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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Murdering the Innocents in Hard Times

The opening scene in Gradgrind's school demonstrates his education philosophy, teaching only facts and projecting a detached worldview.  According to David Craig's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, the scene is eerily similar to an actual classroom scene in a Victorian school in which a student describes a ruminating animal.  The catechism approach encourages memorization of facts without acquiring true knowledge.  For this reason, Bitzer can provide a factually accurate definition of the physical attributes of a horse but cannot recognize that a horse has an emotional side.  Sissy Jupe, who has grown up around horses, is unable to define a horse because the basis of her definition would be personal experience, and in Gradgrind's system, personal experience is of no value.  Bitzer's formulaic response ("Quadruped. Graminivorus. Forty teeth...") shows the detached perspective that Gradgrind values.

Through descriptions of the characters, Dickens illustrates facets of their personality.  Mr. M'Choakumchild, whose name defines his metaphorical role in the novel, has a "wall of a forehead" and "two dark caves" for eyes.  The description portrays him as an unemotional, soulless man whose job as an educator is to "choke" the life out of children through education.  He tells Sissy Jupe, "You mustn't fancy," discouraging the imagination and essentially killing any creativity that does not reflect reality.  The prohibition of unrealistic scenes on wallpaper or carpets shows his intolerance of an idealistic vision that sees beyond human capability.  His proclamation of "Fact, fact, fact!" constricts the tendency in youths to envision the impossible.

Gradgrind shares M'Choakumchild's philosophical antipathy to the imagination.  Dickens introduces him in this way:

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind.

The description itself is matter of fact:  he is what he is and don't expect him to change.  His stolid disposition is personified in his abode Stone Lodge, which he himself built.  Everything about the house is symmetrical and planned, leaving no room for spontaneity or creativity.  He refuses to use the name "Sissy," preferring to call her by her birth name of Cecilia.  He objects to all terms of endearment that would expose an emotional side, at one point calling her "Girl number twenty," an almost robotic (excuse the ananchronism) address that implies the lack of individuality that he wished his students to display.  When Gradgrind happens upon his two children, the metallurgical Louisa and the mathematical Thomas, peeking at a nearby circus exhibition, he rebukes them for their inquisitive desires to view such a cavalcade of whimsy.

Bitzer is one of Gradgrind's model students who wholly embraces the acquisition of facts as knowledge.  Dickens points out his "cold eyes" to give the reader a sense of his frigid callousness.  His light eyes, hair, and complexion Dickens credits to his lack of exposure to the sun, thereby illustrating an absence of true enlightenment.

"The boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white."

The description above paints Bitzer as lacking basic human qualities, which have been choked out through the educational system in which he has been placed.  Additionally, he grasps facts easily but shows no compassion throughout the novel.

Bitzer's antithesis is Sissy Jupe, whose dark features portray an inborn liveliness that has not yet been extinguished.  Throughout the novel, Sissy inspires Louisa with her sympathetic nature and human compassion.  Her unyielding devotion to her father, despite his abandoning her, shows the strength of human attachment in the midst of a system that promotes pathetic estrangement.

Dickens' naming of the second chapter "Murdering the Innocents" limns children as victims of the system put in place by Gradgrind and others.  The system has no tolerance of fantastical imaginings or representations, turning children into machines, like those used in the factory that appears later in the novel.  Individuality has been sacrificed for a collective indoctrination that inhibits human progress.  The irony of the situation is that without imagination, those machines in the factories could never have been invented.  Nevertheless, Dickens gives the reader hope that while the imagination can be stunted, it can never been completely extinguished:

When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within - or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Background on Hard Times

Hard Times was written against a backdrop of a changing economic environment in England.  Gone was the cottage industry of Georgian England in which families labored together in the home.  In its place were the factories of the Industrial Revolution in which men (and women and children) were forced to work long hours in unhealthy conditions.  The land bore marks of the Revolution with deforestation combined with significant shifts of population into the cities.  Overcrowdedness produced dust heaps everywhere, creating unsanitary living condition and, unfortunately, contaminating water sources.  Those at the helms of the large factories amass huge amounts of wealth while factory "hands" worked harder for minimal wages.  Is the sacrifice of the many for the few worth the price of Progress?  This is the question Dickens forces us to answer during the reading of the novel.

At the time of the novel's writing, Dickens had not planned to produce another work for at least a year, but circumstances with his magazine Household Words forced him to act earlier.  Readership had dropped significantly and editors believed that having Dickens produce a serial novel for the first time for the magazine would help increase profits.  The editors proved right, though Dickens felt constrained by the limitation of the magazine's publication standards, and the result was his shortest novel.  Nevertheless, Hard Times was highly popular during its serialization.

