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By Paul Houlihan University of Uppsala Jan 10 2011
“REALISM, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads” 1 1
“The philosopher explained that in biting its own tail, the Dog was simply trying to dislodge his Fleas. With this, the general curiosity was satisfied, and everyone returned to their work” 2 In ‘Daisy Miller’ (“The big hit and one of the best”, according to Pound3), Henry James introduces us to a world of luxury and carefree leisure, comfort and idle pleasure as apparent from the opening paragraph of the novella which serves to set the scene. Though ostensibly set in a European milieu that is ‘exclusive’ James is primarily concerned with the ‘young’ American character or ‘breed’ at liberty abroad, using refined European values, customs and culture to juxtapose it with, yet this older culture which disparages and judges the innocent Daisy is ironically the one it can be suggested that is really criticised between the lines. However a line from another of James’ work might qualify the nature and motivation of this cultural critique keeping in mind the fact that James was an émigré to Europe engaged with the weight of its heritage and history, “To criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticized thing and to make its own” 4 What Maisie Knew
James devotes attention to the minutiae of mannerisms and the habits of characters through the studied portrayal of trivial everyday activities and behaviour rendering plausible a ‘realistic’ milieu as well as adding a psychological depth to the characters. The opening subtly introduces and foreshadows many of the key themes James explores in a veiled way. There is the immediate contrast between a famous and “classical” hotel “distinguished from its upstart neighbours by an air both of luxury and maturity” (DM 3) “Classical” aristocratic Europe with its “neat German waiters who look like secretaries of legation” represent all that is “stiff” and formal juxtaposed against the
new-moneyed American class newly arrived on the international scene as embodied by the figure of Daisy.
Notably we learn first of Winterbourne, the central personage through which events are focalized by way of opinions or gossip alerting one immediately that this is a world of social intrigues, rumours in the guise of “singular stories” and ‘reputations’ subject to being “affirmed” or destroyed, it is intimated, “when certain persons spoke”. (DM 4) Furthermore, this is a world of “proper behaviour” and the mores and modes upon which this conventional society is built is evoked in the very first piece of dialogue which follows between Winterbourne and the little boy he encounters in the garden, “I don’t think sugar is good for little boys”. (DM 5) Crucially Winterbourne is uncertain here – there is a hesitancy in the “I don’t think” and the story in many respects revolves around the crux of what is good or bad behaviour as it is presented through the problem the character Daisy poses to Winterbourne’s moral compass.
Winterbourne though ostensibly American is allied to European customs and culture as is the aristocratic American society he inhabits as they have internalised its Victorian code of ethics and courtly mannerisms and have spent so long abroad as to be “dishabituated to the American tone”. (DM 14) Even his name is suggestive of this fact keeping in mind the etymology of ‘borne’ which evokes a limit or boundary conveying the struggle his class must now contend with in keeping out of bounds a threatening ‘vulgar’ newly-moneyed middle class as represented by the ‘Millers’ who’s own name is symbolic of their status and implies their definable characteristics.
Winterbourne is almost mechanically conditioned by the social codes of gentlemanly “civility”, wondering at every step if his speech or behaviour “had gone too far” within the rigid conventions of decorous conduct. Though he reasons he is at “liberty” to introduce himself to Daisy within these “conditions”, ironically his introduction seems anything but free or natural and is ignored by the “pretty American girl”.
James’ narration is constructed around Winterbourne’s impressions and observations and in doing so allows us access to the mind-set of the society he is a part of. He views Daisy’s face as one might an ‘objet-d’art’ finding fault in its “want of finish”. (DM 10) From the offset he tries to judge and appraise her character seeking to nullify her individuality “He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category” (DM 14 - italics mine) This is interestingly exactly the same dynamics which are at the heart of Melville’s masterpiece ‘Bartleby’. The narrator encounters someone who will not neatly be categorised (in proper names) or conform to the law-giving conventions which limit and make society recognisable, evaluative, functional and ultimately morally ‘policeable’ or controllable; “He wondered what were the regular conditions and limitations of one’s intercourse with a pretty American flirt”. (DM 15)
As with Bartleby we must ask how much is the ‘problematic’ character of Daisy interpretationally formed (informe in Bataille’s terms) by a questionably ‘unreliable’ focaliser and their internalised belief-system, and to what extent are both stories the account of singularity and individuality negated by a rigid society? Yet this should not be to deny the fact that the ‘singular’ characters Daisy and Bartleby are equally and defiantly unyielding and fatalistically rigid; “I don’t see why I should change my habits for them”. (DM 59) They are both unable to resist or rebel affirmatively though
Bartleby’s formula, “I would prefer not to” can be read more simply as a nihilistic affirmation of negation “carrying it to its absolute” 5 as opposed to Daisy’s more complex acts and attempts to live her life according to an opposing “modus vivendi”. (SB 21)
Returning to ‘Daisy Miller’, the novella charts the symbolic encounter or ‘clash’ of two worlds. It is noticeable how the Millers are always presented as amiable and friendly in contrast to the opposing hierarchy which though American in name is resolutely ‘undemocratic’; “They are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting”. (DM 19) The meaning of this word “society” and what it entails for each world appears as incommensurable. The sentence above uttered by the authoritarian matriarch Mrs Costello can be taken as an ironic double negative ironically lost on its speaker. The reason for not “accepting” people like the Millers is repeated twice to underline the emphatic feebleness of her excuse, “they are very common” yet her example in support of her reason is telling, “They treat the courier like a familiar friend – like a gentleman”, (DM20) in other words they treat their servant as an equal and undifferentiated human being irrespective of class and social position.
As an American of the old-order and conventional society however, we might see why this may seem so conscientiously threatening to a person like Mrs Costello keeping in mind the fact that she inhabits the same “minutely hierarchical constitution” of New York (DM 19) that the Millers do, where servants were coloured. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn also suggests that racism is a learned response to one’s cultural environment and an internalization of its codes as evidenced by Huck’s grappling with
his “conscience” in whether he should turn Jim over to the authorities as society would expect or allow Jim to pursue realizing his dream of being a free man.
To return to the central motif of ‘gossip’ for a moment, not only does it play a central role in the story’s narrative construction filling in gaps between scenes, but James also shows the indubitable discrepancy and chasm between opinionated ‘discourse’ and manifest reality warning against assuming uncritically that what we hear reflects objective truth; “Well I must say I am disappointed…we had heard so much about it… we had been led to expect something different”. (DM 41) Stories inform perception, how we may see the world and others yet may often be shaped by prejudices.
