Category Archives: English

Virginia Woolf’s Revision of Milton’s Bogey in Orlando


Note: I remove works cited pages to impede plagiarism attempts.

Image result for medieval Virginia Woolf’s relationship with the work of John Milton was a sordid and tumultuous one. In her early life, Woolf saw Milton as an author of transcendent quality, yet she later identified  “Milton’s Bogey” (his sexism), and this reading remains one of the major, most-anthologized 20th century critical reflections on Milton’s work. Much scholarship explores the relationship between Milton’s literary heritage and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, particularly in Woolf’s ambition to find “Shakespeare’s sister.” Though Woolf never seeks Milton’s sister, perhaps due to her conflicted feelings on the simultaneously androgynous and deeply gendered poetics of Paradise Lost, the general move is reflective of Woolf’s desire to go back to history to find female writers who were silenced by patriarchal literary practice. Woolf’s historical fiction project is a markedly imaginative and fantastical one, that at the same time pursues the traditional goals of Nineteenth Century historical fiction. Woolf endeavors to retrospectively construct a nation of diaspora women writers residing in the liminal area of recognized history. Her historical fiction project in many ways reflects Milton’s own of retrospective national salvation from the history of victorious monarchy (or patriarchy, in Woolf’s case). Given this similarity in project, and indeed the active role Milton played in Woolf’s understanding of suppressed female authorship, surprisingly little scholarship has been done on Woolf’s Orlando with regards to this general desire to go to history to find, create, and highlight feminine authorial presence, and the Miltonic influence on Woolf’s gender-fluid, trans-historical work of historical fiction only appears in passing reference in studies of the novel.

The peculiarity of the climactic scene in which Woolf’s titular character changes from man to woman is keenly in dialogue with Miltonic precedent and shows Woolf’s interest in historical, literary revision through referential imagery and language. In Orlando, and specifically in this climactic scene, Woolf shows us not Shakespeare’s sister, but Eve’s. Orlando’s birth as a woman is strikingly mirrored to Eve’s own, yet Woolf represents it in reciprocal terms. The distinction between Satanic, Human, and Angelic that is so fundamental to Milton’s gender politics is fractured in a mock Satanic council scene with three “angels,” the only genderless figures in Milton’s epic, and Woolf casts Orlando in a keenly Satanic light in differentiating her significantly from Eve, “our mother” (PL XII). The significance of Woolf’s inheritance, mirroring, and flipping of Miltonic gender politics in the climax of Orlando is not only one of reference, but the manifestations and inversions of Milton in Orlando flesh out the subtle nuances of Woolf’s envisioned historical fiction project. While the text of Orlando is markedly fantastical, the imagistic basis of the climactic scene is one that seeks revision over radical imaginative creation as several critics suggest. Imagination is surely the avenue through which Woolf seeks this project, but the fundamental project, as exemplified in the climactic gender-swapping scene in Orlando, is for historical and literary revision towards the creation of new, contemporary spaces for literature—a space where Milton’s bogey has been corrected, and true genderless authorial presence is achievable. Thus, Orlando is not a hegemonically imaginative text that breaks from literary tradition towards the creation of something entirely new. Instead, as throughout her career, Woolf constructs a new literary space in dialectical synthesis with past literary trends and tropes—making the text as much a literary, historical one as an imaginative one.

Critical responses to Orlando have increased in recent years in the wake of Virginia Woolf’s rise to prominence in the literary space of second and third wave feminism, and much of the critical responses have been explorations of Orlando’s imaginative thrust. Jane De Gay, for example, argued that Orlando represented a feminist historiography, a reading central to my own, but De Gay argues for the hegemony of imagination in that historical project. De Gay concludes of the novel, “By placing Woolf ‘s feminist historiography in the tradition of Pater and Lee, we can see why Woolf made her fullest and most sustained attempt to rewrite history in Orlando rather than in a nonfictional work: for Woolf, the imagination provided the only satisfactory medium for embracing the lost past” (De Gay 71). De Gay seats Woolf’s project in Victorian essayists Pater and Lee (as well as Ruskin), whose influence in Orlando are certainly less noticeable than Milton, Shakespeare, and other early modern authors at large. De Gay is right, though, that Orlando is Woolf’s most sustained attempt to fulfill the aims of A Room of One’s Own. De Gay’s suggestion of imagination as “the only satisfactory medium” for doing that seems to diminish the literary, historical threads she seeks in Victorian literary circles, though, and Woolf in Orlando has higher ambitions outside of merely embracing or coming to terms with history. Woolf’s task, whether in dialogue with Victorian gender politics and patriarchal publication practices or with the literary ancestry of Milton’s gendered authorship, is to revise. Orlando does not so easily resist non-fictional themes and motifs even in its radical fantasy and magical realism, as much of the text, through its narrator and through the specifically chosen historical chronotopes at work in the novel, partakes in a significant literary critical task that is not in opposition to Woolf’s imaginative framework. Rather, Woolf’s historical revision of literary precedent is the major catalyst in deciphering the imaginative climactic sequence, and indeed, Woolf’s rendering of Miltonic precedence in her prose criticism often engages with the limitations such precedent puts on the literary imagination.

Several Milton critics have keyed in on Virginia Woolf’s readings of Paradise Lost as sexist, emotionally vapid, yet uniquely powerful in their summaries of the major feminist responses to Milton’s work in the 20th century. John Rogers, for example, in a lecture on the power of Milton suggested that, “For Virginia Woolf, especially in A Room of One’s Own, the dead writer Milton exercises an active power at the present moment as he forces his female readers to accept their subordinate place in society; and the text of Milton, and especially of Paradise Lost, therefore has to be seen as an active, persistently malignant conveyor of patriarchal oppression” (Rogers). The activity of Milton’s legacy on Woolf as described by Rogers is key, as Woolf’s utilization of Milton’s gender legacy in literature does reckon its authority and traction in literary circles of her era. Woolf does not attempt to transcend this legacy but directly interacts with it for the purpose of counteracting it through counterexample. Milton, through his characters and his assumption of a male perspective of feminine virtue and experience, enforces a “malignant,” patriarchal authority on Woolf. When Woolf inverts and confuses this gender hierarchy and point of view, it is certainly imaginative but the main engine behind Woolf’s historical project is a revision of literary history, not the invention of totally new perspectives. Reckoning Milton’s power, Woolf instead replaces, challenges, and inverts it—creating a profoundly dialectical and specifically historical product in doing so.

