English Lamp Posts Top Victorian Blog Award Winner 2011

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A 'Top Victorian Blogs' winner

Earlier this month, I was notified on Twitter that this blog had been nominated and named one of the "Top Victorian Blogs of 2011."  After overcoming the shock, I was greatly gratified by the recognition.  The fact that enough people though highly enough of the blog to nominate it for such an award is humbling to say the least.  Of course, my motivation in doing the blog had nothing to do with such accolades but I am glad to have provided an informative outpost from which to glean knowledge.  Hopefully, I will continue to produce enjoyable posts.  I will continue blogging about Middlemarch immediately.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Eliot's Influences

George Eliot was as well-read as any other female during the Victorian period.  In addition to the works of Shakespeare and Scott, as well as the poetry of Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Eliot was strongly influenced by philosophical works, particularly those by Feuerbach, Spinoza, and Comte.  Though raised under Evangelicalism, Eliot began to abandon those beliefs as she approached her twenties for a more humanistic perspective.  The ideas she adopted from those philosophers mentioned above present themselves in her fiction, through her authorial comments.  One writer (Henry James, I believe) stated that Thackeray's narrative voice is that of a social commentator while Eliot's is that of a philosopher.  Each of the three philosophers that influenced Eliot added a different aspect to her belief that Christianity was greater than a religious doctrine.

Eliot translated Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity into English in 1854.  Feuerbach favored a humanistic approach to Christianity that replaced the Divine with man.  Eliot embraced this idea, believing that God is a  human creation fashioned to fulfill the needs of man.  As a way to fulfill these needs, man must "God" to each other through love, a unifying force of humanity. While Feuerbach rejected the idea of a spiritual entity called "God," he believed that each individual was capable of giving a God-like live to his fellow man.

Similarly, Eliot was influenced by Spinoza through his work Ethics.  Spinoza also believed that each individual had ingrained God-like qualities and that everyone had a moral responsibility to strengthen those qualities.  Because humans are interdependent, they should recognize that their actions affect others.  Consequently, Spinoza stressed tolerance and inclusiveness.  Spinoza also believed in freedom, which included freedom from purpose and other constraining objectives.  With freedom comes knowledge and an increase in freedom results in a happier life.

A third influence, Comte, who founded positivism, believed knowledge is derived from experience while knowledge of man comes from interaction with society.  He was a realist favoring proven, scientific knowledge over idealistic, intuitive knowledge.  Comte too denied the presence of a Divine influence but believed that an had a duty to be philanthropic.  Essentially, each man should be what others need him to be.

Sources:  George Eliot: A Biography by Gordon S. Haight
George Eliot by Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth
"The Casuitry of George Eliot" http://www.cyberpat.com/shirlsite/essays/casuist.html

Monday, September 19, 2011

Virginia Woolf on George Eliot

"George Eliot" by Virginia Woolf*

To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one's insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of her Life. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the 'mercurial little showman' and the 'errant woman' on the dais, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. Lord Acton had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction from the London library. She was the pride and paragon of all her sex. Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public. Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons had come to tickle his sense of humour. He had been so much alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; her had been so anxious to say the intelligent thing. Certainly, the talk had been very serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the novelist bore witness. It was dated on the Monday morning, and she accused herself of having spoken with due forethought of Marivaux when she meant another; but not doubt, she said, her listener had already supplied the correction. Still, the memory of talking about Marivaux to George Eliot on a Sunday afternoon was not a romantic memory. It had faded with the passage of years. It had not become picturesque.
Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages. Mr Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving through London in a victoria:
a large, thick-set sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.
Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor portrait:
She sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters. She was very quiet and noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice. As I looked I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse.
A scrap of her talk is preserved. 'We ought to respect our influence,' she said. 'We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect on others.' Jealously treasured, committed to memory, one can imagine recalling the scene, repeating the words, thirty years later, and suddenly, for the first time, bursting into laughter.
In all these records one feels that the recorder, even when he was in the actual presence, kept his distance and kept his head, and never read the novels in later years with the light of a vivid, or puzzling, or beautiful personality dazzling his eyes. In fiction, where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, mostly of the opposite sex, have resented, half consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children. One feels that to most people, as to Lady Ritchie, she was 'not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse'. But if we consider these portraits more closely, we find that they are all the portraits of an elderly celebrated woman, dressed in black satin, driving in her victoria, a woman who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for intimacy, save with the little circle who had known her in the days of her youth. We know very little about the days of her youth; but we do know that the culture, the philosophy, the fame, and the influence were all built upon a very humble foundation - she was the granddaughter of a carpenter.
The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record. In it we see her rising herself with groans and struggles from the intolerable boredom of petty provincial society (her father had risen in the world and become more middle class, but less picturesque) to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual London review, and the esteemed companion of Herbert Spencer. The stages are painful as she reveals them in the sad soliloquy in which Mr Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life. Marked in early youth as one 'sure to get something up very soon in the way of a clothing club', she proceeded to raise funds for restoring a church by making a chart of ecclesiastical history; and that was followed by a loss of faith which so disturbed her father that he refused to live with her. Next came the struggle with the translation of Strauss, which, dismal and 'soul-stupefying' in itself, can scarcely have been made less so by the usual feminine tasks of ordering a household and nursing a dying father, and the distressing conviction, to one so dependent upon affection, that by becoming a bluestocking she was forfeiting her brother's respect. 'I used to go about like an owl', she said, 'to the great disgust of my brother'. 'Poor thing', wrote a friend who saw her toiling through Strauss with a statue of the risen Christ in front of her, 'I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father.' Yet, though we cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.
The books which followed so soon after her union testify in the fullest manner to the great liberation which had come to her with personal happiness. In themselves they provide us with a plentiful feast. Yet at the threshold of her literary career one may find in some of the circumstances of her life influences that turned her mind to the past, to the country village, to the quiet and beauty and simplicity of childish memories and away from herself and the present. We understand how it was that her first book was Scenes of Clerical Life and not Middlemarch. Her union with Lewes had surrounded her with affection, but in view of the circumstances and of the conventions it has also isolated her. 'I wish it to be understood', she wrote in 1857, 'that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation.' She had been 'cut off from what is called the world', she said later, but she did not regret it. By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her 'remotest past', to speak of loss seems inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing. The utmost we can say, in qualifying her attitude towards fiction by what we know of her life, is that she had taken to heart certain lessons learnt early, if learnt at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun of ordinary joys and sorrows. She has none of that romantic intensity which is connected with a sense of one's own individuality, unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background of the world. What were the loves and sorrows of a snuffy old clergyman, dreaming over his whisky, to the fiery egotism of Jane Eyre? The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great. It is impossible to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies, because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great originals only. The flood of memory and humour which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with a natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticize. We accept; we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall. If there is an element of unthinking abandonment in thus submitting to the humours of Midland farmers and their wives, that, too, is right in the circumstances. We scarcely wish to analyse what we feel to be so large and deeply human. And when we consider how distant in time the world of Shepperton and Hayslope is, and how remote the minds of farmer and agricultural labourers from those of most of George Eliot's readers, we can only attribute the ease and pleasure with which we ramble from house to smithy, from cottage parlour to rectory garden, to the fact that George Eliot makes us share their lives, not in a spirit of condescension or of curiosity, but in a spirit of sympathy. She is no satirist. The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome to lend itself to comedy. But she gathers in her large grasp a great bunch of the main elements of human nature and groups them loosely together with a tolerant and wholesome understanding which, as one finds upon rereading, has not only kept her figures fresh and free, but has given them an unexpected hold upon our laughter and tears. There is the famous Mrs Poyser. It would have been easy to work her idiosyncrasies to death, and, as it is, perhaps, George Eliot gets her laugh in the same place a little too often. But memory, after the book is shut, brings out, as sometimes in real life, the details and subtleties which some more salient characteristic has prevented us from noticing at the time. We recollect that her health was not good. There were occasions upon which she said nothing at all. She was patience itself with sick child. She doted upon Totty. Thus one can muse and speculate about the greater number of George Eliot's characters and find, even in the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity.
But in the midst of all this tolerance and sympathy there are, even in the early books, moments of greater stress. Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself- the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In Adam Bede there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. She is Janet in Janet's Repentance, and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood you would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort. In accounting for her failure, in so far as it was a failure, one recollects that she never wrote a story until she was thirty-seven, and that by the time she was thirty-seven she had come to think of herself with a mixture of pain and something like resentment. For long she preferred not to think of herself at all. Then, when the first flush of creative energy was exhausted and self-confidence had come to her, she wrote more and more from the personal standpoint, but she did so without the unhesitating abandonment of the young. Her self-consciousness is always marked when her heroines say what she herself would have said. She disguised them in every possible way. She granted them beauty and wealth into the bargain; she invented, more improbably, a taste for brandy. But the disconcerting and stimulating fact remained that she was compelled by the very power of her genius to step forth in person upon the quiet bucolic scene.
The noble and beautiful girl who insisted upon being born into the Mill on the Floss is the most obvious example of the ruin which a heroine can strew about her. Humour controls her and keeps her lovable so long as she is small and can be satisfied by eloping with the gipsies or hammering nails into her doll; but she develops; and before George Eliot knows what has happened she has a full-grown woman on her hands demanding what neither gipsies, nor dolls, nor St Ogg's itself is capable of giving her. First Philip Wakem is produced, and later Stephen Guest. The weakness of the one and the coarseness of the other have often been pointed out; but both, in their weakness and coarseness, illustrate not so much George Eliot's inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine. She is in the first place driven beyond the home world she knew and loved, and forced to set foot in middle-class drawing-rooms where young men sing all the summer morning and young women sit embroidering smoking-caps for bazaars. She feels herself out of her element, as her clumsy satire of what she calls 'good society' proves.
Good society has its claret and its velvet carpets, its dinner engagements six weeks deep, its opera, and its faery ball rooms... gets its science done by Faraday and its religion by the superior clergy who are to be met in the best houses; how should it have need of belief and emphasis?
There is no trace of humour or insight there, but only the vindictiveness of a grudge which we feel to be personal it its origin. But terrible as the complexity of our social system is in its demands upon the sympathy and discernment of a novelist straying across the boundaries, Maggie Tulliver did worse than drag George Eliot from her natural surroundings. She insisted upon the introduction of the great emotional scene. She must love; she must despair; she must be drowned clasping her brother in her arms. The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. 'Whom are you doing to dance with?' asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston's ball. 'With you, if you will ask me,' said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.
Yet, dismiss the heroines without sympathy, confine George Eliot to the agricultural world of her 'remotest past', and you not only diminish her greatness but lose her true flavour. That greatness is here we can have no doubt. The width of the prospect, the large strong outlines of the principal features, the ruddy light of her early books, the searching power and reflective richness of the later tempt us to linger and expatiate beyond our limits. But is it upon the heroines that we would cast a final glance. 'I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl,' says Dorothea Casaubon. 'I used to pray so much - now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have desires merely for myself...' She is speaking for them all. That is their problem. They cannot live without religion, and they start out on the search for one when they are little girls. Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and agony the heart of the book - still and cloistered like a place of worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray. In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance - the difference of view, the difference of standard - nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with 'a fastidious yet hungry ambition' for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her - sex and health and convention - she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose. 

