Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Brief Discussion of the American Dream in Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons'

Another post, this time rather delayed I fear. Anyway, here it is, a discussion of money, responsibility and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons. I used the Penguin Modern Classics Edition and hope you enjoy reading.

“Money. Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything.” (page 73)

In Miller’s All My Sons, money and responsibility play a huge role as themes, as does loyalty. However, it is an obsession with the American Dream which not only drives the plot but also drives the characters (sometimes in to madness!). In a new, better educated America, the main character, Joe Keller, struggles to accept that his hard work and dedication to his business is not enough. Desperate to hand the business down to his son, Keller has committed awful sins against his nearest and dearest in order to keep it alive. His son, meanwhile, has dreams and desires of his own, ones which are perhaps not quite in keeping with those of his family. It is a combination of this rebellion and his father’s obsession that make this play so absorbing and fascinating.

Perhaps the most interesting character in All My Sons is that of Joe Keller, the self-made patriarch with a desperation to pass on his business to his son, but also a colder, more hardened ability to shirk blame and gladly hand it to somebody else. At the very beginning of Act One, we are introduced to Keller through the stage directions, which state that ‘When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgements must be dredged out of experience and a peasant-like common sense. A man among men’ (pp.5-6). This element of Keller’s nature, his lack of education, is something which appears more than once during the play and has a particular significance. Keller is something of a self-made man, a hard worker with an almost exaggerated desire to pass on his business to his son, Chris. This burning need to achieve the ‘American Dream’ drives Keller to atrocious behaviour. However, this notion of the ‘American Dream’ has fooled him, it has tricked him into believing that in this new post-war world hard-work is all one needs in order to be respected and good.  He rails that “everybody’s gettin’ so Goddam educated in this country there’ll be nobody to take away the garbage[…] It’s gettin’ so the only dumb ones left are the bosses” (p.48). The sensitivity that Joe Keller has regarding his education is fairly clear here. Keller is unable to keep up with the times, struggling to understand how anybody could make money from old dictionaries – “All the kind of business is goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…” (p.7). Joe Keller has been blinded by his obsession with keeping his secret and his business. Throughout the play, the opinions of others are clearly of great importance to the characters, and for Keller, the thought of losing his business was too much to bear and he was willing to sacrifice literally anything in order to hold on to it. His only defence of his actions is a need to keep the business going, the business which has become his whole life. He explains to his son, “I’m in business, a man is in business[…] you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business[…] they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?” (p.69).

Of course, the war is a strong undercurrent in this play, and the effect that it has had on its characters is of great interest. When Keller defends his actions, he argues that everything and everyone has been dirtied by the war, asking his son “Who worked for nothin’ in that war?[…] Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?” (p.82). Of course, it is Keller’s ‘dirtying’ with which the play is concerned. Aside from the initial dreadful decision which had such damning repercussions, there is Keller’s need to have his son inherit the business in order to give his own life meaning, and what this need drives him to. For example, he makes some effort to protect his wife from upset until his son intends to leave and turn down the business. In which case, Keller is willing to break his wife’s heart as it’s all “only for you, Chris, the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (p.17). Keller is cruel and manipulative, willing to appeal to his son’s pity if need be. He tells his son “Chris, I did it for you, it was a chance and I did it for you. I’m sixty-one years old, when would I have another chance to make something for you?” (p.70). Here Keller attempts even to lay blame on his son’s shoulders. Keller’s behaviour and actions were never driven by love for his son (although one cannot comment on whether or not he does indeed feel love for his son), but instead he is driven by an obsession with an ideal, with the American Dream, and with a fear of how he will be perceived by others.
As I previously pointed out, the appearance of oneself before others is a common thread in the play. There is even the ironic moment when Sue, a neighbour, says of the Keller family, “I resent living next door to the Holy Family. It makes me look like a bum” (p.45). The irony being, of course, that the family is anything but holy. Keller tries to seem like an understanding man, sympathising with his old partner, even though there is a more bitter irony in his words. “There are certain men in the world who would rather see everybody hung before they’ll take the blame” (p.64). This from him is incredible. One wonders if Keller is aware of just how much this statement applies to him, or if he in genuinely unaware. After all, Chris accuses his father of having “such a talent for ignoring things” (p.16).

The character of Keller’s son, Chris is an interesting one. In his physical description he is likened to his father, but he just lacks the lying ability, or the self-serving nature. He struggles with his own American Dream, saying “I don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. My whole bloody life, time after time” (p.16). I believe that one could argue that Chris’ feelings stem from being a pawn in his father’s own dream – Chris has never had the opportunity for any individuality, or wants of his own. He and indeed his girlfriend Ann, are shackled by money and expectation. Sue points out to Ann that “he’s [Chris] got money. That’s important you know.” But Ann insists “It wouldn’t matter to me.” (p.44). It is this abandonment of expectation and financial concerns that ultimately frees the couple from the obsession that engulfed Joe Keller and was the ultimate downfall of Ann’s own father.

Joe Keller never accepts his guilt fully. He argues and he makes excuses and he even allows someone else to take the flack. This criticism of the American Dream, a notion used by the powerful to control those less so, is made all the more interesting when one considers that the playwright, Arthur Miller, was himself investigated by the House of Un-American Activities. This period of US history is worth studying in itself (in fact, this is my wife’s topic for her undergraduate dissertation!). Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading and I will hopefully be back with something again soon.

-          K

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Writing on the Luddite Riots through the lens of the "Hungry 'Forties": Social Unrest and Industrial Reform in 'Shirley' by Charlotte Bronte

‘All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish, and taken in bodies, they are intensely so. The British merchant is no exception to this rule: the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money.’p.127


The edition of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley that I read was the Wordsworth Classics Edition, published in 2009. While much of the novel focusses on issues of, and attitudes towards, women, one can easily connect this to comment Bronte makes on the condition of the poor. To some extent, the two groups face very similar circumstances – both are forced to depend upon others, neither has any political representation, and both middle-class women and the working-class are controlled and ultimately owned by an unfair social system. So, while one could argue that in many ways the subjects of Luddite rebellion provides a mere back-drop, or sub-plot, for a contrast between the situations of Shirley and Caroline, discussion of one is often linked to discussion of the other. The back-drop subject of social and economic upheaval in the novel is even more interesting when one considers that while the novel is set in the period 1811-1812, Bronte wrote it during the year 1848, also a time of great economic change and difficulty. On this basis, I intend to briefly discuss the effect that this period had upon the novel.


Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley was written and published at the end of the 1840s, a period of great social upheaval and political uncertainty. However, Bronte’s focus is not on the issues of her own day, but those facing her native Yorkshire during the Luddite Riots of 1811-1816.  ‘Luddites were men who took the name of a (perhaps) mythical individual, Ned Ludd who was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest.  The Luddites were trying to save their livelihoods by smashing industrial machines developed for use in the textile industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire.  Some Luddites were active in Lancashire also. They smashed stocking-frames and cropping frames among others. There does not seem to have been any political motivation behind the Luddite riots; equally, there was no national organisation.  The men merely were attacking what they saw as the reason for the decline in their livelihoods’ (Bloy 2005). In Bronte’s novel, she describes the Luddite attack on the mill of William Cartwright at Rawfolds near Huddersfield, an event involving roughly 150 attackers, of whom two were killed by the soldiers assisting Cartwright in defending the mill.  A week later, there was a murder attempt on Cartwright, and a little later another manufacturer was killed. This took place in April 1812, and in June 1813, after another spate of violent machine breaking in Loughborough, six men were executed and three men transported. Following this, Luddism abated somewhat. The riots had, however, been indicative of a much wider problem within English society; while industrial advancement made more money for the owner of the businesses and made things more efficient, the workers suffered greatly. These issues of working class suffering, and the resulting resentment and discord, were not properly dealt with, and were still huge issues at the time in which Charlotte Bronte wrote her novel in 1848, the end of the decade which is known as the ‘hungry forties’.


It has been suggested that Bronte retreated to the earlier period in which her novel is set as a way of exploring the issues that were present during her own time, to avoid the embarrassment to both herself and her family that would have resulted from too harsh a criticism of the events. Chartism, a movement which got its name from the petition, or People’s Charter, which listed the aims of the movement. These were the vote for all men over 21 (since 1831, property-owning men had had voting rights), a secret ballot, becoming an MP to no longer hold a property-owning requirement, electoral districts of the same size, annual elections, and payment for MPs. It could be argued that the most important of these was the demand for universal male suffrage. It was the fear of some that the real aim of the Chartists was the start a revolution and that they were inciting rioting across the country. One such example of these riots is the well-known Preston riot of 1842. Chartism was a national movement, particularly popular in Lancashire and Yorkshire textile towns. Three times the movement urged Parliament to accept petitions, but the most famous of these petitions was the final one, in 1848, which had six million signatures (although many were later found to be faked). This petition was presented at a time when there was much for the ruling classes to fear, with Louis Philippe, France’s last king, removed from the throne early in the year, and revolutionary feeling bubbling across Europe. In 1847, Feargus O’Connor, the popular Chartist leader, had been elected to Parliament. While Chartism did not manage to achieve its aim, the fears it created for the ruling classes remained.