In ‘Daisy Miller’ we see how stories inform expectations and play a role in shaping behaviour. It is ironically the figure of Winterbourne who might be thought “innocent” and “naïve” for taking what his aunt says at face value. After listening to his aunt’s “disclosures’ which seek to close her society from the reaches of the Millers, Winterbourne exemplifying his class and the laws it abides by takes these ‘rumours’ as unquestionable proof that “evidently she was rather wild”. Though these ‘critics’ disparage Daisy it is, I would argue, James’ implied purpose to critique the antiquated critics for the conventions which structure their thought and behaviour; for their shallow presumptions and the often ridiculously rigid and conditioned attention to these codes and manners as epitomised by Winterbourne and his unpleasantly “exclusive”, invidious aunt “who spoke to no-one at the hotel” (DM 23) and “who had almost always a headache”, (DM 23) just one of several references to psycho-physical illnesses within this stifling and repressive “climate”;
“"I haven't got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out. . . . I can't help it. It's this old Europe. It's the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn't come out." (DM 6)
Indeed gossip itself and its inherent maliciousness may be symbolic of a malaise that spreads through the fabric of the novella. The story is it must be remembered a “case study” centred on attempts to diagnose Daisy’s character and much maligned behaviour. Within this environment is juxtaposed the fresh, informal and beautiful Daisy who’s sexuality in Victorian terms might be considered through telling medical metaphors as a disease or “a terrible case of the fever”. (DM 76) This is furthermore emphasised and highlighted by the conventional attitude adopted by Winterbourne on finding Daisy in the Coliseum with Giovanelli “Winterbourne had now begun to think simply of the craziness from a sanitary point of view, of a delicate young girl lounging away the evening in this nest of malaria” (DM 72 italics mine)
While others attempt to be ‘earnest’ and morally upright, the amiably ‘social’ Daisy plays and “flirts” with expectations and moral conventions. It is noteworthy how we frequently encounter Daisy in nature suggested by the open spaces of gardens and immediately after the aforementioned drawing-room scene with Mrs Costello we encounter her in such a scene portrayed “wandering about in the warm starlight like an indolent sylph” (DM 22) It is significant however I would like to add (en passent) that this “classical” representation is patently Winterbourne’s own, suggesting that he can only think in and through such lateral categorical “classical” analogies.
Daisy’s apparent and refreshing honesty and her casual frankness is also a contrast to Winterbourne’s attempts to lie about why she can’t meet his aunt. Her perceptive and astute reply makes one doubt just how “innocent” or “naïve” Daisy in fact is; “She doesn’t want to know me!” she said suddenly “Why don’t you say so? You needn’t be afraid. I’m not afraid”. (DM 24)
Daisy’s insightfulness, “the rapidity of her induction”, is an indication of her experiential acumen while suggesting that she is fully aware of how others might perceive her. Her clear-sightedness is furthermore emphasized by how she surprises Winterbourne by being able to “distinguish” her mother in “this thick dust” (DM 25) Winterbourne doesn’t in fact reveal to Daisy the true reasons his aunt wouldn’t countenance meeting Daisy, as it would go against the polite niceties upheld by his society, thereby breaking its ‘rules’. What Daisy says then, shows a strength of character often overlooked by commentators of the novella, while also suggesting that she is conscious that her acts are rebellious and a clear affront to the society. This point is suggested again at further points in the story “I am not afraid of Eugenio,” said Daisy, with a toss of her head” (DM 36)
It is ironic and perhaps the tragedy of the novella that it is the stiff and perpetually fearful ‘gentleman’ Winterbourne (“I am afraid your habits are those of a flirt”) who has the last laugh; “I am afraid…that you will not think Roman fever very pretty” (DM 59). Interestingly the seemingly “brilliant” (or “third-rate” depending on the point of view) Giovanelli turns out to be an equally “afraid” and cowardly ‘gentleman’, “a lady told me that he was afraid I was angry with him for taking Daisy round at night”. (DM 76) What Daisy’s mother says next is revelatory within the ‘morals’ of the story, its
matriarchal figures and their unforgiving judgemental morality “Well, so I am; but I suppose he knows I’m a lady. I would scorn to scold him” (DM 76)
As opposed to being ‘naïve’ it is ironically “poor Winterbourne” who more often than not is seen to be “puzzled” or bewildered”. Daisy it is clear is not simply or “only a pretty American flirt”. It is perhaps her unpredictability and complexity which Winterbourne gives up on towards the close of the story. Tellingly, during the only prolonged length of time he spends in her company and while listening to a “great number of original reflections”, Winterbourne doubts his preconceived notions and preconditioned responses to her character; “he had assented to the idea that she was “common”; but was she so, after all, or was he simply getting used to her commonness”. (DM 33)
Daisy of course may just be at base common. Her original name is ‘Annie’, indicating ‘any’ and thereby commonness and though she adopts a new name, it isn’t the name “on her cards”, that is she hasn’t the birthrights of the aristocratic order. Yet it is to be wondered in an American context if this word ‘common’ is not supposed to be taken in a negative sense but reflects on those who do just that unquestionably. If this is so, James’ work can in some respect be seen to be engaged in the expression of American democratic ideals yet in a hugely different way from a writer such as his contemporary Mark Twain.
Furthermore how are we to take Winterbourne’s recollection of hearing that his aunt’s own two daughters in New York were said to be “tremendous flirts”. Is this merely an ironical reflection on the matriarch’s oblivious hypocrisy or does James suggest that
there is possible generational change in America concerning the morals of ‘manners’ dissolving class and gendered hierarchies?
Daisy certainly embodies a ‘New Woman’ type but her ‘innocence’ might be taken symbolically as the innocence of the New World, uncouth, unabashed, “informal in social situations” and self-assertively expressive of an equally rigid ‘American Exceptionalism’ as had been detailed by de Tocqueville in the 1830’s. This character was apparently untamed, transcendentalist and ‘wild’ compared to civilised Catholic Europe. Described as a “sylph”, Daisy’s spirit is resolutely free clearly at odds with the ‘stiffness’ of European culture “If this is improper….then I am all improper and you must give me up”. (DM 53) She is self-consciously different and patriotically proud of this fact “I thank goodness, am not a young lady of this country”. (DM 54) By referring here to “goodness” there may be an implication that morals of the Millers and the new American middle class are incommensurable with European morality, and as such an example of the culture-clash evidenced throughout the novella. In the scene where Mrs Walker, a Europeanised feminine counterpart to Winterbourne, arrives to “save” Daisy from “ruining” herself and transport her to the sanctuary of home it is notable how her expressed intentions “it is not the custom here” are framed through religiously pious vocabulary “with her hands devoutly clasped” (DM 51)
James also strongly implies how Winterbourne’s unreliably realized self- perception as well the perception of others is causally conditioned by the speech of others and at variance with the ‘reality’ of situations, “you’re the last man I should think of flirting with”. (DM 59) Winterbourne aunt says of Daisy “She has that charming look that they all have” (DM 19) and notably in a later passage as the narrative is clearly focused
through Winterbourne we find the same linguistic usage daisy stopped and looked at him…with nothing but the presence of her charming eyes and her happy dimples” (DM 48) However still hugely intrigued and attracted by Daisy he ironically and perhaps unconsciously adopts one of her linguistic utterances, “Well, she’s a cool one!”. (DM 47&48) If this is true then the work outlines Winterbourne’s attraction and yet rejection of the new ‘American breed’, perhaps in some way reflecting the conflicting responses of the work’s author. One can only wonder if in a final analysis Winterbourne “understood” Daisy’s “message”; if he has learned anything from his encounter or if he still flatters himself with what is perhaps the delusional fancy suggested by his aunt “Is that a modest way…of saying that she would have reciprocated one’s affection?” (DM 77) It is perhaps telling how ‘his’ account is book-ended with a return to Geneva and reports of “his motives of sojourn” suggesting the later theory and that he has “understood” nothing or even what his apparent “mistake” in fact was. In this respect Winterbourne is perhaps another instance of the Jamesian motif of an ‘unlived-life’, bound and restricted by the internalised functional rules of social conduct and behavioural norms, exemplifying the proclivity to recoil from a meaningful, fulfilling or transformative engagement when it risks emotional vulnerability and social censure.