*This article first appeared in the The Times Literary Supplement November 20, 1919.  I copied and pasted it from this site.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

There Will Always be Merdles

My dear Mr Clennam,' returned Ferdinand, laughing, 'have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle; in that fact lies the complete manual of governing them. When they can be got to believe that the kettle is made of the precious metals, in that fact lies the whole power of men like our late lamented. No doubt there are here and there,' said Ferdinand politely, 'exceptional cases, where people have been taken in for what appeared to them to be much better reasons; and I need not go far to find such a case; but they don't invalidate the rule. Good day! I hope that when I have the pleasure of seeing you, next, this passing cloud will have given place to sunshine. Don't come a step beyond the door. I know the way out perfectly. Good day!'(Book II, Ch. 28).

Ferdinand Barnacle offers Clennam a truth about human nature.  He states that there will always be Merdles because there will always be people wanting more than what they have.  The adversely affected will mostly be avarious rich men, though there may be innocent victims, such as Clennam.  Merdle was likely the inspiration for Melmotte in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, though Trollope denied Dickens' influence.  Though the two characters are similar, based on their involvement in a Ponzi scheme, they are different personality types.  Merdle is reserved and reticent while Melmotte is loud and audacious.  Whereas Melmotte is a truly evil master manipulator, Merdle seems passive in his involvement in the scheme.  Trollope was more successful in creating a diabolical character on which to blame the fall of so many.  Nevertheless, Ferdinand's point remains.  Even recently, the scheme of Bernie Madoff proves that people will continue to gain the trust of others in order to cheat them.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Amy's Dream World

It was from this position that all she saw appeared unreal; the more surprising the scenes, the more they resembled the unreality of her own inner life as she went through its vacant places all day long. The gorges of the Simplon, its enormous depths and thundering waterfalls, the wonderful road, the points of danger where a loose wheel or a faltering horse would have been destruction, the descent into Italy, the opening of that beautiful land as the rugged mountain-chasm widened and let them out from a gloomy and dark imprisonment—all a dream—only the old mean Marshalsea a reality (Book II, Ch. 3).

Upon William Dorrit's release, the family instantly leaves England and begins travels on the Continent, beginning in Switzerland before landing in Italy.  Despite the picturesque views of the Italian countryside, Amy (Little Dorrit) feels out of place and her vision is distorted by the unfamiliarity of her surrounding.  While everyone in her family embraces their new-found wealth, Amy is reluctant to give up her old, tattered clothing in exchange for a new extravagant life style. A lifestyle of pomp and circumstance is not to Amy's liking.  She, like Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, is drawn to the ugly things in life.

Among the day's unrealities would be roads where the bright red vines were looped and garlanded together on trees for many miles; woods of olives; white villages and towns on hill-sides, lovely without, but frightful in their dirt and poverty within; crosses by the way; deep blue lakes with fairy islands, and clustering boats with awnings of bright colours and sails of beautiful forms; vast piles of building mouldering to dust; hanging-gardens where the weeds had grown so strong that their stems, like wedges driven home, had split the arch and rent the wall; stone-terraced lanes, with the lizards running into and out of every chink; beggars of all sorts everywhere: pitiful, picturesque, hungry, merry; children beggars and aged beggars. Often at posting-houses and other halting places, these miserable creatures would appear to her the only realities of the day; and many a time, when the money she had brought to give them was all given away, she would sit with her folded hands, thoughtfully looking after some diminutive girl leading her grey father, as if the sight reminded her of something in the days that were gone (Book II, Ch. 3).

Amy avoids the beautiful and gravitates to the ugly.  Born in prison, Amy has always lived in an ugly situation.  In such an environment, she feels comfortable because she has learned how to be a light in the midst of darkness, a balm in the midst of pain. 

"To have no work to do was strange, but not half so strange as having glided into a corner where she had no one to think for, nothing to plan and contrive, no cares of others to load herself with (Book II, Ch. 3).

In an atmosphere free from suffering and work to do for others, Amy has an identity crisis.

