Meaning, understanding and certainty all become elusive chimera in this ambiguous game of hide-and-seekNow you see me,
...now you don’t.. What the...
Meaning, understanding and certainty all become elusive chimera in this ambiguous game of hide-and-seek that Henry James plays with us. Have you ever been in one of those weird situations where you wondered if you were losing your mind, doubting whether what you were seeing was real? And... what it was that you were seeing?
This is one of those "what the heck??" novels that you often find in the modernist genre. Not originally classed as a modernist novel, by now it is viewed as one by many modern critics because of the ambiguity and ‘layers’ that James managed to capture.
It is just as slippery and ambiguous and as "what on earth is happening here?" as the most obfuscating of the modernist novels; - one tends to struggle with trying to figure out what is going on like with Virginia Woolf’s The Waves , William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow.
Henry James might not be playing around as much as ‘true’ modernists do with narrative voice although he built three layers into his narrative viewpoint, and the story is certainly a metatext.
Like most modernists, he does play around to some extent with temporality, but only to a small extent, and only slightly with structure.
However, it is the play with meaning, the : “what the heck actually happened here?” that lends so much ambiguity and scope for interpretation that makes this novella shine.
Part of what points to our narration being unreliable, is the fact that the novella is a nested metatext (being a story someone is telling about a story that someone else told him about a story that someone else told him).
The fun is that it reads like a Gothic novel, and for all intents and purposes, would be a Gothic novel, were it not for the subtleties in meaning and content & context leaping out at the reader; especially the modern, sophisticated reader who doesn’t actually believe in, you know, ghosts.
Though the story isn't really creepy in the way that conventional ghost stories are.
Well it is, sort of.
But it's also like when you walk into your house at night and the lights are dimmed and there's this hat-and-coat stand at the end of the passage, and in the shadows, it looks like there's a person there, watching... and waiting... and you wonder: “IS THAT...????! Or no, is that just my imagination playing tricks on me?! "
Yet, you take our time, all the time eyeing that shadowy figure,
...and you quickly walk to the light switch, and flick it on.
(Though the governess’s shadowman had no hat… - therefore, not a gentleman.)
Have you ever had a dream in which you vaguely become aware of the presence of someone you feel you know? You seem to know him well from some other dreamscape, and yet you cannot place your finger on who he is, yet his presence seems so sinister.
If someone were to ask you who the shadowy man at the edge of your vision was, you might reply: “Why, Nobody!” ...and yet you fear him, but don't know why. You know the reason is sitting just at the tip of your consciousness, but it’s all cast in shadow, and yet, it makes you feel so terribly uneasy.
You may even wonder, in such a dream, if that shadowy image could somehow be you yourself, but the thought of that, -the very idea, makes your hair stand on end; gives you a leaden pith of dread that sinks into your stomach and grips your insides with discomfort.
Dream analysts would say that that strangely familiar figure is a projection of the part of your own self that you find unacceptable. This other 'self' can even appear threatening because often our aggressive impulses have to be suppressed as much as, or even more than, our sexual impulses. If that 'self' came loose from under our control, it could be a dangerous thing, and therefore, we fear it, albeit on a subconscious level.
Have you ever had a dream like that? This novella was reminiscent of such a dream; made me feel like I was reading about such a dream.
Some people read this as a ghost story, some as a horror story, and some as a psychological thriller or study.
...there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see, that I don't fear!'
I must mention that I got most of the detail about the different types of analyses from the Beidler critical edition of The Turn of the Screw that is full of background material: cultural context, history, critical essays and interpretations of the text.
There are Marxist interpretations of this story, Jungian interpretations, Freudian ones, Reader-response analyses, Post-modern, Modern, New Criticism, New Historicism views of the story, you name it.
Oh, and of course, there are those among some of the abovementioned, who take a gay view as well. There is no real evidence for or against the direction(s) James's orientation leaned, though I have read some excerpts of his letters to young men that would incline me to agree that there's a strong possibility that he was gay.
Among the 'gay' proponents, are those who say that the governess is a subconscious projection by James of himself and his repressed urges. (Whatever other conclusions one might come to, you have to admit that the governess is one tight little ball of repressed urges. )
I see her as being under a lot of pressure from various origins. One of the pressures she has, is an urge to gain more power. If you think about it, the governess is actually a nobody. One of the younger children of an obscure country preacher, and a female to boot... not much going for her, beyond some homeschooling (privately bred) is there? ...and now she is suddenly 'at the helm' of an entire household, and quite a wealthy one at that. ...but her charming, seductive employer wants no contact with her. She is "at the helm" all on her ownsome. Quite a situation for an inexperienced young country girl to find herself in.
Wayne C. Booth, a well-known lit crit has said: In English alone I have counted, before I got too bored to go on, more than five hundred titles of books and articles about [The Turn of the Screw], and since it has been translated and discussed in dozens of other languages the total must yield more than a lifetime's possible reading.
