Friday, September 30, 2011

Middlemarch: 'to know yourself guiltless before a condemning crowd...'

If there is one thing that I have come to learn over the last few weeks, it is that no matter how guilty or suspicious a person or set of events seems, it cannot be assumed to represent the truth. For all intents and purposes one could perceive Bulstrode as a murderer, guilty of the death of Raffles because he has something to gain from it… and yet, Eliot leaves a sense of ambiguity over his intentions. A man is not a murderer just because you believe him to be one.

Appearances are what they are. You can derive from them what you like.

Dorothea and Will could have yielded to society’s expectations, regardless of how pure and innocent their feelings were, they were to be frowned upon. But in the end they refuse to let other people determine how they live their lives. Lydgate, meanwhile, is doomed in the eyes of society from the moment he associates himself with Bulstrode, the resident scapegoat. People are quick to condemn.

Except Dorothea.

She becomes the moral compass of Middlemarch, ready to believe the best in people rather than the worst. It takes time to build trust but seconds to destroy it – only she retains a sense of people’s worth despite their faults or bad actions.

A commendable heroine.  

In the case of Lydgate, Dorothea is the sole person to follow her convictions and stand by him, even though she owes nothing to him. In the latter stages of the novel she finds herself ‘convinced that his conduct has not been guilty. I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbours think they are.’ She challenges the deceptive nature of appearances, how things ‘seem’, a trap even the reader can easily fall into. Dorothea remarks that ‘people glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbours’. Sometimes it is hard to stand by a person others deem as disgraced or ‘fallen’, harder than turning on them. It is so easy to suppose things are a certain way. But this is wrong. Dorothea Brooke is the voice of moral reasoning in a very human and compassionate way, based on the simple notion she stands by that we should always try to make life less difficult to each other.
It is clear Eliot intended Dorothea as the moral crux of the novel, an inspiration to peoples everywhere. Her narrative voice is along the same theme and, for me, the ultimate and most potent message that I took from Middlemarch is this line:

‘that is a rare and blessed lot… to know ourselves guiltless before a condemning crowd – to be sure that what we are denounced for is solely the good in us.’

It always gives me strength. Essentially, you have retained a sense of integrity, stood by your principles, and if you can say this then it does not matter what people think. You still acted in the best way you knew how.
In a sense both Dorothea and Will were born facing a harder struggle than others, it would be harder for them to maintain their integrity. Dorothea possesses what was clearly deemed an uncanny (for a woman) thirst for knowledge and desire for purpose, one that leads her into a bad marriage with the scholar Casaubon whom she idolises for his intellectual endeavours. Will, on the other hand, is artistically inclined and thus sentenced to be regarded as having no prospects financially or socially. He is what critics like Linda Mahkovec call the ‘artist figure’, not dissimilar to Philip Waken in The Mill on the Floss. Mahkovec also draws parallels between Dorothea and Maggie Tulliver, as heroines who are both ‘capable, passionate, and ambitious but their potential remains locked inside them’. Such female characters are drawn to the male artist because they ‘recognise themselves in each other; they see someone who filters and perceives the world as they do, and who are judged harshly by others as they are’. Their struggles are similar and inextricably linked. These are men who ‘go against Society’s model’, and relations with them endanger the ‘status quo’.

In the case of Will ‘it would be impossible for him to show any further interest in Dorothea without subjecting himself to disagreeable imputations – perhaps even in her mind, which others might try to poison’. He is thus led to despair that ‘we are forever divided… I might as well be at Rome she would be no farther from me.’ Eliot is incisive with her observations of human nature, and it is at this point in the narrative that it is written that ‘what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope’. Will is only at this time wary of society’s expectations because he has received no prompting from Dorothea. One cannot help but think that at one word from her he would have forgotten it all. Appearances carry as much weight as we allow them to possess.

Mahkovec labels Dorothea ‘a reworking and development of key aspects of Maggie’. They both embody a ‘struggle for selfhood framed in a tightly bound patriarchal order’.  Both yearn to live a life with meaning and purpose and yet Dorothea is the only woman in Middlemarch who ‘quests for knowledge’ Mahkovec notes that Dorothea, unlike Maggie, does have the benefit of social status but she ultimately puts it to a good end, one that is in line with her integrity.

Bibliography: Dorothea Brooke’s Search for Purpose (Voicing Female Ambition and Purpose: The Role of the Artist Figure in the works of George Eliot by Linda Mahkovec, City University of New York

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Day of Disappointment

I usually try not to succumb to popular trends, but One Day was everywhere I looked. On the train men and women of all ages were engrossed in this very, very orange book. It was setting all sorts of records in the best-seller's list and so I thought there must be something to it.

Having just finished it, I have to say, I am disappointed. I don't like to be needlessly negative but it basically takes the overused premise of 'best friends' - 'what's right before your eyes' etc. the usual clichés and spreads it out over 20 years. For no particular reason.