Woolf’s complicated, ever-changing interaction with Milton’s Paradise Lost underlines the way Orlando moves dialectically with Milton’s projec. One of Woolf’s chief problems with the patriarchal system of literature that had existed up to her point, and which arguably still exists, was that male authors were assumed to be telling a story from a male perspective. In an early essay in Vogue in 1924, the young Woolf identified Milton as one of the rare authors capable of circumventing this practice:“[These writers] however, are all of a simple character; the men have been supposed to remain men, the women women when they write. They have exerted the influence of their sex directly and normally. But there is a class which keeps itself aloof from any such contamination. Milton is their leader; with him are Landor, Sappho, Sir Thomas Browne, Marvell” (“Indiscretions”). Woolf interestingly finds many of her authors in the Early Modern period and its classical ancestors, most notably Sappho (who was the subject of many anthologized early modern poems.) Even the lesbian Sappho and the gender-bending Marvell are subservient, for Woolf, to Milton in their ability to challenge fixed patriarchal gender personas. Yet, diary evidence suggests that at this point in her life, Woolf had not read Paradise Lost, at least not with the attention she would later, and was probably referring to Milton’s earlier work, most notably Comus. In Comus, Milton does afford the character of the lady greater mental fortitude than her foolhardy brothers, yet the masque still revolves around the preeminence of feminine virginity in the construction of their virtue—a question central to the three ladies that appear later in Orlando.

Nevertheless, something that Woolf read in Milton’s early body of work denoted a sexless, gender-fluid voice, leading her to read him favorably. Woolf continues, “Feminists or anti-feminists, passionate or cold—whatever the romances or adventures of their private lives not a whiff of that mist attaches itself to their writing. It is pure, uncontaminated, sexless as the angels are said to be sexless.” Critics have long read Milton’s angels in Paradise Lost as androgynous and gender-bending, and indeed the water-spirit in Comus shares many of their qualities. This distinction, though,  between feminist novels and positive, gender-fluid authorship is critical specifically in readings of Orlando. While the book ostensibly avoids explicit feminist advocacy (though one needn’t look far behind the page to find it), it does forge characters that quite literally defy authorial gender persona. Orlando floats from one gender to another rather passively, and the narrator at most proffers normative gender commentary on Orlando’s actions and development. In many ways Orlando takes up this project Woolf in her early life identified with Milton—the creation of authentic personas not tied to authorial gender, while avoiding the necessity of political polemic. Orlando the character does exactly this in their navigation of both the persona of a man and woman, and the vaguely gendered narrator does little to limit Woolf’s creation of a plurality of gender personas within the text. Thus, the project of Orlando’s gender-fluidity is rooted not in imaginative transcendence away from patriarchal literary norms towards a total rewriting, but a dialectical synthesis from the better manifestations of that norm. Woolf admires Milton’s project, at least in her early life, and seeks in Orlando to fulfill its true potential. Four years before she wrote Orlando, Woolf saw Milton as the leader of a sexless prose. But as she read more of his work and reflected more on it the lectures and journals that construct A Room of One’s Own, her reading of Milton changed significantly in the months and year surrounding Orlando’s authorship.

Woolf’s commentary on Milton in A Room of One’s Own is her most anthologized reaction to the text, but in the context of “Indiscretions,” there is a great deal of nuance to Woolf’s description of “Milton’s Bogey.” The language surrounding her famous designation is significant for Woolf’s vision of historical fiction, and the bodily imagery she associates with it. Woolf begins with a series of conditional statements: “For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think-” (A Room of One’s Own). Woolf, not unlike Scott, Cooper, and the other practitioners of the genre of Nineteenth Century Historical Fiction, centers her vision for literary change on a notion of progress built fundamentally into time. Woolf also advocates for a Lukacsian “common experience” as the catalyst for her new writer. Those new, authentically common writers, unafraid to write their mind and in a literary room of their own construction, need time and numbers to work their change. It is a markedly utilitarian and active construction. Woolf does not render an idealistic destruction of literary precedent with the publication of a single book or a single, imaginative revelation on the page. Instead, the breaking of patriarchal persona norms requires hundreds of years and hundreds of rooms. Orlando, published a year before A Room of One’s Own but very much contemporary with the compilation and construction of Woolf’s most famous text, navigates the inherent problem suggested in Woolf’s historical imagery. Woolf herself can never see the product of her labors in a room of her own. But Orlando, a transhistorical, gender-fluid author across time and space, may explore the progress or lack thereof of this literary project. Thus, while the imaginative project enables Woolf’s literary eye to explore the scope of her historical project, what she looks for and how she constructs each chronotope Orlando occupies is fundamentally in relationship with a historical and contemporary literary purpose.

Woolf’s description of Milton’s bogey takes this greater historical concern and seats it provocatively, for readers of Orlando, in the body. Woolf continues,

“if we . . . see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down (A Room of One’s Own).

For Woolf there is an overarching “Truth” behind the world of “men and women,” and it is constructed in the human being’s relationship to all things. It is an unwieldy notion, but in the context of “Indiscretions” and her invocation of Milton’s unnamed through assumed “bogey,” this reality is an androgynous one in which true expression, free of the shackles of gender, occurs. Importantly, though, Woolf does not attempt or hope to transcend reality even in this wide-sweeping vision of literature after those hundreds of years and hundreds of singular authorial rooms. The end of this process is the assumption of the feminine body by women authors. Woolf does not reject physicality or envision a realm of mutual access and tolerance. Instead, Woolf wishes for the woman author to be able to assume her physical form. “Milton’s bogey,” for Woolf, is the way he constructs Eve’s physical, inborn inferiority. Eve, by her very creation from the rib of Adam, is dependent, weak, and limited. This delineation of Milton’s bogey as a keenly physical one is telling to the nature of Orlando’s gender switch. While it challenges Miltonic precedence, it also does not revolutionize or imagine a transcendent solution. Woolf, for better or for worse,  revises Milton’s vision such that it achieves what Woolf originally read in Milton—an author of genderless prose, rather than an author of feminist prose.

This dilemma, and Woolf’s ultimate inability in Orlando to achieve the kind of imaginative rewriting of dominant gender discourses critics like De Gay seek in the novel, is partly a product of the source rhetoric and text (chiefly, Paradise Lost) that Woolf works within in the novel. Joseph Wittreich classifies Paradise Lost as partaking in a centuries-spanning search for a synthetic, transcendent truth, writing that Paradise Lost is “the quintessence of everything the Romantics most admired . . . the Knower moved by truth alone” (Wittreich 99). Wittreich’s language is markedly similar to Woolf’s own rendering of a reality-spanning truth behind all genders, and critics have long identified capital-T Truth as a major catalyst in Milton’s epic. Woolf adheres to this romantic notion of an identifiable truth behind all social phrases and genders, the kind of truth she outlines in A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf endeavors to revise Milton’s truth, she as an author still adheres to Milton’s general enlightenment thought system. Thus, while Woolf is progressively and actively revising Milton gender politics, in that process of revision there is a significant dialectical limitation placed on her imaginative project—leaving the text unable to reach a radical androgyny or a polemic feminist advocacy.

