This Week in My Classes: The Morals and the Stories

Though everyone is looking a bit peaked around the department these days–students and faculty alike–and I’m certainly feeling the usual pressures as we move into the term’s final phase, I am also finding myself intellectually invigorated by the novels we’re working through in all of my classes. It is just such a pleasure to be spending time reading and thinking about them, even under less than optimal conditions.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss. Although I love the early volumes of this novel, with their evocative (if also rather vexed) representation of childhood, and their wonderful blend of sly humor and philosophical reflection (not to mention, of course, the brilliant characterizations of Tom and Maggie and their whole mish-mash of a family life), Books VI and VII really get me excited. I know they are disproportionately short, and who wouldn’t love it if Eliot had written out the great conflict between duty and desire more fully–but then, there’s something apt, too, about the headlong rush to the ending. Though we had read only to the kiss on the arm for today, it was clear from our discussion that the students both grasp the complexity of Maggie’s situation and are interested in it: there aren’t easy answers, the way there are in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance. Brontë’s narrative is complex in other ways, but that there is a right way out of Helen’s difficulties is far less difficult to grasp, just as it is easier to see where she went wrong in the first place. Her attraction to Arthur Huntingdon, while understandable, is a sign of her moral immaturity. Maggie’s attraction to Stephen Guest, on the other hand, while equally misguided in its own way, is a symptom of something much deeper and much further from her control. I was struck on this reading with how much Eliot emphasizes that Maggie and Stephen are initially motivated by unconscious forces, feeling as if “in a dream,” unable to recognize or articulate the “laws of attraction” that compel them. Their drifting down the river is hardly a deliberate act, or at least its impelling motives are hardly clear to them–which of course is much of the use Eliot is making of the metaphorical pattern of rivers and water and currents and drifting right to the end of the book. Once Maggie wakes up, though, into full consciousness, then sexual attraction ceases to be an accidental cause and becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that reckoning is the process of morality–the engagement of human reason in “the labor of choice.” Though it’s possible (I reluctantly suppose!) to find something mechanical in Maggie and Stephen’s impassioned debate, I find it very moving precisely because it represents that struggle to think through feeling to right action:

Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen’s better self – she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her – she felt her determination growing stronger.

‘Remember what you felt weeks ago,’ she began, with beseeching earnestness – ‘remember what we both felt – that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions – but the wrong remains the same.’

‘No, it does not remain the same,’ said Stephen. ‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other, – we can’t help what it clashes with.’

‘It is not so, Stephen – I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again – but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’

‘But there are ties that can’t be kept by mere resolution,’ said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. ‘What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?’

Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction as much against herself as against him,

‘That seems right – at first – but when I look further, I’m sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we – if I had been better, nobler – those claims would have been so strongly present with me, I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake – that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done – it would have been quenched at once – I should have prayed for help so earnestly – I should have rushed away, as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself – none – I should never have failed towards Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak and selfish and hard – able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. O, what is Lucy feeling now? – She believed in me – she loved me – she was so good to me – think of her….’

One of my students remarked that when she studied The Mill on the Floss in another class, they discussed Maggie and Stephen’s relationship as a great romantic love story–thwarted, I suppose, by “society,” though she didn’t go into detail about their interpretation. I admit, I find that a puzzling take on these two, who seem so ill-suited to each other in character and taste, and also, as we see here, in values. That their passion cuts across these factors is precisely what makes it so surprising and dangerous. If only there were a great romantic option for Maggie in the novel! Instead, she’s torn between three loves (Tom, Philip, and Stephen), each with his own demand on her feelings and loyalties. Where is she to go–what is she to do? Short of leaving them all behind and starting over, there is no way forward for her, and she can’t cut them off because as she tells Philip (become, poor fellow, her “external conscience” rather than her beloved), she “desires no future that will break the ties of the past.” Given that, her final choice is as inevitable as its result.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly finished with Hard Times. I was wondering about my decision to rotate it into the reading list again after a few years of Great Expectations and a special turn for Bleak House, but I’m actually finding it really compelling. The structure is taut (if every so often the sentiment is a bit flabby) and it’s such a very dark novel. We were discussing Louisa today and her descent down Mrs Sparsit’s staircase. I don’t know another novelist who could (or would!) stretch out a conceit like that across not just paragraphs but whole chapters. And throughout the novel there is such a tight integration between Dickens’s prose and his thinking, every thought infused with fancy so that as we read we live the novel’s principles. It’s not his most subtle novel, but subtlety will get you only so far, as Trollope conceded when he wrote about “Mr Popular Sentiment” in The Warden: the artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colours, and might make more difference than all his own fine shades of gray. And what subtle novelist could make me cry the way Dickens does every time I read the chapter called “The Starlight”? Before the week is out I want to bring in some excerpts from Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: it occurred to me during today’s discussion that we could think in more contemporary terms about the social effects of his literary strategies.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction it’s a Victorian kind of week too, because we’ve moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James has always been explicit about her interest in 19th-century fiction, especially Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, and I think in many ways Unsuitable Job is very much in their tradition. It is a kind of Bildungsroman, or so I will propose in Wednesday’s class, and the central conflict is between a calculating kind of utilitarianism (on the villain’s part, of course!) and Cordelia’s passionate humanitarianism: “what use is it to make the world more beautiful if the people in it can’t love one another?” she exclaims, and in that moment she is close kin to Louisa as she falls on the floor before her father, Mr. Gradgrind, proclaiming “your philosophy and your teaching will not save me.” Both make the case for the wisdom of the heart over the wisdom of the head.

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