Rome is the apt symbolic setting for the second half of the novel just as its events are ’winter-borne’ over the course of that season. Now reduced to being a location for a leisurely cultural-tourism among the ruins this ancient “famous” city-empire was ransacked by barbarians (evoked in that word “vulgar”), laying waste to its heritage and proud civilization, “Morals and walls, decrepit Rome, you are crumbling”6 (Versus Romae 10th century). At one point Winterbourne makes the analogy explicit by comparing Daisy’s younger brother to “the infant Hannibal”. (DM 42) Yet it is also the
pious Papal centre espousing a repressive orthodox morality with a pointedly rigid catechism of what a woman should be seen to do as well as where. In a sense then the setting strongly contrasts with all Daisy represents. It is fitting that James makes this rebellious girl a Protestant and a little ironic that she is interred beneath the “April daisies” within “imperial” Rome’s walls. The fake petty ‘piety’ and moral atmosphere is wonderfully ironized in a brief vignette fittingly portrayed at St Peter’s Basilica, where the matriarchal Mrs Costello sits “on her little portable stool” and holds forth on the subject of “poor little Miss Miller’s going too far” while in the background “The vesper service was going forward in splendid chants” (DM 65)
In the climactic scene at the Coliseum James uses further ironic Christian references as Winterbourne turns on Daisy “he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” (DM 72) and his incipient refusal to acknowledge her existence occurs in a space with a “great cross in the centre…covered with shadow”. (DM 71)The appropriately named Daisy is ‘cut’ precipitating her death soon after and leaving one to wonder if Daisy in fact cared too much about acceptance by this ‘exclusive’ society she expressly wished to enter, its vindictive insults and the wounding callous cynicism and maliciousness at its heart.
The behaviour of ‘good society’ towards Daisy and its castigation of her are evoked at a point in Edith Wharton’s short-story ‘Souls Belated’. The female protagonist refers to the same society “whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated”. (SB 19) As with Daisy however, Lydia is defeated.
Running parallel to the story of ‘Daisy Miller’ is the questioning of assumptions; of what is natural and what adopted as such, man-made and thereby artificial. Even Daisy’s name eludes us to this sub-theme, ironically hinted at certain points; “The poor girl’s only fault…is that she is…very uncultivated” “She is naturally indelicate” Mrs Walker declared” (DM 54) Geneva was the birthplace of Rousseau and his presence is further evoked through the setting of Vevey, the location of ‘Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. Vevey itself suggests the French verb ’vivre’ (to live), ironical in this story which juxtaposes the unlived and lived life. The ‘Social Contract’ has a similar resonance as in it Rousseau recommended the death-penalty for those who violate the ‘social contract’ – something which in essence is symbolically portrayed in James’ “study”.
‘Daisy Miller’ can be taken as a critique of gender relations where there is one code of ethics for men and a different one for women. Men are free to see who they wish to; enjoying “privileges” denied to women, “of course a man may know everyone. Men are welcome to the privilege”. (DM 38) If women transgress this code they are castigated as “vulgar” or seen to be obscene and ‘good society’ punishes by turning its back and ostracising them. This is an age when men visibly dominated the public realm and Daisy’s “folly” is to conduct her ‘affairs’ with such “peculiar publicity”. (Rome is furthermore an apt setting as it is a place to see public artefacts and objects such as the Coliseum).
Daisy then subverts the notion that women were to be silent passive creatures and the social ‘manners’ they were expected to adopt. Her “audacity” lies in her bold refusal to audit her behaviour thereby conforming to the closed conventions of a hierarchical
society; “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me or to interfere with anything I do”. (DM 48) This suggests that she does not accept the prejudicial male ‘discourse’ implied by that word ‘dictate”, in guiding her actions or behaviour. She is explicitly not “a young lady to wait to be spoken to” and “cared little for feudal antiquities”. (DM 34) Daisy does not conform to Winterbourne’s fanciful Romantic conception of a “very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr Winterbourne would arrive”. (DM 39) It is significant here how Winterbourne’s image locates Daisy indoors in the enclosed space of a room while he is evidently outside in the public space yet Daisy subverts his expectations and disrupts his “reasoning”. As a character Winterbourne is an old-fashioned ‘gentleman’, conditioned to pre-conceptions of moral behaviour “instinctive certitude”, deluded in his fanciful self-perception and ludicrously preposterous amid the Millers with his diction, decorum, “imperial” elegance and stilted civility yet his encounter with Daisy entailed the possibility of a reevaluation of his conventional beliefs.
The story then may be read as a ‘missed opportunity’ just as the narrative of Bartleby focalised through a figure “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is best" details an encounter where though connection is tantalisingly close “all of the potential breakthroughs fall flat” 7 becoming a missed encounter symbolised at the end by the centrality of ‘dead letters’ to the ending of the narrators tale (Bartleby ironically has no known address either in the novella).
A dead letter may also refer to the state of something that has outlived its relevance, and if we take Bartleby as a symbolic of either spirituality or metaphysical (non-being) entity Melville perhaps suggests their incompatibility with a materialistic and logically
determined rational world. It may not be incidental then that the mysterious Bartleby’s final scenes occur within a setting whose “Egyptian character” is reflective of “the heart of the eternal pyramids” and the final piece of dialogue is “He’s asleep, ain’t he?” “With kings and counsellors” (MEL 99)
Daisy’s rebelliousness is a cultural non-conformity and her acts of opposition occur within the confines of a socially constricted space just as Bartleby’s non-conformity and subsequent ‘punishment’ through his ‘institutionalisation’ is framed fatalistically within the law-governed society. At the crux of the two tales lies the issue of whether to leave people be free (a laissez faire policy) and the perils of ‘interference’ (interventionist) in wishing social conformity, (the negation against the exceptional).
However Bartleby’s non-action in the new capital of commerce of New York is ironically the inverse of Daisy’s actions in the “classical” cultural capital of Rome; “What has she been doing?” “Everything that is not done here” (DM 54) Yet it is important to see how both characters downfall stems from their perception by others and the ‘talk’ by others of ‘what is to be done’ that spreads, (in the narrative of ‘The Yellow-Paper’ this shifts to “what is one to do?”). Central to unresolved issues posed at the close of both novellas revolve around the narrator’s conscience.
What can we say of the society constructed by Melville in his account of the singular ‘Bartleby’? Is it simply symbolic of a totalitarian impulse to ‘get rid of’ and incarcerate that which is different, that which does not share its ideology. It is noticeable how the
two figures who are most pointedly ‘capitalist’ and seen to receive money in the causal capitalist chain, namely Ginger-Nut and “the grub-man” explicitly label him as “odd” and “a little luny”, thereby questioning his sanity? Contact with Bartleby not only sees his formula contagiously spreading to the other characters but results in the narrator beginning to question his own sanity. The ‘formula’ is not nonsense but it makes no sense in the world of Wall Street. Bartleby is the ultimate enigma. He is “not particular” lacking all particularities, a figure that may not be figurative, constantly inviting yet resisting interpretation in a narration which might serve as a warning against an identificatory mode of reading that proceeds on projecting values and symbols.
‘The Yellow-Wallpaper’ is a fascinating and multi-faceted text that has received a wealth of interpretational insight since its publication in the 1890’s. Most readings and research over the last few decades adopt either a feminist or psychoanalytic approach. While these are most certainly fruitful and valuable approaches especially when utilized together, the text also offers numerous other interpretations from different angles due perhaps to its relative instability as a text as much as the deteriorating reliability of its narrator.