Woolf’s relationship with Milton was a conflicted one that began with praise before eventually landing in condemnation and a literary ambition to revise his representation of failed feminine physicality. Yet in the wake of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote in her diary of Paradise Lost that, “The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, and masterly descriptions of angels’ bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror and immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions of the human heart” (Woolf “A Writer’s Diary”). Woolf again focuses in on Angels, the only true androgynous figures in Paradise Lost (along with, provocatively, Satan). Milton’s place and scope is without comparison for Woolf, yet his one true weakness as identified here is his failure to relay human passions and emotions in a meaningful or moving way. It is interesting, then, that Orlando’s titular character and its humorously ambivalent narrator do not seek to do this either. What Woolf identified as Milton’s chief literary failing in her private readings of the epic is not something she wishes to revise in Orlando. Instead, her revisional, historical project focuses in on “Milton’s bogey,” the exclusivity he affords the angelic androgyny that Woolf originally admired in her earliest readings of Milton’s prose and poetry. Woolf’s imaginative project in Orlando is not to transcend literary precedent or write new, hidden narratives—but rather to generalize Milton’s genderless prose to a character of Eve’s significance, one who could exist across the centuries Woolf knew were needed to undo Milton’s bogey. Thus, revision and not imagination constitute the major catalyst in Orlando’s transformation. Woolf is in many ways tied to literary precedent to a detrimental degree as Farwell denotes, yet her project is nonetheless specifically historical and literary.

The striking similarities between the three ladies of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty in Orlando and Milton’s three devils in the famous council scene in Book II of Paradise Lost is striking, and underlines the keenly Miltonic tenor of Woolf’s climactic enactment of the ideology of A Room of One’s Own. The transition sequence is inaugurated by a parade of the three ladies (“the lady,” it’s worth noting, is the central character in Milton’s Comus), beginning with Lady Purity: “First, comes our Lady of Purity; whose brows are bound with fillets of the whitest lamb’s wool; whose hair is as an avalanche of the driven snow; and in whose hand reposes the white quill of a virgin goose” (Orlando). The Lady of Purity is described with the most visual specificity, yet her most meaningful imagistic quality is the quill made of a wirgin goose feather that she holds. Purity, the quality of Milton’s Lady in Comus, and indeed the quality of Adam and Eve before their Satanic corruption, is represented chiefly as a textual construction. Like Adam and Eve, the Lady of Purity writes fictions and endeavors to bring Orlando back to her written realm. Belial, the first devil to speak in Book II’s council scene, is described in a very similar manner. Milton writes of the authorial devil, “Belial, in act more graceful and humane; / A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemd For dignity compos’d and high exploit: / But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear / The better reason, to perplex and dash / Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low” (PL II ll. 109-119). Belial is the most beautiful demon of heaven next to Satan as Milton describes him, much in-line with Woolf’s description of Purity’s sumptuous material appearance. Milton’s description of his rhetoric as “dropt manna” in front of poisonous deceit is evoked by Woolf’s subtle, brief placement of the virgin goose feather pen in the Lady of Purity’s hand. For Milton the main ironizing element of the beautiful Belial’s undercover deceit is rhetoric—the failed rhetoric of long and rump parliament. For Woolf, the irony of Lady Purity’s lack thereof is the literary heritage behind the pursuit of her name by Milton and others. The virginity of “the lady” in Comus, and Eve’s carnal lust in Paradise Lost is that which constitutes the deception behind Woolf’s inverted demon. Yet, the central imagery of the characters is shared: ostensible outer beauty hides the active proliferation of corruption. Woolf, in her diary and in “Indiscretions,” is quick to highlight the aesthetic quality of Milton’s writing, yet there is always that bogey, here the early modern power of virginity, wielded in the hands of a mock Belial. The beginning of the gender transition sequence thus illustrates the active revision Woolf pursues in her interaction with Miltonic precedence.

The Lady of Chastity and Milton’s Mammon are next in the mock council scene, and Woolf’s use of a shared rhetoric of fire, ice, and emotional paralysis denotes the provocative inversion Woolf constructs in her own council scene. Lady Chastity asserts her intention that “Rather than let Orlando wake, I will freeze him to the bone. Spare, O spare!’”(Orlando). Satan’s devils are famously resuscitated from their squalor in the flaming pits of hell by Satan’s call to “awake, arise, or be forever fallen” (PL I. ll 330). Here, Woolf constructs Orlando’s sleep as something the ladies would see preserved. They would counter her fire with frost. Mammon argues for the status quo as well, but as before, the imagery is flipped in Woolf’s revision. Mammon asserts that, “Our torments also may in length of time Become our Elements, these piercing Fires / As soft as now severe, our temper chang’d / Into their temper; which must needs remove / The sensible of pain” (PL II ll. 274-8). Mammon makes an argument for paralysis just as the Lady of Chastity does, but rather than quenching flame with its antithesis, he argues that fire will become their base nature—that the elements will conform to their presence. This is where the connection between Miltonic devil and Woolfian lady becomes complex, as the devils and angels in Paradise Lost are the only truly androgynous figures in the text. They are what Woolf admired most about Milton’s writing: sexless.  In the gendered enactment of the council scene in Woolf’s novel, the Lady of Chastity serves not as a reference or mirror to Milton’s devils but rather the angelic and heavenly as described in Paradise Lost. Lady Chastity seeks to stop Orlando from awaking, and wishes to quelch any fire occurring within Orlando. Mammon delivers the ostensible argument being made in Orlando, that the elements adjust to Orlando’s change, but Woolf is still working on the imagistic and sentence level in reciprocals to Milton’s precedent. Where Belial and Lady Purity perform the same function with different variables, Chastity and Mammon perform inverted functions.

The Lady of Modesty continues Woolf’s complication of Milton’s division between devil, angel, and woman. She enters:“Close behind her, sheltering indeed in the shadow of her more stately sisters, comes our Lady of Modesty, frailest and fairest of the three; whose face is only shown as the young moon shows when it is thin and sickle shaped and half hidden among clouds” (Woolf). The lunar imagery here must certainly be a reference to Satan, who is consistently associated not only with the moon but specifically the crescent moon, which adorns his shield throughout Paradise Lost. Yet, the imagery is also in dialogue with the third devil, Beezlebub, who is portrayed in markedly similar ways. Milton writes of the last devil, “Thus Beelzebub / Pleaded his devilish Counsel, first devis’d / By Satan, and in part propos’d: for whence, / But from the Author of all ill could Spring / So deep a malice, to confound the race / Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell” (PL II ll. 377-385). Woolf’s construction seems an imagistic enactment of the dynamic Milton highlights—Beelzebub is only a mouthpiece of Satan’s greater plan just as Modesty only exists in the context of her more “stately” sisters. Modesty’s destination after being vanquished is the least censured one by Woolf (a cozy domestic realm), and here, given the context of her invocation of Milton, Woolf seems to have the least venom for the Lady of Modesty. Beelzebub is a product of his society in Milton’s construction, a mute avenue for Satan’s lunar message, and Modesty is rendered much the same. The pen of Lady Purity and the quenching frigidity of Lady Chastity are more threatening in Woolf’s revision of Milton’s demonic council.