One thing that can be said with a degree of certainty is that the character of Mr Moore is a complex one. It struck me personally as rather odd that some fellow readers have expressed feelings of sympathy towards him, claiming that his behaviour is the result of debts and financial difficulty, and that his apparent coldness and indifference to the suffering of others is due to the system within which he exists, as opposed to any personal failing on his part. However, when one considers Robert Moore alongside his foil, Mr Yorke, this view becomes less clear-cut. Names in Shirley have a certain resonance – note Moore is ambitious, literally always wanting ‘more’, while Yorke uses the regional accent and to some extent embodies Yorkshire. While this is a fairly simplistic device, it is something worth bearing in mind when examining Moore’s character, and what his presence and actions have to say about the circumstances upon which the novel focuses. Moore’s character embodies the Victorian era’s preoccupation with advancement at any cost; early on we are told that ‘“Forward,” was the device stamped upon his soul’p.22. In this situation, the cost is people’s jobs and as a result, the food on their tables. However, Moore does not show any sympathy at all, something with is brought home quite clearly when compared to the character of Shirley, who states quite simply “I have money in hand and I really must do some good with it. The Briarfield poor are badly off; they must be helped.”p.199 In contrast, Moore ‘did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw their old workpeople out of employ. He never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wages found daily bread’p.22. Caroline Helstone points out to Moore that it is “As if your living cloth-dressers were all machines like your frames and shears. In your own house you seem different.”p.54 It seems as if for a long time it genuinely does not occur to Moore to consider how his laid-off workers provide for themselves, and when it is brought to his attention rather aggressively, his response is the blame the system, “you need not suppose that because the course of trade does not always run smooth, and you, and such as you, are sometimes short of work and of bread, that therefore your class are martyrs, and that the whole form of government under which you live is wrong.”p.45. He does believe that if the workers have a problem then they should “worry the Parliament men as much as you please […] but to worry the mill-owners is absurd, and I for one won’t stand for it!”p.104 Moore’s distance from his workers is made very clear with this statement, when one considers that they would not even have been able to vote at that time, so their voices were not easily heard. It is especially interesting to note this when considering that Bronte was writing during a time when political movements were demanding universal male suffrage. Indeed, it is particularly of interest that Moore seems positively bewildered by the reactions of his workers, as he genuinely does not feel that he has any personal responsibility – he is always very aware that destruction of his machines will not help the people anyway, something which strikes Moore are rather absurd, as when he tells the rebellious poor that “If I did as you wish me to do, I should be bankrupt in a month; and would my bankruptcy put bread into your hungry children’s mouths?”p.105 Moore has a certain anonymity and singularity, in the sense that for most of the novel his main concern is his machines and he fails entirely to take the advice of another person. Shirley points out to Caroline that “His mill is his lady-love, Cary! Backed by his factory and his frames, he has all the encouragement he wants and can know. It is not for love or beauty, but for ledger and broadcloth, that he is going to break a spear. Don’t be sentimental; Robert is not so.”p.256 Moore ignores the advice of both Caroline and Sykes when they tell him not to prosecute the machinery destructors, even ignoring Sykes’ fairly bleak warning that it would be “Better [to] give it up. It will excite bad feeling – make a stir – cause perhaps fatal consequences.”p.98 For some, Moore would be a Capitalist hero, defending his property without fear, telling Shirley “I received by this evening’s post a note from the Home Secretary in answer to mine. It appears they are uneasy at the state of matters here in the north; they especially condemn the supiness and pusillanimity of the mill-owners. They say, as I have always said, that inaction, under present circumstances, is criminal, and that cowardice is cruelty, since both can only encourage disorder, and lead finally to sanguinary outbreaks.”p.185 Moore’s foreignness presents a curious angle, then, for many characters take issue with him for this more than for his political beliefs or business ethics. Caroline’s uncle, Mr Helstone, has some valid reasons politically for disliking Moore, but it is the peculiar mention of his foreignness when describing his politics that shows a certain feeling of xenophobia towards Moore, with Helstone stating that they are “Those of a tradesman […] narrow, selfish and unpatriotic.”p.154 Farren, a worker facing difficult times, also takes time to consider Moore’s foreignness as a crime alongside his others, concluding ‘that the foreign mill-owner was a selfish, an unfeeling, and he thought, too, a foolish man.’p.105


As I previously mentioned, Yorke is something of a foil to Moore, in both his nationality and bearing, and also in his treatment of the workers. In the case of Yorke, ‘to his workmen he was considerate and cordial. When he dismissed them from an occupation, he would try to set them on to something else, or, if that was impossible, help them to remove with their families to a district where work might possibly be had.’p.37 Yorke also has sympathy with the rioters, understanding the desperation of their hunger, and recognising that ‘resistance was now a duty.’p.41


Bronte has much in common with other Victorian moralisers of her time when it comes to commenting on the condition of Britain’s poor. She passively argues that it is a problem with the system, but at the same time that the system cannot change as it is part of an unstoppable advancement and progress. Rather like Dickens, Bronte employs a rather ‘wet’ argument that things would improve greatly if only the rich could be nicer to the poor. Bronte also appears to make the clear distinction between those wonderful Victorian concepts of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. One could argue that characters such a such as Farren exist purely to demonstrate this notion – given adequate opportunity (such a loan) he will not squander it, for he does not drink and has no objection to hard work. Thus, Bronte suggests that for men such as he, the rich should put opportunities their way, but only if they are as inhumanly hard-working and selfless as Farren and the rest of the so-called ‘deserving poor’. Bronte’s attitude to the leaders of the rebels is really quite plain, as Moore says of them “You no more sympathise with the poor who are in distress than you sympathise with me. You incite them to outrage for bad purposes of your own; so does the individual called Noah of Tim’s. You two are restless, meddling, impudent scoundrels, whose chief motive-principle is a selfish ambition, as dangerous as it is puerile. The persons behind you are some of them honest thought misguided men; but you two I count as altogether bad.”p.103 This is yet another reflection of the times – a period in which the middle-classes and the wealthy were very wary of agitators and anybody who appeared to be ‘stirring-up trouble’ amongst the working-class. Bronte’s treatment of these agitators and their fates is almost amusing as it seems to be such an afterthought. He discover with not very much fan-fare that the ‘four ringleaders he [Moore] soon scented out and run down. He had attended their trial, heard their conviction and sentence, and seen them safely shipped prior to transportation.’p.392 Seemingly not very much sympathy for these men!


It would be impossible to read Shirley and what it has to say regarding the Luddite Riots without considering the huge effect that Chartism was having at the time the novel was written. I believe that the fears, anxieties and sympathies of the middle-classes were very similar during both periods, making Shirley a fairly good reflection of both. Apologies for such a big gap between posts, I found this to be a very difficult novel and I am also still hard at work on the Jewish Project. Once again, thanks for taking the time to read, and feel free to leave a comment, a tweet or an e-mail. All criticisms are much appreciated! Next week I should hopefully be able to post on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, so check back! Thanks,

-       K

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Echoes of the Themes, Events and Symbols of 'Genesis' in John Steinbeck's 'East of Eden'

