.  In “A Walk in a Workhouse” it has the effect of increasing sympathy, of suggesting a solution, of illustrating that greediness has always been around.  It tells that story can be a place to explore plots that have not yet happened, but which may happen if we make different choices.  It allows us to see the future and the possible effects of other choices.

Of course, there are a great many more differences and effects of receiving our instruction in a narrative form, not the least of which is its increased readability and the pleasure of a narrator who seems to value our own independent interpretation.  Yet narrative is also more powerfully persuasive.  We have discussed its ability to create sympathy, but it also seems able to sneak in an interpretation where we think we are observing for ourselves.  And this is especially the power of comedic narrations like Dickens’


Why Victorians Wrote Stories

Greiner’s argument in this first chapter linking “Smithian sympathy and realist historicism”  is particularly interesting in the context of essayist-turned-novelist authors of the Victorian era.  Consider George Eliot, who initially does prefer philosophical prose to narrative, and Martineau who wrote periodicals first and only much later wrote her novel.    There seems to be a tradition of preferring argument, explanation, and “studies” to narrative which the novels themselves perpetuate in the narrator’s intrusive and didactic voice.

Pondering this, I encountered this quote in Greiner’s book:  “Capitalizing on the very thing that poses a problem for Levin – that novels are made of words, not things – realist form anchors the mimetic impulse not in a fantasy of correspondence between language and the world but in the temporal unfolding of meaning in grammar and story” (Greiner 24)  That the goal of novelists like Martineau and Eliot and Dickens and Gaskell was to foster sympathy for others is the obvious stated goal of their work, but that words might not be up to the task is, I think, the difficulty that all encountered in their journalistic mode.  Words are limited in their ability to foster sympathy, but philosophical words are far more limited than narrative ones. In narrative, words are not the unit of sense– nor, for that matter, is a sentence as it is in journalistic prose.  Story is the unit of thought. Story acknowledges a “temporal unfolding of meaning in grammar and story” which other prose forms deny. Ideas set within this context may potentially be more meaningful and more persuasive than in treaties. They make us “go along with” the feelings of the narrative.

But “going along” suggests the motion of narrative – a motion which, as Greiner points out, is something beyond the historicist: “And this metonymy is sympathetic, not just historicist, in its reliance on narrative extension, the building-up of partial connections and the accumulative gathering together of temporally unfolding meanings, to vivify what is unknowable in the present” (Greiner 35). In narrative, complete understanding of a character is absolutely impossible in the middle of the story, and sometimes it is impossible even after it. When a story has ended, there is a sense of characters and histories that began before the novel and will only really end long after “The End.” A wise reader of these characters will understand that when we close the back cover of the book and there are no more words, we are still in the middle of the story and cannot entirely understand or perfectly judge them. Removing us from the position of judge is another way in which narrative places us in a parallel position to the characters in the novel.  We are not judge, we are fellow-travelers.

This is also why the silent places are so powerful. When a character cannot talk, or masters an outburst of passion, it does draw us in, as Greiner points out, because it comes to the same point of unresponsiveness that we are in at that moment, and then moves us into sympathetic reactions.  But it is also because it acknowledges the incapacity of a word or set of words to convey the emotion.  The movement of story has power to thrust us into a place beyond that story by the sheer momentum of that motion.  And once beyond, we find that really what is necessary for words to mean and sympathy to be grasped, is silence.

Is George Eliot a Romantic?

I think George Eliot is a bit of a romantic. She admires Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, for instance – in the essay on “The Natural History of German Life,” of all places. She claims that they do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower, towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than… hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (Loc 2701).  To our modern sensibilities this is quite odd.  In Ivanhoe, Rebecca’s speech during her trial received fairly caustic censure from several critics in recent years for nearly the same reasons that Eliot criticizes her own “Silly Lady Novelists.”  Recall too some of the unrealistic drama in Gaskell’s Mary Barton, yet Gaskell is another author that Eliot praises for her accurate depictions of humanity.  Eliot’s own depiction of peasant life is also surprisingly romantic. While arguing that society novelists are too emotionally susceptible, she claims that “a return to the habits of peasant life is the best remedy for many moral as well as physical diseases induced by perverted civilization” (Loc 2883). What sense does this make beside other claims that, “to make men moral, something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass.” (Loc 2693)?

