The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

From here

The Mill on the Floss is a realistic Victorian novel, following the lives of the Tulliver children, from their turbulent childhood relationship, through their father’s debt and bankrupcy as well as through later romances. Tom and Maggie have a close relationship, if passionate; Maggie is her father’s favourite and enjoys reading and learning, whereas Tom who has the opportunity to be tutored, finds such things dull. He is tutored with another boy, Philip Wakem, humpbacked son of Wakem who destroys their fathers’ livelihood. Later in the novel Philip and Maggie harbour romantic affections for each other, always thwarted by the hatred their father swore for the Wakem family before his death.

Eventually turning her back entirely on Philip, Maggie stays with her cousin Lucy who is apparently being courted by, close to engagement with a gentleman Stephen. Unfortunately Stephen is enamoured by Maggie when he meets her, and subversively rows a boat with just the two of them in far beyond reach, and pressuring him into marrying her. After a nights’ sleep on a ship she refuses and returns home, only to find herself disgraced in the eyes of her brother and rejected by him. After a lonely existance, the Floss (river) floods and bursts its banks; Maggie is able to get in a boat and row to rescue Tom, but alas they are sunk by some damaged machinery.

Themes in the novel involve family relationships, gender roles, loyalty and education. Tom, as male is given much more opportunity to develop himself educationally than Maggie, and is ultimately loyal to his father’s memory. Also having an intense bond with her father, Maggie wishes to honour her brother’s wishes, and puts this above the pleading and declarations of love from both Philip and Stephen, yet this doesn’t lead to a happy end for her.

Murphy

Murphy - Samuel Beckett

From here

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, is a novel about a work shy Irishman, trying to simultaneously satisfy his partner Celia by getting a job, and avoid actually doing anything whatsoever. After moving to a small room with her, he spends his days wandering around London, buying biscuits for his lunch, without knowing he is also being hunted down by other Irishmen. Eventually he gets a job at an asylum, where he feels like he belongs, and enjoys playing lengthy games of chess with one of the men on his night rounds. Ultimately his strange meditative habits of sitting in his rocking chair, rocking himself into oblivion ends in disaster after an incident with the gas fire in his room.

I enjoyed reading this book more than I expected to; whilst the comic moments were perhaps more strange to me than comic, it was easier to get through than I epxected. Seen as a production of the post-colonial Ireland, a ‘deranged’ text, it definitely didn’t follow the expected flow of a novel, and it was often hard to work out whether there was any driving plot or just a random dawdling after Murphy, in the same way he sloped around the city. It was hard to be attached to him as a character, since he spent most of his time inactively, and never presented any reason for sympathy, attachment or emotion of any kind. His own desire to be nothing reflected back upon me as a reader, and his death was a detached event as a result.

The narrative style is very sparse in this novel, although with a specific sense of place; similarities between Murphy’s existance and Beckett’s, as a Dubliner with no job, living off others’ money are also clear. In the setting of the mental hospital Murphy is able to escape real  life, as he has spent much time trying to do, and frequently tries to move from the actual world to the virtual world of deep introspection of the mind.  Having escaped Ireland, Murphy is entrapped by a Cathleen Ni Houlihan figure, if you believe Celia to be representative of Ireland, and tries again to escape her, despite the fact he has escaped the actual geography of Ireland.

The Dubliners (partial)

The Dubliners is a collection of short stories written by James Joyce, depicting life in Dublin. My knowledge of Ireland, Irish history and all that entails is shocking, so I was expecting these to be hard to understand (context wise). Joyce’s aim to convey ‘truth’ landed him in trouble with publishers down the line, his realism and attempts to ‘write a chapter of the moral history of my country’ offended a lot of the Irish people. They are said to be written in four different sections; Childhood, Adolescence, Maturity and Public Life. Some of my intial thoughts on six of them.