The edition of East of Eden that I read was the Penguin Modern Classics Edition, published in 1992. I have read three of Steinbeck’s works previously: The Grapes of Wrath when I was about thirteen, and again last year; Cannery Row; Of Mice and Men. The latter was one I studied at school, a book I was forced to read seven times in a row before having something approaching a breakdown. The fact that I still adore John Steinbeck and am still thirsty for his works is a testament to his brilliance! The parallels between Genesis and East of Eden are totally impossible to ignore and it is from this angle that I intend to examine this novel.
The most striking way in which East of Eden resembles Genesis is in what it has to say about brotherhood. An echo of the story of Cain and Abel is repeated twice in the novel – first between Adam and his half-brother Charles, and then again between Adam’s twin sons, Caleb (Cal) and Aron. The story of Cain and Abel is of course very well known – brothers who both present a gift to God (in Cain’s case, the fruits of his farming and in Abel’s case, a new-born lamb). However, God does not appreciate Cain’s sacrifice, instead preferring Abel’s. Cain turns his feelings on his brother, believing that there has been a huge injustice and, in a rage, he murders his brother. Charles has exactly the same feelings, having saved to buy his father a pocket-knife as a birthday present and finding that his father preferred the gift from Adam – a stray puppy he had found. This episode is to haunt Charles, causing him to physically attack (and even attempt to murder) his brother. Charles finds himself completely consumed by his jealousy and perceived injustice. Indeed, as God marked Cain, Charles is involved with an accident, in which his head becomes scarred. This echo is impossible to ignore, especially as Charles himself writes to his brother, saying, “It just seems like I was marked”p.49. When Adam is in the army, Charles ‘missed his brother more than he missed his mother and father. He remembered quite inaccurately the time before Adam went away as the happy time, and he wanted it to come again.’p.43 Adam has a different view of ‘home’. ‘He didn’t want to go home and he put it off as long as possible. Home was not a pleasant place in his mind.’p.50 Charles ‘had more respect for Adam after he knew about the prison. He felt the warmth for his brother you feel only for one who is not perfect and therefore no target for your hatred.’p.112 Even so, the incident surrounding the knife still haunts their relationship.
The second brotherly relationship is that of Adam’s (non-identical) twin sons, Cal and Aron. The parallels with Cain and Abel are made even more obvious when Samuel Hamilton points out that, since they are the first sons of Adam, it is a shame “that the proper names for them they cannot have.”p.267 In this case, it is Aron who is held on a pedestal. We find that ‘From his first memory Cal had craved warmth and affection, just as everyone does. If he had been an only child or if Aron had been a different kind of boy, Cal might have achieved his relationship normally and easily. But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron…’p.442This time around, however, the other son does not drive himself to distraction in the same way, as ‘Cal did not question the fact that people liked his brother better, but he had developed a means for making it all right with himself. He planned and waited until one time the admiring person exposed himself, and then something happened and the victim never knew how or why. Out of revenge Cal extracted a fluid of power, and out of power, joy. It was the strongest, purest emotion he knew.’p.349 From this, perhaps, comes Cal’s strange idea that he is in some way ‘bad’, in spite of all the good he tries to do for his brother. Caleb attempts to buy his father’s love with what is actually an act of incredible thoughtfulness, when he works hard to save up money to replace what his father lost in an ill-advised scheme. Meanwhile, Adam spends the entire time bemoaning the embarrassment of their father’s actions. However, when Cal presents Adam with the money, Adam tells him “I won’t want it ever. I would have been happy if you could have given me – well, what your brother has – pride in the thing he’s doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn’t stack up with that.”p.543 The injustice of this causes Cal to hurt his brother in a very telling way – he does not attack him but instead removes the buffer that his own secret-keeping has been, exposing his brother to the full truth of their mother’s situation. Afterwards, when asked of his brother’s whereabouts, Cal echoes the words of Cain when he replies “How do I know?... Am I supposed to look after him?”p.563
In East of Eden, the themes of faith in fathers and faith in God are strongly intertwined. When Charles begins to lose faith with his father’s honesty and integrity, his brother Adam likens his own faith remaining to a belief in God, saying “The proofs that God does not exist are very strong, but in lots of people they are not as strong as the feeling He does.”p.72 In addition, Adam feels that he does not truly love his father, but instead “had the kind of feeling you have in church, and not a little fear in it.”p.170 The difficulty Charles faces when considering his father’s career and stories, and the possibility that they are untruthful, is very similar to the Hamilton offspring struggling to accept that their father has grown old. They all need to preserve an image of their fathers – be that through preserving ideas of his goodness, or ideas of his immortality and strength. These problems with faith relate well to problems with the estimations one feels God or one’s father has of one. For example, Tom Hamilton, wracked with guilt, speaks to the imaged figure of his dead father, saying “My father, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. You overestimated me. You were wrong. I wish I could justify the love and the pride you squandered on me.”p.408 This sounds very much like a Christian confessional, complete with feelings of unworthiness. In this sense, it is interesting to look at the characters of Charles and his nephew Cal. The former has a strong belief that he deserves his father’s love and approval – he cannot comprehend his father’s rejection. Cal on the other hand, accepts readily that he is not as good as his brother, and instead does his best to achieve his father’s approval. This is much like how Cain in Genesis should have been; keen to better himself before God, instead of reacting jealously like Charles and taking it out on his brother. Adam seems to view the Cain and Abel story rather differently, saying that he remembers “being a little outraged at God. Both Cain and Abel gave what they had and God accepted Abel and rejected Cain. I never thought that was a just thing.”p.270 However, it is not the gift that God rejects, but the feelings in Cain’s heart. In other words, his murderous reaction is a manifestation of those feelings of entitlement and resentment, which were exactly why God felt displeased with him.
Cathy (or Kate) is the typical sociopath – Steinbeck goes so far as to suggest that she was born missing something, in much the same way some people are born missing limbs. Indeed, he himself said that “Kate is a total representative of Satan. If you believe in saints you can believe that somebody can be all good, you’ve got to believe that somebody can be all bad.” intro. ix She certainly embodies almost every sin possible: she commits adultery, she is a prostitute, she attempts an abortion, she utterly fails to honour her mother and father and, on top of all this, she is a murderer. It is interesting to examine the fact that when she bites Samuel Hamilton it is noted that her poison is worse than that of a snake – another hark back to the story of Genesis, with the serpent which causes man’s downfall. So, Cathy is worse than Eve, as she is worse and more dangerous than the serpent - the mastermind and puppeteer behind the entire scenario. In spite of Cathy’s almost unbelievable ‘badness’, the narrator encourages the reader not to judge her too harshly, something which I personally associate with New Testament ideals and messages.
In some ways the parallels between East of Eden and Genesis are overwhelming; even the title of Steinbeck’s novel comes from the final line of the Cain and Abel story. Steinbeck wrote East of Eden believing it to be his ‘one novel’ and it does not disappoint. This is a miserably short post, but East of Eden is a beautiful book and almost certainly one of my favourite novels. My next post will be on the subject of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, so check back next week. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to tweet, e-mail, or comment!
-          K

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Death of Little Nell: Comfort, Symbol, or 'Literary Onion'?

The edition of The Old Curiosity Shop that I read was the Wordsworth Classics Edition, 2001.
The character of Little Nell, the impossibly perfect child in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop is one which has endured within our culture. However, Nell is arguably most famous for her death and the effect is had on readers’ upon first publication, as well as the effect it continues to have over 150 years later. I wish to explore  why Little Nell resounded so greatly with readers of the day and why her fate has endured in modern-day culture. Dickens’ intention was to bring some sort of comfort to those who had experienced grief. This idea that Nell could bring comfort to readers is questionable in my opinion, given that she suffers so much while alive, as pointed out in ‘G.K Chesterton’s dismissive “it is not the death of Little Nell but the life of Little Nell that I object to”’1. Victorian parents who lost a child were encouraged to believe that their children had ‘gone to a better place’ and were free from the otherwise inevitable sinfulness of adulthood. ‘Christianity told them that they must accept and even be glad when a child went to heaven, but this hardly makes sense to a grieving parent’.2 When  Nell dies, the narrator’s words of comfort are typical of the period and offer no new insight. Whatever Nell meant to Dickens; and this was clearly something quite important, his expression of her death would not have offered much new comfort. If anything, Nell in her childish perfection would only summon up long buried feelings of grief. 

Another view is that Nell is in some way a symbol, a symbol of death’s preservation of innocence as well as the purity and asexuality of children. This view is certainly an interesting one, especially when considered alongside the third and final notion; namely, that Nell is a ‘literary onion’, designed to prey upon the Victorian weakness for sentimentality. This final idea would certainly go some way towards explaining not only the huge effect Nell had on contemporary readers, but also why she continues to endure so much time later. It would be impossible to analyse the death of Little Nell out of context, so it is important to take into account the far higher levels of child poverty and mortality in the early part of the 19th century, as well as the social and political view of children at the time. As David Cody points out in his essay on Victorian Web, ‘Today perhaps, we do not find it [Little Nell’s death] so mawkishly sentimental, but we cannot read it, obviously, as the Victorians did.’1 In the introduction to The Old Curiosity Shop, Peter Preston notes that ‘As Peter Ackroyd points out, in 1839 almost half the funerals in London were those of children under ten; and for those who did survive, particularly young girls, the streets of London could be very dangerous (Ackroyd, Charles Dickens, p,320).’ Such huge levels of child mortality are, of course, relevant, but the fact remains that the death of Little Nell, a fictional character, had a resounding effect upon Dickens’ readers.

Contemporary reactions to the death of Little Nell were dramatic and far-reaching. As Peter Preston notes in his introduction to the novel ‘many readers claimed to have wept over the novel. Francis Jeffrey, one of the most intellectual and hard-headed critics of the time, was so stricken by grief when he read of Nell’s death that a visitor, finding him sobbing bitterly with his head on the desk, assumed that a close relative had died (Letters, II, p.238n).’ Preston also points out that this reaction was not confined to Britain. ‘It was reported that impatient readers gathered on the docks of New York to call out to passengers from England, “Is Nell Dead?”’ Even Dickens himself felt his heart breaking at the prospect of ‘murdering’ Little Nell. He wrote, ‘I am the wretchedest of the wretched. It casts the most horrible shadow over me and it is as much as I can do to keep moving at all… Nobody will miss her like I shall. It is such a painful thing to me, that I really cannot express my sorrow’ (Letters, II, p.181). One notion which is interesting is that in writing Nell’s death Dickens summoned his feelings regarding his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died in his arms in 1837, at the age of just seventeen. Her memory is often believed to have haunted his work and, in a letter to Forster, Dickens admitted that ‘Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of [killing Little Nell]. Dear Mary died yesterday, when I think of this sad story!’ (Letters, II, pp.181-182).
To some extent, one can imagine the audiences of the day expecting a similar outcome to that of Oliver Twist, Dickens’ earlier novel, in which a much put-upon child suffers greatly but eventually finds happiness in the love and care of a family. Not to mention coming into money. It is mentioned frequently in The Old Curiosity Shop that there is money connected mysteriously to Nell and when this is coupled with the devotion of Kit, one could easily hope, and indeed believe, that better times await Nell. At the very end of the novel, when Nell is safely housed, she comments that the place is “a place to live and learn to die in” to which her schoolmaster friend gives the reader hope by replying “A place to live, and learn to live, and gather health of mind and body in”p.388. Despite knowing that in so many ways Nell’s death is inevitable, the reader cannot help but grasp onto any hope offered. Nell’s fate matters.