...so yeah... there's been a lot of gabble about this little story, and the interesting part is that hardly anyone seems able to agree on what the story actually says. James has been very subtle and clever. Even in his preface, and in his responses to readers of the story, he did not give the game away. Indeed, he says in his preface, that the reader's "own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. "
Ha, and so it has proved to be.
Start of SPOILER section: Here are some of the variations on interpretations of how the screw really turns: (view spoiler)[
1) A "straight" Ghost story reading. In this version, the ghosts are real ghosts, and everything the governess says is reliable and true.
2) A variety of 'ironic' readings. According to the most cynical versions, the governess is cruel and egocentric; she either made the whole thing up to get attention, or used a fiction of seeing ghosts to try and gain the status of a heroine and to make the master of Bly (whom she is in love with) take notice of her.
Other readings are cynical of actual ghosts, but sympathetic towards the governess in interpreting the ghosts as illusions seen by the governess. Some feel that these illusions are the product of a diseased mind, or of a madwoman, some feel that they are the products of her hysteria, brought on by her sexual longing for the master of Bly.
Some of the ironic readings are mixed. Some people say that the whole thing was a prank by the children, or the servants, or even an attempt by Mrs. Grose to drive the governess mad, so that Mrs. Grose could have her position back as head of the Bly household.
In any case, this was my first take on the story, before I had read all the hundreds of interpretations out there:
My impression of the children's uncle, the governesses' charming, extravagant, seductive employer was; - what a douchebag. The typical tycoon who extricates himself from his interpersonal responsibilities with cash. Set the poor little orphans up in a nice comfortable mansion with a string of servants, and he doesn't have to know that they exist. (I quite enjoyed the Marxist critique of the story, and of course, no Marxist would have any charitable feelings towards our dashing rich aristocrat who so blithely consigns people to nothingness, banishing them from his sphere of consciousness, like ants. )
At first I was entirely sympathetic towards the governess. With her first sighting of Quint, although I thought the whole set-up of how she spotted him was eerie and strange, I initially suspected that Quint might be a ghost, though one isn't entirely sure - this is how subtle James is. I thought he might possibly be a person lurking around the place in a sinister way.
The thing that caught me there, was that she was walking around thinking and daydreaming about her employer and wishing he would appear - and lo! A man did appear. However, like the governess says - not quite the man she had wanted to appear.
Those who argue in favor of actual ghosts, say that the fact that Mrs Grose could identify him, proves that he was really the ghost of Quint. However, she has only the governess' word to go on, and recall the governess's initial vagueness about how he looked. When first asked to describe him, she says that he looks like "nobody". That rather shook me in a weird way. It was my first indication that all might not be quite right with the governess's mind.
The second sighting at the dining room really impressed me. Wow. One of the best and weirdest pieces of fiction I had read in a long, long time. There's so much in that little scene. First, the way she sees him suddenly through the window, looking in. Even if he were a 'real' person, coming suddenly upon a stranger looking in on your privacy like that must give anybody quite a turn. Note, that she then realizes that he is not looking for her. She sounds almost a bit disappointed about that... but... how does she know that? How does she 'know' who he is looking for?
Then the next part is so well done. I read governess's problem as being one of ego and narcissism. Like we've said, nobody ever takes any notice of her; even the children don't take much notice of her; they merely seem to humor her while they’re actually living in their own little world. But the children had adored Quint and Jessel, as we have heard by now.
So what does she do? Just like a jealous stepmother, she goes out and puts herself in her predecessor's place. She literally replaces her predecessor's image and position with her own, by going around to where he had stood, and she literally says in the story: " It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall.
This dreamscape-like scenario lends itself to some very interesting Freudian and Jungian interpretations indeed. In the Freudian view, (ok, there are a few, actually) Quint and Jessel's relationship forms an inversion of the governess and her employer's relationship. Jessel (and this is also part of the Marxist interpretation) had taken a step down when she fell in love with a mere servant, whereas the governess's ambition goes upward, towards her employer.
This 'replacement' theme features very strongly in the story; note the schoolroom scene where Jessel 'replaces' the governess by sitting in her chair at her desk. I quote: "..she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted, indeed, I had the extraordinary chill of feeling that it was I who was the intruder.
To me the scary part is the implication that both Quint and Jessel are projections by the governess of repressed aspects of her own psyche.
But the scariest interpretation is reading the governess as a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic. If one reads the story as if this was a given, it’s very, very creepy, with the governesses’ psychosis gradually growing to such huge proportions that even the long-suffering Mrs Grose takes fright and removes little Flora as quickly as she can.
There are some people who feel that the governess murdered Miles on purpose, but my personal reading was more sympathetic towards her. I thought that she had perhaps only smothered Miles in her zealous embrace. Note that she does say:” I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion;” So.. she wasn’t just giving him a friendly light quick little hug there. She was squeeezing the poor tyke.
I had more of a feeling that she was a person whose mind was slowly coming apart. I felt she was a person who clung to the children as being her only justification for being ‘someone’ in the world; they gave her life meaning, and it is via being their governess that she is ‘at the helm’ of the household at Bly. I felt her worst fault was a histrionic narcissistic type of problem.