The Sisters follows a boy and the death of Father Flynn, who he had spent some time with. ‘Old Cotter’ disapproves of the relationship they had, saying it would be better for ‘a young lad [to] run about and play with young lads of his own age’. Opinions that education may be ok but not that important are expressed by Cotter and the boy’s uncle alike. The boy’s visit to the mourning house reflects upon the Latin he has been taught by the Father, and an awkward period of time is spent in the room downstairs with the man’s sisters.

The style of this piece is very realistic, and I found it easy to imagine both the setting and the boy’s feelings whilst experiencing all this, as vivid as if you were watching it before you. The sisters lament james’ passing, commenting on how much they did for him whilst maintaining ‘he was no great trouble to us’. Speculation is made upon when his mind turned, and the Father as being ‘crossed’ and ‘a disappointed man’. It is said that the breaking of a chalice was the beginning of the trouble for him, affecting his mind. This story ends with the revelation that ‘there was something gone wrong with him’ when he is found alone in a confession box, laughing. This story comments on the positions of those in the church, their perceptions and responsibilites in society as well as their effect upon the young.

An Encounter starts with preoccupations with the Wild West, and this being stifled in school. Three boys decide to have a real adventure; ‘real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad’. Skipping school, Leo, Mahony and the protagonist make plans, although Leo doesn’t turn up. after walking the river, eating currant buns with the labourers for lunch and using the ferryboat, the boys buy some food, and eventually end up in a field overlooking ‘the Dodder’. Abandoning their initial plans to visit the Pigeon House, they end up in an exchange with a man who passes by.

The man tells them of his childhood being happy, but not realising it at the time, ‘sentiments which bored [them] a little’. Talking of books and then enquiring how many sweethearts each boy has, he begins talking of how nice girls are, and then walks off to a distance. Mahony chases a cat and the old man tells the main character that he ought to be whipped, contradicting his earlier conversation by saying ‘if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart …he would give him such a whipping’. Finally the boys escape the man’s clutches and run home. Themes of childhood, working class, age and male attitudes are clear in this one; there were bits I didn’t fully grasp probably but hopefully I will be enlightened in our classes!

Araby follows the admiration of a young boy for a certain young lady following his encounter with her; after which her image is never far from his mind. The opening contains a vivid, detailed description of everyday life for the people in his house; the seasons, playing outdoors, and the bustle of childhood play. The object of the boy’s affection laments that she is unable to go to Araby, a bazaar. He promises to bring her something if he goes, and after a long wait for his uncle to come home (he has forgotten) he is finally able to go at 9pm. Full of hope he gets the train and pays an expensive entry fee, only to find the bazaar at closing time. A disappointed creature, he is filled with ‘anguish and anger’.

Motifs of desire, family and general depictions of what working class life and leisure would have been like are shown here. The hopes of a young boy are easily crushed and he feels the magnitude of the situation much more keenly than if he was perhaps greater in years.

Eveline is a character who has cared for her brothers since her mothers’ death- with an abusive, controlling father she was thrilled to meet and fall in love with Frank, a sailor. She dreams of her departure with her that night, leaving her past behind to become his wife, and live in Buenos Ayres. ‘Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too’. Yet standing in the crowd by the boat, she lets him step on alone, and finds herself in ‘all the seas of the world’, which stop her from following. ‘She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition’ are the chilling final lines.

This piece left me reflecting upon the power and control which fathers, abusive fathers particularly and patriarchy can have, and the feeling of being trapped and tied down even though choices could be made to escape. Family duty also plays a role, with a dead mother and brothers she loves, but her final decision seems to be in a moment of panic, as Eveline declares ‘it was impossible!’. Probably echoing her fathers’ thoughts rather than her own.

The Boarding House focuses on the boarding house matron, and her daughter’s affair with one of the lodgers. Being aware of the situation, she bides her time before confronting her daughter and talking to the man in question in order to guilt him into marrying her. Concerns are raised by the man about the reputation of her family, should he marry her, and the daughter seems very distressed by the situation, lying on the bed and threatening to end herself, however the ending seems to conclude in a way which the matron had intended.