Dickens prepared for the novel by visiting the municipality of Preston in January of 1854 to gain a perspective of the strike being launched there by cotton mill workers.  Mill owners reacted to the strike with a "lockout," closing down the mills and preventing factory hands from returning to work.  When Dickens arrives, the face off is entering its twenty-third week, though as Dickens remarks, there are no boisterous demonstrations happening, only a pervading "quietness and order," despite its affecting twenty to thirty thousand people.  Dickens supported the ability of the workers to "combine" and called the lockout "a grave error."  Nevertheless, Dickens placed the responsibility on both sides to find a workable solution.  Dickens' visit to Preston provided him with the knowledge he needed to write the scenes of Slackbridge's speeches.

Sources:  Charles Dickens:  His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson
"On Strike" in Household Words, 11 February 1954, Vol 8, No 203

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Old Wives Tale and Wesleyan Methodism

In The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett portrays the divergent yet parallel lives of two English sisters.  One sister Constance remains in a provincial English town her entire life while Sophia elopes to Paris with the feckless though dashing Gerald Scales.  A pessimistic interpretation of the novel would be to say we live, grow old, and die.  And while there is quite a bit of pessimism in the book, a wider perspective would state that the aim of the novel is to show the influence of one's upbringing and surroundings on a person's path in life.  The two heroines are raised in a small provincial town in 19th century England, the progeny of parents of strict adherence to the principles of Wesleyan Methodism.  Bennett, himself raised according to these same principles, uses a sardonic tone to describe the Baines family in church:

In the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Duck Bank there was a full and influential congregation. For in those days influential people were not merely content to live in the town where their fathers had lived, without dreaming of country residences and smokeless air—they were content also to believe what their fathers had believed about the beginning and the end of all. There was no such thing as the unknowable in those days. The eternal mysteries were as simple as an addition sum; a child could tell you with absolute certainty where you would be and what you would be doing a million years hence, and exactly what God thought of you. Accordingly, every one being of the same mind, every one met on certain occasions in certain places in order to express the universal mind. And in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, for example, instead of a sparse handful of persons disturbingly conscious of being in a minority, as now, a magnificent and proud majority had collected, deeply aware of its rightness and its correctness.

And the minister, backed by minor ministers, knelt and covered his face in the superb mahogany rostrum; and behind him, in what was then still called the 'orchestra' (though no musical instruments except the grand organ had sounded in it for decades), the choir knelt and covered their faces; and all around in the richly painted gallery and on the ground-floor, multitudinous rows of people, in easy circumstances of body and soul, knelt in high pews and covered their faces. And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed; and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting; and afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail very dangerous and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal-fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire; but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. Once a year, for ten minutes by the clock, you knelt thus, in mass, and by meditation convinced yourself that you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. And the hour was very solemn, the most solemn of all the hours.

Strange that immortal souls should be found with the temerity to reflect upon mundane affairs in that hour! Yet there were undoubtedly such in the congregation; there were perhaps many to whom the vision, if clear, was spasmodic and fleeting. And among them the inhabitants of the Baines family pew! Who would have supposed that Mr. Povey, a recent convert from Primitive Methodism in King Street to Wesleyan Methodism on Duck Bank, was dwelling upon window-tickets and the injustice of women, instead of upon his relations with Jehovah and the tailed one? Who would have supposed that the gentle-eyed Constance, pattern of daughters, was risking her eternal welfare by smiling at the tailed one, who, concealing his tail, had assumed the image of Mr. Povey? Who would have supposed that Mrs. Baines, instead of resolving that Jehovah and not the tailed one should have ultimate rule over her, was resolving that she and not Mr. Povey should have ultimate rule over her house and shop? It was a pew-ful that belied its highly satisfactory appearance. (And possibly there were other pew-fuls equally deceptive).   (Book 1, Ch. 5)

Bennett gives a Thackerayan description of the "solemn" service, with the battle between God and his evil counterpart for the attention of the congregation.  Nevertheless, the scene provides background for the beliefs of the Baines family and their community, belonging to a rigid religious system convinced of "its rightness and correctness."  There is no room for discussion, what must be cannot be changed or debated.  It is in this spirit that Constance responds to the death of her sister Sophia:

Up to within a few days of her death people had been wont to remark that Mrs. Scales looked as young as ever, and that she was as bright and as energetic as ever. And truly, regarding Sophia from a little distance—that handsome oval, that erect carriage of a slim body, that challenging eye!—no one would have said that she was in her sixtieth year. But look at her now, with her twisted face, her sightless orbs, her worn skin—she did not seem sixty, but seventy! She was like something used, exhausted, and thrown aside! Yes, Constance's heart melted in an anguished pity for that stormy creature. And mingled with the pity was a stern recognition of the handiwork of divine justice. To Constance's lips came the same phrase as had come to the lips of Samuel Povey on a different occasion: God is not mocked! The ideas of her parents and her grandparents had survived intact in Constance. It is true that Constance's father would have shuddered in Heaven could he have seen Constance solitarily playing cards of a night. But in spite of cards, and of a son who never went to chapel, Constance, under the various influences of destiny, had remained essentially what her father had been. Not in her was the force of evolution manifest. There are thousands such (Book 4, Ch. 4).