Such people were not realities to the little figure of the English girl; such people were all unknown to her. She would watch the sunset, in its long low lines of purple and red, and its burning flush high up into the sky: so glowing on the buildings, and so lightening their structure, that it made them look as if their strong walls were transparent, and they shone from within. She would watch those glories expire; and then, after looking at the black gondolas underneath, taking guests to music and dancing, would raise her eyes to the shining stars. Was there no party of her own, in other times, on which the stars had shone? To think of that old gate now! She would think of that old gate, and of herself sitting at it in the dead of the night, pillowing Maggy's head; and of other places and of other scenes associated with those different times. And then she would lean upon her balcony, and look over at the water, as though they all lay underneath it (Book II, Ch. 3).

Amy knows how to comfort others but finds no comfort abroad while surrounded by serenity.  In this new environment, Amy has no function to perform.  A peaceful world is a dream world that Amy has never experienced.  She was born into a depressing state and functions best in grotesque circumstances.  The magnificence of Rome is foreign territory to her in more than one sense, territory to which she struggles to adapt.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Henry Gowan

Henry Gowan is the fiancĂ© of Pet Meagles, whom Arthur realizes he loves after her engagement (Arthur is quite flexible in love).  The Meagles do not like Gowan personally, though they embrace the match due to the connection it provides to the Barnacles, the corrupt ruling family in the Circumlocution Office.  Nevertheless, the Gowans, though well-connected, are poor themselves, forcing Henry to earn his living.  Henry expresses disappointment that his distant relatives do not give him money so that he doesn't have to work.

'Why,' returned Gowan, 'I belong to a clan, or a clique, or a family, or a connection, or whatever you like to call it, that might have provided for me in any one of fifty ways, and that took it into its head not to do it at all. So here I am, a poor devil of an artist' (Book 1, Ch. 34).

Gowan's choosing art "partly to grieve the souls of the Barnacles-in-chief who had not provided for him" (Book 1, Ch. 17) shows he has no love for art and that he is lazy and wants an easy way to earn money. 

He appeared to be an artist by profession, and to have been at Rome some time; yet he had a slight, careless, amateur way with him—a perceptible limp, both in his devotion to art and his attainments—which Clennam could scarcely understand (Book 1, Ch. 17).

Gowan proves careless not only in his vocation but also in his words.  He repeatedly exhibits "dexterous impudence" through insincere praise.

It appeared, before the breakfast was over, that everybody whom this Gowan knew was either more or less of an ass, or more or less of a knave; but was, notwithstanding, the most lovable, the most engaging, the simplest, truest, kindest, dearest, best fellow that ever lived. The process by which this unvarying result was attained, whatever the premises, might have been stated by Mr Henry Gowan thus: 'I claim to be always book-keeping, with a peculiar nicety, in every man's case, and posting up a careful little account of Good and Evil with him. I do this so conscientiously, that I am happy to tell you I find the most worthless of men to be the dearest old fellow too: and am in a condition to make the gratifying report, that there is much less difference than you are inclined to suppose between an honest man and a scoundrel.' The effect of this cheering discovery happened to be, that while he seemed to be scrupulously finding good in most men, he did in reality lower it where it was, and set it up where it was not; but that was its only disagreeable or dangerous feature (Book 1, Ch. 17).

Though Gowan does not have evil intentions, one learns quickly not to trust his judgment of others.  Dickens furthers this perspective by Gowan's friendship with Rigaud and Sparkler, as well as his relation to the Barnacles.  Rigaud is a murderer and Sparkler is weak-minded and undistinguished.  If a man is defined by the company he keeps, Gowan is bad news.

His relationship to the Barnacles shows he shares sentiments with them.  His opposition to progress is illustrated in the following quote:

'Painters, writers, patriots, all the rest who have stands in the market. Give almost any man I know ten pounds, and he will impose upon you to a corresponding extent; a thousand pounds—to a corresponding extent; ten thousand pounds—to a corresponding extent. So great the success, so great the imposition. But what a capital world it is!' cried Gowan with warm enthusiasm. 'What a jolly, excellent, lovable world it is!'

'I had rather thought,' said Clennam, 'that the principle you mention was chiefly acted on by—'

'By the Barnacles?' interrupted Gowan, laughing. 

'By the political gentlemen who condescend to keep the Circumlocution Office' (Book 1, Ch. 26).

If one impedes progress, one avoids obligation to others for that progress.  Gowan does not believe in work and has no problem impeding the work of others.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Book of Nobodies

Dickens originally planned to name the novel Nobody's Fault, and though he changed the title, the theme of nobody remains a part of the work.  Many characters struggle with their identity throughout the novel.  One major reason for that struggle is the inability to define oneself through the family entity.  In the case of Miss Wade and Tattycoram, one's family is a mystery and both characters show a reluctance to adapt themselves to a familial unit.  Another cluster of characters deal with the loss of a parent:

*Clennam returns to London after the death of his father.
*Little Dorrit's mother dies soon after her birth
*Flora's mother as well as that of Young Chivery is never identified
*Edmund Sparkler is the son of Mrs. Merdle from a previous relationship

In addition to this, Pet Meagles deals with the loss of a twin sister while Maggy shows her confusion with her identity by calling the younger Little Dorrit "Little Mother."  Mrs. Clennam admits she is not Arthur's mother, a fact he learns after the novel ends.  Because of these issues, many characters have trouble coming to terms with their identity and understanding who they are.

Interestingly, two of the strongest family units in the novel are opposites.  On one hand are the Barnacles, a strong family, though corrupt, that runs England and never relinquishes power.  All positions of power remain within the family.  Though Dickens portrays this family and politically corrupt, he uses the Barnacles to show the power possible to a strong family unit.

On the other hand are the Plornishs, an extremely poor, though honest, family that lives in Bleeding Heart Yard.  Mr. Plornish is a hard-working plasterer, who has trouble finding work in order to feed his wife and many kids.  Nevertheless, the family is always happy and willing to help others.

Ultimately, the novel is about a bunch of nobodies trying to find their role in the world.  Dickens shows that the lack of knowledge about one's identity makes finding that role difficult.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Imprisonment in Little Dorrit, Part Two

Tattycoram feels she is imprisoned as a part of the Meagles household, only to learn true subjugation when she runs away to live with Miss Wade.  Adopted by the Meagles to serve as a maid to their daughter Pet, Tattycoram feels jealous of the attention Pet receives, forgetting the attention she herself receives.  Tattycoram's past of neglect and abandonment fuels her anger and fear of a similar future, though she acknowledges that she knows that the Meagles are good to her.  Miss Wade preys on the vulnerable Tattycoram, possibly as a love interest, and strengthens the cords of her imprisonment by making "Harriet" (her given name) totally dependent on her.  Tattycoram misses the Meagles, visiting their residence in their absences and eventually returns to them.

Miss Wade herself is imprisoned by her past, in which she was an orphan.  As a result, she seeks to control everyone she grows close to.  As a young girl, she suspects her peers are only nice to her because she is an orphan and she rejects their benevolent condescension.  She becomes upset when her one true friend makes friends with others.  She becomes engaged to a young man and provokes him to jealousy by flirting with Henry Gowan, later ending the engagement though nothing developed with Gowan.  She uses a similar past of uncertain birth to attract Tattycoram, only to make the life of the latter more miserable than previously perceived.  Miss Wade's past prevents her from developing proper relationships with others.

The residents of Bleeding Heart Yard are unknowingly imprisoned by Mr. Casby, their landlord.  BHY is a poor area of London in which live the Plornish's, a hard-working and honest, though impoverish family.  Casby hires Pancks to collect the rents, which causes the latter to be viewed as the antagonist of the residents while Casby is envisioned as philanthropic .  Pancks bleeds the residents of their money, though Casby pushes him to bleed them further, being unsatisfied with the results.  Casby knows but ignores the poverty of his tenants and only concerns himself with obtaining more money.