Note her panic at Miles’s requests to be returned to school; how she fences with him. She seems terrified of him leaving Bly, of him escaping from her grasp, because surely then her status, part of her whole reason for being, would be diminished.
I also found that the governess kept seeming to read Mrs Grose's reaction incorrectly. Did Mrs Grose really want to kiss her? And all along, didn't the poor Mrs Grose simply comply with whatever ridiculous claims the governess came up with, just so that she wouldn't anger this madwoman, and/or wouldn't run the risk of losing her position at Bly? After all, the governess was put in charge of the household, and therefore she might have the power to fire Mrs Grose, or at least have her fired.
It's only at the end, after Flora couldn't take the governess' excesses anymore, that Mrs Grose managed to scrape together enough guts to stand up to the governess in trying to protect poor Flora.
There are those who see a lot of pederasty in the story; between Quint and Miles, and some people even between Jessel and Flora. I must admit that I originally also thought that there was at least more than friendship between Quint and Miles, because that would fit in nicely with the reason why Miles was expelled.
It would then make sense that he probably said to "those that he liked" either that he likes them or loves them, or even that he would like to, to put in Victorian language, 'try out a bit of buggery' with them. James had put Miles's reaction so beautifully: "He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty. He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea and raising his eyes to some faint green twilight. "Well— I said things."
Later on I was not so sure anymore.
As for pederasty between the governess and the children, some have suggested that she felt a pederastic passion for Miles, and I must admit that the lines: "We continued silent while the maid was with us—as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. "Well— so we're alone!" do seem rather suggestive of this. Though I feel one can't be certain...
The fireside narrator from the intro to the story, Douglas, was, I think, a poor fool who was taken in by the governess and believed her stories.
That's more or less how I saw the thing fitting together, but of course, there are a many other interpretations.
In the Marxist interpretation, class differences are explored. The children are scorned by their upper class peers, because they dared to lower themselves by mixing with the servants, as represented especially by Quint. The governess sees Quint as ‘a horror’ because he is of the lower classes, and Jessel as an evil woman because she lowered herself by falling in love with a servant.
In the Freudian interpretation, you can of course expect it to be all about sex and repressed, subconscious desires. I must admit that James either consciously or subconsciously used some sexual imagery – Quint is associated with the tower, (obviously phallic) and Jessel is spotted by the lake, the latter of which is often see as a symbol for the womb. Also, while Jessell appears to the governess at the lake, Flora is engaged in sticking a phallic piece of wood into a hole in another piece of wood. Heh.
Suffice it to say here, that the particular brilliance of his story is for me, that whatever interpretation you make, the story can work for you on that level, and arguments against a particular view can always be refuted by calling foul as an unreliable narrator on any of the three narrator levels. (The governess who wrote the story, Douglas, or Douglas's friend who is telling us the story).
In fact, you can even call upon the fourth narrator, Henry James himself, as having written a story that unconsciously brought out some of his subconscious issues and desires.
Of course James could have consciously written this as a Freudian allegory, but I doubt it, since this novel was published in 1898 and Freud's the Ego and The Id was only published in 1923. However, it may well be that James was influenced by his brother William's interpretations of psychological phenomena.
However you look at it, James knitted the seams of this story so finely, he weaved his web so delicately, that there is no way to tell any which way for certain.
I really liked the essays dealing with the content of the text, but Mr Beidler himself is rather pedantic for me, rambling on and on about the authentI really liked the essays dealing with the content of the text, but Mr Beidler himself is rather pedantic for me, rambling on and on about the authenticity of this copy and that copy of the various manuscripts that still exist of this text. He seems to be really a hard-core hardcore Chaucer superspecialist - but really, I couldn't care too much about the clerical details of the Chaucerian manuscripts, beyond the aspects that pertain to the content, such as the possible omissions and the additions.
I see this edition is not linked to other editions of Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, so I'm going to add that review in here as well. Apologies to those of my friends who have already read it in the past, but this Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism is actually a very good series, despite my initial grumbling just above about Beidler's in-depth treatment of the physical manuscripts. Therefore, I'd prefer to have my WOB review here as well.
Since there has been such a spate of reviews on Goodreads recently, attending to texts that contain the depiction of female masochistic tendencies, I decided to go all the way and go way back to the first text we know of in English that contains this, being Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath's prologue and tale.
Both the tale and prologue depicts violence visited upon women, and in the prologue, it is initially even welcomed by the woman, for love of the man inflicting the violence; but just like Ana in 50 Shades of Grey, Alison decided eventually that she didn't like it, and decided to reform her attractive, sexy fifth husband Janken into more couth ways.
Arriving at a definite stance on how to interpret the message or the character of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, is not an easy task. The Wife of Bath is probably one of the characters that there seems to be least agreement upon, in the entirety of English literature, or such has been my own experience when reading scholarly interpretation upon scholarly interpretation, in order to try and clear my own confusion as to exactly what it is that the Wife herself is saying, and moreover, what Chaucer is generally saying with his creation of the Wife and her Tale.
