Justified Unrighteous Anger

In Mill and the Floss by George Elliot, both Mr Tulliver and his son Tom use the family Bible in order to cast revenge on the Wakems. Neither like the Wakems, the father because he lost his lawsuit to Mr. Wakem, and Tom because of his father’s views and the harm that came to him. In using the Bible in this way, however, both men are breaking with what most would consider to be a Christian way of doing things, especially in the fact that they each have another swear upon the Bible to do something that they may not want to do. Therefore the question that remains is why did the two male Tullivers use God’s Word in this way.

One view of the matter would be that they thought this use of the Bible was acceptable. When Maggie tries to tell her father that what he wanted to write in the Bible was wicked, Mr. Tulliver retorted, “It’s wicked as the raskills should prosper — it’s the devil’s doing.” (Book 3 Chapter 9 Page 291) Tom later agrees to sign his name in the Bible under a statement claiming that he will make Wakem pay if he is ever able to. Neither, therefore, seem to show any sort of repugnance of the act, and indeed seem to find it to be the moral thing to do. Tom, after all, follows his father’s example and makes Maggie swear not to see Phillip again without his knowledge “with [her] hand on [their] father’s Bible” (Book 5 Chapter 5 Page 357). Here we see not only that the men do not mind making vows of revenge on the Bible, but also that they do not mind making family members do the same. This would seem to indicate that they believe that this is something that is not inherently wrong.

Another possibility, however, is that the Tullivers don’t care that their actions are wrong. This would seem to be at odds with their behavior, Tom’s especially, as they both tried to be good and honest men. However, in both cases Maggie tries to fight against this swearing on the Holy Book, and both times she is shot down. The men seem set in their ways, her father saying that he isn’t being wicked, Wakem is, and her brother saying that he doesn’t “wish to hear anything of [her] feelings”, he just wants her to choose (Book 5 Chapter 5 Page 357). This shows how stubborn the men are in refusing to listen to Maggie, and this stubbornness could lead from them being in the wrong. They know they are wrong but are so upset or angry, or devoted to family in Tom’s case, that they are still willing to carry through with the act, nevermind the morality or the consequences of it.

One other reading of this is that neither man actually places much stock on the Bible itself. Obviously the family goes to church, and are at least somewhat religious, but each seems to treat the Bible as more of a tool. Mr. Tulliver has all the names of the family written in the Bible, and uses it almost as a spiritual will when he has Tom promise to get revenge in it. Tom uses it as insurance that Maggie will do what he wants. When Maggie claims that she can swear just not on the Bible, Tom tells her that he can’t trust her and that she must “do what [he] requires” (Book 5 Chapter 5 Page 357). Therefore the Bible here is just a tool to make sure that Maggie keeps her word, nothing more. Of course each shows that there is more significance to God’s Word than other things, as that is what they use as a tool, but they use it as a tool none the less and therefore it could be argued that they do not place much stock in the Holy Book for it’s words, instead valuing it for how they can use it.

Whatever the case may be, it is interesting that both Tulliver men use the Bible in order to force their family to agree to do things that would harm others, specifically the Wakems. This shows that there is some breakdown in thinking or morality, but whatever the case is George Elliot makes this and interesting dynamic in her book The Mill on the Floss.

Mr. Carson’s Character Development

Though many characters grow throughout Mary Barton, Mr. Carson’s Bildungsroman is perhaps the most notable. While he is not a main character, his change of heart is the greatest. In the beginning, Mr. Carson is the factory owner and the father of Mary’s fling, Harry Carson, and known for being a cruel and power hungry master. When a fire burns down his factory, he is not worried for “the insurance money would amply pay” and lays off his workers, including Mr. Wilson. Mr. Carson is not concerned with the “deep, terrible gloom” of “no wages to pay for the bread the children cried aloud for in their young impatience suffering” (95). For the rich, no work meant “leisure” that was a “pleasant thing” and meant “happy family evenings” (95). Rich families, including Mr. Carson’s, do not attempt to understand the intense weight of having no money. Rather than compensating for lost time, because the factory workers need it so badly, it is considered a luxury to not work. Meanwhile, Davenport falls ill and Wilson goes to the Carson’s to ask for medicine. Mr. Carson fails to recognize his name and doesn’t “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s],” even though Davenport had worked for him for three years. He is unconcerned with the needs of his workers while in this time period, the people working in the factories need all the help they can get.

