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).

“Living Encounters” and the Problem of Charity

Third Blog Post:

Anderson’s “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy”

            Amanda Anderson’s chapter takes two of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, to explore the theme of the “fallen woman” and, at least in the case of Mary Barton, it intersects with the novel’s political concerns. She begins by noting “Gaskell’s recurrent ambivalence toward the workers she wants to help” (109), which manifests itself in both the in-novel depictions of characters such as John Barton and in the author’s extra-literary attitude toward reformist movements in her day. For the latter, Anderson draws a contrast with Dickens in particular. According to Anderson, Gaskell placed her hopes in individual charity rooted in the “actual encounter between living persons” (110), linking the suspicion of systemic or “depersonalized” reform to Unitarian belief and practice. I frankly don’t know enough about Victorian era Unitarianism to comment on the accuracy of this characterization. It does raise a question germane to the themes of this course, however. Within Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, the sources for conceptualizing both hospitality and charity arguably privilege precisely these “encounters between living persons.” The Scriptures that we examined earlier in the course featured biblical persons such as Abraham receiving the three Strangers in a highly personal manner, cooking for them, making his home available to them. This also reflects the Near Eastern cultural context standing behind the text, in which individual hospitality is highly prized. One might also think of moments in the Gospels—Mary and Martha’s frequent receptions of Jesus, the anonymous homeowner who makes the “upper room” available for Jesus to eat with his disciples, the wealthy women who support Jesus’s ministry out of their means, even Joseph of Arimathea’s donation of a tomb—that exemplify this sort of individualized, “face to face” charity. Jesus was nothing if not the “worthy poor.” On the other hand, the Hebrew prophets frequently called for a broader, more systemic approach to poverty. We rarely find prophets advocating for this or that poor person. Rather, they call on kings and those in authorityto address the conditions that create poverty in the first place. It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the prophet Amos.

The two streams, personal and systemic, run throughout Christian history as well. The traditional sources that we’ve examined so far have centered on the tales of saints and monks who received individual travelers (including a few who turned out to be far more than they seemed!). Charity in high and late medieval western Christianity was highly individualized as well. From about the fourteenth century on, it was strongly rooted in beliefs concerning merit and the afterlife. The explosive growth of ecclesial—and charitable—structures connected to the doctrine of purgatory has been identified by historians such as Eamon Duffy as thedefining characteristic of late medieval Christianity. “Charity” often meant endowing masses to be sung for suffering souls, who naturally were the worthiest of the poor (their very presence in purgatory rather than hell guaranteed that they were destined for salvation, eventually). Sir Thomas More authored a polemical treatise, “Supplication for Souls,” in 1529 that essentially argued that that to donate alms for departed souls was a far greater deed than relieving the hunger of bodies (early English evangelicals like John Frith and Simon Fish were arguing the opposite).  Social historians such as Carter Lindberg have also noted the increasing and occasionally violent tensions between pre-Reformation city councils (i.e. Strasbourg) and the clerical establishment precisely on this point: cities wanted to feed their hungry poor and were developing elaborate “poor relief” systems to accomplish it. The church wanted to succor souls (and, well, endow large clerical foundations). Which project would claim the territory’s limited resources?