I have come to the conclusion that the Wife of Bath is at the same time an expression of anti-feminism, and to a smaller extent of pro-feminism, each in different aspects and contexts.
I was taken aback, when I read the Wife's Prologue originally, by the apparent (to me) anti-feminism in this piece. It is quite easy to see the anti-feminist voice Chaucer is speaking with. In the Prologue to the tale, Chaucer seems to be mocking and satirizing a bossy, nagging wife - the kind of wife that most men dread and would find hard to handle.
Comments upon her from scholars seem varied; some praise her as the first feminist, though many feminists see past that and also see a male voice making a hateful parody of the female gender, and of wives in particular, but they also note and comment quite strongly upon the theme of violence weaved into this tale.
Chaucer does not paint a pretty picture of the Wife in her Prologue. She is shown as a liar and a cheat who does not hesitate to openly admit that she prostituted her body to her first four husbands for material gain, and used all manner of deceitful devices to achieve "mastery" over them.
From The Wife of Bath’s Prologue : (as translated) "Deceit, weeping, and spinning, God doth give To women kindly, while that they may live. *naturally And thus of one thing I may vaunte me, At th' end I had the better in each degree, By sleight, or force, or by some manner thing"
(Just as a side note, it is interesting to note the use of the word "spinning" whereas Alisoun's occupation is that of a weaver.)
The latter quotation is just one example of the kind of self-revilement that goes on right through the Wife's own description of her relationships with her first four husbands, often extending the negative attributes of the Wife to the female gender in general. To make matters worse, the wife openly admits that she did not love these four husbands, and often feigned lust just to gain more of an advantage over them.
The Wife as the product of a male construct is never more apparent than in her repeated mention of her own genitals. Over and over she mentions her own genitals (thereby objectifying the female as an object whose sole function is the sexual gratification of males) and how her husbands praised this part of her body. She also mentions how she could have sold it, (her vulva), but kept it for her husband instead (in the sense of a bargaining piece), which does seem to me to have strong overtones of suggesting that wives are little more than prostitutes.
What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone? Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? Wy, taak it al! lo, have it every deel!
The playful tone of most of the passages in the prologue, in which the wife tends to contradict herself at times, suggests to me that they were written as entertainment largely for males, who in those times (The Canterbury Tales were thought to have been written around the 1380's) dominated the literate world.
This alone, would in my view be enough to establish a claim of this text being anti-feminist, albeit as a product, to a large extent, of the milieu that Chaucer found himself in.
However, one of the contexts in which I feel it is useful to view the Wife of Bath, is the phenomenon of Chaucer's criticism of the Catholic Church, that pervades the Canterbury tales.
From a historical background, the Black Death had not only opened the way for a stronger Bourgeoisie class, and for a stronger base in medieval society for property rights for women, (which was helped along by the fact that many males were absent/died during the Crusades) but it also weakened the grip of the Catholic Church, which was further weakened by the Western Schism, and which scenario set the stage for the Church Reformation which took place a bit later on in the course of history.
During the fourteenth century (Chaucer was born in 1343), the Catholic church was still very powerful, and many clergy abused their position of psychological power in order to gain temporal power, wealth, and it would seem, sexual/sensual gratification as well.
Chaucer seems to have been well aware of the various types of corruption that members of the Catholic institution was guilty of, from hypocrisy to avarice, to all sorts of clandestine sexual practices, which Chaucer hints at when describing the Friar, one of the Canterbury Pilgrims.
When, at the beginning of the Wife's tale, mention is made that: "Wommen may go saufly up and doun. In every bussh or under every tree Ther is noon oother incubus but he, (referring to "holy" friairs) And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour", one wonders if Chaucer is referring to the kind of sexual misconduct apparently practiced by the clergy in the 1300's- 1400's that Amanda Hopkins mentions in her article: Sex, the State and the Church in the Middle Ages: An Overview.
According to a footnote in the abovementioned article, "The evidence of medieval authors, Boccaccio and Chaucer among them, suggests that celibacy was not universally practised by the clergy.
In an examination of legal records from the Paris area in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Kathryn Gravdal finds evidence of gang rape: ‘These collective rapes seem to have been youthful sprees. Patterns in the records indicate, however, that when young clerics eventually became priests and rectors, they continued to practice sexual abuse and these constituted the second largest group of rapists brought to trial in the Cerisy court. … This finding corresponds to the figures Hanawalt and Carter have established for the clergy in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England, where clerics constituted the largest group to stand trial for rape in the secular courts. The power and prestige of their office may have led them to commit sexual abuses with a certain regularity’
The implication of the above-mentioned research, that Chaucer might have been hinting at actual rapes being perpetrated by the clergy, seems so shocking to me, that I find it understandable that the allusion to "gang-rape by the clergy" in these passages was probably never entertained by critics like Louise O. Fradenburg, who assumes that the substitution of incubi by friars is merely a demystification, and Luarie Finke, who sees in it symbolism of changes to the economic structure of the medieval world.