Almost all of society is imprisoned by the Barnacles, who run the Circumlocution Office.  Controlling the country through a hereditary oligarchy of sorts, the Barnacles prevent anything of significance from happening in the country.  Through exaggerated bureaucratic means, they follow the philosophy "How not to do it" in their governance.  As a result, society is prevented from making any progress, which is portrayed in the case of Doyce being denied for no reason a patent for his inventions.  Only Merdle is too rich to be under their control.

Ironically, Little Dorrit is imprisoned by the society outside of the walls of the Marshalsea.  She was born and grew up in the prison and she understand the role she is expected to perform there.  Nevertheless, once Mr. Dorrit receives his freedom and wealth, Little Dorrit no longer knows how to function in her family or in society.  She does not want to give up her old, tattered clothing and often has dreams of her days at the Marshalsea.  She cannot function in a false society and finds comfort when Clennam goes to jail and she can return to the role she once performed for her father.   She is only able to leave in peace when she leaves with Clennam.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Imprisonment in Little Dorrit, Part One

A recurring theme in Little Dorrit is imprisonment.  Obviously, the Marshalsea has an dominating presence in Part One of the novel.  Mr. Dorrit is imprisoned there over 20 years and sees his youngest child Amy born there.  Even after he is released, Mr. Dorrit is still haunted by the pervasive nature of the prison, as much as he tries to banish it from his memory.  Mr. Dorrit tries to maintain his dignity while in prison, acquiring the title of "Father of the Marshalsea," which is considered a moniker of respect.  Also, he pretends to be ignorant of his children's attempts to earn money for the family, so that the pang of his failure towards them will lessen.  The effect of the prison on its inhabitants is a role reversal.

One way in which this effect is illustrated is through the relationships Little Dorrit develops with her father and Little Maggy.  To her father Little Dorrit becomes the provider, making money for the family while guaranteeing that Mr. Dorrit has his meals.  With Maggy, though Little Dorrit is much younger, her maternal actions towards the Maggy causes the latter to call the former "Little Mother."  Mr. Meagles notices the stifling, suffocating atmosphere of the prison, causing him to have trouble breathing.  Dickens portrays that stifling dimension of the prison in Maggy's inability to conceive of herself as older than ten, and in Little Dorrit's small stature, despite her obvious maturity.  Tip, Little Dorrit's brother, leaves the prison on multiple occasions, only to return every time.  The prison refuses to relinquish its hold on him, in spite of his attempts to escape its grasp.  However, few are able to escape, including the turnkey who dies in the prison only to have his son succeed him.  The only persons to escape successfully are Arthur and Amy, and they do it together.  After Arthur becomes a victim of Merdle's scheme and is sent to prison, Amy with the help of Meagles, frees Arthur.  The shared trait between Arthur and Amy is that neither bows at the altar of Mammon and both show a willingness to sacrifice everything they have for just reasons.   Therefore, neither of the two remain within the hold of a prison whose inhabitants were jailed for debts, symbolizing greed.

Nevertheless, the Marshalsea is not the only prison on which those in Little Dorrit find themselves.  Others are imprisoned figuratively.  One example is Mrs. Clennam, who is a prisoner in her own house.  Bound to a wheelchair, Mrs. Clennam never leaves her room, though she receives visitors.  Everything about the house reminds one of a prison; it is an old, dilapidated edifice, always dark and airless, like the Marshalsea.  Mrs. Clennam's self-imposed sentence reflects her guilt over the unjust treatment of the Dorrit family at the hands of the Clennams.  Consequently, her imprisonment is an act of penance though she is only truly released from her prison when she decides to reveal the truth about the past.  Only then does she leave the premises (to go to the Marshalsea, ironically). 

Nevertheless, she is partly responsible for Affery's imprisonment in the same domicile.  Forced to marry the butler, Affery is trapped in a loveless relationship with an abusive husband.  She sees a lot that she is not supposed to see but is told that he has dreamed it.  Affery is stuck in a dream world and is only released when the truth is revealed at the end.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Rebuttal to George Eliot

In contrast to Eliot's assertion (quoted in the previous post) that Dickens rarely gives an internal examination of his characters to the extent that he illustrates external traits, Alan Palmer, in Social Minds in the Novel, explains in a chapter on Little Dorrit that Dickens' examination of the private thoughts of his characters is more subtle but not absent.  Dickens uses the external perspective to explore the internal workings of the mind.  Palmer uses examples of facial expression and nonverbal communication to show how the thoughts of characters are perceived by others.

Palmer uses the term "visible thought" to characterized one way in which a character's thoughts are discerned by those around him.  Palmer uses the example of Merdle's worrying, stating "Even a solipsistic character such as Mr. Dorrit is able to notice when Merdle is out of sorts" (108).  The reticent Merdle is one character about whom the reader learns more from other characters than from himself.  Facial expressions often offer opportunity to see these "visible thoughts, such as the "shade of disappointment" Clennam sees on Mrs. Plornish's face.  For this reason, many characters (e.g. Miss Wade) adopt stolid expressions to avoid detection of their thoughts.  Palmer uses this outward display of the inner life to refute claims of a lack of internal examination by Dickens.

Nonverbal communication between characters who know each other well provides an opportunity to know the thoughts of others.  For example, Fanny gives Amy a warning frown that stops Amy from speaking.  Palmer also gives examples of how just a look from different characters can communicate different things.  The look is used to give or get info, as a warning, to intimidate, and to thank someone, all of which communicate ideas with words.

Ultimately, I think Eliot wins the argument, though Palmer makes valid points.  Dickens does not make a psychological approach to his characters in Little Dorrit, which is, essentially, Eliot's contention.  Knowing the thoughts of a character does give an internal view, though only in a limited way.  Eliot, however, would want to know, not just the thoughts, but also exactly how one's mind works.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Contemporary Quotes about Little Dorrit

 "Some readers may honestly prefer other works by the same author to this work:  we ourselves have our own preferences: but we know of no other author in our time who could have produced Little Dorrit.  The spirits are fresh - the humours as droll - the pathos and tenderness as deep - as anything we know from the same hand.  What an invention is the Circumlocution Office!  What a marvel is Mrs. Clennam!  What a picture is that of the Marshalsea!  Except in Amelia where have we such another prison interior?   We see in Little Dorrit no decrease of power, no closing of eyes, no slackening of pulse.  There is enough of genius in this book to have made a sensation for any other name.  To say it is not worthy of Dickens, is to pay him an immense compliment.  (William Hepworth Dixon in the Athenaeum, June 1857)

We must confess to some disappointment at the explanation towards the close of the book, of the mystery connected with Mrs. Clennam and the old house with its strange noises.  It is deficient in clearness, and does not fulfill the expectations of the reader, which have been wound up to a high pitch.  Indeed, the woof of the entire story does not hold together with sufficient closeness - a fault perhaps inseparable from the mode of publication.  The writing, however, shows all Mr. Dickens singular union of close observation and rich fancy.  (Unsigned review in the Leader, June 1857)

...in these post-Pickwickian works the author aspires not only to be a humourist, but an artist and a moralist; and in his later productions...he aims at being, besides artist and moralist, politician, philosopher, and ultra-philanthropist.  If we direct attention to his weakness in these latter characters, it is solely because he has for years past evinced more and more his tendency to abandon his strong point as humourist and comic-writer, and to base his pretensions on grounds which we consider utterly false and unstable.  For as a humourist we prefer Dickens to all living men - as artist, moralist, politician, philosopher, and ultra-philanthropist, we prefer many living men, women, and children to Dickens.  It is because we so cordially recognised, and so keenly enjoyed, his genius in his earlier works, that we now protest against the newer phase he chooses to appear in...  (E. B. Hamley in Blackwood's Magazine April 1857)

We have one great novelist who is gifted with the utmost power of rendering the external traits of our town population; and if he could give us their psychological character - their conceptions of life and their emotions - with the same truth a their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest contribution Art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies.  But while he can copy Mrs. Plornish's colloquial style with the delicate accuracy of a sun-picture...he scarely ever passes from the humourous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as trascendent in hi unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness.  (George Eliot in article, "The Natural History of German Life," July 1856)

Long life to you dear F. and recommend me to Dickens; and thank him a hundred times for 'the Circumlocution Office'; which is priceless after its sort!  We have laughed long and loud over it here; and laughter is by no means the supreme result in it.  Oh Heavens...  (Thomas Carlyle in letter to Dickens editor John Forster, 1856)

Though Dickens states in his preamble that his readership increased during the serialization of Little Dorrit, I must agree with those quoted above that the ending is not satisfying and that one finds a preference for his earlier works.  Nevertheless, while the novel is not Dickens' best plot construction, undeniable is the ever-present Dickens humor.  As Eliot points out, Dickens has a knack for creating caricatures, many of which his contemporary audience could identify with.  Also, the appropriately-named Circumlocution Office, in its harsh but entertaining portrayal, provoked bouts of laughter from readers.  As with all of Dickens' writings, one cannot but admire his ability to illustrate masterfully his criticisms of society. 