This focuses on Catholic guilt, the difference between religious life and everyday life and family expectations in Ireland at the time. Losing face and pride publicly is the alternative to marrying the daughter, but it appears he would prefer the latter. There seem to be hints that there is love forming in their relationship, and that they could indeed have a happy marriage together.

A Little Cloud follows Tommy as he meets up with an old friend who has moved to London, and is back for a visit. Tommy seems to be very envious of his lifestyle, harbouring secret dreams of getting published in London magazines or even experiencing the life there for himself. On his return home after a few too many whiskeys, his wife is upset and he is left in charge of his sleeping son, who wakes up screaming. A dramatic end as his wife returns home to a distraught child and he stammers his apologies and defences, tears springing to his eyes.

Ideas that marriage is putting one’s head in ‘a sack’ are expressed by the friend, and Tommy thinks to himself that in order to be successful you must leave Dublin, where nothing can ever happen. There are depictions of the poverty around, with poor children in the street, and dirty situations, as well as the prominent drinking culture. I found it hard to be sympathetic for him; although he may envy his friends’ life ultimately he is likely to be exaggerating, and the character is a gentler, kinder man than his brash London living party-type.

Counterparts focuses on the drinking habits of a man at the office, who slips out to get a few drinks in the day and is unable to complete his work. Meeting up with his friends after going to the pawn shop, he is defeated in an arm-wrestling match and ignored by a London lady who he takes a fancy to. Arriving home drunk, dejected and wishing he had more to drink, he takes his anger out on his son who has got up to make his dinner, but the fire is out.

Ideas of Catholicism are raised towards the end with the clash between the drinking culture and his wife who is at chapel, and the son who offers to say a hail mary for him if he stops beating him. Violence, anger and alcohol seem closely linked as there are various moments throughout the narrative where he is taken over by rage, and particularly in the ending takes it out on his family members, where he can get away with it. Struggling for money is apparent; whether this is a result of his job, his living conditions or his addiction to alcohol is questionable.

***

A reader’s report on Dubliners, in 1908 represented Dubliners as being restrcited to ‘very lower-middle class Dublin life’. He describes  them as ‘never enlivening, and often sordid and even disgusting… Most of the characters are too fond of drink, and nearly all are physically repulsive’. However Joyce’s writing is praised as ‘smooth-flowing’, and interestingly the writer doesn’t condescend to argue against the representation of life for these people in Dublin, although it repulses him as reading matter. Perhaps it would have revolted readers of the time, such a realistic representation of the personal and public lives of the grimy residents of Dublin. That in itself is not reason to censor the stories or for them to be unsuitable for readership; on the contrary they serve to illuminate what may be realistic situations for real people who have been left in situations of poverty. Their desires, whether for women, drink or escape show the social effect of their history.

Read it on JSTOR here

Romantic Poetry- Wordsworth and Coleridge

This week I have read a variety of Romantic poetry; the preface to Lyrical Ballads, the Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere, Simon Lee and Blake.

Having previously studies Lyrical Ballads at A-Level, I found this quite easy to get into; ideas I hadn’t picked up before were the differences in style and opinion of Coleridge and Wordsworth in regards poetry, and why it matters. Comparing some of Wordsworth’s explanations from the preface, to Coleridge’s Biographica Literaria, these differences are more clear.

Wordsworth explains his aim to write the language of ‘common man’, and sees the poet as an elevated figure with a ‘lively sensibility’. Feelings expressed are key to his work, and his subject is desired to be that which other men can understand and learn from, not great removed philosophical ideas. Knowledge comes from feeling.

Colerdige, on the other hand, believes that imagination is the key force, and that there are two types; the primary type which creates the world in our mind, and the second which is employed in poetry, in order to reimagine, and recollect, to imagine another thing. A concious act of secondary imagination is key to poetry, and that is where knowledge comes from for Coleridge.