The sexual activity of the clergy is especially ironic in view of the strong stance the Church officially took against the expression of any sexuality, whether hetero- or homosexual.
We jest in today's modern age about conservatives who decree that sexual intercourse is only admissible when it is vaginal heterosexual intercourse between married partners, in the missionary position, in the dark, and preferable partly clothed; but absolutely no joking: - this is exactly what the Medieval Catholic Church decreed. Any deviance from the abovementioned, was punishable by having to do "penances"; even, for instance, for the 'sin' of married heterosexual intercourse with the woman on top, or intercourse with the wife facing away from the husband.
The Pardoner who is one of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, was one of the people who could gather money from the populace in order to gain pardons for such terrible crimes as, for instance, having intercourse in 'inadmissible' positions, or the even more unforgivable sin of actually enjoying it.
In view of the above and other hints throughout the rest of the Canterbury Tales, I think that a lot of what the wife says, is actually a parody of some of the negative attitudes the Catholic church held about women and marriage, and was just an additional but more subtle way in which Chaucer was criticizing the Catholicism of the day, along with his more obvious digs at the Pardoner, Summoner, Friar and Prioress who take part in the Canterbury pilgrimage.
So if one looks at it in this way, one sees tempered, to some extent, what seems at first to be a blatant anti-feminist stance by Chaucer, and one cannot help wondering if he is not perhaps showing up how extreme (and rather silly and unpractical) the antifeminism of the Church is, by parodying their stance, (via what the husband's say) and then having the Wife reply with rhetoric that she borrows either from the Bible or from common sense.
To go along with my anti-feminist impression, there is, in addition, also the aspect of male/female violence in both the Prologue and the Tale, especially male upon female violence and the apparent suggestion in the prologue, that all women are inherently masochists, and the underlying misogynism that the latter implies.
In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Alison introduces her fifth husband thus:
(I'm quoting a Librarius.com translation) And now of my fifth husband will I tell. 510 God grant his soul may never get to Hell! And yet he was to me most brutal, too; My ribs yet feel as they were black and blue, And ever shall, until my dying day. But in our bed he was so fresh and gay, 515 And therewithal he could so well impose, What time he wanted use of my belle chose, That though he'd beaten me on every bone, He could re-win my love, and that full soon. I guess I loved him best of all, for he 520 Gave of his love most sparingly to me. We women have, if I am not to lie, In this love matter, a quaint fantasy; Look out a thing we may not lightly have, And after that we'll cry all day and crave. 525 Forbid a thing, and that thing covet we;
These passages seem to suggest that Alison forgave Janken for beating her, and even liked him visiting violence upon her, or at least felt excited by it, and that the violence and his withholding love from her, made her crave his love even more. I personally agree to a large extent with Hansen about these passages; that does certainly seem to be what these specific passages are saying.
The passages describing the imaginary bloody dream that Alisoun uses to draw Jankyn's attention with, to me also has disturbing sadomasochistic violent overtones, but since these passages are included in the Ellesmere manuscript, but not the Hengwrt manuscript, and there is therefore doubt that Chaucer himself wrote the passages, I will not include these passages regarding the dream in my discussion.
This theme of violence is continued in Alison's tale, in which an Arthurian knight rapes a maiden upon first sight, despite her avid protestations.
The female condonement and acceptance of this behaviour is carried through in how the queen and female courtiers want the knight spared : From The Wife of Bath’s Prologue :
"Paraventure, swich was the statut tho - But that the queene and othere ladyes mo So longe preyeden the kyng of grace, Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place, And yaf hym to the queene al at hir wille,"
So, once again, females are accepting of male violence.
However, the message in the Wife's Prologue soon becomes a contradictory one. At the end of the tale, "But atte laste, with muchel care and wo, We fille acorded by us selven two. He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond, 820 To han the governance of hous and lond, And of his tonge, and of his hond also, And made hym brenne his book anon right tho. And whan that I hadde geten unto me By maistrie, al the soveraynetee, 825 And that he seyde, 'Myn owene trewe wyf, Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lif, Keepe thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat,' -
After that day we hadden never debaat. God help me so, I was to hym as kinde 830 As any wif from Denmark unto Ynde, And also trewe, and so was he to me. "
Take note, that the Wife responds positively to the fact that this man now gave her " soveraynetee". She becomes kind to him in return, just as the old woman in the Wife's tale becomes beautiful, young and obedient, the moment that he lets her choose, that he gives her "maistrie".
This is a rather confusing message if one takes into account that the Wife's first 4 husbands did not rule her in the first place, but she treated them very badly indeed. What then would be the difference between the first 4 husbands and Jankin and the Knight?