Nevertheless, despite all of the usual Dickensian traits, one is surprised at how uninteresting the titular heroine is.  Amy Dorrit, though very active in the narrative, never captivates the reader.  In general, one finds oneself apathetic towards her story.  The history of Little Dorrit consist of her birth in prison and her workings to make life as comfortable as possible for her family, in spite of its position in society.  However, Little Dorrit lacks depth and, though noble, is quite boring.

Many other characters, however, are excellent drawn.  Flora, Pancks, Affery and Mrs. Clennam are all entertaining and Rigaud is a great antagonist, though Merdle personally does not seem as evil as his actions.  Ultimately, the ending is unsatisfying, but there are many elements that make it an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Maria (Beadnell) Winter and Little Dorrit Part 2

From this point, there is a stark contrast in Dickens' correspondence with Mrs. Winter.  Gone is the rapturous language of infatuation and present is a stolid, detached tone of a mere acquaintance.  In a letter dated Tuesday, 3 April 1855, Dickens describes a recent trip to Ashford and laments the hardships of being a writer.  He even suggests he will "put everything else away from me" to focus on writing.  A trip to the continent is in the future so that he can "shut myself up in some out of the way place I have never yet thought of, and go desperately to work there."  In a letter in June of that same year, Dickens offers his condolences to Mrs. Winter after the loss of her child but decides against seeing her:  "It is better that I should not come to see you.  I feel quite sure of that, and will think of you instead."  Dickens pursue nothing more than a friendly companionship.

Dickens began Little Dorrit in May 1855 with this episode fresh in his memory.  Though the novel focuses on government inaction and the corrupting ability of money, Dickens includes his characteristic humorous depictions, such as in the character of Flora, who was once the love interest of Arthur Clennam, the male protagonist.  Clennam returns to England after twenty years in China and visits the home of Flora's father Mr. Casby.  There, he finds out that Flora is a widow and Clennam entertains the idea of a renewed courtship.  But upon seeing Flora, Clennam is shocked at how she has changed:

Clennam's eyes no sooner fell upon the subject of his old passion than it shivered and broke to pieces (Ch. 13). 

Clennam, like Dickens, was expecting the same beautiful woman of his youth and is surprised at how changed she is.

Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much. Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow (Ch. 13).

Clennam is not at much dismayed by her physical appearance as he is by her personality traits.  Among her chief flaws is her garrulousness.  After finding out that Clennam has not married, Flora volubly expresses surprise:

 'Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!' tittered Flora; 'but of course you never did why should you, pray don't answer, I don't know where I'm running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don't they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don't they really do it?' Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time. 

'Then it's all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!' 

One can see the humorous light in which Dickens portrays the scene but he himself was disappointed in seeing his old love in such an unflattering state.  The woman who had inspired Dora had now inspired the chattering Flora (rhyming names likely done purposely).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Maria (Beadnell) Winter and Little Dorrit Part 1

Dickens met the beautiful Maria Beadnell in 1829 and immediately fell in love with her.  A young, shorthand court reporter, Dickens was two years younger than Maria, whose parents were suspicious of the poor boy from a family without rank.  Maria's father also found out that Dickens' father had been a prisoner in the Marshalsea, making Charles an even more unattractive mate for the Beadnell daughter.  The love affair last four years, but Maria begins to tired of Dickens about two years in and begins to discourage his attentions.  Ultimately, Dickens ends his unproductive pursuits, vowing never to recover, though he met his future wife two years later.

Dickens based the character Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield on Maria Beadnell.  In the novel, Dora is the love interest of the youthful titular character and eventually marries him, though she dies after a miscarriage soon after marriage.  Dickens never forgot Maria, who later married a poor sawmill manager, likely regretting her rejection of the man who would become England's most famous writer of his day.  In what was a shock to Dickens, Maria wrote him a letter out of nowhere in February 1855, after more than 20 years of silence.  Dickens is immediately captivated and the olden feelings began to be rekindled.  Dickens wants to arrange a quiet dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Winter and his own wife, though it becomes obvious, reading his correspondence with Maria, that he still has feelings for her.

There are things that I have locked up in my own breast and that I never thought to bring out any more.  But when I find myself writing to you again "all to yourself," how can I forbear to let as much light in upon them as will shew you that they are there still!

Dickens kept the correspondence a secret from his wife, writing to Maria,

No one but myself has the slightest knowledge of my correspondence, I may add in this place.  I could be nowhere addressed with stricter privacy or in more absolute confidence than at my own house.

After Maria suggests a clandestine meeting, Dickens explains how fame has erased his anonymity:

I am a dangerous man to be seen with, for so many people know me.  At St. Paul's the Dean and the whole chapter know me.  In Paternoster Row of all places, the very tiles and chimney pots know me.

Though Maria warned Dickens that she was no longer the beauty she once was but was now "toothless, fat, old, and ugly," Dickens refused to believe it but was shocked by her appearance upon meeting her 25 February 1855.  In addition to being fat and old, Maria had developed (or retained) a silly giggle and a discursive habit that repulsed Dickens.  The Maria of his youth was gone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Vronsky's Torment

Mors Janua Vitae (1866) by Joseph Paton
He listened--and heard, repeated in a strange, mad whisper, the words:  'Unable to value, unable to enjoy; unable to value, unable to enjoy' (Part 4, Ch. 18).

Anna gives birth to a girl but nearly dies in the process.  Vronsky is with her while she is dying of what doctors characterize as puerperal fever, but Anna summons Alexei to her bedside to beg for his forgiveness.  Anna seems ready to renounce her liaison with Vronsky on her deathbed when her husband shows up.  He pities her and forgives her, a forgiveness made easier by the fact that he expects her soon to die.  Nevertheless, the ordeal casts Alexei as magnanimous while Vronsky questions himself and his love for Anna.  He is tormented by his thoughts, unable to sleep, and haunted by the quote above:  "Unable to value, unable to enjoy."

Vronsky comes to realize that his passion for Anna is subject to fading and reappearing.  At best, he is inconsistent in his feelings toward her.  He also fails to understand Anna's position, which will become evident as the story progresses.  This failure is the cause of the conflict that arises in their relationship.  He does not realize the sacrifice Anna has been willing to make in being with him, i.e. forsaking her son.  Though Anna still holds out hope that she will eventually enjoy custody of Seryozha, but she realizes that the odds are not in favor of that happening.  Vronsky, for his part, has not had to endure the public shame or make the sacrifices that Anna faces.  In an earlier scene, Pestsov comments that the public as well as legal judgment is not the same on both sexes in cases of infidelity:

Connected with the conversation that had sprung up on the rights of women there were certain questions as to the inequality of rights in marriage improper to discuss before the ladies. Pestsov had several times during dinner touched upon these questions, but Sergei Ivanovitch and Stepan Arkadyevitch carefully drew him off them.