The style of the Ryme of the Ayncent Marinere and Simon Lee differ quite a lot, from their structure, language and content, but they do seem to fit together in the collection from the aims stated in the preface. Coleridge’s poetry focuses more on the supernatural events, when Wordsworth’s concern is the everyday, ordinary incidents, such as that in Simon Lee. Emotion is key in this short poem, and the poetic voice is deeply moved by a rather simple interaction.

Personally I prefer Wordsworth’s style in this collection, as I find it easier to relate to simple, everday characters than to tales of sailing and supernatural events; but this is probably my personal preference rather than a reflection upon the two.

A Letter to Rome

This is a short story by George Moore, the first text we have studied in Irish Fiction module.

Plot: A Catholic priest, frustrated that the poor parishioners can’t afford to marry, is struck by the idea to write a letter to the Pope, suggesting that he allow the Catholic clergy to marry and have families. This would solve the problem of Protestantism taking over Ireland, with the influx of children it would bring. He is dissuaded from doing this by another priest and the bishop, who gives him a pig to take as the price for a bride for one of his parishioners instead. Happy to be helping, and making a difference, he goes home and forgets his letter.

Key themes and ideas:

Concern by Catholics that Ireland would become Protestant country- English ways taking over

Priests having most favourable living conditions compared to the poor of those around them.

Impact of the potato famine and the complication of ‘relief works’ not allowing the farmers to tend to their crops.

Censurship by the church, and this priests’ best intentions being squashed by the rules.

Celibacy within the church and the suggestion that the priest has personal reasons for wanting to marry.

Injustice, poverty, religion.

 

A comic tale, I enjoyed this short story and found it a good entry into the Irish History we have been told about in research and lectures.

Persuasion

I’ve read lots of Austen before, but Persuasion is one which had previously slipped under my radar. It actually took a lot longer for me to get into the story than Austen usually does- I could see where the plot was going but  it seemed to take a long time to get around to the actual plot matter.

Centering around Anne Eliot and matters in her family, Persuasion explains her singleness by her previous refusal of Captain Wentworth, owing to a family friends’ opinion of him. Anne is 28, quite old to be unmarried, and her father is in financial difficulty meaning they have to let the house out to lodgers. The first chunk of the book follows Anne as she stays with her married sister, near their family home whilst her father and other sister are in Bath. Her interactions with her brother-in-law’s family lead her on a visit to Lyme, including the company of a certain Captain Wentworth.

Eventually, after a few mistaken admirations and the introduction of the heir of the Eliot estate, Mr Eliot, Anne travels to Bath and takes part in the various social events there, whilst coming across Captain Wentworth again. As you may guess, previous misunderstandings are put out of their way and finally they can confess their feelings for one another after so many years apart, wondering at their curtailed future together.

Persuasion, the title, then comes from the idea that Anne was under the influence of persuasion as a young girl of 20, when she refused Captain Wentworth’s hand. The influence of other people in such a society was, of course of much importance in those times and with an absent mother, her family friend had her best intserests in mind. However, with the addition of time and age, Anne is able to make an informed choice for herself at the point the book ends.

This book really illuminated the ways the society worked at the time, the social joys , and expectations within fashionable society in Bath, as well as the ways one was expected to act towards other members of society. The invitations to balls, parties and dinners were very specific in manner, and decorum and expectation between male and female characters is evident. Methods of courting and proposals differ greatly to those now; and misunderstandings arise frequently, although they obviously aid the plot. Hierarchy within society is evident, as are fashions of the time, manners and customs.

Initial thoughts on Frankenstein

Illustrated cover of antique book, "Frankenstein," posted on Flickr by mpt.1607

From here

The first of my Romantic and Victorian novels I read was Frankenstein. I’d seen the figure of Frankenstein commonly in modern society, media, fancy dress etc, so I was surprised (although probably shouldn’t be) at how different this figure was to the one represented in the book. It seems the representation has been distorted largely through time- similar to how different the story of Dracula was from what I expected.