I am able to discern three differences:
1. The first four husbands did not have the wherewithall to "rule" Alison, even if they wanted to. She ruled then in any case, by: "sleighte, or force, or by som maner thing,"
2. Both Jankin and the Knight, forced dominance over women by dint of physical violence, and 3.Both Jankin and the Knight, in the end voluntarily gave "maistrie" to their wives, and through that act, gained their wive's obedience.
The dominance aspect puzzled me at first. Why would the Wife want 'mastery' or dominance, when it would be so much better just to ask for equality?
Then I remembered that the Wife is not a real woman after all, but a "puppet" in the hands of a male, of Geoffrey Chaucer. Equality is more of a female concept while dominance is more of a male concept.
Another aspect of the theme of dominance, might also be seen in context of the kind of feudal society that Chaucer found himself in. Although the absolute power of the aristocracy was waning, monarchy was still very much the order of the day; - there was only one (secular) 'boss'(the king) in the country, and he (theoretically) had absolute power.
So perhaps part of the answer lies with the fact that from Chaucer's point of view, only one person can rule in a marriage, just as only one sovereign can rule a nation. (Nevermind the fact that one might question whether it was really the temporal sovereign or the "Spiritual" sovereign (- the Pope, or Church) that ruled). Perhaps it is the very power play between Church and State of the time that Chaucer lived in that made dominance such an important thing to have. The Greeks and Romans of antiquity might have understood how to share power, but the sharing of power is not a very familiar concept in the Europe that Chaucer lived in.
On a further point, I started to find this "give over power in order to have power" concept in the message that the Wife gives, a bit less puzzling when I read the introduction to the Nevill Coghill translation of the Canterbury tales. From the introduction by Nevill Coghill: "It could be debated whether love could ever have a place in marriage; the typical situation in which a 'courtly lover' found himself was to be plunged in a secret, and illicit, and even an adulterous passion for some seemingly unattainable and pedestalized lady. Before his mistress a lover was prostrate, wounded to death by her beauty, killed by her disdain, obliged to an illimitable constancy, marked out for dangerous service.
A smile from her was in theory a gracious reward for twenty years of painful adoration. All Chaucer's heroes regard love when it comes upon them as the most beautiful of absolute disasters, and agony as much desired as bemoaned, ever to be pursued, never to be betrayed. ...This was not in theory the attitude of a husband to his wife. It was for a husband to command, for a wife to obey. The changes that can be rung on these antithesis are to be seen throughout the Canterbury Tales."
This is the only kind of "maistrie", of " soveraynetee" or "government" that to me personally, would make sense in the final words of the wife, when she says: "And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves That noght wol be governed by hir wyves."
However, I am a female, thinking with a female mind, and whether that is what Chaucer had meant the Wife's intention to be, I do not know.
I have already demonstrated at length what I find to be the antifeminist aspects of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, namely the negative ways in which Alisoun portrays herself (a materialistic, power-hungry, nasty, nagging, cheating liar), and also in how readily females accept male-upon-female violence in the text of both the prologue and the tale of the Wife of Bath.
However, there are aspects of the Wife's Prologue and Tale that temper this ant-feminism. As I demonstrated, it is highly probable that a lot of the criticism that Alisoun and her husbands direct against women, are actually opinions expressed by the Catholic Church, who had a very strong censure against the expression of sexuality.
So to me, part of Chaucer's "pro-feminism" lies in how he seems to point out how non-sensical and unpractical many of the Church's teaching regarding sexuality, women and marriage was.
As confusing as Chaucer's point of view regarding female masochism might be for the "moral of the story", it is true, that in both the wife's prologue and in her tale, male violence is tempered, the male 'learns' not to visit violence upon women, and the females in the text do seem to rejoice in this cessation of violence.
I do not, like some feminists suggest, see the reward the knight gets at the end of the story, as being a reward for his violence. I see the reward he gets, in fact, as a reward for the cessation of violence. Chaucer seems to encourage the code of chivalry which to me is a good thing, inasmuch as it decries violence against women.
It seems to me that here Chaucer is trying to say that males can get what they want, being "female submissiveness and obedience" rather by dint of 'gentleness and nobility' than by force and violence, which is ignoble, and likely to cause a backlash to boot.
Even though female obedience is still the desired outcome of Chaucer's patriarchal world-view, perhaps it is infinitely better to have an obedience that is obtained through courtly love and romantic ideals, or through deference or even basic respect and "gentility", than through force and violence.
Since I've been told bigger is better, and long reviews are better than short ones, I've decided to update my short Middlemarch review with a long oneSince I've been told bigger is better, and long reviews are better than short ones, I've decided to update my short Middlemarch review with a long one:
Although Eliot started working on the serialised chapters of Middlemarch around about 1868 (they were published three years later), it is set in roughly 1829-1832, (so writing it took place roughly 40 years after the setting) which gave her the advantage of hindsight.
It is partly this, and the fact that Eliot did a lot of conscientious research, that enabled her to render the period with such historical accuracy.