It is an incredibly forceful and poignant indictment of a society’s treatment of a mentally ill person, the ineptitude of a patriarchal medical community and the captivity of women within a conventional nineteenth century marriage. This final point is complicated however in that the protagonist’s spouse as with Lars Von Triers’ last movie ‘Antichrist’, is ironically also a physician, complicating their relationship as well as encircling his role within her deteriorating situation . Many readings simply castigate this “blundering” 8, offensively condescending and unsympathetic husband in clearly
defined terms but one wonders how much this figure is in denial about the extent of his wife’s illness. The story elsewhere suggests much about denial and repression. If the document details and critiques “a man's prescriptive discourse about a woman", then this reading is complicated by the fact that the narrator seems not to follow “practical” recommendations of “self-control” and notably subverts the “schedule prescription for each hour in the day”, mentioned in the first section. These actions can be read to bear upon her rapid descent into schizophrenia while not explaining it.
The narrator does agree with the sanity of these “practical” prescriptions but had noted “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes”. Much depends on how to read those words “in spite of”, a phrase which reoccurs five times in the text, the last of these in the important final line, “I’ve got out at last”, said I “in spite of you and Jane”. 9 It may or not be relevant to note that the context here is not that the protagonist gets well “in spite of” John but grows progressively sicker “in spite of”. Many readings rightly stress the oppressive nature of the husband/physician figure but this does not imply that the narrator is ‘submissive’ and the text is full of little acts of defiance.
Many other readings outline how her slide stems from the narrators intellectual or imaginative censoring, and how it is causally linked to a treatment which counsels against writing. Yet there is the crucial fact that she is able to write and that the text is proof of this. The narrative which is framed in diary-like confessional segments is a form of writing. Far from being prohibited the narrator in the second segment says “We have been here two weeks and I haven’t felt like writing before, since that first day”.
There is also the complication that if as has been suggested by some that the wall-paper becomes a projective outlet for the expression of her imaginative and intellectual faculties then this is complicated by the fact that it is the aesthetic properties of the wallpaper, its explicitly aesthetic and formal properties which captivate the narrator’s attention stimulating an obsessiveness to following it, projecting ‘ excited fancies’ onto it, all of which precipitate her madness in ways foreshadowed by and “in spite of” her husband’s ‘caution’. Though counselled not to write she pointedly does find an outlet for her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” and her subsequent obsessive fixation with it rather than exposing the advice to be frivolous paradoxically affirms it; “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had”.
The husband in fact seems as much repressed as repressive; “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things to be felt and seen and put down in figures”. If this figure then epitomizes ‘reason’ and the rational, one wonders how much Gilman’s text reenforces gender-assumptions, being affirmative of a prejudiced view of woman as embodying the irrational and upholding typical gendered stereotypes.
However this is not to deny that Gilman’s text might be highly ironical and not to deny that she does play with these stereotypes in this tale of transformations, as evinced by the husbands fainting at the end. Yet rather than suggesting a “final triumph…. symbolized by the overcoming of John”, 10 this in fact may be taken conversely as a ‘final defeat’, making plain latent fears exhibited by both parties towards the powerlessness and uncontrollable infantalization that debilitating chronic ‘depression’ may result in, leaving one part of a married couple in the sole role of carer/nurse and the
other child-like. Many critics forget that schizophrenia is not a gendered illness and in fact does leave people irrespective of gender in such helplessly dependent positions.
Many other readings attack the prescribed ‘rest cure’ as initiated and espoused by the famous neurologist Weir Mitchell whose presence is referred to in passages of the story. Many of these arguments which place the text within its socio-cultural context and to Gilman’s own life, is furthermore complicated by the factual errors, omissions, misreading and bias resulting from “various myth-frames that have been used to legitimize Gilman’s story” as has been documented by Julie Bates Dock in the important "Critical Edition & Documentary Casebook." which details the history of the story’s publication, its reception and often erroneous hagiography. Weir Mitchell’s restcure crucially did entail many features as outlined in the narration but omits the fact that patients were asked “to write their life history” 11 as part of therapeutic treatment; that his treatment was specifically aware of the ‘illness behaviour” as exhibited by the protagonist resulting from inactivity. Furthermore the ‘rest-cure’ within its medical context was an alternative to many less humane treatments such as the growing use of electroshock therapy during this time. From the opening we hear how the physician’s lay stress on “air” and “exercise” and yet the protagonist seems in glee to defy the counsel, going so far as to explicitly and ironically sneer at the suggestion within her madness, “To jump out the window would be admirable exercise”. Far from following medical advice it is clear from the beginning that the narrator is in opposition to her treatment, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas”, and there are clear indications of her defiance of it which makes problematic readings which lay ‘the blame’ for her schizophrenia on it.
Many readings accuse her husband of locking her up in a prison-like compound. While her setting clearly resembles a prison/nursery it is the narrator who it can be argued locks herself up as she pointedly does in fact towards the end; “I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to”. There is also the further complication of how reliable or unreliable the narrator is. This can be glimpsed in the very first line; “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer”. This is complicated by the fact that her husband is “a physician of high standing” as is her brother. This is in opposition to the fact that “physicians occupied the highest rung on the social ladder” 12 and necessitated a prestigious education at institutions open only to a privileged sector of society.
Furthermore there is always the question of how unwell the narrator is at the beginning of the story. Initially she calls it “a haunted house” suggesting latent fears which her ego ‘I’ demonstrably asserts “I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it”. In saying this however it may just be a formal feature resulting in the fact that Gilman Perkins frames her story in Gothic horror conventions making her indictment of society all the more pointed. There is much repetition especially apparent in the repeated “nervous” in the second segment as well as the curious uses of the impersonal pronoun “one” at the beginning of the opening section. Importantly, the narrator at this point states many important things often overlooked, namely how “there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength” as well as suggesting that it is not the boredom which is “dreadfully depressing” but rather “these nervous troubles”. Also against those who see the protagonist’s illness as a direct result from her husband’s treatment it should be noted that he is pointedly “away all day, and even some nights”. The husband it can be argued is in ‘flight’ from the truth of her situation
vainly assuring “friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter”. Earlier she states how “he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?”
In plain opposition to the protagonist’s steep and rapid mental deterioration her husband is time and again in denial “but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not” pulled perhaps between his roles of husband and physician. Immediately preceding the above she intimates "Better in body perhaps—“ but he markedly breaks her off as if unable or unwilling to face the truth. At root may lay his fear of the social stigma attached to mental illness and as such one can read his faint at the end as a symbolic social death. He markedly has removed his wife from her environment cloistering her in away from a society which he is at pains to keep away from the site of trauma. His laughs can be taken as the nervous tics of the ‘husband’ side of his character, expressions of unconscious forbidden thoughts which his public social persona must suppress, of the reality he is “opposition” to; an “opposition” which it can be argued serves only to aggravate her tendencies towards juvenility.
The wallpaper is closely linked in the story to the powers of writing standing in contrast to “the dead paper” in which she documents (confesses?) her deteriorating illness. Markedly she transfers her imaginative faculties towards it imbuing it with her own narrative; “I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness” Imbibed with the aesthetic qualities of an art-work the wall-paper from the beginning is “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”. There is the question of the narrator’s line of “work” often taken for justifiable reasons to relate to “writing”. If this is so, then ironically the protagonist never leaves her workenvironment of the room. The room it should be noted not only has been a nursery and
a playroom but also a “gymnasium” and crucially the wallpaper we are told provokes “study”. This might, I can only suggest, problematizes (while not detracting from) forceful readings, which see the stories moral centred through a socio-cultural perspective on how “women in general suffer if they are excluded from the workplace”
. While the story does indubitably reflect Gilman’s own hostile feelings towards
marriage and motherhood entailing “weakness and passivity” being “the ultimate human sacrifice” 14, it might just be a curiosity how this discourse adopts the extreme language typical of a persecution-complex. Yet, it can be argued that this is a fittingly reflection of a gendered hierarchical society which while going unreformed left women excluded from the common norms an integrated society would entail based on equality and solidarity such as the right to work and Gilman’s story is an explosively detailed and vividly realistic description of this polemic.