Thus in each case Woolf is working with Milton’s precedent in her mock tripartite council scene to revise the limitations of Milton’s gender politics. Purity writes poisonous lies behind aesthetic beauty like Belial (and, arguably, Milton), Chastity seeks to maintain the status quo like Mammon, though in markedly different ways. Modesty, the least censured of the three by Woolf, is overshadowed and enhanced by her more significant sisters, much like Milton’s Beezlebub. The similarity is not merely of reference, as it underscores Woolf’s historical fiction project at work in Orlando. Like many of her fellow genre practitioners, Woolf’s project is a relatively moderate one; she works within Miltonic literary heritage, incorporating what is beneficial (angelic androgyny) and rejecting what is not (the literary, social power of virginity and chastity). The process, though, is not notable for its imagination, but rather its specific political, historical, and literary roots

The exit of the sisters is also in dialogue with the previously outlined Miltonic focus on overarching truth, as they fearfully reject what truth Orlando may discover now that she, like Satan, has awakened. Woolf writes of the ladies, “With gestures of grief and lamentation the three sisters now join hands and dance slowly, tossing their veils and singing as they go:‘Truth come not out from your horrid den. Hide deeper, fearful Truth. For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear, Hide! Hide! Hide!’ Here they make as if to cover Orlando with their draperies.” (Orlando). The play on dark and light must recall Milton and his invocation to light, particularly given the Miltonically inflected language of the sisters up to this point. As before, Woolf revises and incorporates Milton’s rhetoric. Light is the universal good in Milton’s Paradise Lost, that which Milton is denied and that which he strives so sincerely to find through the text of Paradise Lost itself. Woolf had previously associated the androgynous Orlando as sitting at the nexus point between demonic and angelic through the language of the sisters, but here Orlando is the source for that light which Milton ascribes only to the Christian God in hsi epic. Woolf is less interested in the difference between demonic and angelic, and more in that sexless characterization she so praised in “Indiscretions” and in her diary. Orlando in her moment of transition is a figure that rejects Milton’s bogey and his characterization of Eve. She is a woman, made of man (her past), who is fundamentally unaltered in the transition. Woolf’s authorial gender is fluid as is Orlando’s, and the Miltonic build up to this watershed attempt to identify the “reality” Woolf highlighted in A Room of One’s Own accentuates Woolf’s synthesis. Created in dialectical rejection and incorporation from Milton, Woolf proffers a revised, tempered vision of the feminine writer recoverable only through the process of historical literature grounded in literary precedent.

Orlando as a revised Eve is underscored as the sisters make their final exit. Like God in Eden in Paradise Lost,  the sisters attempt to clothe Orlando’s naked form:“and Chastity, Purity, and Modesty, inspired, no doubt, by Curiosity, peeped in at the door and threw a garment like a towel at the naked form which, unfortunately, fell short by several inches.” Clothing in Paradise Lost is Milton’s metaphor for civilized existence, from wild, sexual Edenic experience to pastured gardens and a division of labor between Adam and Eve. In Paradise Lost, of course, both Adam and Eve ascent to wearing clothes, though they reflect on how unnatural they are. In Woolf’s revision, the clothes thrown by the Ladies miss, leaving Orlando naked and, in the Miltonic sense, natural. In her moment of birth Orlando is afforded what Eve is not—the endurance of her wild, natural self; her “real” self. In their failure, the spirits, “retire in haste, waving their draperies over their heads, as if to shut out something that they dare not look upon.” Milton’s bogey was something “no human being should shut out” (A Room of One’s Own), and Orlando, Woolf’s great revision of that bogey, is something the agents of literary and patriarchal authority dare not look upon. Woolf’s last inversion of the mock Satanic council sequence is one of vision—Woolf urges her reader not to look away from Milton’s bogey through a remarkably revised and rehashed vision of Milton’s gender politics.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf struggles with the task of achieving her project for authorial liberation and authentic realism outlined in A Room of One’s Own in her historical fiction project. Rather than a hegemonically imaginative creation of the untold and uncovered female authorial persona, Orlando is in its central scene pulling more on specifically historical Miltonic precedent in its attempt to create new literary spaces. This dialectical relationship between thesis and antithesis in the work creates a tenuous, at times moderate rendering of masculinity as still normative as several contemporary readers and critics note. In her reenactment of Milton’s chief “bogey” in Eve’s character in Orlando, Woolf endeavors to achieve a revision of Miltonic precedence rather than a total rewriting of that heritage. Woolf delivers us a revised Eve that is liberated from Milton’s gender politics, who values her autonomy before her use to masculine culture, and who at the same time seeks Miltonic truth and light in her own authentic way.

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A Dystopian England: The Literary Imagination as a Mode of Critique in More’s Utopia

File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg

Thomas More’s canonical Utopia perplexes as it advances, as More weaves a tale of a magnificent civilization located in the newly discovered and mysterious “new world.” The tale is delivered by one Rafael Hythlodaeus (his last name meaning ‘dispenser of much nonsense’), a traveler and unique personality, who tells the tale to More himself in character form. A fundamental question that crosses every reader’s mind upon encountering Utopia is just what is More suggesting by outlining the lives of the Utopians. Reactions range from Karl Marx coining the term “utopian socialism” to others saying the satirical nature of the work suggests it is in fact anti-communistic as it would later be understood. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael in Christian-Humanist terms, the criticisms Rafael expounds upon in book one and the relation between the problems in book 1 and the Utopian solutions in book 2, a greater understanding of what More was trying to achieve becomes clear. Utopia is indeed an ideal society as conceived by Thomas More, and he uses his cleverly devised world as an answer to the problems of England outlined in Book 1 by Raphael. In short, Utopia is a vehicle or a medium with which More enables himself, through a literary imagining, to critique English society. The text is not an active call for the establishment of Utopia in 16th century England as conceived in the text, but moreover a conceptualization of a truly ideal society to compare to the depravity of Early Modern England.