Aristophanes, Plato, and Goethe, Feuerbach, Spinoza, and Auguste Comte all had an influence on Eliot's thought; -though she seems to illustrate in Middlemarch a kind of social determinism. It seems to me that she is saying that your class will to a large extent determine how you live (which was largely true still in the era that the novel is set in).
Individual character and 'moral fiber' is important to Eliot, but in her novel personal ideals easily become shipwrecked on the rocks of what the forces of society has pre-ordained for you.
19th Century determinism was to a large extent due to Darwinism: The question to be considered in this regard is, do people lack all free will - are their actions predetermined by their genetic make-up, and/or their psychological background, or do people have a real opportunity to make an impact on the world, and to be responsible for their actions? Eliot seems to lean towards the idea that good intentions don't necessarily spell success, and not only character plays a role: choices and environment do too.
However, the choices of Eliot's characters are subjugated by the forces of society. The characters play out what seems to be pre-set "roles" for them; no matter how they struggle, like flies in a web, they eventually have to conform to the role society has laid out for them.
The portrayal of marriages play a large role in Middlemarch, in illustrating various things. In the marriages that Eliot portrays, we see mainly personal character coming into play with the strictures of society, and the ways in which the latter confines these people decides on the final happiness or not of the characters. The good outcome of the marriages don't depend on divine providence anymore, as it tended to in novels written before the realist/humanist/rationalist style that Eliot to a large extent pioneered, came into being; it is now the forces and expectations of society.
Material wealth and affluence play a large part, too, in how one manages to handle the forces society exerts upon the individual in the novel: at least four of the marriages are "made or broken" in part by how the protagonists manage to attain their wealth, but here we see a very complex interplay regarding how the characters manage or attain their wealth.
An important early influence in Eliot's life was religion. She was brought up within a Low Church Anglican family, but she soon rejected religion in favor of the aforementioned schools of thought. The importance of morals and 'duty' still remained deeply ingrained in her belief system, though.
The possession of knowledge, and the use of that knowledge is highly praised by Elliot. She makes a distinction between the dead and irrelevant knowledge that her character Casaubon displays, and the living and useful knowledge that her characters Lydgate, Farebrother and Mrs Garth possess. The 19th century saw a great move towards more "practical" thought. Scientific thought was starting to revolutionize every sphere of human life.
It is probably of use to take cognizance of the industrial sociopolitical background to the period that the novel covers : The 19th century was the age of machine tools - tools that made tools - machines that made parts for other machines, including interchangeable parts. The assembly line was invented during the 19th century, speeding up the factory production of consumer goods. There was a lot of resistance towards automation from the lower classes, since many people were displaced from their work by machines, especially in the textile industry.
In rural areas the remains of the feudal system could still be seen in that land tenants gave labour for the right of tenancy, but didn't receive much as payment, and often lived in very poor conditions. The industrial revolution saw a sharp rise in population, and resulting increase in a poverty-stricken lower class.
There were groups agitating for reform, but most of them confined themselves to lawful, non-violent means of supporting reform, such as petitioning and public oratory, and they achieved a great level of public support.
The many social injustices such as young children working exceedingly long hours in mines and factories, and being made to do very dangerous work;
industrialists preferring to employ women and children because they could get away with paying them less, etc,
as well as the aftermath and influences of the French Revolution and humanism on general thought, was stirring winds and thoughts of political revolution throughout English society.
The upper classes, as quite humoristically portrayed by Mr Brooke in Middlemarch, would, according to Eliot's portrayal, albeit reluctantly, prefer to "go with the times" than to be "caught up in, or going against an avalanche" ..and lose their heads as had so many of the French aristocracy.
The period also saw the rise of wealthy capitalists - all of these are represented in the novel, there is a family from each walk of life represented in Eliot's cast of characters.
Middlemarch also illuminates many aspects of scientific thought at the time. The novel exhibits an extraordinary interest in medical politics, especially.
General influences here, were Bichat, Lyley, Claude Bernard, Auguste Comte T.H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, Herbert Spencer,and G.H. Lewes, Eliot's companion.
The 19th century gave birth to the professional scientist; interesting to note, is that the word 'scientist' was first used in 1833 by William Whewell.
In Middlemarch, Eliot pays a lot of attention to what is happening to the medical profession at the time. According to her various biographies, she did quite a bit of research into what was happening on the front of medical science.
For instance, one of the historically true incidents reflected in Middlemarch, is that in 1932 a worldwide Cholera pandemic reached Britain. Lydgate, one of the protagonists of the novel, is involved in and very much interested in studying and treating fevers, such as Typhoid and Cholera.
A note of interest: In 1819 René Laënnec invented the stethoscope, one of the instruments mentioned in the novel; - at that point in time, this was something quite cutting edge and new .
Before the advent of the 18th century, the medical profession had not progressed much since classical times. In fact, people were probably even worse off in places like Christian hospitals, where the main cure given to patients was prayer. There had been, throughout the Middle Ages, a belief that the human body should remain intact after death, since it would rise up to heaven in a glorified state. In Middlemarch, we see this sentiment to some extent still prevalent, something which Eliot seems to deplore.