Unlike the characters in ‘Daisy Miller’ the couple depicted in ‘Souls Belated’ are on an ironically inverse journey from the ‘solitude’ they find themselves in Italy to the ‘society’ of Switzerland. This ‘deceptively simple’ story is constructed around a series of set-pieces which highlight a number of juxtapositions wherein the story gets its tensions and its ‘dynamic’; between silence and dialogue, a female point of view and male-point of view, solitude and society, marriage and divorce, honesty and deception, appearance and reality, movement and stasis, freedom and the laws of society all play a part to enrich and sustain the narrative.
According to Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Wharton details, “with surgical precision” (an apt metaphor after James’ case-study) “the complexity of the lover’s dilemma”, which suggests to what extent “we all unwittingly affirm the very prohibitions from which we
seem to suffer”. 15 Many of the scenes are notably set within the confines of enclosed spaces in a sense representing the entrapment of the protagonists and blackmail becomes a key plot element in the second half of the story.
So while a ‘realistic’ inquiry into the a couple’s entrapment by the social mores and modes of late 19th century society, ‘Wharton’s shifting point of view narrative also contains a striking amount of both subtle and overt symbolism strikingly conveying the empty solitude and drift of its protagonists towards their inevitable “mechanical” acceptance of the conventions which govern society. Marriage is exposed as a hollow covenant, limiting and compromised. Rather than being affirmative of the ties of love marriage severs it from its root.
Marriage furthermore, it is suggested, turns people into mere automatons, a symbolic concern of many in a new age of rapid mechanisation in industry and society, reducing individuals “to a series of purely automatic acts” which foreshadows quiet strikingly the final line. The idea that it serves to join two people together through matrimony is subverted so that the reality Wharton ‘presents’ sees individual “souls” who were “sorry to be left alone”. This is first evinced in the opening scene in the carriage where though the space between the characters may not objectively be so great, the author suggests a completely different felt experience and psychological distance between the two characters.
At the beginning of the novella the couple are in apparent flight symbolized by the guards shout ‘Par-ten-za!’ which is notably repeated twice and relative to Lydia’s life and first marriage “indicated the purely ornamental nature of the first shout”. We are
then told “The train vibrated to a sudden slamming of doors” and within this enclosed and ‘trapped’ space are left the couple. It is ironic how Lydia proceeds to lower “the shade” foreshadowing the portrayal of the “moral atmosphere” of her first marriage in “the Tillotson interior” which was as “carefully screened and contained as the house itself” while also suggesting how this atmosphere is also present at this early stage in her relationship with Gannett. This is later evidenced as a framing device at the denouement as Gannett looks “through the slats of the shutter” as his Lydia attempts to leave their ‘fake’ marriage, which is essentially a marriage of convenience, and the moral confinement, the soul-destroying “duties” and petty “abnegations” it requires.
Bob Dylan once wrote that “To live outside the law you must be honest”. 16 The problem for this couple is that they are left with no choice but to be dishonest, “lying with every breath”. Every course of action within their relationship together necessitates “another form of deception and a meaner one” leading to their entrapment within a web of lies. Yet the irony is that having internalised the rules and conventions of society she comes, despite herself, to “delight” in her “respectability” and acceptance within a highly sheltered, predictable, moralistic and inauthentic society. To a certain degree then, Wharton’s tale charts through Lydia, the inability to be authentic within a marriage-role which entails an inauthentic existence. Her only way out of “this labyrinth of self-torture” is to become a social outcast where her future is solitary and uncertain, a move which in a striking metaphor compels her to “turn back to him as Latude returned to his cell”.
The ‘force’ of the word ‘divorce’ significantly “arrests” Lydia. We are reminded of the unwritten ‘Social contract’ and its binding laws which when broken led to punishment
in the forms of social exclusion and the growth of ‘solitary confinement’ as an institutional tool adopted in the 19th century from the beginning of the novella. The stigma of divorce is expertly conveyed by the presence of “the thing” referring to Lydia’s letter in her bag which literally and figuratively oppressively hangs over them in the train functioning much as Poe’s letter in ‘the Purloined Letter’ to guide not only their thoughts within the scene, the silence ‘which speaks’ but also shapes their subsequent actions and behaviour.
Life is made up of “compromises”, Gannett argues yet these are “cheap” as she immediately points out. This exchange is important to the novel; on one hand “compromise” refers to a settlement, thereby reminding one of the “cheap” divorce which far from ‘freeing’ Lydia merely serves as a formal declaration stipulating he had “given her to Gannett”, a fact not only hugely offensive to “her self-esteem” (she reckons herself “an outlaw” after all) but moreover as it cheapens her humanity by objectifying her as material ‘property’ within a male-orientated market-place. It is notable however that the narrative detailing her past from Lydia’s own point of view paradoxically adopts this vocabulary and its metaphors; “It was her love for Gannett that made life with Tillotson so poor and incomplete a business. If she had never, from the first, regarded her marriage exposed her former marriage as a full cancelling of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a number of years, accepted it as a provisional compensation, she had made it “do”. (SB 10)
This discourse of the capitalist marketplace is society’s, and one Lydia has subconsciously adopted. We encounter it later in the “dirty business” of Trevenna and Mrs. Cope as the latter awaits her own divorce papers which when they arrive do so in a
“big official looking envelope” and on opening it Mrs. Cope “rushed off upstairs … with the director shouting after her”, leaving Gannett to ironically conclude from the way she left the hotel “distributing bows and smiles” that “She’ll be Lady Trevenna within a week, I’ll wager” (SB 44)
Within this context Lydia’s fears of marriage to Gannett are wholly understandable. It would not be out of love but one borne by duty and a sense of obligation, “he was bound to stand the damage”, invoking as it does the ‘damage’ divorce meant to a woman’s reputation yet also framed within the objectifying discourse of a society that evaluates and judges; “Her husband in casting her off had virtually flung her at Gannett; it was thus that the world viewed it” (SB 13)
“Compromise” also points towards a reduction in value, a diminishment of quality and degree so that if marriage is truly a compromise between two people it necessitates a devaluing of authenticity, freedom and self-expression, concerns Lydia shares with Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’, in their twinned yet equally tragic “protest against the sacrifice of the individual to the family” (SB 20)
There is a wonderfully succinct image of ‘the home’ and all that it symbolises for Lydia in the “jolly old villa” Gannett points out to his lover from the carriage at a point when the question of a marriage-proposal “the decent thing to do” oppressively hangs over their thoughts. Here sexual appetite as represented by the statue of the “satyr” is cold and dead, cast in “stone”; its “fountain” is “stagnant, symbolic of youth perhaps or of a ‘fountain of ideas’, keeping in mind Lydia’s earlier caustic reference to Mrs Tillstone’s (who’s name is also apt in this case) “dreading of ideas, while delineating the “moral
atmosphere of her first marriage; and the villa itself is caught sight of as if through a coffin “beyond the embankment, through the opening in a mossy wall” (SB 15)