This historic detour is my attempt to show that the tension that Gaskell experienced in the nineteenth century between “personal” and “systemic” approaches to poverty was not at all newin Christian thought. Indeed, the text of Mary Barton arguably serves as a forum in which this tension is negotiated. Anderson dwells at length on the ambivalent character of Esther. In traditional terms, she is “fallen,” the undeserving poor. Nonetheless, Gaskell has the virtuous Jem regret his paltry efforts at aiding her. Anderson attributes this to the nature of Esther’s character; her presence in the novel represents “the kinds of sympathetic encounters and acts of mutual cooperation that [Gaskell] believes can heal a class-divided social world” (119). On the other hand, the “melodramatic” tropes scripting Esther’s story essentially doom her; no amount of sympathy or individual action can ultimately recall her from her fallenness. She hovers as a sort of specter over the text, complicating the notion that personal encounters are sufficient for reform. Her burial side-by-side with John Barton—the novel’s spokesperson for systemtic and political action—becomes emblematic for the unresolved tension between the two approaches. Gaskell seems neither comfortable with fully endorsing Barton’s Chartist vision nor does she allow Esther to be “saved” (at least in a this-worldly sense). The novel’s conclusion may thus leave the reader questioning just what can be donefor the industrialized poor the author depicts. Anderson points to the “reconciliation” of Mr. Carson and Barton as embodying the problem. Carson recognizes to some extent his sins, and yet there is little suggestion that the fundamental system over which he presides will change. Meanwhile, Barton is still corpse (120).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that Gaskell “answers” the question of charity. Her novel wonderfully narrates its complexities, however. I should also add that I don’t think that “personal” and “corporate” charity must be in competition; a Christian ethic may and should embrace both. But it’s also helpful to recognize that the church has historically struggled with just how to conceptualize that balance. For example, the rise of “liberation” thought in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century and the initially quite negative reactions from some in the hierarchy (including a young Joseph Ratzinger) suggest that the tension remains with us. In our discussion of Mary Barton’s conclusion, I will be eager to explore how the novel presents these questions to us and how the text might serve as a resource for reflection.  It will also be worth asking how “charity” relates to hospitality—they are distinct concepts, and yet I doubt whether they can be wholly disentangled either.

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.

Jane Eyre and the Macabre

It’s difficult to pin down Jane Eyre. I mean that both in reference to the character and to the book itself. Jane Eyre (the person) straddles the line of servant and victorian noble, while Jane Eyre (the book) straddles genres. It’s part Gothic, part Romance, part fictional autobiography. The book can not seem to decide what it wants to be, just like the main character. Clever, Brontë, I see what you did there.
Now, it is very apparent how the romantic and autobiographic elements play into the narrative. The entirety of the novel is written as an autobiographical tale from Jane’s perspective and a large part of the novel is dedicated to her romance with Mr. Rochester. Personally, however, I am much more interested in how Brontë incorporated the gothic elements into her story. Partially because it is still to early in the year for me to funnel my macabre fascination into halloween decorating, but mostly because I have just recently completed Wuthering Heights, written by none other than Charlotte Bronte’s own sister, Emily. I have had an ongoing fascination regarding why Jane Eyre became so popular while Wuthering Heights withered in comparison. The two were written and released very close together and many people believed at the beginning that they had been written by the same person. Now, this topic is a very complicated one and so deserves it’s own full discussion, but I do think it had something to do with the differing in application of gothic elements. Wuthering Heights, of course, was much more heavy-handed in it’s use of all things dark and spooky, but I argue that Charlotte is the more creative of the two in regards to how she incorporates it into other elements of the narrative.
Charlotte Bonte is fantastic at using imagery to set a mood. She brings you in and makes you sit in the tension of the world she has painted. Part of this is the limited first person perspective — we are learning at the same time as Jane, and so whenever she feels uneasy, we also feel the tension. The most obvious example is the scene at the end of chapter twenty where Jane is left with an injured Mason as the mysterious figure that attacked him is just next door. Jane is left with what seems only a single lit candle. She describes the room as a terrified person would, seeing Mason himself as “eyes now shut,  now opening, now wandering through the room, now fixed on me, and ever glazed with the dulness of horror”. Now, I know from that description that I would not want those eyes looking anywhere near me. She continues about the room, turning particular care onto the image of Christ and the twelve apostles. She goes about, describing some in detail and others not, as the light flickers in and away from their faces, describing Judas’s face in particular as “[growing] out of the panel and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor — of Satan himself — in his subordinate’s form”. Now, I highly doubt that Judas is literally about to jump out and get her, but the thing making noise in the next room just might. She is terrified, and so we the audience are also terrified. It is very effective.
I really enjoy how Charlotte uses the gothic is to subtly undercut romantic ideals. For example: Rochester, the main male love interest, meets the heroine as he rides in on a horse. Pretty classic romance there, except that his entrance does not excite nor entice the ever wary Jane. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the first image she (and we) get is that of his dog — a great spectre of a beast that she at first mistakes as an evil spirit. When Rochester does appear shortly thereafter, it is his voice and not his appearance that reaches her first. Then the valiant steed proceeds to buck its rider onto the ground, breaking Rochester’s leg in the process. The scene up to this point is rather eerie — we don’t know what to make of Rochester or his hellhound, but we can assume that he holds some importance on account of his grandiose entrance. Then he hits the ground and the spell is immediately broken. The scene thereafter is actually pretty mundane: the conversation they have is based firmly at the task at hand, although the manner in which he speaks to Jane is very telling of his character. This pretty much sums up Rochester’s interactions with Jane — equal parts mysterious and mundane. The fact that he can so seamlessly transition between normal and near psychotic behavior so quickly and easily left me uneasy, and I have spent much of the novel wondering if Rochester was going to pull a page out of The Shining and attempt to hack our heroine to bits for discovering his secret in the attic. I know he won’t, simply because Jane must still be alive to write this ‘autobiography’ later in life, but the idea still leaves my stomach turning every time he enters the scene.