Carson continues to be ignorant of the workers’ conditions and needs until it directly affects him in the murder of his son, Henry. After he finds out his son has been shot, he reverts to using his money. He offers a “handsome reward [that] might accelerate the discovery of the murderer” (273). Rather than grieving his son’s death, comforting his hysterical wife or reflecting on how short life is, Mr. Carson seeks vengeance on the murderer: “My son! My son…but you shall be avenged, my poor murdered boy” (277). It is “a speedy conviction, a speedy execution” that “seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood” (286). This shows immaturity, recklessness and again a lack of concern for those around him. The death of his son has not so far as changed Mr. Carson but rather encouraged him to use his power and money to further fight fire with fire.

At the trial, Mr. Carson shows glimpses of emotions when he contemplates over his son’s love of Mary. He “abhorred her and her rumored loveliness” and “grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son” (402). Instead of pitying her and considering her loss of her “lover,” he felt a “severe” “satisfaction” when she is about to come testify against Jem. The narrator leaves out his reaction when the court rules Jem not guilty, maybe because the reader is not concerned with Mr. Carson at the moment—only Mary and Jem— or because his emotion would bring down the happiness of the reader. It is not until several chapters later that the narrator explores the reactions of Mr. Carson. This is when Mr. Carson has a change of heart and actually considers another person’s point of view: “But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more…suddenly I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which prompted John Barton’s crime” (466-7).

He then calls for Will Wilson and Job Leigh to help Mr. Carson understand. Once they explain it to him, the first thing he says is, “Now how in the world can we help it?” (471). Instead of getting angry or blowing them off as he might have done earlier, he asks what he can do. This shows immense growth in Mr. Carson’s character. He allows Wilson and Job to explain John Barton’s reasons and thanks them “for speaking candidly” about “the power, or want of power in masters, to remedy the evils the men complain of” (474). The death of Henry opened his eyes to the hurt, hunger and hate that ultimately comes from being poor and knowing there is nothing one can solely do about it. Yet with the power that Mr. Carson has from being a master and having money, he understands how he is one of the people who can actually do something about it. This development in Mr. Carson is a total change in his character. This gives the reader hope because of this growth. Mr. Carson is not a main character but he is an impressionable character because of his Bildungsroman.

Accepting Kindness

Kindness is a big focus for Elisabeth Gaskell in her novel Mary Barton. In fact, it is the main point she tries to make, with Job Legh telling Mr. Carson “If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy… [even if they] could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye;…’ – we’d bear up like men through bad times” (474). Here Job is asserting that all the poor want from the upper classes is kindness and sympathy. Kindness is used in other ways throughout the novel though, with the poor helping each other. In this Gaskell ends up showing that it is just as important to accept the kindness of others as it is to give it out.

Gaskell establishes both John and Mary Barton as kind individuals willing to help their fellow men. When Wilson comes to ask John for money to help the dying Mr. Davenport, John asserts he has no money. After he takes a bit of food to the suffering family, however, he goes and gathers up all the belongings he can spare and “pawned them for five shillings” (98). Even in the beginning when he said he had no money to spare, he was still willing to spare some food for the suffering family. Then, upon seeing the extreme case of the Davenports, he went and sold what he could to help them. This shows a kindness and willingness to help, something that Mary also shares.

When Mary hears about the murder of the younger Mr. Carson, she is distraught mainly because she suspects Jem of being the murderer. On her way home after hearing this, she runs across a hungry boy on the road who asks for food. At first she claims that “hunger is nothing” and rushes past, but then “her heart upbraided her… and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps” to go give the food to the boy (296-297). Mary is shown here to be kind of heart as well, but both she and her father have trouble accepting kindness in return.