I can think of three possible solutions to this contradiction.  Perhaps George Eliot is better at catching idealization of her own class than she is of noticing it in depictions of peasant life of which she has little actual experience.  Or maybe we are simply more enlightened than Eliot; we have a taste for realism which Eliot was only beginning to be appreciate.

Or it could be that Eliot did not think it necessary to defend a certain kind of idealization. That there is a difference between Gaskell, Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau, and the “Silly Lady Novelists” seems fairly obvious, and I think it more than a difference in degree. There must be an actual difference between these two kinds of idealization.

Eliot’s praise of the romantic authors is that they close the gap between social classes.  So even if she notices the unrealistic quality of their depiction, she may still consider it a helpful idealization. The idealized picture the “Silly Novelists” offers is different. Here we have simpering dilettantes who prefers Aristotle to Wordsworth, read Hebrew and Greek, speak five modern languages, and only dine with clergymen.  Part of her censure of this picture is that it makes readers expect or wish women to be what they are not,  and shouldn’t wish to be.  It is both inaccurate and unhelpful

In a review of Ivanhoe, G. K. Chesterton makes a distinction between idealization that is inaccurate to facts, and the kind that is inaccurate to desires.  Maybe Rebecca would never actually speak as she does, but she would certainly feel as she speaks.  Maybe the scene of Mary Barton appealing wordlessly from a storm-tossed rowboat to a mercilessly retreating ship would never actually occur, but it is not an inaccurate depiction of anyone’s emotions in similar circumstances. So perhaps Eliot sees idealization that makes us understand common human desires as helpful in closing the gap between the classes. As for her confusion over the benefit of buttercups, I believe the “perverted society” to which she refers is that of the novelists who are inclined to unhelpful, exaggerated, idealization. It’s not all upper-class society she would like to put out to pasture – only the “Silly Lady Novelists.”

Plotting, Prophetic Martineau

Martineau’s comments on the inability to invent a unique plot are fascinating and baffling considering her own later admission that the plot of Deerbrook actually is, though unintentionally, unique. Here is Martineau’s explanation as to why the creation of unique plot is impossible:

“…the creating a plot is a task above human faculties.  It is indeed evidently the same power as that of prophecy; that is, if all human action is (as we know it to be) the inevitable result of antecedents, all the antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe.  A mind which can do this must be, in the nature of things, a prophetic mind, in the strictest sense; and no human mind is that. The only thing to be done, therefore, is to derive the plot from actual life, where the work is achieved for us, accordingly, it seems that every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life” (189).

Accordingly, she did take the plot of her Deerbrook from “real life,” but her understanding of the real events was mistaken, and so she later realized that, “Deerbrook was a fiction, after all, in its groundwork.”  What a chuckling irony.

But I wonder what Martineau conceives a plot to be, exactly.  Is it the exact progression of events?  Because in that case, why do Dickens’ plots not qualify?  And how do Scott’s really improbable plots make the grade?  (Honestly, King Richard, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and the passionate Jewess all in one book?…)  If the most original plot must be from a “prophetic” mind, then what is that?

What if it is possible to be a prophet.  Not, obviously, the doomsday “The-sky-is-falling” prophet, but the sort with the important antecedent “if you keep doing what you are doing, then the sky will fall.”  Is this not precisely what a novelist does?  Invent a situation, and then explore the result of that situation when engaged with by invented characters?  Of course, a situation, or problem, must have antecedents or causes.

And in fact, Martineau’s conception of the prophet is one who understands antecedents, but not conclusions.  If “all antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe,” then is she not suggesting that the “inevitable catastrophe” is the conclusion?  What about the solution to the catastrophe?  What about the conclusion?

The implication of this claim, too, is that journalists can comprehend all the antecedent causes of a catastrophe.  That seems a bit cocky. But I wonder if this does not also provide us a solution.  If we acknowledge that even in factual cases, the causes, the effects, the response of characters cannot be fully comprehended or anticipated, then the novelist’s job becomes a great deal more similar to the journalist’s than Martineau originally thought.  And perhaps this is why she could accidentally write what she initially called impossible – an original plot. She actually didn’t even understand the catastrophe. And at that point of failure, Martineau really was a plotting prophet.