What a harsh judgment from a sister!  Nevertheless, Constance has remained committed to the beliefs of her parents that all will be judged harshly who have compromised those beliefs.

Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer. An adventure such as she had in wicked and capricious pride undertaken with Gerald Scales, could not conclude otherwise than it had concluded. It could have brought nothing but evil. There was no getting away from these verities, thought Constance (Book 4, Ch. 4).

Constance's unforgiving attitude toward her sister's demise dehumanizes Constance as a barbaric, unfeeling personification of the Wesleyan Methodist system.  Her first thoughts of her sister after her death is not of her soul but of her sin.  She offers no means of redemption, the deed was done and the punishment was absolute.  In this society, every misdeed faces harsh judgment (though admirably, Constance defends her son when he steals money from the till), and any misfortune must be the result of some character flaw.  In the case of Daniel Povey:

The flighty character of his wife was regarded by many as a judgment upon him for the robust Rabelaisianism of his more private conversation, for his frank interest in, his eternal preoccupation with, aspects of life and human activity which, though essential to the divine purpose, are not openly recognized as such—even by Daniel Poveys. It was not a question of his conduct; it was a question of the cast of his mind (Book 2, Ch. 2).

His perverse frame of mind is to blame for his wife's character.  In another instance, the refusal of Madame Foucault to allow her residence to be used as a brothel any further is rewarded, showing the other side of divine justice:

Madame Foucault was deeply impressed. Characteristically she began at once to construct a theory that Sophia had only to walk out of the house in order to discover ideal tenants for the rooms. Also she regarded the advent of the grocer as a reward from Providence for her self-denial in refusing the profits of sinfulness (Book 3, Ch. 6).

A respectable tenant is the reward for her "self-denial."  All wasn't bad in this society, though everything that happened was viewed as a divine judgment, whether favorable or unfavorable.  Nevertheless, subjection to this judgment was a fearful aspect of life.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Review of Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome is a book that details the week-long journey of the title characters down the River Thames from London to Oxford and back.  Along the way, all four characters (including the dog) experience of adventures hilariously described by Jerome.  Th trip commences when the narrator discovers he has every disease except housemaid's knee and basically exhibits a "general disinclination to work."  He and his two friends, George and Harris, along with the dog Montmorency embark on a boating trip with many humorous occurrences.

One of the funniest stories involves the transport of smelly cheese.  While they are packing and preparing to begin the trip, the narrator tells of his consent to take some cheese to the home of a friend, who plans to return home later.  During the trip, the narrator clears out an entire train car with the "two hundred horse-power scent."  The smell of the cheese, upon arrival at the friend's house, forces the wife to take her children to stay in a hotel, rather than live in the house with the cheese.  When the owner of the cheese attempts to take it to the mortuary, the coroner declares the smell could wake up the dead.  Ultimately, the cheese is buried on a beach that becomes a haven for consumptive people.  Therefore, the narrator decides that one should never take cheese on a trip.

Harris tells the story of his attempt to conquer the Hampton Court Maze.  A cousin had given him a map that solved the maze by taking the first right every time.  When he attempted to use the map he ended up getting himself and a big group of people lost.  With the group infuriated at him, Harris gives up and gets the help of the keeper, who is new on the job and can't help the group either.  Eventually, a more experienced keeper helps everyone escape.

One of my favorite accounts involves a trout in a glass case mounted on the wall of an inn.  An old gentleman tells the men that he caught the fish 16 years previously and that it weighed over 18 pounds.  After he leaves the room, another man enters and claims to have caught the 26-pound fish five years before.  They meet three more men, including the landlord, who claim to have caught the fish of various weights.  George climbs to get a closer look at the famous specimen when he slips and knocks the trout off the wall, causing it to shatter several pieces.  The stuffed trout proves to be a plaster of Paris fish.