Job says “John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people” showing that he did not get advice from others (470). He also did not accept money from his union, wishing it to go to other families instead. So when he was the one in need, he did not get help, he just retreated further into himself. Mary has the same inclination. When Jem is considered to be a murderer, she feels that she has to clear his name and that she has to do it all by herself. In this mind set, Margaret offers Mary money to help Jem. Mary does accept it, but reluctantly taking it “for Jem”, but not even taking all the money offered (333). This causes Margaret to expound upon the idea of kindness.

Margaret claims that we should say ‘let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). She asserts that helping others can make one happy and that depriving them of the ability to help hurts them. This shows a bit of where the Bartons have been going wrong. John thinks he has to do things by himself, but that only makes him more irritable and angry towards the world, to the point of even hitting his daughter. Mary runs around trying to save Jem only to end up fainting at his trial from exhaustion and needing to be tended to by strangers. Gaskell seems to be saying that, while the upper class does need to step up and help the poor, the poor also need to accept the help and perhaps even ask for it, if not from the unhelpful lawmakers than at least from their neighbors.

Kindness is shown throughout Mary Barton, and the intricacies of it help to show not only that the poor are kind to each other and that the rich should be kind to them too, but also that they need to accept kindness so that they don’t end up getting hurt in the end.

The Emphasis on Nature to Reveal Clues to Reader

In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, setting is used to reveal the character’s mental state and in some cases nature even goes so far as reviving the characters. While there are similarities between the sublime and gothic genres, there are distinct differences. In Shelley’s writing, the gothic is often used to portray a horrifying or despairing scene while the sublime shows restoration and happiness.

While Shelley uses setting throughout the entire novel with each of the characters, a more specific example is seen a page apart where Shelley uses both the gothic and sublime to show Victor’s emotions. The scene after the monster has finished telling Victor his story and Victor has begrudingly agreed to create him a mate demonstrates how Shelley uses the setting to display emotion. After the monster has departed, Victor walks back to the village as the sun was on “the verge of the horizon” where Victor would soon be “encompassed in darkness” (159). Victor’s heart is heavy as he is overcome with emotion sitting down next to a fountain. Here, Shelley uses the darkness as a metaphor for the emotions of darkness that are taking over Victor. The fountain next to him can be interpreted as the intense feelings of despair wash over him or the tears he wants to cry. Continuing in the paragraph, Shelley goes further describing the “dark pines” and “broken tree” (159). The trees are lingering over him to again show how his thoughts of remembering the conversation with the monster as well as the thoughts of what might happen in the future linger over Victor. He even cries out that the trees and stars are mocking him and asks to be alone in his solitude further proving the landscape as a metaphor for his haunting thoughts. Darkness and solitude are very prominent give-aways when writing in the gothic genre.

On the next page, Shelley then uses the sublime genre to show restoration in Victor. She even references the gothic, the “blackness overcast” to contrast the sublime, the “approaching sunshine” (161). The sublime can be identified by descriptions of nature: “I passed whole days on the lake alone in little boat, watching the clouds, and listening to the rippling waves…but the fresh air seldom failed to restore me” (161). Shelley uses these descriptions to show the change of heart in Victor as he returns to his friends better than ever. A common theme in both the gothic and sublime is solitude. In the sublime scene, Victor takes “refuge in the most perfect solitude” (161). In the scene before, Victor begs to be away from the trees, or nature, but now he finds nature has restored him. Shelley does this to show how much effect nature can have on the characters and the reader. Nature goes so far as being able to restore Victor and give the reader an indication Victor is feeling better. She puts am emphasis on nature as a powerful tool in her novel.

Along with demonstrating how important nature is to the novel, Shelley uses the difference of setting between the sublime and gothic to project how Victor is feeling. Even with the similarity of the two genres, solitude, she demonstrates the difference between the two as well. As previously mentioned, in the gothic scene, the trees are leaning over Victor, while in the sublime scene, the air is open. Shelley takes the solitude aspect of each genre and puts it in two different contexts to further prove setting reflects the feelings of the characters.

Putting an emphasis on nature, Shelley gives the reader a clue into the heads of the characters through her descriptions of setting. Since the point of view in the novel is so distanced from the reader, and we are not put in the heads of the characters, it is important that reader has these clues to pick up on how the characters are feeling and how the reader is supposed to feel as well.

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?”