Before analyzing the  cases of critique in Book 1, the first issue that must be addressed is why Raphael’s voice can be taken as More’s own, or why Raphael’s criticisms of England are anything more than an idealistic romp by a long-winded ship captain. Throughout the dialogue between Peter Giles, More and Raphael, Raphael uses a large amount of evidence ranging from scripture (728) to historical evidence (741). At the end of book one, Peter Giles questions whether a better civilization than the European one could possibly exist elsewhere. Raphael refutes this claim by saying simply, “As for the antiquity of commonwealths…you could have a sounder opinion if you had read the historical accounts of that world” (741). Certainly the usage of reason, scripture and history was something More, as a Christian-Humanist, would not have disagreed with. More, who is silent in this section, would certainly not agree with Giles’ assumption that European civilization was unequivocally the most advanced in history, given More’s own classical background. Raphael goes on to say Romans and Egyptians who founded Utopia, emblems of the renaissance of classical thinking occurring in England at the time, stayed in Utopia (741). What we can synthesize from this example is that Raphael is not saying untruths and is given a significant level of legitimacy by More the author. The inability of any of the skeptical listeners, More included, to prove Raphael wrong or unsettle his consistently supported argument suggests that Raphael is more a mouthpiece of More than the character of More himself.

Raphael criticizes kings and enclosures in Book 1 of Utopia, and this is perhaps the most profound demonstration by More’s critique of England. Given the fact illustrated above that Raphael is given a high level of legitimacy within the text suggest that Raphael’s title as the “dispenser of much nonsense” is to lessen the impact of his poignant critique. Raphael first engages arrogant kingship in response to More’s own question why Raphael doesn’t attach himself to a king in service, as More later would to Henry VIII. Raphael responds thusly, “And yet, no matter what excellent ideas our forefathers may have had, we very serenely bid them a curt farewell. But if in any situation they failed to take the wiser course, that defect gives us a handle which we greedily grab and never let go” (723). Raphael is delivering nothing short of a scathing assault on reactionary kingship that justifies its past-looking ways with tradition that is, as he points out, picked and chosen instead of consistently utilized. Interestingly, More does not respond to this statement in any way, moving on to talk about Raphael’s time in England with a cardinal More himself knew outside of the text. More’s silence cannot simply be without meaning, More deliberately chooses not to respond to Raphael’s argument against arrogant kings, leaving the argument to stand for itself in the text. Raphael’s next target is the topic of Enclosure which is a common problem in England throughout its history, which impoverished many peasants. Raphael states, “They (the rich) leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture, they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in” (726). This statement is rich with symbolism as the image of the “sheep” and the “church” illustrate the relationship More would later resent in the Church of England under Henry, devoid of faith and utterly political. The fact that Raphael is directly speaking about England in this scene as well as the usage of the terminology of “enclose”, illustrates clearly that Raphael is critiquing a negative part of 16th century England. Enclosure leaves English peasants landless, without a job, without any purpose; which, as Raphael points out, leads them to a life of crime which is unjustly punished by the English state.

Not coincidentally, Utopia addresses both the problems of arrogant kings and enclosure, along with all the other grievances expounded upon by Raphael. For the purposes of this blog the focus will remain on the issue of the importance of counsel in leadership and the economic exploitation of workers in a society. The government More establishes in Utopia is essentially an enlightened monarchy, as the “governor” reigns for life unless suspected of tyrannical behavior. The officials dubbed the trainbors and syphogrants also remain in power unless “good reason” is found to overthrow them. Interestingly, council is brought up often in the section about officials and the Utopian have made taking private council a “capital offense.” Raphael states, “their measures…is to prevent it from being easy, by conspiracy between the governor and the tranibors and by tyrannous oppression of the people, to change the order of the commonwealth” (745). The system is diametrically opposed to the machinations of royal courts of More’s time which dealt almost entirely in secret and amongst the oligarchic elite. What More has created is a direct answer to Raphael’s criticisms of arrogant kingship not listening to the council of his advisors. Here we see a trend in Book 2 of Utopia, each segment of utopian society directly addresses the issues raised by Raphael. Book 1, having been written after book 2, is essentially an introduction to the issues that Utopia will fix in More’s grand thought experiment. The issue of enclosure and economic injustice in general is dealt with in-depth by More. In addressing enclosure and economic injustice, More and his storyteller Raphael almost sound like Karl Marx in his groundbreaking 1848 manifesto. Raphael states, “Yet when these evil men with insatiable greed have divided up among themselves all the goods which would have been enough for all the people, how far they are from the happiness of the Utopian commonwealth”(783)! More directly addresses a counter argument used against Raphael in Book 1 which is why would one give up their own self-interest for a common goal? Here Raphael, More’s persona in the text, says that only by communal production and consumption can people know true happiness. More sets up the system of production and labor to maximize production and minimize negative factors, with workers only working six hours a day; yet this decrease is accounted for by More in the fact that literally all Utopians work. More states, “This phenomenon you too will understand if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exist without working” (747). Here More again directly addresses the issue presented in book 1 about enclosure driving potential workers to crime. In short, More’s Utopians are a direct answer to the problems of England, not so that More can advocate for Utopian revolution but rather that he can criticize the court of Henry through a less threatening medium.

Thomas More’s Utopia is a profound thought-experiment on a society so very different from any that has ever existed even in our own time. Yet the Utopians represent a conceptualized ideal society, one that any person would want to strive for. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael, Raphael’s critique of England in book 1 and the Utopian answers to each problem raised by Raphael, a greater understanding of what More was trying to accomplish emerges. Raphael finishes his narrative by saying, “But I readily admit that there are very many features in the Utopian Commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realized” (784). This is the heart of what Utopia is, a wish upon parchment for a better society in which all may work and have a purpose. By making this world, More inherently critiques England without attacking specific policy as to avoid persecution. Utopia  is not a diagram for societal reformation or even a call for reform, but rather a rich imagination of what we as humans are capable of if not in the present, then on the limitless horizon of the literary imagination.

Cited Edition:

More, Thomas. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Laurence Black. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. Print.

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Filed under Catholicism, Christianity, Early Modern, English, Humanism, Literature, Thomas More, Utopia

Dreaming of Another World: Revolutionary Puritanism in England

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness

I n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London  in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later suggest in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison for every peer and professor who asks accusingly “why?” when I tell them my passion for literature lies in the radical puritan writings that erupted out of the English crucible that was the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.

However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds.  In other words, the Puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress, reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is often seen as a text demonstrative of orthodox Calvinism, and certainly it is; yet we see even in this text the double-edged nature of puritanical thought in this period. Take this quote, for example; Bunyan writes, “What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress) On the surface of things this is a rather tropish puritanical statement, yet it highlights with precision the oft-repeated puritan resistance to “the world.” Bunyan’s puritanism is one of faith, a faith begotten from conflict with something else; a denotative quality of much of puritan thought.

For Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the famed Diggers, the world had been progressively detached from holiness through the political machinations of lords who saught to fracture the land and the people – two things that were both of God. The English Revolution for Winstanley was one that threw the shackles of historical development off, towards an unprecedented era of spiritual potential. Of import in both of these examples is the simple fact that out of conflict sprung an opportunity to engage and synthesize with the world towards something better. Puritan thought, at its root, is dialectical and born out of a conflict with an enemy, be it the Catholic Church, the unfaithful, or the King.

The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours, sadly). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors erupted from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this article Anna Trapnell.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnell, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners to name a few. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head. It warned against the resurgence of tyranny; a vision that would find the light of day in the protectorate. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnell in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnell teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnell as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints, as elucidated above, were without gender. This is undeniably a radical concept. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnell was able to gain a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society; be it Charles or Cromwell. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnell’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (Holstun 256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. We have established that Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still apt to this day; namely that all of mankind is equal, unconditionally. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of  God, pike and musket.

At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern politicians, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, both community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.

Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, illustrated this, saying,

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)

Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough has moved onto something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.

The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnell, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.

Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.

We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists have tried to claim (, but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

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Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack  inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Appolyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.

Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.

Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnell and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).

Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.

The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.

Further Reading

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.

Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1972. Print.

Holstun, James. Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Petegorsky, David W. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War; a Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley,. London: V. Gollancz, 1940. Print.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, Class, Dialectics, Early Modern, English, English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, John Bunyan, Literature, Puritanism

The Six Shilling Scarlet Rage: A Marxist Reading of Dubliners

            James Joyce’s Dubliners is a text that seems inseparable from Dublin and the social conditions that defined the English Empire’s second-city to Joyce, but as author Paul Delany remarks in his article “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners,” “Modern discussions of Dubliners, …have been devoted mainly to the stories intricate and interlocking patterns of symbolic meaning” (Delaney 256). Work must be done, then, to connect Joyce’s Dublin and its heuristic – the text of Dubliners itself. By studying the depravity of Farrington as a product of his position in capitalist society and the critical theme of paralysis in the text being tied directly to corruption and ineffectuality in Irish politics, the centrality of the capitalist mode of production to Dubliners emerges. On one hand Farrington is personally depraved by a capitalist system that alienates him and leaves him chasing after women, a sense of purpose, and a vent for his anger. On the other, the specter of “Tricky Dicky Tierney” keeps all of Ireland stuck in the endless wheel-spinning of corrupt electoral politics. In synthesis, the two make central to Dubliners the specter of capitalism in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century – manifested in the themes of personal depravity and a profound inability to escape said depravity personally or politically.

One must first make clear what kind of Marxist reading we are to partake in concerning Dubliners. Are we, as author Gaylord Leroy remarks in an afterword to Delaney’s article found in the cited edition, to partake in a “vulgar Marxism” that listens for “a song of social significance” (Leroy 266)  appreciated only through knowledge of other disciplines (Sociology, History, Economics etc.)? Frankly, no, we are not to partake in such a reading of Dubliners –we are to partake in a reading, as Leroy says, that brings light to the “second reality” brought to the fore by literature. This reality is a Hegelian-esque synthesis in the way it must be understood by its foundational elements, in this case, the concrete historical and structural elements at play in early 20th century Dublin. Delaney makes clear his own “critical principle,” which will be very similar to the one utilized in this article, writing, “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary. Only then can Dubliners be seen to merit the particular status continually claimed for it by Joyce: that of a moral work” (Delany 256). Thus, to understand the moral work of Dubliners is to understand the concrete historical and economic factors at play in the city of Dublin. This is not the entire scope of Dubliners, though, as Leroy points out, such a perspective would be the aforementioned “vulgar Marxism.” Joyce also endeavors to creatively express his own, intimate Dublin from the anxiety of a young boy in love to the depravity of a child abuser to the ultimate inability to escape or transcend the cruelty and beauty of the textual city painted in such great detail by its author. In this “second reality” we find the foundation of the primary reality Joyce interacts with to construct his characters and their relation to one another. Thus, to begin to understand the discursive Dublin, we must look to that which it was creatively synthesized from – Dublin itself and the socio-economic relations that dominated life there. For the purposes of this article, I will highlight one textual thematic where the connection between the two Dublins is clear – the way the capitalist system debauches a character such as Farrington and prevents any sort of escape through political means.

“Counterparts” and its protagonist (or antagonist) Farrington are perhaps the examples that most easily come to mind when one is asked to highlight the role of the capitalist economic system within Dubliners, and it is Farrington’s profound alienation from his wealth and himself that is the main catalyst in the story. Marx defined the conditions that brought about the creation of alienation in the following terms; “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity…”(Marx 22). It is worth noting that Farrington is referred to only as “the man” until he is with his friends – he is alienated from even his own identity when at work as a scriber. We see such a relation, one where increasing wealth elicits increasing alienation and commodification in the worker immediately within the discourse of “Counterparts.” It is Farrington’s boss and perhaps more importantly (through retrospective repetition with the English woman with the big hat) his lover Miss Delacour’s indifference to his bow, itself a symbol of submission and subservience, that catalyze in Farrington his first rage. Farrington reflects, “He felt strong enough to clear out the whole office single handed. His body ached to do something, to rush out and revel in violence. All the indignities of his life enraged him” (Joyce 90). His rage is portrayed by Joyce as a direct product of the indignities put upon him by his boss and his perfumed confidant, and his inability to secure payment or an advance of a payment for the work he could not complete. In short, the rage that defines Farrington to the end of the story, and his inability to levy it upon its’ source, is a product of the capitalist system.

After pawning his watch for a small “cylinder” of coins and reclaiming his name amongst his friends, Farrington’s humiliation at the hands of Mr. Allyene and Ms. Delacour is recreated out of work at the hands of a “young stripling” and a British woman in a big hat. Farrington at first longs for “the comfort of the public house,” (Joyce 92) but later “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). This transformation is denoted by his loss of money to the “sponge” Weathers and his foolhardy expectation that the British woman would turn back to look at him upon passing – immediately eliciting from Farrington the following thought, “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). Again, Farrington’s rage is made to be in a relationship with money and lack thereof. He has pawned his watch, lost all of the money he gained from it and is once again denied by a wealthy woman.