The book contains many other amusing stories, including the description of the nearing drowning of the men while trying to pose for a photograph.  The book is also valuable for its historical accounts of sites and cities along the way.  I highly recommend this cavalcade of whimsy to anyone who enjoys a delightfully clean, entertaining tale.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Deerbrook and Middlemarch

Deerbrook (1839), the first of only two novels by Harriet Martineau, is a work that combines Romantic elements with those of the realist movement.  It describes the arrival of the Ibbotson sisters in the titular provincial town and the marriage of one of the sisters, Hester, to the new town doctor Edward Hope.  Despite being in love with Margaret, Hope marries Hester due to the expectations of the town inhabitants.  The marriage experiences much turmoil, though eventually the novel ends happily for the couple. 

The similarities between Deerbrook and Middlemarch are undeniable, particularly in the characters of Edward Hope and Tertius Lydgate.  Both are doctors in English provincial towns, to which both are fairly new in their medicinal practices.  As medical men, among ignorant country villagers, both are subjected to nasty, unsubstantiated rumors involving the theft of dead bodies.  Both cast controversial votes that leave them alienated by a significant portion of their patients.  Both face unhappy marriages, loveless at the outset.  Nevertheless, Hope's marriage ends up a success while Lydgate's fails.  So what causes the difference in the outcome of the two marriages?  One significant is the motive of each man.

Hope, though in love with Margaret, marries Hester, who loves him, out of obligation to the expectations of society.  Because Hester loves him and others recognize it and believe him to return her feelings, Hope consents to marry her, though his love belongs elsewhere.  Hope enacts a self-sacrifice for the good of Hester, to avoid her disappointment and embarrassment.  Tabitha Sparks describes the marriage as "serving a communal rather than personal good" (31).*  Though not the marriage Hope desires, the marriage produces the greatest possible happiness for all involved:  Margaret loves another and eventually marries him while Hope grows to love Hester.

Lydgate, however, has proven himself hasty in the art of love.  While studying in Paris, he falls in love with a married actress who murders her husband who wearies her with his love.  Lydgate carelessly, though prophetically, declares that he will never love again and doesn't truly love Rosamond when he marries her.  Lydgate's love is his profession and he is more interested in the sickness than the patient.  Nevertheless, he marries her because she's beautiful and will make his home life easier.  Like Hope, love does not lay a major role in his decision but unlike Hope, his motive is purely selfish.

Another difference is home life between the two doctors.  Hope comes home from his visits to a home inhabited by a supportive wife and sister-in-law.  Though the environment is far from perfect, peace and harmony exists because the afflictions from outside sources bring the family together.  Despite poverty which forces them to give up their maid, the Hopes and Margaret make their minds to persevere and do whatever necessary to survive.  They recognize that their poverty is the result of vicious rumors and have faith that truth will prevail.

The home life of the Lydgates is anything but serene.  While Martineau provides many portraits of the home life of the Hopes, Eliot rarely describes that of the Lydgates.  Tertius and Rosamond always seem to be separated, in different spheres.  Rosamond is mostly at home while Tertius is out in the field of work.  Rosamond is bored with her life and in no way supports her husband's occupation.  She spends more time at home with Ladislaw than Lydgate in the pages of the novel.  Ladislaw, at least, takes an interest in her music and one finds it hard to pinpoint one facet of her personality in which Lydgate takes an interest.  Neither is willing to accept their financial situation and it causes tension between the two.  Lydgate dies at 50 and considers his life as well as his marriage a failure.

Hope's display of selflessness paves the way to his success in marriage and life.  He settled for the most convenient marriage and he and his family agree to remain a strong unit no matter the adversity.  The Lydgates never progressed past their own selfish interests to make their marriage life a happy one.  Martineau makes the case that it more than love to hold a family together.

*"Doctoring the Marriage Plot:  Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook and George Eliot's Middlemarch" in The Doctor in the Victorian Novel by Tabitha Sparks.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Caleb Garth's Philosophy of Work

The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet
"That depends," said Caleb, turning his head on one side and lowering his voice, with the air of a man who felt himself to be saying something deeply religious. "You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There's this and there's that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn't give twopence for him"—here Caleb's mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers—"whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do" (Ch. 56).