When they rose from the table and the ladies had gone out, Pestsov did not follow them, but addressing Alexei Alexandrovitch, began to expound the chief ground of inequality. The inequality in marriage, in his opinion, lay in the fact that the infidelity of the wife and the infidelity of the husband are punished unequally, both by the law and by public opinion. Stepan Arkadyevitch went hurriedly up to Alexei Alexandrovitch and offered him a cigar (Part 4, Ch. 12).

Vronsky cannot understand the struggle to which Anna must submit herself which causes a rift between the two.

Vronsky is "unable to enjoy" Anna because he knows that he prevents her from being with her son.  Despite Anna's love for Vronsky, the latter knows that Anna's love for her son is irreplaceable.

Furthermore, Vronsky sees that though he is with Anna at her bedside, she desperately desires Alexei to visit her.  Vronsky may feel that though Anna loves him, she will never be able to separate herself completely from Alexei.

Lastly, Vronsky covers his eyes while standing at her bedside with Alexei, refusing to look at either of them.  He does not want to face the possibility that 1) Anna could die or that 2) She could end up back with Alexei if she lives.  As mentioned earlier, he sees himself as the "victor" and does not want to relinquish his victory.  For the first time, he may be forced to make a sacrifice for Anna's sake.

The above quote could also refer to Vronsky himself.  Finding himself "unable to value, unable to enjoy" life, Vronsky unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  Death plays a prominent as well as recurring role in the novel.  All three characters in this scene see death as an escape but all must face their situation instead.  There is no easy escape.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Alexei Caught

Alexei finally decides to consult a Petersburg attorney about a possible divorce from Anna.  In the scene between Karenin and the lawyer, Tolstoy uses a moth to show the position in which Alexei finds himself.  Four times in this one scene a moth interrupts the discussion between the two about the process of obtaining a divorce.  It is enlightening to look at what is happening just before each interruption:

*The lawyer catches the first moth (never actually kills any of them) just before Alexei begins to speak.  The lawyer already has Alexei within his grasp before the former knows what Alexei has to say, though the appearance of the second moth suggests that he may already know what Alexei has to say.

*"I know you and the good"—again he caught a moth—"work you are doing, like every Russian," said the lawyer, bowing (Part 4, Ch. 5).  After Alexei requests that his privacy be respected, the lawyer acknowledges that he knows who Alexei is through his work.  In the middle of his statement, the lawyer catches another moth, suggesting that he has no plans to respect Alexei's privacy.

*Alexei reveals that he is contemplating a divorce, which causes the lawyer to get visibly giddy.  The lawyer sees a third moth "but did not catch it from regard for Alexei Alexandrovitch's position." Thee lawyer attempts to hide his giddiness.  He already has Alexei within his grasp and avoids flaunting over such.

*The final moth appears after Alexei agrees to allow the lawyer choose the proper course of action.  The lawyer catches it "inconspicuously," trying to avoid detection.  In the same way he has slyly caught Alexei within his grasp.  The lawyer, who remains unnamed, stops catching moths after Alexei leaves his office, "finally deciding that next winter he must have the furniture covered with velvet, like Sigonin's."  He makes a future plan that he may or may not carry out, rather than dealing with the problem now.  It is hard to imagine that he will make a change considering the enjoyment he displayed in catching the moths.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Tolstoy uses the following epigraph at the beginning of the novel:  "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," taken from Dueteronomy 32:35.   Tolstoy signifies that he will explore not only man's actions but also man's motives behind those actions.  Alexei has refused to grant Anna a divorce, despite her declaration that she loves another man.  One issue is pride; Alexei has a reputation he wants to uphold.  He does not want his name scandalized by a divorce.  His pride plays such a significant role that Alexei does not actually care if Anna has an affair with another man, as long as the affair remains hidden from public view.  Alexei values his pride more than his love for his wife.  The passion that Anna seeks is lacking, as he refuses to fight a duel with Vronsky.  Anna at one point even wishes he would kill her and show a little passion, so that she could at least respect him.  Unfortunately, Alexei is passionate about, not his love for his wife, but his image. 

Nevertheless, Alexei does show passion in his desire for revenge.  He wants Anna to return to him but not without consequences.

The feeling of jealousy, which had tortured him during the period of uncertainty, had passed away at the instant when the tooth had been with agony extracted by his wife's words. But that feeling had been replaced by another, the desire, not merely that she should not be triumphant, but that she should get due punishment for her crime. He did not acknowledge this feeling, but at the bottom of his heart he longed for her to suffer for having destroyed his peace of mind—his honor. And going once again over the conditions inseparable from a duel, a divorce, a separation, and once again rejecting them, Alexei Alexandrovitch felt convinced that there was only one solution,—to keep her with him, concealing what had happened from the world, and using every measure in his power to break off the intrigue, and still more—though this he did not admit to himself—to punish her (Part 3, Ch. 13).

Not longer jealous, Alexei has progressed to vengeful.  A restoration of the family unit is not enough for him.  Anna needs to understand the enormity of her actions.  His lust for revenge is comparable to her lust for passion, though her lust is forgivable in that she tried to fulfill it in the context of marriage before pursuing the affair with Vronsky.  Alexei wants to see Anna suffer, showing he has no understanding of the internal struggle that led to the affair.  Alexei is an exterior person, and as long as the exterior appears good, the interior is unimportant.  Alexei is unable to see his own motive in wanting to see her suffer because his vision only allows him to view the surface actions, without penetrating further.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy establishes early on that revenge is not for the human scope but God's.  Though human nature craves suffering for wrongs inflicted, man does not decide another's punishment.  So what is man's responsibility?  Forgiveness.  Alexei's desire for revenge and his inability to forgive Anna ultimately plays a significant role in her downfall.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness

"I don't understand what philosopy has got to do with it," said Sergei Ivanovich, in such a tone, it seemed to Levin, as if he did not recognize his brother's right to discuss philosophy.  And that vexed Levin.

"It's got this to do with it!" he began hotly.  "I think that the motive force of all our actions is, after all, personal happiness" (Pt. 3, Ch. 3).

Ultimately the driving force of all the characters in Anna Karenina is the personal happiness, or self-interest according to another translation, of each.  In some cases, there is a difference between the happiness of what one wants and what one pursues.  Below is a description of what the major characters seeks to obtain personal happiness:

*Anna--a passionate love life.  She rejects the passionless love of her husband in favor of an affair that embraces her passionate nature.

*Alexei--work and pride.  This is what drives Alexei.  Even after Anna tells Alexei that she is Vronsky's mistress, the foremost subject in his mind is the settlement of racial minorities in unoccupied lands (Pt. 3, Ch. 14).

Vronsky--victory.  Tolstoy describes Vronsky as the "victor" in his pursuit of Kitty and he feels the same about his pursuit of Anna.  The desire for victory is enhanced by his military background.  He loves her beauty but does he love her?

Levin--Kitty.  No matter how many times Levin tries to give up his pursuit of Kitty, he always returns to it.  Even when he returns to the country and feels the rewarding experience of working in nature, one chance glimpse of Kitty reminds him that she is what he truly desires.

Stepan--women.  Stepan likes the stability of a home life that involves a wife and children, but he no longer finds his wife attractive.  One personall benefit of women to Stepan is that he feels youthful again.