The passion of the couple’s original love, the sensual naturalness of the “flavour of their happiness”, had we are told “deepened” in isolation “as night intensifies the scent of certain flowers” Yet the couple cannot pass from “one solitude to another….abnormally exposed to the action of each other’s thoughts”, (SB 23) again suggesting that they have internalised the discourse of their age which saw such pleasure as ‘abnormal’. Entry into a conventional society and adoption of its ‘modus vivendi’, irrevocably “cuts” this period short. It is significant then how at the end of the second part Lydia “stooped to pick a violet in the border” after Miss Pinsent asks her what “her husband” thinks of her speaking to the “new arrivals”. On one hand this may be an expression of violent exasperation at the conventionality of the question yet it also evokes the termination of their earlier “happiness”, and symbolises the current state of their increasing separation. This is also evidenced in the preceding dialogue with Mrs Cope, “My husband has said nothing to me” (SB 33)
The ‘family’ in ‘Souls Belated’ is figuratively evoked by the group at the hotel headed by the aristocratic and matriarchal Lady Susan, who all seek to please and yet “who’s morals are not easy to live up to”. Lady Susan, Wharton ironically adds, was a “person of such determination” as well as the father-figure of the chaplain who preaches to Gannett “by the hour about The Reign of Law”, typical Victorian figureheads of the “little family”, whose worth is subtly and derisively suggested by that seemingly inconspicuous wry adjective. Entry into and acceptance by the family entails the very same “fenced-in view of life” with its “keep of the grass morality” that Lydia had
wrongly thought she “didn’t care about” (Like Daisy perhaps), leading to the compromises, hypocritical play of appearances and passive acquiescence of the normative conventions which Lydia had earlier in isolation refused “to accept”; “Life is made up of compromises’. ‘The life we ran away from yes! If we had been willing to accept them” (SB 20) This piece of dialogue wonderfully foreshadows the couple’s later acceptance; “When they asked you to hand the plate in church I was watching you – you wanted to accept” (SB 48)
It is apt in this story of ‘smoke and mirrors’ how the image of flight is at times linked symbolically to smoke. It is first invoked as the “masculine equivalent of darkened windows and a headache”, as an attempt to “get away from things”. They become Gannet’s ever-present companion in his flight from truth and the reality of his situation (the loss perhaps of his earlier writing ‘promise’) and it is significant how as Lydia waits at the quay preparing for her own flight “she stood motionless, her eyes on the trail of smoke that precede the appearance of the boat”
Gannett’s “promise” itself has been “compromised”. His life has perhaps become the fiction, the lie consuming his sense of the realistic. There really isn’t “any ink left in the inkstand” whether as writer or as lover. Perhaps like Lydia, entry into an unthinking mechanistic society means losing “the habit of introspection”. (SB 39) If cigarettes do symbolise the male way of getting away from things, for this writer within an age where the realistic strain in American writing was at its height it is significant in how they have become “his chief resource” in an inauthentic, unproductive, “course” existence while “playing the sneak”. (SB 46) Etymologically “resource” comes from ‘relief’ but also ‘to rise again’ and thus is an astute ironic
image within the contexts of the couple’s exhausted and dissipated former “passion” within their compromised positions.
The figure of Miss Susan as righteous ‘moral’ gatekeeper has been foreshadowed by the sketch of the “commanding” Mrs Tillotson senior who passes down the doctrines of regularity, prudence and punctuality to her son Lydia’s first husband. Here too the imagery is clear; Lydia enters this elite pious social rung through “the portals of the Tillotson mansion” and accepted into its midst “a circle of prejudices” only by a silent submission and mechanistic acquiescence. Perhaps by being an outsider however Lydia did not get the “respectability” which she receives from the “family” at the hotel, so “precious” and yet tainted; “I’ve stolen it because I couldn’t get it any other way” (SB 47)
One question which arises in the context of the novella is to how pervasive and omnipresent is the society the couple attempted to flee from. Even in flight it seems they can never leave it and are thus forced to play the game and adopt roles. The novella opens with “a courtly person” (SB 7) leaving their carriage forcing them to be alone. This personage is representative of the high stratum of society they inhabit, an indication that they have never left its presence. Having just left Transylvania, this figure who “ate garlic out of a carpetbag” is of course a witty reference to Bram Stoker’s novel and yet indicative of the soulless blood-suckers who move within their society.
The tense atmosphere at the beginning where even the most trivial and minute “incidents stood out sharply” is undoubtedly highly-charged yet ironically at odds with the train’s movement as well as suggestive of a relationship that has stalled. The characters find themselves confined within their situation. Images of entrapment abound in ‘Souls Belated’. Later Mrs Cope recognises Lydia as being “in the same box”. Lydia in her first marriage mechanistically accepted the point of view of the society she had entered, and assimilated as natural its rules and prejudices which seemed “as inseparable” as having a “parterre box the opera”. (SB 11)
One thinks of Wharton’s “theme of imprisonment” characteristic of many of her works but the author may also have in mind a coffin in employing this ‘box’ imagery. Notably in the couple’s carriage directly after their brief encounter with the “courtly person” Lydia moves to “get out of the sun” and this atmosphere is wonderfully evoked at the beginning of the final segment with references to “troubled sleep”, “silence”, Lydia pushing “back one of the creaking shutters” and Gannett’s supposition that she is going out to get some “air” (SB 53) As such Wharton might be evoking artistically to what extent one might construe the social contract of marriage for women as“ a full cancelling of her claims upon life” (SB 11)
Not only is there much foreshadowing but there is a consistent and remarkable amount of ‘mirroring’ which lends much harmony to the story’s construction. Crucially as intimated earlier the plot hinges on an encounter with a couple who are “in the same box”. But this it should be noted is a distorted mirroring for the couple are a warped version of Lydia and Gannett. Mrs Cope makes apparent twin taboos and choices left open to Lydia. She speaks of “that thing”, unspeakable and repressed for Lydia as well
as adopting a motherly role which makes explicit in one respect the “humiliating answer” to Lydia’s “perplexities”. (SB 26) Instead of adopting the idealistic Romantic “vocation” of being Gannett’s muse and though she had resisted “in herself the lest tendency of a wifely taking possession of his future…maintaining the dignity of their relation”, Mrs Cope presents a grotesque reality of what would be needed for a wife to take care of and act in her husbands “interest” (SB 35)
From the silence and solitude which characterise ‘Souls Belated’ so markedly to the cacophony and crowd of spectatorship which is such a recurrent feature of Stephen Crane’s early masterpiece ‘Maggie’. This novella provides a striking example of a late 19th century author’s close attention to rendering accumulative detail and the changing qualities of perspective in order to offer a shifting sweeping panoramic view of characters in action within an urban ‘milieu’, rendering their distinctive vernacular speech which structures thought, their unquestioned beliefs and prejudices in and through an expressive language that attempts to do in prose what painters had been attempting in the fine arts, that is, showing how ‘reality’ appears imaginatively ‘coloured’ to the eye.
‘Maggie’ is an impressionistic novella of shifting perspectives often about perspective itself; of a teeming metropolitan existence which “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”; 17 a sketch showing the interaction between limited individual consciousnesses in a modern city where nothing is singular but a part of a wider picture and wider context made apparent by a forceful ironic narrative. If money in the new capitalist economy proved the great leveller raising the middle-class as epitomised by the Millers in James’ earlier study Crane’s work delineates those stuck at
the very bottom “in the gutter” unable to rise above poverty, misery, squalor and vicious degradation and the paucity of options open to them as long as that society goes unreformed and neglected, a state of affairs which spread apathetically towards all members of the urban ‘spectacle’.