Nell matters to the reader because she is symbolic of so much more. As is pointed out in the essay ‘De-territorialisation and Re-territorialisation in Little Nell’s Death-bed Scene — Deconstructing Little Nell’3 ‘It is not by chance that Dickens chose the age of 13 for Nell Trent, since 14 was considered a marrying age in Victorian England. In the novel she could have been married to Dick Swiveller or even Quilp, and innocence as we know it in her would have ended then and there.’ The notion that Nell remains innocent and escapes the taint of sexual awareness and relationships is very interesting when one also considers the many times the villains of the novel take a (veiled) sexual interest. Dickens very much controls our view and perception of characters – in his description of the schoolmaster; for example, the reader is informed that he has a kind face. As such, Dickens is constantly reminding the reader of Nell’s youth and innocence by referring to her as simply ‘the child’. This reinforcement is then contrasted by the unpleasant comments from Quilp and Mr Swiveller, as well as their intentions of marrying her. In spite of fourteen being marrying age in Victorian England, as the previously mentioned essay states, Dickens insists that we view Nell as a mere child. This is important especially if one wishes to see Nell as a symbolic creature, as Nell must die before reaching adulthood if death is to be the preserver of innocence. 

Religious belief encourages those overwhelmed with grief to think that their loved one is in a better place; in other words, to be grateful that the loved one is at peace. Before her death, Nell startlingly comments on unvisited graves, saying “Perhaps the mourners learn to look to the blue sky by day, and to stars by night, and to think the dead are there, and not in graves,”p.397 a comment which would have resounded with Victorian readers even more so than it does with modern ones. The schoolmaster, standing by Nell’s body, says “Think what it is, compared with the World in which her young spirit had winged its early flight, and say if one deliberate wish expressed in some terms above this bed could call her back to life, which of us would utter it!529 Descriptions of Nell’s death-bed are also full of religious feeling, with the words ‘Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born, imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.’p.529 Dickens himself expressed a desire ‘to try and do something which might be read by people about whom Death had been, - with a softened feeling, and with consolation’ (Charles Dickens: A Life, p.115). Dickens’ desire to comfort his readers at first seems a bizarre one, considering that he actually kills Nell, but upon reflection it becomes apparent that to a Victorian reader, notions of heaven and eternal peace had great importance, and that to die young was in some ways ‘romantic’. Before I discuss Victorian sentimentality, it is important to reflect why the  death of Little Nell has endured.

Of course, to some modern readers, religious feeling is just as great and so ideas of heaven will still have their importance. However, it is my belief that it is Dickens’ descriptions of grief that continue to resound today and appeal to readers. After Nell’s death, Dickens writes ‘If there be any who have never known the blank that follows death – the weary void – the sense of desolation that will come upon the strongest minds, when something familiar and beloved is missed at every turn – the connection between inanimate and senseless things, and the object of recollection, when every household god becomes a monument and every room a grave – if there be any who have not known this, and proved it by their own experience, they can never faintly guess how, for many days, the old man pined and moped away the time, and wandered here and there as seeking something, and had no comfort’p.534. It is this description of the grandfather’s grief that resounds more with modern readers, for grief is something felt by everyone at some time during their existence and something which has always brought, and shall always bring, worlds crashing down. Another way in which Nell’s death ‘appeals’ if you like, to the modern reader, is through our feelings of outrage at her fate. In spite of having so many friends, and being so good, Nell still suffers terribly and is only released from these sufferings by death. Anger at her grandfather is almost unavoidable, even when he is described as a ‘grey-haired child’308 When Mrs Jarley offers Nell a job and Nell’s grandfather says “We can’t separate. What would become of me with her?” Mrs Jarley expresses how all readers must surely feel when she sharply replies “I should have thought you were old enough to take care of yourself, if you ever will be.”p.200. 

There are critics, both past and present, who would criticise Dickens for appealing too easily to Victorian sentimentality. Certainly, one could point out the repetition of ‘She was dead’ and suggest that it is perhaps crude but more to the point is Nell’s impossible goodness. She enjoys saying her prayers, as they make her feel happy and when upon ‘casting her tearful eyes upon the old man, remembered how weak he was, and how destitute and helpless he would be if she failed him, her heart swelled within her, and animated her with new strength and fortitude.’p.177 In this sense, Nell is appealing to Victorian ideals of femininity and childhood; meekness, kindness and selflessness. Nell is not of a working-class background, as she is able to read and write and before her grandfather lost everything, they would have been considered fairly well-off. In this sense, the fact that so many children lived and died in extreme poverty becomes irrelevant – Nell was to all intents and purposes a middle-class child, embodying middle-class ideals. It is here, then, that Dickens really reels in his readers’ sympathies, as they see Nell as one of their own. Another defence against accusations against Dickens, of having created a ‘literary onion’, come from Philip Allingham in his essay on Victorian Web, Sentimentality: The Victorian Failing. He writes that ‘as a third-generation Romantic Dickens was writing in a markedly ‘sentimental’ tradition bequeathed him[…] Reason, held the Romantics, had failed to improve either human nature or social conditions in eighteenth-century Europe. Consequently, Romantic writers sought to move readers emotionally and spiritually by appealing to sentiment, “the capacity for moral reflection” (Paul Schlicke, 512).’

Nell is constantly surrounded by the grotesque; as Dickens himself wrote in the preface to the first cheap edition, published 1848, ‘I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her story is first foreshadowed.’ Indeed, Nell ends her days in similar old and strange surroundings to those she sleeps near when the story first begins. As well as spending an inordinate amount of time in graveyards, Nell experiences sleeping surrounding by waxworks, in which she finds a resemblance to Quilp. Indeed, Quilp is the balance to Nell, in that she is so pure, innocent and beauty, while he is cruel, ugly and depraved. In fact, Quilp is representative of all the grotesque and crude figures and s situations which haunt Nell’s very existence. Thus, ‘Quilp indeed was a perpetual nightmare to the child, who was constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure.’p.212 Ultimately, Nell is out of place in her surroundings and is, in fact, out of place in the mortal world. Far better for so perfect a creature to ascend to heaven and rest with angels.

There are many situations in which Nell finds herself that could be said to foreshadow her death. Her observation of the young scholar’s death (this child leaves behind only a lonely grandparents), and her meeting with the old woman in the graveyard, a woman who was widowed young and has grown old and tragic alone are both examples. Nell is in reality doomed from the beginning as she is caught by her grandfather’s dependency and her own goodness. To the Victorian reader, despite the sadness of her passing, it was in order to reside where she truly belonged, being so virtuous and good. To a modern reader, Nell’s symbolism remains potent; she dies a virgin, untouched by the vileness and cruelty which surrounded her while alive. Finally, Nell may well be a ‘literary onion’ but she is certainly an effective one, and it cannot be criticised when one considers just how massively Nell has endured in our culture.

My next post will be on Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a very small and apparently mysterious novella! As always, feel free to comment or contact me, and thanks for reading.

-       - K

Friday, 18 January 2013

Life as a game, love as a distraction: Lives lived without achievement and the fear of growing old in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Beautiful and Damned'

The edition of The Beautiful and Damned that I read was the Wordsworth Classics Edition, published in 2011. The book itself also contains Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, so the page numbers I have included as reference may seem a little odd. I had never read Fitzgerald before, so I was unsure of what to expect. Many reviewers had stated that they found Gloria and Anthony, the novel’s protagonists, impossible to relate to. I did not find this to be the case at all. Fitzgerald’s writing is at times overwhelmingly beautiful and ultimately this is a very sad novel. I was almost reduced to tears by the end, something I had not at all expected. I recommend this novel and will certainly be reading Fitzgerald’s other works in the future.

‘It would not be easy to find a more thoroughly depressing book than this new novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned.’1 So writes Louise Maunsell Field in the New York Times on March 5th, 1922, just after the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel. Two years before he had published This Side of Paradise, a work which quickly made him rich and famous. While The Beautiful and Damned is often considered to be ‘Fitzgerald’s least accomplished novel’2 there is still a lot of material available for analysis. In some ways, it is a difficult novel to get along with – I believe most people struggle to some extent in reading a novel whose characters are so very difficult to identify or sympathise with. Of course, the directionless existence of Anthony Patch could be considered touching, but his arrogance and laziness make this quite difficult, especially because one tends to wince slightly at the complaining of those whose lives are actually relatively privileged. Nonetheless, the relationship of Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert is of interest, as is their miserable descent into alcohol fuelled ruin, made all the more sad for the fact that both feared ageing and all that goes with it. This fear of ageing and having nothing to show for it, as well as the terrible boredom and lack of direction experiences by those who lack any responsibility at all, is what I intend to look at in the following few paragraphs.