Dolly--children.  She knows she cannot depends on the love of Stepan, so Dolly invests all her time into her children.  This is where she finds her happiness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


While at a foreign spa seeking recovery from the devastation of her abandonment by Vronsky, Kitty meets Varenka, a young girl who nursed the gravely ill.  She is the adoptive daughter of Mme. Stahl, whom Kitty's father calls a Pietist, as one who is selfishly charitable.  While Mme. Stahl enjoys seeing suffering people, Varenka robotically helps them.  She lacks "the restrained fire of life" while having a "sickly complexion" (Pt. 2, Ch. 30).  Kitty notices this lack of fire when she shakes hands with Varenka:

Kitty blushed with pleasure, and slowly, without speaking, pressed her new friend's hand, which did not respond to her pressure, but lay motionless in her hand. The hand did not respond to her pressure, but the face of Mademoiselle Varenka glowed with a soft, glad, though rather mournful smile, that showed large but handsome teeth (Pt. 2, Ch. 31).

Varenka hardly responds to the human touch.  She is inexperienced in dealing with people full of life, though she does express some gratitude.  She is too busy for life.  Kitty comments on how Varenka is always engaged in some eleemosynary activity show that her hands respond instead to work.  Varenka cannot give love because she has not known love.  Tolstoy uses this episode to relate back to his theme of families.  Both Mme. Stahl and Varenka come from broken families.  After a divorce from her unfaithful husband, Mme. Stahl gave birth to a child that died.  Her family replaced that child with Varenka, born the same night to a court cook.  Mme. Stahl raised Varenka as her own but it was a loveless relationship.  Mme. Stahl had been drained of love after the loss of her husband and her child.  Instead of love, Mme. Stahl instilled Varenka with responsibility to work.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Similar Tragedies

Pandemionium (1825) by John Martin
In each of the first two sections of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes a tragic episode.  The first involves an unnamed watchman being killed by a train while the other involves the death of a horse being ridden by Vronsky.  Though the events are dissimilar, there are unifying elements.  The following is a list that describes the similarities and the contrasts.

*Three characters appear in both scenes:  Vronsky, Anna and Vronsky's mother.  It may be that Tolstoy uses the two events to describe the changes in the relationship between Vronsky and Anna.

*Both scenes are preceded by declarations of love.  Levin proposes to Kitty and is rejected while Vronsky declares, upon learning that Anna is pregnant, that the time has come for Anna to forsake everything and go away with him.  Looking ahead in the novel, both attempts are successful to a point.

*Both scenes make a big deal of eye contact.  Vronsky and Anna briefly make eye contact at the train station, Anna innocently flashing a slight smile.  At the race, Vronsky deliberately avoids eye contact with Anna, as a show of guilt in a publicly known though not publicly accepted affair.

*"He felt himself the victor" (Part 1, Ch. 17):  The quote comes just after Vronsky learns that Kitty has rejected Levin, though Vronsky never had any intentions to marry Kitty.  Vronsky has a similar feeling after Anna consents to leave her husband.

*In both cases, Vronsky hurts the thing he (supposedly in the case of Kitty) loves.

*Both scenes feature a premonition of bad things to come.  Anna calls the death of the watchman "a bad omen" while Vronsky's horse trembles before the race.

*Both scenes detail mothers preoccupied with thoughts of their son.  Vronsky's mother and Anna discuss their sons on the train ride from Petersburg to Moscow.  At the race, Vronsky's mother expresses concern about the relationship in a letter before the race while Anna expresses sorrow at the possibility of leaving her son.

*Letters dealing with impropriety preceded both tragedies.  Anna goes to Moscow in response to a letter from her brother Stepan asking for her help in healing his relationship with his wife Dolly after Dolly discovers Stepan had been having an affair.  Before the race, Vronsky receives letters from his mother and brother expressing their disapproval of the relationship.

*Anna cries at the scene of both tragedies.  The first time, her emotions are stirred at the unfortunate loss of human life, but on the second occasion, Anna mistakenly believes that Vronsky, not the horse, has been injured and cries with relief that Vronsky is unhurt.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Spring of Life

Spring Time by RJ Hammond
Earlier the novel Tolstoy depicted Levin uneasiness in a city atmosphere.  But in Part Two, Tolstoy shows Levin in the country, where he lives and is more comfortable, after the rejection of Kitty.  This section (chapters 12-17) is in stark contrast to the previous one which is fast moving and has dark, contentious undertones.  Levin's chapters are slower paced and full of life and joy, taking place in springtime.  Though devastated by Kitty's rejection, Levin finds solace in the invigorating atmosphere of the country.  This new vitality provides the impetus to begin a book on farming while making sure the workers on his farm prepare the land for a new harvest.  Instead of being dejected, Levin seeks refuge in work and is full of life.

These chapters take place just after Easter "on the eve of Krasnaya Gorka," a Russian holiday commemorating the dead.  Before this time, the land had been covered with ice and the temperature was still freezing.  Nevertheless, a change began to occur immediately following the Christian holiday of resurrection:

Then all of a sudden, on Easter Monday, a warm wind sprang up, storm clouds swooped down, and for three days and three nights the warm, driving rain fell in streams. On Thursday the wind dropped, and a thick gray fog brooded over the land as though hiding the mysteries of the transformations that were being wrought in nature. Behind the fog there was the flowing of water, the cracking and floating of ice, the swift rush of turbid, foaming torrents; and on the following Monday, in the evening, the fog parted, the storm clouds split up into little curling crests of cloud, the sky cleared, and the real spring had come. In the morning the sun rose brilliant and quickly wore away the thin layer of ice that covered the water, and all the warm air was quivering with the steam that rose up from the quickened earth. The old grass looked greener, and the young grass thrust up its tiny blades; the buds of the guelder-rose and of the currant and the sticky birch-buds were swollen with sap, and an exploring bee was humming about the golden blossoms that studded the willow. Larks trilled unseen above the velvety green fields and the ice-covered stubble-land; peewits wailed over the low lands and marshes flooded by the pools; cranes and wild geese flew high across the sky uttering their spring calls. The cattle, bald in patches where the new hair had not grown yet, lowed in the pastures; the bowlegged lambs frisked round their bleating mothers. Nimble children ran about the drying paths, covered with the prints of bare feet. There was a merry chatter of peasant women over their linen at the pond, and the ring of axes in the yard, where the peasants were repairing ploughs and harrows. The real spring had come (Pt 2, Ch 12).

The land, which had been dead, suddenly began to come to life.  The ice melted, water flowed, the skies cleared, grass grew, flowers blossomed, and the birds renewed their melodic tunes.  Similarly, Levin's revitalization that took place during the season of new life shows he is not one to dwell with regret on his failures.  He uses other outlets to find meaning in life.  Tolstoy describes him as "a tree in spring," illustrating that Levin will not remain fixated on the past but will focus on new ways of living.

Consequently, the first thing Levin does when he recognizes the coming of Spring is to visit his cows, which symbolize life and reproduction.  Levin first spends time among those that represent life in order to gain a renewed purpose in life.  The rejection by Kitty was a death of sorts for Levin but coming of Spring and a renewed sense of purpose represent his new life.  When Stepan comes to visit, he recognizes that Levin is leading a new life and avoids bringing up the painful parts of the past.  And the joy that surrounds Levin is contagious, as Stepan experiences it as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Anna's Dream

The Toilet (1860) by John Phillip
She dreamed that both were her husbands at once, that both were lavishing caresses on her. Alexei Alexandrovitch was weeping, kissing her hands, and saying, "How happy we are now!" And Alexei Vronsky was there too, and he too was her husband. And she was marveling that it had once seemed impossible to her, was explaining to them, laughing, that this was ever so much simpler, and that now both of them were happy and contented. But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she awoke from it in terror (Pt. 2, Ch. 11).