In this episodic tale “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. 18 Unlike many ‘Realist’ accounts ‘Maggie’ however neither attempts to be clinically analytic or detached mainly due to its caustic and almost cynical ironic narrative which so sharply and penetratingly critiques the illusions of its character’s perspectives, often painfully and pathetically at odds with the reality of their situation; “reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation…..in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.” 19 At the heart of this lies the authors critique of ‘romance’ as having no place in an animalistic savage environment. The idea of courtly love in ‘the gutter’ is exposed as a shallow illusion as are notions of the ‘heroism’ or ‘chivalry’ of modern man as well as a hypocritical moralism at variance to the natural laws of this distinctive urban jungle. Indeed it is animalistic environment which place human rights in parenthesis, rendering values valueless and morality ridiculously hypocritical and shallow. Crane suggests the modern age is one devoid of a humanism founded as it is on the separation of the humanitas and animalitas.
Crane portrays experience as fleeting and relative to individual perception. Within the fabric of the novella lie percipient portrayals of the social mass, of the over-arching link between environment and the determinism of one’s ‘fate’, of the gendered nature of
Darwinian struggle within a social caste which posit one set of rules for men and another for women “It wa’n’t no prod’gal daughter, yeh fool…It was prod’gal son, anyhow”, (M 81) the trappings of hereditary and entrapments of poverty and class.
Crane’s own ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is consciously present from the beginning; “From a window of an apartment-house that uprose from amid squat ignorant stables there leaned a curious woman. Some labourers unloading a scow at a dock at the river, paused for a moment and regarded the fight. The engineer of a passive tug-boat hung lazily over a railing and watched”. (M 6) It is no coincidence that Maggie who we are told “blossomed in a mud-puddle” does so only as long as “she went unseen”. What is predominant in this form of spectatorship is located in that word “passive”. This is a collective passivity an indictment that “indifference is a militant thing” 20 where doing nothing is as bad as those who do evil; “His eyes shone good will. But as the girl timidly accosted him he made a convulsive movement and saved his respectability by a vigorous side-step. He did not risk it to save a soul” (M 103)
Spectatorship is ever-present from “the door-way of eyes” to “tall buildings” which “seemed to have eyes that looked over them, beyond them, at other things”. People seem to watch such ‘natural’ scenes anaesthetically and irresponsibly numb to the brutality and banality of existence.
From the opening sentence the idea of ‘honour’ is ironically placed within an environment subject to vicious natural laws and thus exposed as illusory within the context. This is “a dark region” where “in defence” one is “obliged to quarrel on all possible occasions”. There is little ‘honourable’ about the place. We are introduced not
to ‘small warriors’ but as it becomes later clear to thugs who “menaced mankind at the intersection of streets”. The boy Jimmie’s behaviour here “fighting for the honour of Rum Alley” is later juxtaposed with his cowardly lack of fighting and castigation of his sister’s ‘honour’, “Jimmie publicly damned his sister that he might appear on a higher social plane”.
At times subtle while at other times overt Crane time and again highlights the discrepancy between appearances and reality coloured either by romantic illusions or a fake morality Noticeable is the authors attitude towards religion and the “grace of God”, a hypocritical sense of ‘respectability’ and the shallow assumed morality. As such Crane lays bare the concepts of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ on which a ‘democracy’ was supposed to rest as well as exposing humanistic fallacies such as ‘charity’ or ‘redemption’ as Romantic illusions which are non-existent within a naturalistic environment. There is certainly a felt lack of comradeship or friendship. In the beginning Jimmie fights alone isolated from the other Rum-Alley children “ah, where was yehs when I was doin’ all deh fightin’” yet a moment after they have regrouped they are fighting amongst themselves. Maggie’s own isolation is placed within this context of lack of friendship inside her workplace the oppressive sweatshop where workers are treated like automatons, “she would have liked to have discuss his admirable mannerisms with a reliable friend”, and later in her final appearance rejected and a-cast within the modern city where ironically one can find oneself alone as Maggie does within the teeming crowd.
It is also noteworthy Crane’s suggestion of arts complicity in propagating these illusions which blind people to their reality providing the masses with fairytales and
‘mellow-dramas built on clearly defined adopted moral codes of virtue and vice and in which “the last act was a triumph for the hero, poor and of the masses, the representative of the audience”.
Though Crane is often simply termed a ‘naturalist’ ‘Maggie’ is not a purely ‘deterministic’ story. Though of the ‘gutter’ environment, “none of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins”. Yet she may be an anomaly within her environment and her plight is that she has only the options that it provides thereby becoming a character type from the slums – a nameless prostitute – in the final chapter we encounter her in. Likewise Jimmie is stripped of all definable individuality at the end of the novella merely appearing as “a soiled, unshaven man” having much earlier adopted the father-figure role thrust on him adopting the general character traits expected “as incumbent of that office….as his father had done before him”. In saying this Maggie is herself a victim of her own misconceptions of the culture she inhabits. She exists in a modern “hell” (a word which reoccurs with alarming frequency throughout the narrative) subconsciously apparent perhaps to some of its inhabitants “Yeh’ve edder got the go the hell or go the work” and again “My home reg’lar livin’ hell”, an apocalyptic vision which has risen to the surface of society much like Tennyson’s ‘Kraken’, “a ragged being with shifting, bloodshot eyes and grimy hands”, in the figure Maggie encounters at the end of the version of the novella.
Maggie indeed does go to work first in a sweatshop in a room of young women “of various shades of yellow discontent” before being forced to join another shade” among the “painted cohorts” outlining the limited and degrading choices open to young women in fin-de-siecle New York. In a sense Crane’s narrative is a traditional account of the
innocent and naïve young girl led astray by a seemingly “extremely gracious and attentive…gentleman”, who promises the world and “contact with people who had money and manners” before casting her aside leading to a downward spiral of degradation and death yet ‘in ‘Maggie’ the author is as adamant that it is the conglomerate society’s fault as a whole rather than a singular individual.
One may object to finding Edgar Allen Poe within a paper on American Realism yet I wish to argue that ‘the tell-tale heart’ in fact is an attempt at literary realism and is a wonderful precursor to a strain of psychological realism exhibiting psychological depth through a vivid immediate narrative. Opposed to moralistic didacticism and a Romanticism that was ‘a heresy’ against truth, Poe grappled with the ethics of aesthetics and the problems of composition not only in his criticism but through his many of his ‘fictions’. The issue of a fiction which could approach reality negates the fundamental paradox inherent in the phrase ‘realism in fiction’. Poe’s way to resolve this paradox was a rendering of a subjective reality which could emphasise the reality of the imagination as it presents itself to lived consciousness. Realism need not be solely confined to the banal and commonplace but acknowledge the extremes of human nature within a world not nearly as rational, ordered or as benign as some may wish. Amongst many others critics, William Carlos Williams recognised Poe’s talent in giving “the sense for the first time in America that literature is serious, not a matter of courtesy but of truth.” 21
Poe’s tale opens with dramatic immediacy. We are confronted with a speaker in a state of nervous urgency reflected in the terse staccato broken sentences marked by monosyllabic units. Noticeable are the frequency of exclamations and rhetorical
questions which not only reflect natural speech but artistically inform the piece by conveying immediacy and intimacy as well as providing dramatic urgency to the speaker’s utterances. However this ‘speech’ is highly and carefully poetic resembling in many respects a densely structured prose-poem so organised are its ‘effects’. There is an emphasis on alliterative harsh ‘d’ sounds in the opening paragraph and the words they occur in are polysyllabic and are thereby emphasised, for example “dreadfully’, ‘dulled’, ‘disease’ and ‘destroyed’.