It is no coincidence that Joyce interjects with the metaphor of strength again, and as it turns out, Farrington’s strength is not only insufficient to clear out the entire office, but to even lower Weathers’ arm. This final indignity is what puts Farrington over the edge, as he reflects, “He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him” (Joyce 97). Interestingly, Marx talks at length about the way the capitalist mode of production turns a worker towards his base animal nature, writing, “…the worker no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animals functions – eating, drinking, procreating…; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx 72). This, in effect, is precisely what occurs to Farrington over the course of the story. He even fails at the animalistic test of strength, creating a rage so profound as to suggest a displaced source – Farrington cannot be as angry as he is over simply losing a contest. Farrington is enraged over his subservient yet ignored “bow,” enraged by his poverty, and enraged, as Marx highlights, by his inability to “feel himself” even in his animalistic desires for sex, drink and contests of strength. The tragic ending of “Counterparts” becomes in this light Farrington funneling his rage on the only thing he has control over – his five children and his wife, who has Joyce writes, “Bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk” (Joyce 97). None of this absolves Farrington from judgment within the text, as Joyce’s own experience with an abusive father would suggest, but Farrington can be seen as man turned into a base beast by the indignity suffered daily at a meaningless job that he can never truly be free from even after drinks. In essence, “the man” is never able to find Farrington, never able to find himself within the animalistic impulses elicited by a social structure that renders him a copying machine. This separation, between the bestial “man” and the human “Farrington” is a direct product of his position as a wage-laborer in capitalist society as established by Joyce. “Counterparts” thus emerges as a story immersed in a discourse inseparable from the capitalist mode of production at work in colonial Dublin, and is a point where the textual Dublin and the real Dublin are brought closely together by Joyce’s critique of capitalism.

From the first short-story, “The Sisters,” the concept of paralysis remains central to Dubliners and this can be seen to be a product of corrupt Capitalist politics in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” The story is pervaded by a keenly disingenuously political dialogue that always returns to money. This can be seen immediately in a dialogue between Mr. Hynes and Mr. O’Connor, “Our man won’t vote for the address, said Mr. O’Connor. He goes in on the Nationalist ticket. Won’t he? said Mr. Hynes. Wait till you see whether he will or not. I know him. Is it Tricky Dicky Tierney? By God! perhaps you’re right, Joe, said Mr. O’Connor. Anyway, I wish he’d turn up with the spondulics” (Joyce 122). Essentially Mr. O’Connor has said nothing here only suggesting that Mr. Tierney will not vote for a visit from King Edward of England simply because he’s going in on the nationalist ticket, quickly returning once again to the “spondulics.” The return to anxiety over the money defines much of the early dialogue in the text, and can be said to define the entire story. Delaney remarks on the nature of the story, “In ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ we see the hopelessness of looking to electoral politics for a solution to personal misfortune or to the paralysis of the city as a whole. The supporters of Nationalist Candidate, Mr. Tierney, recognize that he will betray the nationalist cause once he is elected…” (Delany 262). This foreknowledge seems an accepted thematic throughout the text, and as illustrated above by Mr. O’Connor’s ineffectual speech, no one seems to care. The paralysis is not only fully present, but is willingly tolerated by the story’s characters for money and influence.

This willing tolerance and active support for paralysis can be seen with precision in the deceptive yet darkly truthful character of Mr. Henchy. Henchy, his name itself similar to what his character truly represents, first attacks nationalist politics, cynically remarking, “”O, the heart’s blood of a patriot! That’s a fellow now that’d sell his country for fourpence – ay- and go down on his bended knees and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell” (Joyce 125). This statement is a synthesis of much of Joyce’s critical venom in Dubliners at large, but for the purposes of this article the wellbeing of an entire state is worth nothing more than a fourpence to its leaders – even of the nationalist variety. Later, he recalls to his friend how he sold the candidacy of Mr. Tierney to an undecided fellow on the street, “He has extensive house property in the city and three places of business and isn’t it to his own advantage to keep down the rates? He’s a prominent and respected citizen ….and a Poor Law Guardian, and he don’t belong to any party, good, bad or indifferent” (Joyce 131). The contradiction is obvious, Mr. Tierney is rich, seeks lower rates for his own advantage, but is supposedly at the same time a Poor Law Guardian. Mr. Henchy is peddling political nonsense solely to get his candidate, who is running for a party he has already lampooned, elected. The story makes obvious what Henchy will later conclude, “Parnell, said Mr. Henchy, is dead” (Joyce 132). The hope of a changed and enlightened Ireland, personified by Joyce here with the shadow of Parnell, is dead – killed by the corruption and debauchment of Irish politics to money and English domination. Ireland is Farrington on a national scale – a state unable to deal with its true enemies and thus forced to destroy those that care most for its’ well-being, namely in the text, Parnell. The corks flying off the bottle are like the serenade of fire at a funeral, marking the end of a life and its descent to the cold earth. A descent narrated in the story in keenly monetary terms, as Hynes’ poem is celebrated by those who wait only for spondulics and not that which the poem professes. The poem, then, is as Mr. Crofton says, “…a very fine piece of writing” (Joyce 135) and nothing more – robbed of impact by a disingenuous system tied to monetary gain and not public good.

Dubliners is a text that is in synthesis with the conditions of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century, and cannot be wholly understood without the insights of a Marxist analysis of the impact of social-economic relations on the formation and relation of characters to one another. By studying the impact of Farrington’s proletarian status in relation to the formation of his character in “Counterparts” and the corruption of Irish politics as a mechanism for the oft-mentioned theme of paralysis in the text in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” a greater understanding of the centrality of socio-economic factors in Dubliners emerges. Yet, as elucidated above, the entirety of Dubliners cannot be explained with one heuristic. By rendering Dubliners as a synthesis of a dialectical relationship with real Dublin and the concrete material conditions that defined it, the story opens itself to many heuristics that can hope to unravel the revelations to be had in a collection covering the experiences of “all the living and the dead” (Joyce 224).

Works Cited:

Delany, Paul. “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Joyce, James, Robert Scholes, and A. Walton Litz. Dubliners. New York: Viking, 1969. Print.

Marx, Karl. Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Mulligan. Moscow: Progress, 1956. Print.

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A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations


Note: The works cited has been removed in an effort to impede plagiarism.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as author Graham Law writes, is his “masterpiece” that is at the same time “unrepresentative” (Law 7). Certainly Great Expectations moves away from the uplifting conclusions of novels such as David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, and the cutting, at times radical societal critique of works such as Oliver Twist  is replaced by a more subtle and pessimistic look on Victorian England (Law). Undeniably, as has been remarked upon by many scholars , Great Expectations is an exploration of the Victorian concept of the gentleman, a title that Dickens felt himself rejected from (Law), and one that is the subject of much of Dickens’ prosaic venom  in the novel. Indeed, Pip’s journey from working class boy to a gentleman of great expectations can be said to mirror Dickens’ own life journey to prosperity, yet Dickens’ autobiographical past is not as critical to Great Expectations as the authorial present moment; one noted by profound disillusionment with the concept of a Victorian Gentleman and the ability of a “poor man with a rich soul” (Smiles) to self-create an identity as one.