I didn't have much sympathy for either character. Dexter was the shallow, typical drunken hedonist - Emma, the stereotypical bookworm with low self-esteem. I just think it was ultimately too contrived and shallow with little development. The 'tragedy' towards the end was just kind of random. I know these things happen randomly in real life but it was too forced with no real purpose - it added nothing to the plot. 'Dex' and 'Em' were effectively shoved down our throats, the accident seemed an ill-advised attempt to elicit some sort of emotion from the reader and I just couldn't oblige.

Okay, it has some redeeming qualities - I do like David Nicholls, he is usually very funny and this book had its moments. Occasionally. It's been compared to The Time Traveller's Wife simply because it messes with time structure, but I infinitely preferred The TTW because it had characters with real depth and a compelling plot that was written in an original way - I could actually feel for them. To be honest they are very different books and as far as entertainment goes, One Day is alright I suppose, although it does not leave any lasting impression.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My thoughts on the new Jane Eyre movie...

Jane Eyre was never my favourite book, and Emily was the sister I identified with the most, but this take on Charlotte Bronte's novel was quite mesmerising - especially for the setting. The camera work was very good - Thornfield was perfect, and the lighting was almost ethereal, despite being all natural.

I'm kind of divided over the casting of Mia Wasikowska, the Australian actress, but I'm not sure if my problem was with her or the way that the people behind the scenes chose to interpret the character. Mia has something other-worldly about her, but I always pictured Jane as very human. The way the character was portrayed was just a little too meek and subdued I think. She didn't seem real at times.  There's no doubting her skill as an actress, and it may not be her fault that I didn't really perceive her as the Jane Eyre from the book. 

In the book, there is much more evidence of Jane's ambition and frustration at the world around her: 

"Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do" - Jane

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself" - Jane

"And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you."

This side of Jane doesn't shine through so much in this adaptation and I think it is such an integral part of what she is...
On the other hand, Dame Judi Dench was perfect and added some much-needed comic relief at times. And, I have to say, Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester was a genius move. He was complex, sardonic and mysterious - grisly and worn but handsome. There was evidence of this undercurrent of passion, that is masked very well at times in the book, but Fassbender portrayed him with a subtle vulnerability which made him seem less harsh and austere. 

There were some things I found a bit odd - bits of it were quite scary but they weren't the parts you'd expect. Jane's childhood, in particular, was haunting and violent while the revelation of Bertha in the attic felt a bit of an anticlimax, especially since it is perhaps the most terrifying part of the book. 

On the whole, it was by no means perfect, but it was new take on the story and characters and was filmed beautifully. It would be interesting to hear what other people thought of the casting...?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Mill on the Floss - a brief character study of Maggie Tulliver

The more I read of George Eliot the more I love her tendency to be a very intrusive author. An intrusive author is often perceived as a staple of Victorian literature and is, as Thackeray once commented, a ‘sort of confidential talk between writer and reader’. The writer can manipulate the reactions of the reader, give some sort of moral instruction and portray themselves as a paternal, or maternal, protector. Eliot’s sympathy for Maggie, as the character in all her novels she perhaps feels most affinity to, is powerfully voiced on regular occasions to elicit an emotional response from the reader. I cannot help but oblige. I think Maggie is perhaps the character in all that I have read that I feel the most for, the one I can most identify with, and this is most likely how Eliot intended it.

Maggie seems very isolated indeed in the society in which she exists, perhaps more so because modern readers are very aware of the emergence of Darwinism at the time of writing. Human life is perceived to be a ‘narrow, ugly, grovelling existence’ and, like Hardy, Eliot paints a portrait of a very hostile universe – if you stand out against the world, you will be crushed. Maggie is a force of nature, she cannot help but stand out, and it seems consequently, she is doomed. She is fiercely intelligent, more than may have been considered proper for a young lady, and keenly aware of her environment. A blessing and a curse:

‘Everybody in the world seemed so hard and unkind to Maggie; there was no indulgence, no fondness… in books there were people who were always agreeable or tender… the world outside the books was not a happy one… if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie?’

This is one of those moments where Eliot’s thoughts spill onto the page: ‘There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants…’ These invaluable nuggets of thought and wisdom seep through in all of her books. It is hard to believe that Eliot is not with us, a voice in our ear, writing at this very minute, recognising the plight of humanity. Yet Maggie’s passionate nature cannot accept this state of affairs, she ‘could make dream worlds of her own but no dream world would satisfy her now. She wanted some explanation of this hard; real life… the need of some tender demonstrative love’. If someone would but care for her, she may find it easier to reconcile herself to the world around her but she is ‘as lonely in her trouble as if every girl besides herself had been cherished and watched over by an elder mind, not forgetful of their own early time when need was keen and impulse strong.’ Here we see Eliot’s philosophy filtering onto the page, her unwavering belief in the human potential for compassion, the need to draw together.