The beginning of the novel confused me a little as I didn’t realise the initial letters were a framing narrative to open up the real tale of Frankenstein. Eventually the tale is launched into- Victor Frankenstein is the narrator, and tells of his journey to university, and the scientific investigations he undertakes there, to establish the beginnings and end of life. Having discovered this secret, he decides to make a being.

Victor’s initial reaction to his creation is of fear and horror, and he runs away, fearing the monster will chase him and becoming ill. I found it very strange that he should be so repulsed by his creation, since he surely knew what he was doing when  he made it, but is convinced it is evil. Later meetings with the ‘monster’ see the monster narrating his growing up, essentially, as he observes the ways of humans living in the woods, and feeling lonely and wishing for company. He takes on speech, rhetoric and educates himself through these observations. However, a darker side is revealed as after attempting to make friends with the family and being spurned, he burns their house in a rage.

The monster asks Frankenstein to make him a female companion, promising to leave him alone once this is complete. Frankenstein travels to England, persued by the monster, and begins his task, before hoping to be united with his own beloved in marriage. During his work he pontificates on the danger of making a race of monsters, and destroys his work. This, viewed by the monster, causes him to wreak revenge by both killing his best friend, Clerval, and on his wedding night by killing his wife. Chasing him in the ice, Frankenstein ends up on a boat, dying. The ship’s captain finds the monster weeping over his body, and again explaining his misguided reasons for his anger and revenge.

Whether sympathy should be with Frankenstein or the monster was hard for me to decide- during the monsters’ first persuasive speech I began to feel sympathy for him- a creature abandoned in an unfamiliar world with no guide or help, no friend. I wonder if Frankenstein had not fleed how different the tale would be. Whilst his request for a mate seems reasonable, his actions of rage make the reader doubt his humanity, almost, and wonder if he can be trusted not to use his mighty strength for ill. There is certainly no electricity, no green, no bolts through the neck mentioned in the book at any stage!

Mostly reading this book made me frustrated at Victor in his careless actions of creation. Clearly he was overwhelmed by his own sense of power and knowledge, thinking he knew the best course to take and not thinking through the potential consequences. He was unwillling to face any of the consequences of his actions- did not care for the monster, merely ran away from the situation in a clear act of cowardice, despite his previous pride and arrogance in his skills. The responsibility of creation was utterly neglected by him, and it would have been better for him never to assume his powers were so great in such a reckless manner.

Victor seemed to be a very wobbly character, for want of a better word. After making the creature, he proceeds to fear and dread it, spending much time pontificating on the dreadfulness of it and not trying to amend the situation in any sensible terms. He succumbs to the blackmail of the monster before again acting rashly without really thinking about the consequences of destroying the second monster in view of the first. He allows himself to be dogged, haunted by his creation, which really he had responsibility to care for, nurture, or, perhaps even destroy if it was such a mistake. I think his crucial flaw was running away in fear in the first instance, and then his persistence in viewing the monster as evil.

Grace, and mercy are things which enter into this tale occasionally- there are hints that if the monster was shown kindness either by the human family or by his creator that things would not have ended tragically. Perceptions are also key- the blind man was not alarmed by the monster’s presence but his son, judging what he could see of an eight foot being with yellow eyes, was harsh and uncaring. The folly of our dependance upon visual judgment is being commented on through the monster’s being and others’ reactions to it. Obviously themes of fellowship, friendship and interaction are important as this seems to be what the monster craves, and what is destroyed by him in killing Clerval and Elizabeth.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and am interested to see what insights are gained through lectures and further reading. What did you think?

Romantic and Victorian Prose

This term we’re doing Romantic and Victorian Prose as well as a Poetry module from the same time period. Here’s some of the novels we will be studying, and which I’ll likely be blogging about!

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


I’ve already read Wuthering Heights at school during GCSEs and read Alice in Wonderland over the last year also.

Have you read any of these, and which were your favourites and why?