One of the most interesting elements of Anthony and Gloria’s relationship is the idea that they have about being soul mates that are very much alike, apparently in spite of the fact that in many ways they want different things. In addition, each faces their struggles differently; in the darkest hours Anthony becomes a tragic, rambling, angry drunk, while Gloria tries desperately to cling to her youth. In the early days of their love, Anthony declares “We are twins,” while Gloria tells him that “Mother says that two souls are sometimes created together and – and in love before they are born.”-p.359 These sentimental youthful declarations precede a time when Anthony and Gloria are driven further and further apart by the disintegration of their lifestyles and indeed their very identities. Both require money to maintain the latter and in its absence Anthony loses his dignity and Gloria’s beauty begins to fade away.

The things that the couple want from life could be said to be entirely opposite. Throughout the novel, Gloria’s self-absorption is pointed out time and time again, for example when Anthony asks her “Aren’t you interested in anything except yourself?” – Gloria’s answer is simply “Not much.”p.350 Later, as Gloria’s life falls apart around her, only one element of her fall seems to really cut her to the core – the loss of her youth and beauty. Gazing into the mirror she goes to pieces with the words “Oh my pretty face! Oh, I don’t want to live without my pretty face! Oh, what’s happened?”p.552 Only then does her situation truly dawn on her. Gloria often asserts that her chief aim and purpose in life is to preserve her beauty; she has no desire to do anything else, especially if it will in any way hinder her aim. One thing which she feels would, is motherhood, so when she believes she may be pregnant she is beside herself. Her husband has little sympathy, failing to understand that Gloria is not like ‘other women’. He tells her “You’d think you’d been singled out of all the women in the world for this crowning indignity.” Gloria’s telling response is “What if I do![…] It isn’t an indignity for them. It’s their excuse for living. It’s the one thing they’re good for.”p.411 Thus, while Anthony feels he ought to be treated as any other member of the aristocracy, Gloria feels she is entirely one of a kind. In life, Gloria has no desire to achieve anything at all, something which she makes clear several times. When asked if she wants to do anything she replies, “I want to sleep… I want to just be lazy and I want some of the people around me be doing things, because that makes me feel comfortable and safe – and I want some of them to be doing nothing at all, because they can be graceful and companionable for me.”p.311-312 Anthony obviously expects his grandfather’s money. However he does desire ‘something else’ and it is the struggle to identify what this is, let alone find it, that leads to his ultimate downfall. Anthony lacks any motivation or discipline. He bemoans the ‘fact’ that “There used to be dignified occupations for a gentleman who had leisure, things a little more constructive that filling up the landscape with smoke or juggling someone else’s money.”p.345 All the while, he uses this as an excuse. Anthony has many excuses for not working; he blames Gloria, he blames the world, he even blames not knowing when his grandfather will pass away, telling Gloria “It’s not that I have any moral compunction about work[…] but grampa may die tomorrow and he may live for ten years.”p.415 Anthony worries that he is not as good as his peers, he lacks direction or purpose and ultimately needs a partner to keep him as grounded as possible, for as long as possible. This is in contrast with Gloria; she does not need to be kept from flying away, instead she needs comfort and safety while she floats above the rest of the world.

This leads nicely on to questions of the couple’s motivations for marriage. Both are searching for something and both believe they have found a kindred spirit of sorts. Anthony believes that ‘if he did not marry her his life would be a feeble parody of his own adolescence.’p.350 He needs Gloria to love him and he seems to subconsciously believe that responsibility and commitment of a marriage will prevent his life from spiralling out of control, or worse, becoming boring. On the wedding day we are told that ‘The blood was moving in his veins now. A languorous and pleasant content settled like a weight upon him, bringing responsibility and possession. He was married.’p.376 Poor Anthony, believing that marrying Gloria will bring him comfort! While Anthony is experiencing this joint happiness of responsibility and possession, Gloria is glad of the safety of this marriage. ‘She was beyond all conscious perceptions. Only a sense, coloured with delirious wild excitement, that the ultimately important was happening – and a trust, fierce and passionate, burning in her life  a prayer, that in a moment she would be for ever and securely safe.’p.377 Unfortunately for both, their expectations of marriage are not met. 

Both Anthony and Gloria have deep-seated fears of growing old. Initially, Gloria’s fears centre on ideas of marriage and children - ultimately, of responsibility. However, after her marriage to Anthony, while still abhorring the idea of child-bearing, Gloria’s fears turn to her beauty and the effects of ageing. It really is the only thing, aside from money, that she values. She is disgusted at the idea of settling into a typical lifestyle, and hates the notion of being a typical wife, asking Anthony “Don’t say ‘wife’. I’m your mistress. Wife’s such an ugly word. Your ‘permanent mistress’ is so much more tangible and desirable.”p.378 Gloria is horrified at the prospect of ever living in normal house in a normal town, saying “That’s just what I don’t want[…] a hot stuffy bungalow, with a lot of babies next door and their father cutting the grass in his shirt sleeves -”p.388 For Gloria, growing old does not bring fear for the same reason as it does Anthony; her fears are entirely about her looks. She does not even want to live without her good looks, and at the prospect of eventually running entirely out of money, she suggests that they both go to Italy for three years to live and then just die. For Anthony, there is more to it. He needs to have something to show, to have made some mark, for ‘It worried him to think that he was, after all, a facile mediocrity, with neither the poise of Maury nor the enthusiasm of Dick. It seemed a tragedy to want nothing – and yet he something, something. He knew in flashes what it was – some path of hope to lead him towards what he thought was an imminent and ominous old age.’p.303 He looks to Gloria to fill the void that his lack of purpose and direction creates. When he is about to meet her for the first time ‘His day, usually a jellylike creature, a shapeless, spineless thing, had attained Mesozoic structure[…] He dreaded the moment when the backbone of the day should be broken, when he should have met the girl at last, talked to her, and then bowed her laughter out the door, returning only to the melancholy dregs in the teacups and the gathering staleness of the uneaten sandwiches.’p.302
In order to have the money which Gloria and Anthony believe will grant them everything they need to be happy, Adam Patch, Anthony’s grandfather, must die and leave them an inheritance. The narrative has this thread running all the way through it, this ‘waiting for grampa to die’. This is eventually replaced by another waiting game, as they await the outcome of contesting the will. All hopes and possibilities hang on attaining the money, but neither Gloria nor Anthony feels any affection for the old man. Gloria even complains “I wish he’d died last week […] inconsiderate old fool!”p.464 In waiting for the death of Adam Patch, Anthony and Gloria are in essence awaiting their own deaths as well. They are unable to enjoy life, unable to achieve anything; both are entirely miserable. Boredom envelopes them both. While Anthony’s drinking has always been problematic (an early lover, Geraldine Burke, remarks “you have something to drink every day and you’re only twenty-five.”p.327), his habit quickly causes havoc with his and his wife’s lives. Geraldine’s urge to “think what you’ll be at forty?”p.327 proves inaccurate by a decade, for Anthony disintegrates long before then. His ability to perform a job sags under the weight of his addiction, as ‘His determination to stay in at night during the week did not survive, and a good half of the time he came to work with a splitting, sickish headache.”p.430 While he is ‘overcome by one of those attacks of moody despair to which he periodically succumbed’p.430 Anthony quits his job. In the end he becomes like any alcoholic – nasty, embarrassing and in denial. He is stripped of his class as Gloria is stripped of her youth. Money problems and alcohol are inextricably linked, evident in the fact that ‘Things had started to slide perceptibly. There was the money question, increasingly annoying, increasingly ominous; there was the realisation that liquor had become a practical necessity’p.463. Gloria is not immune to problematic drinking; meals are paid for, leases signed while under the influence. Gloria’s attempt to defend herself by saying she won’t drink during the day is met with scorn by Anthony.

The further that Anthony and Gloria’s lives slip into chaos, the less their love for each other seems to matter. When Gloria falls ill with ‘flu, she is no longer under the illusion that Anthony can keep her safe. Instead, ‘All she wanted was to be a little girl, to be efficiently taken care of by some yielding but superior power, stupider and steadier than herself’. Trying to avoid an argument, Anthony reminds Gloria that “We’ve got nothing but each other, after all,” to which Gloria simply replies “We haven’t even that, most of the time.”p.466 This contrasts with her treatment of him after he quits his job, when she ‘felt sorry for him, and kneeling down she stroked his head, saying how little it mattered, how little anything mattered so long as they loved each other.’p.430 Gloria and Anthony’s lives are ultimately ruined by their inability to look after themselves, look after their money, or look after each other. As Gloria puts it “Gee whizz! Haven’t we got enough troubles taking care of ourselves?”p.390

One final interesting point to note is the way in which images and notions of theatre litter the novel. This is something Fitzgerald clearly intended, as at times he uses the structure of a play when describing certain dialogue. In addition, the characters, Anthony in particular,  frequently make reference to life being as a play, or game. Anthony mentions that he likes New York, as “I always feel as though it’s a performance being staged for me.”p.467 These images suggesting that the world revolves around him go some way to highlighting the worst elements of his personality, elements which eventually assist in bringing about his downfall. That Anthony’s day is ‘marching along surely, even jauntily, towards a climax, as a play should, as a day should,’ is another example of this life as a game, which ties in interestingly with the notion of love as a distraction for Anthony.