The essence of Caleb Garth's philosophy on work is whatever your work consists of, love it and do it well.  Though Caleb always proved to be a diligent worker, he did not always bring in a salary proportional to his work ethic.  Nevertheless, Caleb strongly believed that one's work ethic reflected one's character, particularly a husband's with regard to his family.  His daughter Mary quotes him when she states "an idle man ought not to exist, much less be married" (Ch. 14).  Caleb sees work as preparation for the responsibilities of being married.  In cautioning Mary about marriage, Caleb tells her that a husband has an obligation to provide for his family:  "A woman, let her be as good as she may, has got to put up with the life her husband makes for her" (Ch. 25).  Caleb warns his daughter that the work ethic of a potential husband will have a huge effect on the lives of his dependents.  A lazy man makes a bad husband.  Caleb himself did not always have a lot of money, his wife at one point admonishing him that he must give up working for free, but he always worked hard.  At the reading of Featherstone's will, Caleb is almost alone of the many present that has no expectation of receiving money, going so far as to say, "I wish there was no such thing as a will" (Ch. 35).  Caleb does not believe in accepting handouts--it goes against the principles in which he believes.  There are many characters in the novel that would benefit from his tutelage.  I will highlight two that could have (Casaubon and Will Ladislaw)and one that does (Fred Vincy).

One person in the novel that fails to measure up to Caleb's work ethic is Casaubon.  While not lacking in ambition, in planning the massive Key to All Mythologies, Casaubon does lack the needed diligence to complete such a magnum opus.  In setting himself to such a task, he hoped to gain the respect of his colleagues while producing a work that would carry his name to future generations.  Unfortunately, the reasons why Casaubon is not taken seriously as a scholar become painfully apparent.  Firstly, he fails to learn German, which is an important language to his field.  Secondly, by failing to acquire the requisite knowledge, he handicaps his ability to remain up to date on the latest scholarship and fails to realize that his ideas are already antiquated.  Casaubon does not have the work ethic of Caleb and, therefore, dies unsuccessful.

Whereas Casaubon lacks intellectual skill, Will Ladislaw proves to be very intelligent.  Throughout the novel, Ladislaw shows the ability to speak fluently about art, writing, and politics.  Ladislaw's biggest encumbrance is his outsider status.  Much like Lydgate, Ladislaw faces criticism due to the uncertainty surrounding his origin.  Rumors spread of his possibly being Jewish or Corsican, despite his being English and Polish and a relative of Casaubon's.  As a result, Ladislaw struggles to find his proper place in Middlemarch society.  Casaubon says he "declines to choose a profession" (Ch. 9), though that is not entirely true.  Though he draws excellent sketches, he makes it clear that he has no interest in being an artist, having more respect for writing over visual art.  He is invited by Mr. Brooke to write for the political newspaper The Pioneer but is happy to give it up when the Brooke sells the paper.  Patience seems to play a role in his unsuccessful attempts at finding a career:  "If things don't come easily to me, I never get them" (Ch. 21).  He makes that statement when he is living off Casaubon's money, but his friendship with Dorothea pushes him to make something of himself.  Ladislaw is not lazy, but he seeks a challenge, and his job with the newspaper bored him after a while because he is not convinced that he can effect change in that position.  He continues to drift aimlessly until his marriage to Dorothea, after which he becomes a MP and achieves success.  Ladislaw can only work in an environment in which he makes a difference in people's lives (similar to Dorothea).

Fred Vincy is in the unique in that he is interested in marrying Mary Garth and must meet the expectations that Caleb has set forth.  Fred develops the reputation of a sponger:  he lives off other people's money while making none of his own.  He is hopeful of being Featherstone's inherito, though Fate ruins his plans.  He falls prey to gambling and loses his money, making himself unable to pay the loan for which Caleb co-signs.  Nevertheless, Fred desires to marry Mary, who reciprocates his feelings, though she is leery of Fred's potential to provide as a husband.  Caleb is the only one that sees promise in Fred, and he secures Fred a job assisting in the management of the Brooke and Chettam estates.  Caleb recognizes that Fred is not lazy, he just needs an opportunity as well as an extra push.  The episode of Fred's bad penmanship illustrates that Fred is capable of being success if he has someone to work patiently with him.  Caleb gives his approval to the match without fretting his daughter's future.

Caleb provides an excellent example of how hard work can present opportunities for a person.  The three men described above could use some of Caleb's work ethic.  Caleb believed in loving your work.  Casaubon never loves his work, it becomes a burden to him.  Will refuses to settle for any occupation he does not love.  Fred becomes passionate about his work and wins praise in the agricultural community.  Caleb also believed in having pride in your work.  While Casaubon never produces a work of which he could be proud, Will and Fred find pride in the work they do.  Therefore, the latter two experience successful lives.

