Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited:

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

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.

Stepping into Secularism: Complicating Jean-Luc Marion’s Post-“Charlie Hebdo” Advice to Muslims

Jean-Luc Marion is best known for his influential works of philosophy, phenomenology, and theology, but, after the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo,” he wrote in a far less (although still somewhat) abstract vein, identifying the tragedy as an incident in a long-ranging conflict and recommending a path forward for followers of the Muslim faith in French society. According to Marion, the most essential step for the Muslim faith to take, in order to successfully step “into the secularism that the other religions embrace in France,” is to open “itself up to a close analysis” (Marion). Marion sees this “opening up” as a necessary step for Islam to be incorporated as a peaceful and functional part of French society, positioning the analysis as temporally and causally prior to the “secularism.” With respect to Marion’s eminence as a philosopher and his emotions in the moment of this response’s composition, I would like to argue that Marion’s recommendation to French Muslims (and Muslims generally) is impossible to realize, because of the way he inverts the necessary causal relationship between secularism and the kind of analysis he describes. This does not necessarily indicate that Marion’s end-goal of integration within a secularist framework is not a worthy one, but this complication of the means he recommends does force us to reconsider how (if at all) that end can be attained.

Marion’s description of the analysis that Islam must undergo implies the operation of a certain critical mindset. Marion refers to this process, one already undergone by Catholic traditions, Protestant traditions, and Judaism, as “tests of their religious validity” (Marion). This testing of Islam should include “philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretation of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.” (Marion). Such a process might sound quite natural to those shaped by traditions that have already undergone it, and the component steps laid out by Marion might sound to many of us essential to any such study. And indeed they are, but in order to embrace, or even make sense of, such a study certain assumptions about the nature of belief and truth as applied to religion are necessary. The kind of analysis Marion speaks about here cannot be undertaken unless one adopts a critical lens that holds simultaneously the possibility of a religion’s truth or falsity. Even if one already believes in the religion under investigation, the intellectual process of analysis must be understood as causally, if not temporally, prior to belief. The religion in question must be viewed as a thing, like many other things, that may or may not be believed, contingent on the results of analytical inquiry. Reality apart from the religion must be conceptually accepted as a possibility before such an analysis can be begun.

However, according to the eponymous Charles Taylor and those who follow his influential definition of secularism, the mindset that I have described above is precisely what constitutes secularism itself. In Taylor’s A Secular Age, he offers a hefty analysis of the origins of that titular phenomenon, finding that the critical difference between secularism now and secularism as it has been understood in the past is the fundamental assumption that belief in a particular religion (as well as non-belief in any religion) are equally viable possibilities. Not believing in the religion in which one believes is always understood as a possibility, and belief is thus seen as a choice. This way of thinking, as we have seen, underlies the kind of analysis and testing that Marion contends Islam must undergo to become a thriving participant in secular society.

But this is a problem since it means that, before undergoing the kind of analysis Marion mandates for induction into secularism, the mindset of Muslims (a rather nebulous body referred to by Marion) must be secular. In other words, secularism becomes a prerequisite for secularism. Marion identifies the problem underlying the discord between secular French society and Islam as the fact that Islam is not secular, but his plan for bringing Islam into the fold of secularism requires a condition which, by Marion’s own reasoning, cannot be fulfilled. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Marion might well be roughly correct in his diagnosis of the problem, even if his solution is lacking. Saba Mahmood has pointed out, in her incisive analysis of the Muslim response to the depiction of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, that responses of this kind arise from a Muslim understanding of faith that stands in contrast to the secular conception of faith as a choice (Mahmood 844). Indeed, Mahmood goes on to consider the ways that imaging Muhammad can affect Muslim believers, ways that are reminiscent of Taylor’s distinction between the porous self and the modern, secular buffered self.