Though Anna seems to have completely separated herself from her husband emotionally, she remains attached to him.  A recurring dream presents her as the wife of both Vronsky and Karenin.  The prospect of such an arrangement gladdens Karenin.  The main reason Karenin would like such an arrangement is that he would still be acknowledged by society as her husband.  He would not have a problem with Anna having a lover as long as society does not disapprove and the couple maintains their social standing.  Vronsky would satiate his passionate nature in obtaining the passionate woman he met in Moscow.  Tolstoy mentions that society looks favorably on a single man that carries on an affair with a married woman, so that Vronsky, similarly to Karenin, seeks the approval of society, though in a different fashion.  Interesting enough, both men share the first name Alexei, which signifies not only that they share certain character traits, such as ambition, but also that Anna extracts different needs from both men.  Karenin provides stability within society as well as a son on whom to bestow her maternal talents while Vronsky provides an outlet for her passion.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy, while describing both men as content with such an arrangement, never comments on Anna's satisfaction, except to say that the dream is a nightmare from which she awakens in terror.  Though through such a reality Anna could gratify all her desires and live outside of the judgment of others, she rejects it because her greatest desire is for truth.  She does not want to live falsely and hide her true feelings.  Scorned or not, Anna wants to live in the open and be true to herself.  She, unlike her lovers, places little value on the opinions of others.  She would be ostracized for the truth than accepted for a lie.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fiery Passion

The Lover's Walk by Walter Dendy Sadler
"Yes, but how often the happiness of an arranged marriage scatters like dust, precisely because of the appearance of that very passion which was not acknowledged," said Vronsky (Pt. 2, Ch. 7).

One question that comes to mind is, why is Anna willing to risk everything for Vronsky?  What is it about him that she is drawn to?  Vronsky, unlike her husband Alexei, ignites her passion and awakens her to life.  When Anna first met Vronsky at the train station, she felt an inward glow caused by his observance of her.  Later at the ball, when Vronsky forsakes Kitty to dance with Anna, Kitty notices an animated side of Anna not visible earlier:

She saw in her (Anna) the signs of that excitement of success she knew so well in herself; she saw that she was intoxicated with the delighted admiration she was exciting. She knew that feeling and knew its signs, and saw them in Anna; saw the tremulous, flashing light in her eyes, and the smile of happiness and excitement unconsciously playing on her lips, and the deliberate grace, precision, and lightness of her movements (Pt 1, Ch. 23).

Anna is displaying a lightness of being, feeling tremulous because she is delving into unfamiliar terrain.  In her normal life with her husband Alexei, her life consists of boring political talk and local gossip.  But Vronsky creates a burning sensation that exudes an excitement for life, which Anna describes as "warm, very warm, hot" (Pt. 1, Ch 29).  The episode on the train ride back to St. Petersburg in which Anna feels very hot and steps out side in the middle of a blizzard is indicative of a her predicament.  Anna enjoys the fiery passion to which she was subjected in Moscow but feels obligated to cool that passion for the sake of her marriage.  Vronsky will not allow the passion to cool when he follows her to St. Petersburg.  With him, she feels a passion that is "joyful, burning, and exciting" but when Alexei expresses that he is "burning with desire to see you" (Pt.1, Ch. 30), his statement comes across as a mockery of the true feelings that Anna feels for Vronsky.  Unfortunately for Anna, one day with Alexei extinguishes the fire that was apparent in Moscow, a fire that only Vronsky can light.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eye Opening Experience

Woman in Yellow (1863)  by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
'At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person that attracted her attention was her husband. "Oh, mercy! why do his ears look like that?" she thought, looking at his frigid and imposing figure, and especially the ears that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat' (Part 1, Ch. 30).

The above passage is telling in describing the relationship of Anna and her husband Alexei.  They have been married for nine years and have an eight year old son.  Despite that, this is the first time Anna has noticed Alexei's ears.  Her exclamation conveys the lack of intimacy between the couple.  She is unfamiliar with his physique and shocked by his protruding ears.  Although the scene at the ball with Vronsky seems to be a spontaneous act, the passage above proves that the break with her husband has been long in developing.  Though she has much disgust for her husband, Anna's only true concern is for her son.

She was especially struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself that she experienced on meeting him. That feeling was an intimate, familiar feeling, like a consciousness of hypocrisy, which she experienced in her relations with her husband. But hitherto she had not taken note of the feeling, now she was clearly and painfully aware of it.

"Yes, as you see, your tender spouse, as devoted as the first year after marriage, burned with impatience to see you," he said in his deliberate, high-pitched voice, and in that tone which he almost always took with her, a tone of jeering at anyone who should say in earnest what he said.

"Is Seryozha quite well?" she asked.

"And is this all the reward," said he, "for my ardor? He's quite well..."

The encounter with Vronsky helped Anna have an epiphanic moment that allowed her to see her hypocritical relationship with her husband.  Alexei seems comfortable in playing his role but Anna can no longer pretend.  She  only cares for the well-being of her son and does not hide her feelings.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two Suitors

Love's Interruptions by Frederick Morgan

Kitty has two suitors from which to choose and her choice is clear:  She picks Count Vronsky over Levin.  So why does she choose Vronsky?  Kitty is heavily influence by her mother's preference for Vronsky.  He is an aristocratic military man from St. Petersburg with an engaging personality.  As such he would be an excellent match.  Levin, on the other hand, is a shy but opinionated farmer from rural Russia.  While Vronsky is a newly arrived on the scene, Levin has known the Shcherbatsky family for years, though he abruptly left Moscow two months previous after pursuing Kitty persistently for several months.  His reason for leaving was his realization that Kitty's family, particularly her mother, would not like the match, though her father, The Prince, favors Levin.  Consequently, Kitty's attentions have been focused on Vronsky for the past two months. 

However, their conversation about spiritualism reveals a lot about their character and why Kitty makes the choice she does.

The conversation fell upon table-turning and spirits, and Countess Nordston, who believed in spiritualism, began to describe the marvels she had seen.

"Ah, countess, you really must take me, for pity's sake do take me to see them! I have never seen anything extraordinary, though I am always on the lookout for it everywhere," said Vronsky, smiling.

"Very well, next Saturday," answered Countess Nordston. "But you, Konstantin Dmitrievitch, do you believe in it?" she asked Levin.

"Why do you ask me? You know what I shall say."

"But I want to hear your opinion."

"My opinion," answered Levin, "is only that this table-turning simply proves that educated society—so called—is no higher than the peasants. They believe in the evil eye, and in witchcraft and omens, while we…"

"Oh, then you don't believe in it?"

"I can't believe in it, countess."

"But if I've seen it myself?"
"The peasant women too tell us they have seen goblins."
"Then you think I tell a lie?"

And she laughed a mirthless laugh.

"Oh, no, Masha, Konstantin Dmitrievitch said he could not believe in it," said Kitty, blushing for Levin, and Levin saw this, and, still more exasperated, would have answered, but Vronsky with his bright frank smile rushed to the support of the conversation, which was threatening to become disagreeable.

"You do not admit the conceivability at all?" he queried. "But why not? We admit the existence of electricity, of which we know nothing. Why should there not be some new force, still unknown to us, which…"

"When electricity was discovered," Levin interrupted hurriedly, "it was only the phenomenon that was discovered, and it was unknown from what it proceeded and what were its effects, and ages passed before its applications were conceived. But the spiritualists have begun with tables writing for them, and spirits appearing to them, and have only later started saying that it is an unknown force" (Part 1, Ch. 14).

Vronsky is of a theoretical mindset.  He is excited by the unknown and willing to try new things.  He does not seem to have any firm beliefs and is easily influenced.  His unconstrained personality comes across as friendly while Levin seems hostile to untraditional methods.  As a prudent man, Levin is firmly set in his beliefs and would need concrete proof to change these beliefs.  He wants nothing to do with the unexplainable.  In essence, Levin is more stable though he exudes boredom.  To the contrary, Levin is unwavering and place emphasis on established methods.  To a city girl of 18 like Kitty, such a personality would be less attractive than one that seeks to establish new norms.  Kitty likes Levin but Vronsky presents a more exciting prospect.  Unfortunately for Kitty, Vronsky has no plans of marriage.


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