Monday, April 16, 2012

No Incentive To Change

A Country Cottage by Frederick Watts (1800-1870)
One theme in Middlemarch is the resistance of provincial folks to change.   For this reason, Lydgate faces a lot of opposition in his pursuit to better the lives of his neighbors.  He battles the gossip that arises about his non-traditional methods in treating his patients, differing from his predecessor Mr Peacock as well as his contemporaries.  Having been educated in Paris Lydgate refuses to prescribe medicine for the sake of making money, particularly in cases where no medicinal solution is needed.  His patients, used to being placated by placebo, grow suspicious of his motives, despite the success of his methods.  Rumors fly that Lydgate wants dead bodies for dissection.  Even when patients recover as a  result of Lydgate's methods, people accuse him, by reviving the dead, of using powers reserved for the Divine.  Either way, Lydgate is demonized, by Middlemarchers and fellow practitioners alike, for his desire to make advancements in medicine. 

By being an outsider in a small country town, Lydgate is subject to being misunderstood, even as he misunderstands the environment in which he lives.  He has big dreams, having been educated in Paris and desiring to retire to a provincial setting to implement his new approaches.  He fails to realize the significance of the ballot he casts and how his decision causes him to aligned with the unpopular Bulstrode.  He is also blind to the skepticism the community has toward all things foreign and unfamiliar.  Lydgate's hometown is never disclosed and his familial origins are unclear.  As skeptics, Middlemarchers dissociate themselves from change, objecting to the introduction of the railroads to the detriment of their land.  Despite the setting in an "age of transition," Middlemarchers are hesitant to embrace transition.  Lydgate wrongly believes that success will make his methods more appealing.

Lydgate's chief flaw is pride, trusting in his superior education in dealing with his neighbors.  He acknowledges that "people never consider that a thing is good to be done unless it is done by their own set" (Ch. 44).  Change is only acceptable when it comes from within.  Nevertheless, Lydgate tries to bring change from the outside, never ameliorating his methods with input from other Middlemarch doctors.  He goes too far in overturning, though rightly, Dr. Minchin's diagnosis of a patient, saying "It's not tumour: it's cramp" (Ch. 45).  Dr. Minchin believes that it is "indecent in a general practitioner to contradict a physician's diagnosis" (Ch. 45), showing not only that Lydgate's action was ill-advised but also the lack of respect other have for him by referring to him as merely a "general practitioner."  The failure of Lydgate to assimilate into Middlemarch society causes him to be viewed as an outsider and makes his methods less likely to be accepted.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Special Thanks to Culture Critic

The website Culture Critic asked me to do a write up on my favorite Victorian novels.  You can find my piece here.  I would like to thank Culture Critic for giving me the opportunity to present my thoughts.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Age of Transition

The Ruins (1885) by James Tissot
 The doubt hinted by Mr. Vincy whether it were only the general election or the end of the world that was coming on, now that George the Fourth was dead, Parliament dissolved, Wellington and Peel generally depreciated and the new King apologetic, was a feeble type of the uncertainties in provincial opinion at that time. With the glow-worm lights of country places, how could men see which were their own thoughts in the confusion of a Tory Ministry passing Liberal measures, of Tory nobles and electors being anxious to return Liberals rather than friends of the recreant Ministers, and of outcries for remedies which seemed to have a mysteriously remote bearing on private interest, and were made suspicious by the advocacy of disagreeable neighbors? Buyers of the Middlemarch newspapers found themselves in an anomalous position: during the agitation on the Catholic Question many had given up the "Pioneer"—which had a motto from Charles James Fox and was in the van of progress—because it had taken Peel's side about the Papists, and had thus blotted its Liberalism with a toleration of Jesuitry and Baal; but they were ill-satisfied with the "Trumpet," which—since its blasts against Rome, and in the general flaccidity of the public mind (nobody knowing who would support whom)—had become feeble in its blowing.
It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the "Pioneer," when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgment as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy—in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been the least disposed to share lodgings (Ch. 37).

Middlemarch takes place around the time of the passing for the Reform Bill of 1832, though it was written a few years after the Second Reform Bill of 1867.  The first three decades of the 19th century was a turbulent time in England.  On the heels of revolution in France, England was still largely agrarian, though the Industrial Revolution had already started the move to factories.  The end of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in harsh economic conditions in England for the working class.  The combination of the demobilization of the army and the increased use of machinery as opposed to human labor led to massive unemployment.  The introduction of the Corn Laws, which sought to protect British farmers against foreign imports, caused increased bread prices when many people had less money.  Further, the Enclosure Acts during this time took land away from the lower class and granted it to the already wealthy landowners.  These economic conditions produced a series of uprisings, such as those by the Luddites, who broke machines to prevent loss of employment, and such as that known as Peterloo, where the working class demanding parliamentary reform clashed with British cavalrymen.  This is the situation in England heading into the 1830s.  The English landed classes feared a revolution such as that experienced in France and decided to institute changes that would avoid the complete overthrow of English society.  Therefore, the government introduced a number of reforms that addressed the concerns of the middle and working classes. 