The Beautiful and Damned is another very depressing novel – reading it between The Return of the Native and The Old Curiosity Shop was perhaps not wise of me! This novel affected me far more than I had expected. In fact, I did not even expect to enjoy it particularly. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable book (if that’s the right word) and an interesting one too. My next blog post will be on the subject of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, focussing primarily on the death of little Nell and its cultural significance. As always, thank you for reading and feel free to contact me with any thoughts or suggestions of your own.
-       - K
Twitter: @00KVortex

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Study of Eustacia Vye, the Doomed Heroine of Thomas Hardy's 'The Return of the Native'

I found this post particularly difficult. Reigning in my thoughts and presenting them in an almost-coherent way did not prove easy as there was just so much going on with the deeply flawed character of Eustacia Vye. The Return of the Native was published in instalments throughout the year 1878 and the edition I have read is the Wordsworth Classics edition, published in 2000, with an introduction and notes by Dr Claire Seymour. I sincerely hope that I have succeeded here in posting something that not only makes some sort of sense but is also of interest to you. You shall have to forgive me for the spoilers; it was truly impossible to study Eustacia Vye without giving a few details.

Eustacia Vye is perhaps one of Hardy’s most alluring, fascinating and, to some extent, real, female characters. She is not the naïve, innocent Tess, nor is she the troubled and intelligent but ultimately tragic Sue Brideshead. Eustacia Vye is extremely complex, at times shallow and dependent, at other times almost unworldly in her command of her surroundings and the way in which she in her own mistress. Thomas Hardy’s treatment of female characters and the situations they face has long been a source of fascination for me, ever since I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles five or six years ago. At times, these characters are hopelessly virtuous and innocent, and any sexual freedom which they embrace or obtain does not end well for them. However, Hardy is unique in my (limited) experience of Victorian era literature; he concerns himself with the inner lives of women in a way which the likes of Charles Dickens simply did not. It is not within my scope here to attempt to find a definition of feminism or feminist thinking, but it is my belief that within the confines of the 19th century, and in spite of any occurrences in his own personal life, Hardy was (and to some extent, remains) a champion of the female cause. In The Return of the Native, Hardy presents a complicated and enthralling character in Eustacia Vye – in other words, a genuine woman as opposed to an idealised one. It is because of this, I believe, that I often found myself rooting for Eustacia over Thomasin. The latter is an example of the generic woman in Victorian era literature and as such, is impossible to relate to. One could easily argue that at least Eustacia is real. She is not an easy character to sympathise with; in fact, she is often proud, egotistical and selfish. However, Hardy masterfully creates a scenario in which even she is to some extent tragic.

On the subject of the readers’ introduction to Eustacia Vye, there is plenty upon which to dwell. The first time her existence is mentioned, it is through the idle gossip of the locals. She is described as “very strange in her ways, living up there by herself, and such things please her,”p.25 while a local man points out that “she’s a well-favoured maid enough… especially when she’s got one of her dandy gowns on.”p.25 So, from the very beginning, the impression created of Eustacia is one of an attractive woman but one who is altogether strange. The first time Eustacia Vye features in the narrative ‘in person’, so much about her is a mystery – small details become apparent as she walks across the heath. The descriptions given by Hardy go on and on, making his admiration of his creation quite clear, as when he describes her ‘the raw material of a divinity’. The initial impression which Eustacia makes on the mind of the reader rapidly disintegrates throughout the progression of the novel. We see her as far less of an enigma and instead far more as a fickle, needy and selfish woman. This of course sounds like criticism of her character, and to some extent it is, but given the context of the Victorian era, and the fact that one can never quite be sure if she would be quite so terrible in other circumstances and, most importantly, other surroundings, it makes Eustacia quite fascinating. It should also be noted that Eustacia’s behaviour might be selfish but unlike Thomasin, who is protected by her aunt and cousin, Eustacia must socially fend for herself, as her Grandfather does not provide much moral guidance, something with even the narrator points out at one point.

Many of Hardy’s descriptions of Eustacia focus around suggestions of the supernatural, or Godly. He draws heavily of Classical mythology and attempts to show just how ‘unworldly’ Eustacia is. Indeed, this could be viewed as a very dramatic way of presenting the fact that she is an alien on Egdon Heath. Even the title reinforces this fact – Clym Yeobright is the returning native and, by contrast, Eustacia is from somewhere brighter and perhaps, in some small way, more exotic. As such, she has a different aura to the native inhabitants of Egdon. Hardy does not hesitate to describe Eustacia in supernatural terms, as when he describes her ‘the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess[…]’p.55  There are numerous other Classical Greek references relating to Eustacia Vye throughout the novel, for example ‘it was as though side shadows from the features of Sappho and Mrs Siddons had converged upwards from the tomb to form an image like neither but suggesting both.’p.46. Hardy goes on to say that these passions are those that ‘make not quite a model woman’p.55 and this observation helps to form quite an interesting interpretation of Eustacia as a ‘fish out of water’, so to speak. An alien in Egdon, always pining for bigger and brighter things, it would be easy to view Eustacia as some sort of trapped Goddess, doomed by her fate and surroundings to live amongst ‘mere mortals’. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Eustacia is in possession of a fair few characteristics and perhaps even flaws, which ultimately lead to her seeming less than perfect. In fact, if Eustacia is something of a Goddess by nature, then she is at the same time very human. This dual-existence, being both supernatural and also painfully mortal, is relevant in itself, as it is a good example of what being human really means – people are generally extremely complex and conflicted, shifting through countless emotions, thoughts and personality traits in very short spaces of time. Eustacia is idealistic (a dreamer, if you will, although hardly in the usual sense). She is also full of her own importance, but at the same time is desperately seeking reassurance and needing to be ‘loved to madness – such was her great desire.’p.58 Eustacia is excessively jealous, mainly of Thomasin Yeobright. At first this centres on her relationship with Thomasin’s apparent fiancé, Damon Wildeve. In spite of the fears she has regarding the marriage of Wildeve and Thomasin, upon hearing that the latter has rejected a union between the two, Eustacia is troubled, thinking ‘-what was the man worth whom a woman inferior to herself did not value?’p.83 However, in keeping with her proud nature ‘she could not admit at once that she might have over-estimated Wildeve, for to perceive his mediocrity now was to admit her own great folly heretofore’p.84 This leads on to another interesting element of Eustacia’s personality; namely, that she is a woman very much in control. This contrasts very much with her eventual fate, as well as her symbolic entrapment on Egdon Heath, which I shall discuss later.  Later, Eustacia is driven to play the puppeteer with Thomasin’s fate, pushing forward her marriage to Wildeve, in order that Eustacia may be free to pursue Clym Yeobright (Thomasin’s cousin), whom she obsesses may eventually marry Thomasin.

The crippling boredom and feeling of being trapped (both physically by the landscape and also psychologically, by her position in the world) lead Eustacia to crave an unrealistic love, as ‘love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover’.p.58 In this sense, love is nothing more than a distraction for Eustacia, a way of passing her time and reassuring herself that here is something more; something real and a place for her. Her view of love is idealistic and best and cynical at worst – any love she experiences centres entirely around herself; how the relationship makes her feel, what her role is and how is best to maintain the power she craves. This is especially apparent in her wonder at the love Diggory Venn has for Thomasin, ‘a strange sort of love, to be entirely free from that quality of selfishness which is frequently the chief constituent of the passion and, sometimes, its only one!’p.126 With regards to her relationship with Damon Wildeve, there appears to be very little thought for who he actually is as an individual, which is possibly just as well, given that he himself is rather morally questionable. In fact, to some extent, Damon Wildeve is much like Eustacia herself; both are selfish, both are impulsive, and both make decisions without a good thought process. Eustacia’s ability to quickly forget her ‘love’ for Wildeve as soon as an apparently superior possible opportunity presents itself is very telling. Once she begins fixating on Clym Yeobright, Wildeve develops ‘the rayless outline of the sun through smoked glass.’p.122 All Eustacia ever really craves is a chance to escape the Heath and lead the life she so arrogantly presumes to be her right. In matters of love, Eustacia shows her pride with even greater strength, chastising Damon Wildeve and saying “Now Damon, do you see why I lit my fire? You did not think I would have lit it if I imagined you to have become to husband of this woman. It is insulting my pride to suppose that!”p.52  Her peculiar attitude to matters of love is again observed when she tells Wildeve “you have not valued my courtesy – the courtesy of a lady in loving you – who used to think of far more ambitious things”p.69 In some ways, one could wonder if Eustacia rather ‘misses the point’ of love. Her infatuation with Clym Yeobright, which begins before she has actually met him, stems entirely from her belief that she can use him to escape her fate. In this sense, Eustacia seems almost incapable of love, at least as we know it.