So where does all of this leave us? The answer might seem to be “nowhere particularly good.” It appears that Marion might be right insofar as he suggests that traditional Islam remains incompatible with key aspects of French (and generally Western) society, because that society is secular and Islam, traditionally conceived, is not. However, secularism cannot be tidily manufactured through the process Marion recommends, nor through any similarly timely and intentional program. Western secularism evolved over centuries through a very particular series of events, culminating in a mindset incommensurable with many other modes of thought. Of course, Marion rather ignores a great deal of scholarly analysis of Islam already being undertaken by individuals who have accepted the necessary secularist positions, so perhaps we could look toward such trends as a potential solution. On the other hand, such academic inquiry, like most academic inquiry at present, is far removed from the lives and habits of most people and thus from most sincere followers of the Islamic faith. At present, the best that seculars and non-seculars can do might be to simply agree to disagree, but even such a goal as that is a fraught one when the very idea of “disagreement” itself is understood fundamentally differently within a secular or non-secular framework.

Works Cited:

Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect.” Critical Inquiry. Summer 2009.

Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself to Critique–Jean-Luc Marion.”

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.

Pamela’s Virtue

If you or anyone were to sit down and describe Pamela to me, I would insist that she is one of the most irritating characters I have ever heard of, and I would make a point never to touch a copy of Samuel Richardson’s first epistolary novel. She has wisdom beyond her years but digs herself into deeper and deeper holes with everyone around her. She is clever and pert, but so easily shaken by verbal abuse alone that she cannot leave a room without clutching the wainscoting and promptly collapsing outside. She is pretty and nice, and that seems to be all that most people who meet Pamela require of her. I cannot say as much, but I can say this: Despite all these qualities, I like Pamela.

When Mr. B. goes after her, I tense up. When Mrs. Jewkes is cruel, my face scrunches into odd and angry shapes. When even Mrs. Jervis occasionally betrays her, I am nearly as upset as Pamela is.

I think this is because Pamela is a critical thinker.

It can be very hard for readers in this day and age to relate to someone who is all virtue. I’m sure even readers in Richardson’s time would have had an issue understanding and relating to someone who was as morally strong as Pamela (this is not an indication of total support for Pamela’s moral compass, rather support for how voraciously she follows it), but the differences between socially popular moral theory in 1740 versus 2013 certainly increase the gap of understanding. However, Pamela has trouble with one virtue that was considered absolutely necessary in her time (especially for her station and her sex), and that is obedience. This is not to say Pamela is disobedient all the time, but she is certainly critical of her and others’ orders and instructions.

When asked to stay at Mr. B.’s to finish flowering his waistcoat, she does that; but when asked to stay another fortnight to consider a marriage arrangement, she tries to leave under the radar. Her pertness arises from finding clever and witty ways to be obedient and/or responsive without actually doing what Mr. B. wants.

Furthermore, it is clear that Pamela is not disobedient merely to push boundaries–that would make her more irritating, rather than more relatable–rather she disobeys because her moral compass is critical enough to tell her when she must disobey.

Despite the fact that Mr. B. is her master, and everyone else in the novel seems to think that his word is the word of God, she refuses his advances again and again. She refuses his gifts over and over and over. When Mrs. Jervis betrays Pamela’s confidence because Mr. B. asked to hide in her closet to listen to the conversation between them, Pamela cannot understand how Mrs. Jervis, a good woman plus or minus some blind obediance, would do such a thing. When he or Mrs. Jewkes (under Mr. B.’s orders) try to keep Pamela from writing, she divides her ink and pens and paper and hides them all variously, and this brings us to the matter of Mrs. Jewkes! It is in a particular dialogue between Pamela and Mrs. Jewkes that the matter of critical obediance and disobediance becomes all too clear. Pamela questions her whether Mrs. Jewkes would do anything, anything at all that Mr. B. asks–of course she would, he is her master. Would she slit Pamela’s throat, if commanded? Well, no, that would be murder– but then, would she assist Mr. B. in raping Pamela?

Well, yes, obviously.

Mrs. Jewkes says that men and women were made for each other, and Pamela is a pretty young thing and so Mr. B. must desire her, and if he sees it within his grasp to get what he desires, then Mrs. Jewkes sees no reason why he shouldn’t have it, with or without her help.

This above all is what disgusted me with Mrs. Jewkes, and this above all is what I found to respect in Pamela: that she not only cannot obey an order she thinks is morally wrong, she cannot possibly conceive of how anyone else could ever do so.