Adultish Children and Childish Adults: Maturity in Bleak House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian woman sketch 3

“My God!”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The 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.

Are You Bored to Death?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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.

The (Death) of Charlotte Bronte

"The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored" by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) - Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

“The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored” by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) – Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

For being entitled The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography devotes a large amount of the story to narratives of death: first Mrs. Brontë, then Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Tabby, and, finally, Charlotte herself. In an age of nascent medical science, poor hygiene, and rampant, fatal communicable diseases, death was a fact of life for the Victorians; yet it was not without deep emotional significance. Gaskell’s accounts of the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte all share striking commonalities. What defines these death narratives, and what do they tell us about Victorian culture?

During his life, Branwell becomes “dissipated,” buried in debts, and hopelessly addicted to opium. For years, his struggles with addiction afflict the sisters and their father, as they struggle to keep Branwell out of trouble and away from harming himself or others: “… he [Branwell] would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before morning…The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves” (Gaskell 227). Yet despite his behavior and his addiction-related mental illness, death reveals the noble character that he still possessed. Gaskell writes, “I have heard from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose” (Gaskell 289). Gaskell’s narrative reveals a strong belief that one’s true character emerges at the moment of death. In his last moments, Branwell becomes a hero: resolved, courageous, and ready to face whatever might come next.

Emily’s death account shows a similar heroism in the face of fate. For the females of Gaskell’s narrative, the defining theme is independence until the final breath and the avoidance of burdening others: “She made no complaint; she would not endure questioning; she rejected sympathy and help” (Gaskell 290). Outwardly, she denied her illness and refused to see a doctor until it was too late. Though it seems foolish, Emily’s refusal to see a doctor probably did not hasten her death, given the unreliable nature of medical treatment.

Like Emily, the sense of hopelessness pervades Anne’s attitude towards medicine; however, though she knows her death is inevitable, “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction” (304). Anne also tries to burden the healthy as little as possible; she was “the patientest, gentlest invalid that could be,” and “dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain” (307).

Charlotte’s own death is born in the same kind of tragic courage against an inevitable human fate. Her illness is “still borne on in patient trust” even though she takes “stimulants” for her pain and departs in “low wandering delirium” (455). Her reflections on her sisters’ death are telling when compared to her last words. When Emily and Anne die, she warns herself, “These things make one feel, as well as know, that this world is not our abiding-place. We should not knit human ties too close, or clasp human affections too fondly. They must leave us, or we must leave them, one day” (Gaskell 290). Yet on her deathbed, she whispers to her husband, “I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy” (455). As it is impossible not to be human, it is impossible for Charlotte not to love.

The tragedy of death in the Victorian culture, and the need for a “good death” narrative to console the living, reveal a society wrestling to define a concrete belief in the afterlife. In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz writes that “intermingled with this need to hold onto the memory of the beloved was an anxiety that this matter might finally signify nothing and that death was simply meaningless annihilation. Unfolding this dialectic of doubt and its function in Victorian death culture leads to the evangelical ‘good death’…” (10). Lutz goes on to explain that the life and significance of the Brontes were preserved through relics. Gaskell’s death-surrounded biography led to the late Victorians’ sanctification and enshrinement of the Brontes’ parsonage, along with items touched by the deceased– down to the couch where Emily is believed to have died, and the children’s scribblings on the walls, preserved under glass (52-53). Gaskell’s portrayal of the Brontes’ “good deaths” empowered her eulogizing rhetoric, creating the romanticized image of the Brontes that the living remember today.

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Angus Easson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 2015.