Eustacia Vye’s relationship with Egdon Heath is crucial to a full understanding of both her as a character and her place within the novel. A large part of Eustacia’s downfall is her constant desire for bigger and better things. She is of the belief that finding a way out of the heath (without having to engage herself in any sort of work) will ensure her continued happiness and she is unfortunately wrong. Eustacia is ignorant to the fact that the problem which stands in the way of her happiness is her own self – she is trapped by her own sense of self-importance and by a nature which always believes the grass is greener elsewhere. Clym Yeobright is at one with the heath, he ‘had been so inwoven with the heath in his boyhood that hardly anybody could look upon it without thinking of him.’p.142 Indeed, it should be noted that Clym is the returning native of the title, while Eustacia is a complete alien on the heath, making her entrapment upon it even more poignant. Her belief that she will be able to convince Clym to return to Paris after they are married is another part of her downfall; she has too much faith in her own power. To some extent, a reader may find themselves hoping against hope that this will come true; the symbolic way in which Clym tries to draw water for Eustacia, thus quenching a thirst she has held. Her hatred of the wilderness and longing for urban life at times makes Eustacia quite a sympathetic character, never less so than when she tells Clym “I am managing to exist in a wilderness but I cannot drink from a pond.”p.155 Eustacia’s fiery nature stands in direct contrast with the bleakness of the heath (or at least, the bleakness which she herself perceives). It is an interesting idea, this notion that Eustacia is connected to fire and flames. Hardy even goes so far as to say that ‘assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flame-like.’p.56 Her personality is certainly what one would describe as fiery, and this connotation leads to an interesting comparison of Damon Wildeve and Clym Yeobright. Eustacia uses a camp-fire to bring the former to her, while she meets Clym under a lunar eclipse. Clym himself is far from reckless, far from over-passionate. Eustacia detests the heath, and her words later ring eerily true when she says of the heath that “’tis my cross, my shame, and will be my death!”p.71
Eustacia occupies an interesting position within The Return of the Native – she is in many ways the driving force of the novel and most of the major situations involve her. She is, for example, involved in three love triangles of sorts; the first is between herself, Thomasin and Wildeve, the second between herself, Thomasin and Clym, and the third between herself, Clym and his mother, Mrs Yeobright, though the latter is obviously not concerning romantic love as such. The fact that Eustacia winds up racked by guilt really fascinated me – she showed a selflessness of which I hadn’t known her capable. Whether or not Eustacia would have been better off had she stayed with Wildeve is impossible to know. Somehow, it is impossible to shake off the feeling that Eustacia’s fate had been sealed always; she was doomed to exist and die on Egdon Heath, as she herself predicted. Right at the end of the novel, Domon tells Eustacia “I see more and more that I have been your ruin,”p.282 to which Eustacia replies “Not you. This place I live in.”p.283 Eustacia’s position on Egdon Heath, as an outsider, and an educated one at that, could have been made easier if not for her snobbery and reluctance to be on friendly terms with the other inhabitants of the heath. Her pride, her restlessness and her ego all conspire to keep her trapped on Egdon Heath, where she will ultimately forever remain. Eustacia Vye might not be the nicest or the sweetest character in the history of literature, but it’s Hardy, so this is not a surprise. Aside from this, Eustacia is real. Real, tragic and doomed.My next post will be on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. I am still busily working on my major project ‘The Representation of Jews in English Literature, 1380-1880’ and would appreciate any advice or help anybody has to offer. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a comment, an e-mail or even a tweet!
-       K

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Ambition, Dignity and the Pursuit of Status: Parenthood in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'

Where does one begin in writing about War and Peace? With most editions being well in excess of 1000 pages and a cast of over 500 characters, it is no mean task. Indeed, one of the things that makes Tolstoy unique is the way in which his novels contain so many strands of story, all intertwined in different ways. The only way it would be possible to offer comment would be to choose just one theme and set of characters and relationships. This is what I have done, deciding to look at the relationships between four sets of parents and children; The Bolkonskis, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. Another angle which would have been interesting would have been an examination of how Tolstoy treats the institution and values of marriage, but given his own life and also the mammoth amount of material on the subject available from Anna Karenina, I have decided that the best theme to explore is the values and ambitions of parents, with regards to their children. 

An important thing which I noticed in my reading of this novel, something which I must say fits in very well with all that I know of Tolstoy as a person, is that the narration of War and Peace is all presented very factually; we have a third person narrator who very much sticks to the conventions of the technique. There is no free indirect speech here, everything we learn of the characters (beyond their own speech) we are told, there is very little room for interpretation beyond what we are given. There are not real deviations of many different points of view. Not that this is necessarily a problem, more just something which influences the way in which we analyse the themes within the text.

 The edition that I have read is the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in the Wordsworth Classics edition, 2001. The way in which some names of characters are translated is not personally to my taste but to avoid confusion I have resisted the temptation to change them. At the end of this post, along with the references, I have included notes on the characters, in case any confusion arises.

Perhaps the most striking of all the parental figures in War and Peace is Princess Anna Drubetskaya, an aristocratic woman fallen on hard times and lacking in societal influence. Her son is Borís, and the Princess’ soul aim appears to be doing whatever it takes, losing whatever dignity and respect necessary, in order to secure him a career. Indeed, our first introduction to the character of Anna Drubetskaya is in the middle of her efforts to secure a position for her son by essentially begging Prince Vasíly Kuragin to use his influence to help her.
‘… She gave him an ingratiating and appealing smile and took his hand that he might not go away…. “Listen to me, prince,” said she, “I have never yet asked you for anything and I never will again, nor have I ever reminded you of my father’s friendship for you; but now I entreat you for God’s sake to do this for my son – and I shall always regard you as a benefactor” she added hurriedly.’

It would appear as though Anna Drubetskaya has gone to whatever depths to convince the prince to assist her, giving up her dignity and even attempting to manipulate the prince. Her dignity is certainly is question when ‘Apparently she had forgotten her age and by force of habit employed all the old feminine arts. But as soon as the prince had gone her face resumed its former cold artificial expression. She returned to the group where the vicomte was still talking, and again pretended to listen, while waiting till it would be time to leave. Her task was accomplished.’2
Anna Drubetskaya embodies the expectations of society in Russia of this era -  her raison d’être is the success of her offspring, she has not needs or desires of her own and is willing to go to great lengths of self-sacrifice in order to help him. However, there is a stranger, darker side to her behaviour, in that she really does not care who she tramples to achieve her goals; in this sense, at least, she seems manipulative, cold and calculated. Her treatment of Pierre when his father is dying is essentially quite cruel. His father has literally just passed away when Anna Drubetskaya says to him, ‘“You know, uncle promised me only the day before yesterday not to forget Borís. But he has no time [to alter his will]. I hope, my dear friend, you will carry out your father’s wish?”’3 It is true that she tells Countess Rostova “Let people think what they will of me, it’s really all the same to me when my son’s fate is at stake,”4 but her steely determination towards this aim makes her an unpleasant person and her son’s desires (if indeed he has any) are not in any way explored. 

Prince Nicholas Bolkonski treats his daughter, Princess Maria, appallingly. He is exceptionally controlling of her, he ‘himself undertook his daughter’s education… and arranged her life so that her whole time was occupied.’5 In addition to this, he bullies and deliberately humiliates her, while all the while being privately extremely dependent upon her. Princess Maria, for her part, is very pious and self-sacrificing, but is also completely terrified of her father. ‘The princess looked in a scared way at her father’s eyes glittering close to her; the red patches on her face came and went, and it was plain that she understood nothing and was so frightened that her fear would prevent her understanding any of her father’s further explanations…’6Prince Nicholas deliberately humiliates his daughter in front of her prospective suitor, purely through fear of abandonment, evident in the fact that,
‘the question was whether he could ever bring himself to part from his daughter and give her to a husband. The prince never directly asked himself that question, knowing beforehand that he would have to answer it justly, and justice clashed not only with his feelings but with the very possibility of life. Life without Princess Maria, little as he seemed to value her, was unthinkable to him. “And why should she marry,” he thought. “To be unhappy for certain. There’s Lise, married to Andrew – a better husband one would think could hardly be found nowadays – but is she contented with her lot? And who would marry Marie for love? Plain and awkward!”’7
This strange mixture of resentment and dependence, desire to protect his daughter from pain whilst at the same time apparently valuing her so little, is a complex and strange issue, especially when juxtaposed with Prince Nicholas’ treatment of his son, Andrew, whom he treats almost as an equal and, at least in terms of Andrew’s wife, sides with blindly. Prince Andrew also seems to have a deep understanding of his father and his ways, evident in this speech he makes to Pierre, ‘My father is one of the most remarkable men of his time. But he is growing old, and though not exactly cruel, he has too energetic a character. He is so accustomed to unlimited power that he is terrible, and now he has the authority of a commander-in-chief of the recruiting, granted by the Emperor… So I am serving because I alone have any influence with my father, and now and then can save him from actions which would torment him afterwards.’16 Both Andrew and Maria have a profound level of love and respect for their father, who does seem to genuinely love and care for them both, in spite of his behaviour at times. Perhaps it should also be noted that the role of fathers at the time this novel was published was obviously very different to the way it is now.