The Reforms Bill of 1832 was a boon to the middle class, though it failed to make easier the lives of the working class.  Among the reforms it instituted were the extension of suffrage to all male landowners and proportional representation in the House of Commons.  Along with the Catholic Emancipation, which permitted Catholics to serve in Parliament, the Reform Bill still only enabled a fraction of the English population to vote and did not allow secret ballots.  Nevertheless, the bill proved to be an important stepping stone to later reforms.

The Chartist movement further sought to  address inequalities in English society.  The Chartists called for secret ballots and wanted property demands for those running for Parliament to be removed.  The movement gained significant traction after the passage of the New Poor Law of 1834, which among other provisions relegated the poor to workhouses.  Though the movement played a role in the repeal of the Corn Laws, it was disbanded in 1848 and was unsuccessful in achieving its aim.  However, the Chartists paved the way to reforms later in the 19th century.

This is the environment in England during the setting of Middlemarch.  Eliot's description above details the chaotic atmosphere.  It was, as Walter Broughton has written, an "age of transition."  Ladislaw personifies that transition in his inability to find firm footing in Middlemarch society, though he eventually becomes a MP.  Though Ladislaw had always demonstrated the ability to achieve greatness, Casaubon continued to form impasse, even after his death.  Eliot sought to portray the impact of the transitional period on everyday people.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Casaubon's Fight for Significance

In the case of the marriage of Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon, neither entered matrimony with the correct idea.  Whereas Dorothea was misguided in her approach, Casaubon too was misguided in his decision to marry.  He marries out of obligation to custom and because he feels old and lonely.  He expected his wife to be a secretary to manage his writings, a role Dorothea embraces in her desire to please and be taught by her husband.  Nevertheless, Casaubon's entire life is consumed by the massive "Key to all Mythologies."  In fact, the work is of greater significance to him than his wife because it represents his opportunity to produce the great work he has labored for.  He considers himself unsuccessful because he not only struggles to gain acceptance of his ideas but also fails to win praise in his shorter treatises which his colleagues do not take seriously.  Dorothea alone believes in him, even when he does not believe in himself, but he thinks her encouragement a mockery of his failure.

In this way, Eliot makes Casaubon a figure of sympathy, even stating "I am very sorry for him."  He remains the same ungenerous and paranoid man he has been since his introduction but with the addition of "melancholy embitterment."  He is embittered by his futile attempts to gain traction in academia.  Years of hard work have produced nothing by which his name will be remembered.  Despite the tough exterior, Casaubon is truly sensitive to ridicule from critics.  All he wants is to be accepted as a serious scholar.  His rejection by his colleagues causes him to feel inadequate and insubstantial:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted (Ch. 29).

Casaubon has visions of greatness that have never been realized.

However, in drawing the reader's sympathy, a sympathy that Casaubon would be too proud to acknowledge but would desperately want to embrace, Eliot does not try to hide his flaws.  Casaubon lacks the passion needed to research and write a work of the magnitude he desires.  He cares more deeply  about making a reputation for himself while proving people wrong than the subject he is studying.  He has an "egoistic scrupulosity" that fails to provide the motivation to complete the work.   He self-centered perspective causes him to suspect even his wife of not believing in him, despite her help.  Still, the reader pities this man whose insecurities are partly to blame for his lack of success.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Language as Art

 "Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for beings vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere colored superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment.—This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her" (Ch. 19).

Will Ladislaw shows his preference for the poetic as an art form over painting.  He believes painting, which he calls a "dull conception," is limited in its ability to express that which is within a person. One cannot truly see the inner workings of a person through a portrait like one can through language.  Painting, though it stimulates through seeing with the eyes, ignores the use of the other senses.  Through language one can grasp a fuller representation of the subject.  Ladislaw rejects painting as a surface representation with no depth, calling it "mere coloured superficies."  A visual representation also gives one no sense of the voice of the subject.  Ladislaw believes there is a divinity in Dorothea's voice and that one must experience that voice to gain a true representation of her character.  Seeing the way she moves and breathes is crucial in order to understand her, a reason her marriage to Casaubon fails.  The latter has no appreciation for Dorothea's deeper nature.  Because a painting cannot represent these features, it is inadequate as a medium of portraying the human form, particularly Dorothea.

Nevertheless, even Ladislaw is forced to acknowledge the limitations on language.  When he hears his artist friend Naumann talk about Dorothea, he becomes exasperated by the "grossness in his choice of the most ordinary words" (Ch. 22).  Language itself is not sufficient in achieving an accurate depiction; instead, language must be used by one with a strong sense of discernment of the human soul, such as a poet.  Ladislaw says to Dorothea, "You are a poem," referring to that medium's ability to depict concisely drawn portraits.  He esteems her as an artistic piece worthy of the most lofty descriptions.