Instead Maggie seeks a way of coping and ends up denying her own nature, denying herself so that she may better serve others, but, as Philip Wakem points out: ‘you are not resigned, you are only trying to stupefy yourself’. Philip encourages her not to deny the elements that set her apart, her strength of feeling and desire, protesting that ‘I can’t give up wishing… it seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.’ To feel something is always better than feeling nothing. But for Maggie ‘every affection, every delight the poor child had had was like an aching nerve to her’. She feels nothing in moderation, rather she invests her whole self in her urges. As a result there is an inevitable ‘conflict between the inward impulse and outward fact which is the lot of every imaginative and passionate nature’. The more she is herself, the more isolated she becomes. Her love for Tom, her brother, is immense and unconditional, but she ‘often wished he cared more about her loving him’ – the people around her seem incapable of matching her strength of feeling, and returning it, she receives no ‘answer to her little caresses’. As such she is left full of ‘unsatisfied, beseeching affection’.

The ending, although tragic, also seems oddly fitting. Maggie, caught in an embrace with Tom, - what she’s felt for him has been constant throughout the novel. Some kind of comfort can be drawn from that. Maggie is liberated from the confines and judgement of the real world, and embarks on a journey with the one person she’d have chosen. She ends as she began, in a state of pure innocence.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is Angel Clare the real villain of Tess of the D’Urbervilles?

This is an issue that has been plaguing me since studying Tess at A Level. It is easy to blame Alec for Tess’ misfortunes and yet Angel’s actions are the ones that perhaps disappoint the modern reader the most. We expect more of him. Ultimately, Hardy seems to suggest, fault lies in the fates, the malevolent forces that govern the universe. Indeed, Tess’ misfortunes are amplified because of the sense of bad timing that pervades the novel.

The infamous ‘rape’ scene is surrounded, quite literally, by fog – a sort of moral nebulosity. Alec may have taken advantage of a situation but he is perhaps not the force of evil that he is often perceived as. The scene is tragic because of his lust for Tess, something that he does not seem capable of controlling, combined with her naivety. Fault also lies with Tess, and, perhaps as Clarence Darrow may say, ‘back of her’. Darrow’s argument for ‘hard determinism’ would absolve both characters of blame. It is clear to the reader that Tess’s parents, however inadvertently, are essentially pushing her into the jaws of the lion.

Tess, as an ‘untinctured vessel of emotion’, drowns herself in guilt following the death of the family’s horse, Prince. Yet, ‘in the Durbeyfield countenances, there was nothing of the red wrath that would have burnt upon the girl from parents more ambitious for her welfare. Nobody blamed Tess as she blamed herself’. Her parents are perhaps insensitive, naïve themselves, and thus incapable of making Tess aware of the world around her. Her father, though a good source of comedy, is vain and self-obsessed – drunk and immature but it is her mother who, as a viable source of wisdom, truly fails her. Following the fateful events of her time with Alec, Tess cries to her mother: ‘how could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house… why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Ladies know what to fend hands against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way and you did not help me!’. Tess’ mother was obsessed with the thought of her daughter marrying a gentleman and restoring the good name of the family, that she failed to adequately protect her own child. She was selfish. So Tess is, in a sense, a victim of her upbringing. She is cast as a maternal figure, having to care for her siblings and this endows her with a sense of overwhelming responsibility – and pressure – for the family’s welfare. She is thus not exposed to aids such as books and learning and sheer life experience that may have better enabled her to handle men such as Alec.

Nevertheless, Angel takes advantage of Tess just as much as Alec does, though in a different way. Where Alec’s conquest is predominantly physical, Angel takes advantage of her emotional character, he is just as calculating. In a practical sense, he needs a wife who can assist him with his farming exploits in the colonies and he only takes notice of Tess when she speaks about the soul but is condescending when he speaks to her over such matters – (‘this hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so? All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet…’ and ‘my Tess has, no doubt, almost as many experiences as that wild convolvulus out there on the garden hedge, that opened itself this morning for the first time’) He makes assumptions about Tess’ innocence, and encourages a process of mutual idolization. He never gives Tess the chance to truly let him know her as he is too absorbed in his image of her as a pure, innocent child of nature. Tess, on the other hand, fuels his superiority complex by idolizing him as the height of intellect and goodness, making herself completely submissive to his wishes. To her ‘sublime trustfulness, he was all that goodness could be’ but just as with everyone else, Angel deserts her in the time when she needs him the most, leaving her susceptible to Alec’s advances. Angel’s imagination dominates him to the extent that upon the revelation of Tess’s past he can no longer accept her because she is now a completely different person. His rejection of what is real and physical, in favour of what is ethereal and spiritual makes it impossible for him to accept Tess’s history.

Even Tess is somewhat surprised by Angel’s character in these moments, appalled by ‘the determination revealed in the depths of this gentle being… the will to subdue the grosser to the subtler emotion, the substance to the conception, the flesh to the spirit’. Tess’s revelation may be a direct assault on his character and he may need time to adjust but his behaviour is perhaps too extreme and inhumane. Even when he realises it is possible for Tess to embody both the spiritual ideal and physical and real, he still manages to do so much too late. This is not really his fault, all the characters struggle against forces beyond their control and so can only be deplored to a certain extent. Nevertheless, Angel is the character that disappoints the reader the most because he is an educated young man who could really have saved Tess, yet fails to use his reason to do so. He may not be a villain but his behaviour, in our eyes, is unfair and falls short of the expectation imbued by his name and our initial impressions of him.