Prince Nicholas is an incredibly selfish parent – the needs of his children always fall secondary to his own. On the subject of his devoted son, Prince Andrew, wishing to marry Natasha, ‘[Nicholas] could not comprehend how anyone could wish to alter his life or introduce anything new into it, when his own life was already ending. “If only they would let me end my days as I want to,” thought the old man, “then they might do as they please.”22 This almost suggests that the Prince does not really care about the good of his children; overall, he is more concerned with his own peace and quiet.  On the subject of Prince Andrew’s desire to marry Natasha Rostova, Prince Nicholas has an interesting array of arguments against it. 
‘In the first place the marriage was not a brilliant one as regards birth, wealth or rank. Secondly, Prince Andrew was not as young as he had been and his health was poor (the old man laid special stress on this), while she was very young. Thirdly, he had a son whom it would be a pity to entrust to a chit of a girl. “Fourthly and finally… I beg you to put it off for a year… then if your love or passion or obstinacy – as you please – is still as great, marry!”’23 
The reasons for opposition the Prince deems most important are interesting, in that they all centre entirely on financial or social gain.  

Based upon the family of Tolstoy’s wife Sofia (née Behr)8, the Rostovs are a classic example of the archetypal affectionate family. The love of all three children and both parents for the eldest son, Nicholas, is quite startling and ‘on his return to Moscow from the army, Nicholas Rostov was welcomed by his home circle as the best of sons, a hero and their darling Nikolenka.’9 The family has limited money and yet it spends a lot on Nicholas (more than it should, really). Examples of the loving, close nature of the Rostov parents and their children are repeated throughout the novel, as when Nicholas is described as being ‘enfolded in the poetic atmosphere of love which pervaded the Rostov household.’10 Countess Rostova shows a very limited interest in issues of marriage, apart from having some dread of a marriage between her son and his cousin Sonya ‘which might hinder Nicholas from making a brilliant match.’11 Beyond this, the Countess appears to approach her affairs with a degree of naivety, as does her husband. The Countess is even under the impression that “’till now I have always been my children’s’ friend and had their full confidence.”12 which shows that she is ‘repeating the mistake of many parents who imagine that their children have no secrets from them.’13 Both she and her husband are terrible with money and judging by Nicholas, they have not managed to impart any wisdom in this regard to their children.

The Countess relies very heavily on her son later on in the novel, when it comes to issues of family finance. For example, ‘[Nicholas] found in letters from home more frequent complaints from his mother that their affairs were falling into greater and greater disorder, and that it was time for him to come back to gladden and comfort his old parents’.24 The Countess shows a far less pleasant side to her personality when it comes to her manipulation of the feelings of her son, and ‘in the spring of that year, he received a letter from his mother, written without his father’s knowledge, and that letter persuaded him to return. She wrote that if he did not come and take matters in hand, their whole property would be sold by auction and they would all have to go begging.’25 To some extent, one could argue that this is the cost of having been so doted upon in his youth, but the expectations placed upon Nicholas are extreme, and show that even the Countess is not immune to the cold social manoeuvring of the time. ‘She told him that her only hope of getting their affairs disentangled, now lay in his marrying Julie Karagina’.26 After the death of the Count, responsibilities fall even harder onto the shoulders of poor Nicholas, although in keeping with the close and loving nature of the family, he accepts them readily. However, his situation is a far from easy one. ‘The debts of [Count Rostov] amounted to double the value of the property… Friends and relatives advised Nicholas to decline the inheritance. But he regarded such a refusal as a slur on his father’s memory, which he held sacred, and therefore would not hear of refusing, and accepted the inheritance together with the obligation to pay the debts.’27 Nicholas’ feelings for his parents even after the position in which he has been placed demonstrates what many people believe make up the fundamental of essence of an ideal family; unconditional love. The Countess certainly does not help to improve matters for Nicholas, as 
‘[she] could not conceive of a life without the luxurious conditions she had been used to from childhood and, unable to realize how hard it was for her son, kept demanding now a carriage (which they did not keep) to send for a friend, now some expensive article of food for herself, or wine for her son, or money to buy a present as a surprise for Natasha, or Sonya, or for Nicholas himself’.28

The younger Rostov daughter, Natasha, is very outgoing and flirtatious (perhaps what would now be described as ‘boy-mad’). Her ‘honour’ is not very well protected, it would seem and her behaviour is never curtailed by her parents, even when it is inappropriate for her age. Her mother is aware that she is too young to marry and so her neglect presumably comes from a lack of noticing her daughter’s behaviour. Indeed, the Countess is outraged when Nicholas’ friend Denísov proposes to Natasha and is ‘indignant that they should have dared to treat this little Natasha as grown up.’14 As much as the Rostovs do not do their offspring any favours when it comes to financial stability, when Natasha is sixteen and discussing with her mother a possible union with Borís, her mother’s reasons why the marriage would not be a good idea are ‘because he is young, because he is poor, because he is a relation… and because you yourself do not love him.’21 That Countess Rostova considers the latter point  a reason to be acknowledged among the others is surprising, not least when looked at in relation to the other parents discussed here. Her concern for the long-term happiness for her daughter, while practical in terms of the financial implications, is also emotional and this is one way in which the Rostov parents are well-rounded.
Ultimately, Natasha’s fate proves to be a good one, but the journey to it is far from easy and she experiences great suffering along the way. The failure of her parents to curtail her behaviour and teach her how to avoid becoming entangled in scandal, is certainly a large part of this. However, the love that pervades the Rostov household is definitely unmatched by any other household presented in the novel.

Where to begin with the Kuragin family? With a father who claims to have no natural affinity for speaking to his own children, who describes his sons as fools, and yet has a strangely determined interest in their marrying well, it is no surprise that they are so dysfunctional. Prince Vasíly Kuragin supports his daughter, Hélène, in seducing as many men as possible if it will lead to her success within society. Hélène, like her brother Anatole, is sexually free (there are even rumours that the two have had a sexual relationship) and she has several affairs. Prince Kuragin attempts to marry his son Anatole off to Princess Maria Bolkonskya, reminding him that “for you, everything depends on this.”15 His concerns regarding his children amount simply to ensuring that they make financially and socially acceptable matches; their happiness, mental health or reputations seem to matter very little to him.
Bizarrely, Prince Vasíly’s wife is hardly ever mentioned in the novel; indeed, for a very large part of the novel I assumed her to be dead. The few contributions she makes are pointless at best, and unpleasant and worst. For example, upon being congratulated on her daughter’s upcoming marriage to Pierre, Hélène’s mother ‘did not reply, she was too tormented by jealousy of her daughter’s happiness.’17Now this is hardly healthy. It would appear that Prince Vasíly wife, who as far as I could make out remains unnamed, is as terrible as her husband when it comes to conspiring and manipulating for the benefit of their children, while at the same time entirely neglecting to bring their children up to be well-balanced and possessing of good morals. When Pierre receives a letter from her, he sees that ‘there was a conspiracy against him and that they wanted to reunite him with his wife…’18
The strange involvement of the parents in their children’s’ affairs is very different to the involvement of Anna Drubetskaya in those of her son, in that the latter is motivated by a profound and all-encompassing love and a desire to see her son succeed as best he possibly can. There seems to be something a little more sinister when it comes to the behaviour of the Kuragin parents. Prince Vasíly himself is unpleasantly involved in the relations between Pierre and Hélène. After they separate, Kuragin tells Pierre that ‘Hélène is as innocent before you as Christ was before the Jews19 and states ‘…I know all about it…it is simply a misunderstanding… [if you do not reconcile] let me tell you it’s quite likely you’ll have to suffer for it.’20

It would appear that all issues regarding parenthood in War and Peace focus around the pursuit of status, be that through the attainment of further wealth, through good marriage, or through good educations or careers. Almost all of the parents are lacking in some way; the Rostovs fail massively when it comes to providing financial stability, Kuragin has produced emotionally unstable offspring and Bolkonski has a daughter who not only fears him, but is also fairly unable to cope with life. It could be said that the Princess Drubetskaya is a healthy example of good parenting, but even she has put too much into her son, who is himself embarrassed at times by her behaviour.  The pursuit of status is symptomatic of this particular culture during this era, when love meant very little next to ‘a good match’ and it is not necessarily a criticism when parents attempted to attain this for their offspring. More generally, Tolstoy succeeds in this novel in creating a full cast of characters, situations, relationships and circumstances, vast in scope and yet minute in detail. I did not find it as enjoyable as Anna Karenina, hitting a wall about halfway through which required I take a bit of a break from reading. It is, however, unquestionably a work of genius and an important piece of literature. I would recommend this novel to anybody, without question, although it would be advisable to take it slowly and just enjoy it. It is certainly not a novel to be rushed.

My next blog post will be on the subject of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which I will be reading for the Beaconsfield Book Club in North London. I know it may seem strange to be going back to Hardy so soon, but I will do my best to keep the next post as far in subject from the post on Jude the Obscure. Check back in two weeks to have a read. As always, feel free to leave a comment, or contact me on You can also follow this blog on twitter (@00KVortex).


-       K