Language can also be limited through misinterpretation.  A couple of times in his conversation alone with Dorothea, Ladislaw speaks too truthfully of the circumstance of her marriage.

Will had gone further than he intended, and checked himself. But Dorothea's thought was not taking just the same direction as his own, and she answered without any special emotion....

....Will again feared that he had gone too far; but the meaning we attach to words depends on our feeling, and his tone of angry regret had so much kindness in it for Dorothea's heart, which had always been giving out ardor and had never been fed with much from the living beings around her, that she felt a new sense of gratitude and answered with a gentle smile...... (Ch. 22).

His words escape before he realizes how far he has gone, almost betraying his feelings, but Dorothea interprets his words as heartfelt concern and is gratified.  These types of "false suppositions" (Ch. 15) of the positive and negative kind are plentiful throughout Middlemarch.  Though language may be a better medium than painting through which to display and grasp the entirety of the human character, it has its own limitations due to not only its uses by those unskilled in true discernment but also its tendency to be misinterpreted through its diffusion by the fallible human  mind.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Misguided Affair

In Middlemarch, the heroine Dorothea Brooke is an orphan who lives with her uncle and sister at Tipton Grange.  Despite the attention of the young and wealthy Sir James Chettam, who shares her interest in cottages for the poor, Dorothea marries the old and stubborn Casaubon, who shows no sympathy for Dorothea's philanthropic ambitions.  Dorothea, of pure Puritan stock, is very religious and equally dogmatic in her other beliefs.  However, her beliefs are too theoretic and not based on experience or concrete evidence.  She is called "childlike" due to her apparent inability to question the motives of others' actions toward her.

He was being unconsciously wrought upon by the charms of a nature which was entirely without hidden calculations either for immediate effects or for remoter ends. It was this which made Dorothea so childlike, and, according to some judges, so stupid, with all her reputed cleverness; as, for example, in the present case of throwing herself, metaphorically speaking, at Mr. Casaubon's feet, and kissing his unfashionable shoe-ties as if he were a Protestant Pope. She was not in the least teaching Mr. Casaubon to ask if he were good enough for her, but merely asking herself anxiously how she could be good enough for Mr. Casaubon (Ch. 5).

She fails to examine whether Casaubon is good enough for her, instead seeking to make herself good enough for him.

Eliot uses the opening quote of Chapter Two to compare Dorothea to Don Quixote.  In that chapter, Dorothea sees Casaubon as similar to John Locke while her sister Celia sees an old, mummified "dried bookworm," boring to hear talk.

When the two girls were in the drawing-room alone, Celia said—
"How very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!"
"Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets."
"Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?"
"Oh, I dare say! when people of a certain sort looked at him," said Dorothea, walking away a little.
"Mr. Casaubon is so sallow."
"All the better. I suppose you admire a man with the complexion of a cochon de lait."
"Dodo!" exclaimed Celia, looking after her in surprise. "I never heard you make such a comparison before" (Ch. 2).

Like Don Quixote, Dorothea sees what is not there.  To her, Casaubon is an intellectual with much experience of the world.  Others see him as unintellectual and a failed scholar.  Casaubon shows that he is not studious enough to learn German in order to be up-to-date on his research.  Ignoring the insistence of  other scholars, Casaubon stubbornly refuses to study modern theories.  His stubbornness is a chief flaw that Dorothea fails to see.  In their relationship, his way is always supreme.  As one who is used to asserting her independence, Dorothea struggles to quiet her opinions.  Unfortunately, she envisions Casaubon to be the fatherly, intellectual man of her dreams, incapable of seeing his true nature until they are already married.

Dorothea's desire for a fatherly figure in a husband is a result of her traumatic upbringing.   Both of her parents were dead by the time she was twelve.  She had no brothers and the only male of significance in her life is her uncle Mr. Brooke, who is nearly sixty.  Dorothea, who is 19 at the outset of the novel, has very little interaction with males her age.  Therefore, she has little opportunity to gauge the characteristics she finds attractive in her counterparts.  Some of her interactions with males have come through reading their writings, through which she has been introduced to Blaise Pascal and Jeremy Taylor.  These interactions have likely influenced her desires in male companionship.  She approaches a relationship theoretically rather than with a love perspective.

Similarly, Dorothea has not had a mother during her teenage years to teach her the characteristics she should look for in a lover.  Neither has she had anyone to help introduce her to other males her age, a duty Mr. Brooke has ignored.  Consequently, Dorothea is allowed to develop her own preferences, which prove to be misguided.  


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