Incidentally, it was a common theme in Victorian literature to paint doctors and students of science who wanted to dissect human bodies as "evil". Of course, one needs to dissect the human body before you can research what it looks like inside, and how it works, so of course beliefs like these held back the progression of medical science.
In the novel, Eliot also focuses on the aspect of gender inequality that existed at the time. Women didn't receive the same education as men, and especially upper class and aristocratic ladies were expected to be merely ornamental; (view spoiler)[ this is highlighted in especially the marriages of Dorothea with first Casaubon and later Will, as well as the marriage of Rosamond with Lydgate. (hide spoiler)]
Time and time again, Eliot illustrates the frustration that an intelligent woman had to endure in Victorian England: "...there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman's world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid – where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up painfully as an inward vision, instead of coming from without in claims that would have shaped her energies. "
I noted Eliot's strong interest in Saint Theresa of Avila, whom she introduces in her prologue, and found it rather representative of Eliot's idealistic bent. Dorothea, one of the protagonists, is compared throughout the novel to her. Saint Theresa was an idealistic religious mystic, who fought for reform in the church; Dorothea is similarly an idealistic dreamer, bent on reform, but totally out of touch with the practical realities of life. I think Saint Theresa probably mainly represents reform to Eliot, but also someone who led a dramatic, even heroic "epic" life, as the conclusion to the novel suggests. In the latter, Dorothea fails, she never does anything large or heroic, but Eliot suggest that change can also be wrought in smaller, multitudinous pervasive acts.
As far as Eliot's illustration in the novel of the institution of marriage is concerned, her different portraits of marriage is various and complex, so the message she seems to bring across is that a marriage can be beneficial to the partners only under a certain set of circumstances: if the marriage fits in with society, but above all, that the two partners be suited to one another.
Eliot herself knew only too well the sting of social disapproval, since she was forced to live with a still married man (Henry Lewes could not divorce due to religious reasons), and society in general, even her own family, cut her off because of this.
Eliot is known for attempting to establish realism in her novels, and I think she does that well, but for one little niggle I have - that loud very visible intrusion that she as author makes into the narrative.
This might be a thoughtful and thought-provoking work, but the best in English Literature? Not quite, in my book.
For me there is too much narration and "interference" by the author's voice. I know this is part and parcel of Victorian writing, but really, when it's pages and pages apiece, it just becomes unbearable. Victor Hugo, one of my favorite authors, was also guilty of this, but somehow he does it more interestingly, and in less of a schoolmarmish tone.
The novel would be more enjoyable if culled by about a quarter of all the pages of narration, (some events and scenes are really carried on in too much detail, like for instance the comments and reactions of the townspeople regarding Lydgate - a lot of it gets repetitive) and the tedious didactic commentary. It's like Eliot hits you over the head with the same hammer a few times, to make sure that what she's trying to get across sinks in properly. Eliot as author/narrator just glares at you from every page.
Well, I salute all of you who actually read every unabridged word and still had the mental and emotional energy at the end, to give this book 5 stars. I subtracted at least 1 star for my gripes as mentioned above. :)
No doubt MS Eliot AKA Evans/Cross was a very intelligent and learned lady, delightful to those who knew her personally, I'm sure, but her tone is simply too didactic for my tastes. However, given the scope she achieves, this novel is certainly a huge achievement.
Bottom line - I reckon that all the work and erudition that went into this novel deserves a 4 at least, in spite of my grumbles. I also laud Eliot's reformist attitudes, so I suppose one should try and look past a less than pleasing style.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Many people seem to think that this story is just about racism, but that is missing the main point. It is true that much of Conrad's fiction seems racMany people seem to think that this story is just about racism, but that is missing the main point. It is true that much of Conrad's fiction seems racist in tone, but one must take that from whence it comes; he was writing at a time when European Colonialism, (and sadly racism too) was in full swing. It is of course inevitable that writers will reflect some of the mores of their era, and also that some writers will examine the prevailing mores and comment on them.
However, the inner message of the story transcends dealing with just purely the manifestation of racism and colonial exploitation, although such exploitation does of course also play a role in the density of ideas, and, on the surface, forms the main theme of this novel.
But the inner, integral theme has to do with the more transcendental issue of how wordly power corrupts the holder thereof; about the inner boundaries set by conscience, and the comfort it brings to remain within those boundaries. Conversely, what happens to your psyche when one crosses these boundaries and enters an area beyond what you were brought up to believe fell within acceptable behaviour?
I see Conrad exploring the territory beyond those boundaries, about what happens when an individual crosses the boundaries set by conscience and social conditioning just because he finds himself in circumstances where he can cross these boundaries.
Parrallels for such circumstances can be seen in the excesses certain Roman emperors indulged in, simply because they had the power to. They held sway over the life or death of countless individuals, and many of them indulged in this power to excess.
However, Conrad uses a fresh setting in which to explore the issue, and it is a setting that is more intimate and personal, and just as disturbing....more