Also noteworthy is the switching of tenses between past and present also reflective of natural speech and conducive to implying a striking immediacy to the story as if it has just occurred so that the events are still vivid in the speaker’s mind. There is a stress on the senses especially on hearing dramatically evoking the heightened state of mind the narrator is in and his own desperation to be ‘heard’. This focus on sound is allied to the carefully constructed rhymes and half-rhymes which abound, between ‘mad’ and ‘had’ (repeated twice) and the cogent internal rhyme-scheme between ‘dreadfully’, ‘dulled’, ‘all’, ‘hell’ and ‘tell’. There is also much qualifying by the speaker from the off; he is not just ‘nervous’ but “very, very dreadfully nervous”, apparently eager to stress the unusualness of his ‘tale’, as well as instances of intensifiers such as “all”, with the added effect that it builds up the dramatic import and emotion of the story. The nuanced realism of the story, entailed by the occasion of its realistic telling lies in its direct address. The narrator turns to the listener, breaks off at points, qualifies and questions, anticipating the thoughts of the listener, conscious not only that he is speaking but that he is being heard “Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story. As consummate a storyteller as he was Poe is able to play with the conventions of the story form and though ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a ‘tall-tale’ Poe
manages to make it through a documentary style confessional- form believably realistic. In treating American literature in the 19th century it is perhaps prudent to keep in mind that though “writers turned to new realities, does not necessarily mean that they became more realistic”. 22 There is always the problem inherent to composition and narrative form.
For Dostoevsky Poe’s great talent lay in his descriptions of heightened inner states, of realistically rendered ordinary characters thrust into fantastical situations, laying stress to Poe’s “marvellous acumen and amazing realism”, and this statement “amazing realism” is a fitting evaluation not only of Poe’s psychological acuteness prefiguring as it does Freudian notions of ‘the uncanny’, paranoiac projection and the ‘return of the repressed’ but also a summation of a craftsmanship where the ‘devil’s in the details’; “Poe presents the whole fancied picture or events in all its details with such stupendous plasticity that you cannot but believe in the reality or possibility of a fact which actually never had occurred”. 23
Notice how “the idea” seems objectified, defamiliarised and almost personified as an agent – it takes hold of the narrator “enters” him, taking possession of his body like a ghost, “it haunted me day and night”. The speaker is quick to emphasize that he is aware of his irrational transgression. On one hand then, the crime appears motiveless and irrational, a seemingly random act within an irrational universe but Poe is careful to causally link every part of the story so that though the acts appear irrational the link between them is not. In addition the narrator appeals to common-sense, to the loquacity of his actions and to a certain extent in so doing problematises the clear distinctions between reason and reason keeping in mind that insanity was traditionally founded as a
lack of sanity; “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight”.
Yet this is not to say that the source of the actions are not ‘mad’; “I think it was his eye! Yes it was this!” By the unequivocal strangeness of this statement, its brazen unnatural bizarreness one understands why the silent interrogator thinks the speaker is ‘mad’, for it is a mad claim, the result of a fixation of the mind. This ‘silent interrogator’ of course is the implied reader and through the narrative construction of the tale Poe anticipates as well as guides the evaluative judgements in a skilfully adroit manner. Our speaker furthermore always speaks of the victim as an “old man” and by affixing this inauspicious adjective guide our empathetic sympathies towards the helplessness of the man.
There is a subtle yet unmistakeable irony in the speakers claim that “every morning when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him calling him by name in a hearty tone”, contrasting markedly as it does with the lose of all courage and all ‘heart’ towards the end of the story, yet preparing us for the dramatic confession by implying that he does have a heart and a conscience.
One’s attention is markedly drawn to the employment of time as it is developed by Poe in the dramatic narrative. It seems ‘out of joint’; time’s parameters become elastically stretched or contracted, slowed down to remarkable effect in the scenes depicting the narrators ‘stalking’ of his victim. This is perhaps best termed psychological time entailing durations which are endured and unendurable as towards the close of the tale. There is unnaturalness also to the slowness of the movements within this prolonged
time “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening” yet it could be argued that Poe’s rendering of time is remarkably consistent with how it may be felt or experienced.
Paradoxically there is a remarkable amount of ‘control’ as evinced by the careful actions of the murderer adding a psychological depth to the realism of the story, signifying the method within the madness “I moved it slowly – very very slowly…I undid the lantern cautiously – oh so cautiously – cautiously”. Whereas elsewhere repetition may be seen to serve a purely formalistic effect as with the persistent repetition of the word “night” in the third paragraph chimed with “foresight”, “light” and “might”, in other respects repetition serves to make the speech highly believable reflecting its ticks as we hear it in everyday speech while also adding a distinctive characteristic hue to the unusual character. The qualifications so characteristic of the sentence quoted above are consistent with Poe’s attempt to make his story believable and imbue his idiosyncratic narrator with a striking realism and logical coherency, “I resolved to open a little – a very, very little” and again “It was open – wide, wide open”.
The narrator seems confused about the word ‘wise’ and one wonders if Poe means that one can be logically illogical or rationally irrational rather than simply the antinomy of madness; “I felt the extent of my own powers – of my sagacity” One also wonders how much this is a tale about guilt and the consciousness of conscience. Ironically the narrator cannot hide the “hideous heart’, the insidious act leaves its imprint in the brain apparent in the speakers final “Hearken!” for he is still mentally affected. In France due mostly to Baudelaire’s influence Poe was seen to be subverting conceived concepts of
nature, beauty and the rational – all associated with a jaded romanticism at odds with the growth of cities, industry and commerce and the social problems which lurked under the surface. It is significant how Poe’s tale is played out in an interior enclosed space somewhat reflecting the subjective enclosed space of the narrator’s consciousness. Ironically one wonders how much he mistakes the old man’s terror for his own. This may be a projection from “the acuteness of the senses” just as the beating of the heart may be just the narrator’s own heart beating from adrenalin. One also wonders if what makes the speaker grow “furious” as he ‘gazed upon’ the eye is not a reflection of himself through the eye of another, that is, the realisation that he is mad. There is also the possible implication in this tale about detection that the speaker wishes to get caught subconsciously, forgetting about the ‘loud yell’ and his realization of sounds that would ‘be heard by a neighbour’…
The control mentioned earlier is the manifestation of a self-discipline whose logic is worked out in the stories denouement. The murderer’s confession can be seen in Foucouldian terms of how society through groups or individuals in the 19th century began to discipline itself automatically just as the old man in his room can be seen as a prisoner who is seen by a Panopticon supervisor (the narrator has some delusions of super-natural prowess) but cannot see yet realises “himself to be observed”. In this way we can understand the need of the narrator for his interlocutor’s acceptance, understanding and perhaps subsequent forgiveness as the manifestation of the propensity to self-discipline (internal law) within the conventions of a traditional (external law) morality. The narrator then polices himself perhaps exasperated by ease with which his crime goes undetected “My manner had convinced them”, as well as the incompetence and ineptitude of the officers who do not detect a thing “And still the
men chatted pleasantly and smiled”. Poe here suggests the concerns of a society faced with undetectable crimes within dense urban populations hidden behind the walls of high rise buildings and apartments yet may indeed reflect Foucault’s hypothesis that nineteenth-century society due to the rise of humanism began to police and discipline itself automatically within a culture of increased surveillance
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