Great Expectations  is a novel in which Dickens utterly rejects the idea that a gentleman is defined by high birth and class, an argument perhaps best personified by the works of William Sewell. Yet Great Expectations  is also a novel that rejects the notion presented by Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Smiles that anyone, with enough morale character and elbow grease, could become a gentleman. Then what is a gentleman in Great Expectations, if it is neither men of high birth or men of “rich heart?” In Great Expectations the gentleman is a useless title that is destructive and unachievable, demonstrated by the fact that the gentleman of high birth is one that plays the part of the main catalyst in Pip’s dissolution of character from childhood to manhood, and the gentleman of labor and moral character is ultimately unachievable for Pip; denied him by his actions as a gentleman of high birth – illustrating the thread Dickens is tying between the two concepts and ultimately leaving Dickens unwilling to reappropriate the title for characters like Joe . This is demonstrated by Pip’s inability to reconcile completely with characters such as Joe, a relationship strained during Pip’s idealization of the gentleman in Sewellian terms . Dickens entry into the Victorian debate over what a gentleman was one of dynamic character; it is one where he rejects the concept of the gentleman completely, and endeavors to portray the destructive and ultimately unachievable nature of the title; and in this portrayal is a message that quality and not license is at the heart of being a “gentle Christian man.” In order to explore Dickens refutation of the title in general, one must first demonstrate the fraudulency of Sewell’s definition in the way it diminishes Pip’s strong sense of justice and then move to elucidating just why Dickens is ultimately unwilling to reappropriate the title for Joe.

An understanding of the conservative concepts of what the Victorian gentleman was that Dickens was interacting with is critical in discerning where Great Expectations lies in the debate. William Sewell is famous, or perhaps infamous from a modern perspective, for his very conservative view of what a Gentleman was in Victorian society. In a lecture to privileged school boys, Sewell states, “We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which god has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which god himself has made, and struck the line between those who are gentlemen, that is, of a higher and superior class, and those who are not, to be ruled and governed” (Sewell 563). In a reply to Sewell who had sent him a volume of these speeches, Dickens’ remarked upon how far apart their views were (Broadview) on the subject, illustrating what is perhaps most obviously elucidated in Great Expectations; the rejection of a class and birth caste system deciding whether or not a man is a true gentleman. To Sewell, and undoubtedly to his ambitious and privileged pupils, to be a gentleman was to be in a position of power in society in which one could govern and rule over others, namely, the working classes. Further, not only was this position over others justified by practical necessity, but by God himself. This conception of a gentlemen, one based in class and family background, is one that is directly counteracted in the prosaic structure of Volume I in Great Expectations in the way that Pip’s sense of justice and his relationship with Joe and Biddy degrade significantly to a point of no return once he is made to feel his class by Estella, and when his quest to become “oncommon” begins; and this is a direct consequence of Pip’s definition of the gentlemen in Sewellian terms.

Pip’s relationship with Biddy is at first one of student and teacher, but it quickly becomes more personal and ultimately demonstrative of Pip’s loss of justice subsequent to his ambitions to becoming a Sewellian gentleman. Indeed, the just Pip admits aptly that “Whatever I knew, Biddy knew” and marvels at her for being an “Extraordinary woman” (Dickens 159).  Yet Volume I highlights Pip’s growing unrest with his situation, and ultimately, Biddy and the life she represented. Biddy is the victim of Pip’s bridge burning attack before leaving for his great expectations, as Pip levies accusations of jealousy at the true-hearted Biddy. Pip says, “I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it” (Dickens 181).  It was not 50 pages prior that Pip was wishing an old, haggered convict hidding in a swamp happy eating; and it seems that Pip’s own anxieties over his class and family background, catalyzed by Estella,  have dissolved his so dearly held virtue of justice in favor of a dishonest “superior tone”(181) which narrator Pip regretfully admits. It’s worth stopping upon that narrator Pip, the flawed character that he is at the time of scribing the novel, still recognizes his actions to Biddy as unjust. It is not coincidental then that Biddy calls upon the specter of a gentleman and of justice, replying simply, “Yet a gentleman should not be unjust neither” (Dickens 181).  In this statement, Biddy essentially summarizes what Pip will only learn when it is far too late in Volume III and highlights the dissolution of Pip’s sense of justice which is catalyzed by his conception of the gentleman as one based in class and family. Pip has become a gentleman, but as he the narrator and Biddy point out, he had become unjust. Indeed, Pip laments that he “cannot get (himself) to fall in love with (Biddy),” (Dickens 163) and only after his revelations of Volume III will he realize how the specter of the Sewellian gentleman  made it impossible for him to love those who would “put him right” (Dickens 163), a fact further illustrated by Pip’s growing mistreatment of Joe.

Joe, like Herbert, is a character that is true of heart and indeed harmed by Pip’s conception of the gentleman as one of opulence and like Biddy is a character treated in a progressively unjust way by “Sir” Pip. At the start of Volume I, Joe is the flawed  gravy-disher that is unable to truly help Pip but is the only one to show Pip warmness; and Pip’s interactions with Joe comprise some of the only heartwarming sections of Pip’s young life. Joe however represents something more than a country simpleton with a good heart, he renders Pip valuable advice subsequent to his crises of identity and Satis House, as the narrator reflects, “This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics , and by that means vanquished it” (Dickens 105).  Indeed, Joe serves as the materialist to Pip’s metaphysical ambition to become uncommon, offering a few lines later than even the king of England had to begin with the alphabet. Pip’s quest of becoming a gentleman is deeply metaphysical, from his conception of Estella as a princess waiting to be ridding off on horseback to the “gay fiction” of the finches.

Pip’s imaginative, or metaphysical, class affectation is driven home in several scenes in which Pip is ashamed of Joe in the presence of his class superiors, namely the visit to Ms. Havishams and Joe’s visit to London, only to realize later that the entire fault was his. Narrator Pip reflects in the remarkable Chapter XIV, “It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me” (Dickens 141). In a candid moment afforded to Pip through hindsight, Pip can realize how unjust he had been to Joe when he ” was ashamed of him” (Dickens 134) when his abstract notion of the gentleman in Sewellian terms, and his need to create a gentlemanly identity suitable for Estella’s “mischievous eyes,” (Dickens 134) turned him against those closest to him so he could pursue something he admits “I never knew” (Dickens 141).  In short, the gentleman of Sewell, the idea put into Pip’s head by Estella, and the one he will fruitlessly chase to a bitter end is the same gentleman that removed justice from Pip’s relationship with Joe and Biddy. The more Pip desires to be a gentlemen of wealth and taste, the less just he is to his peers and the more blind he is to the injustice he does to others – something he had as a boy been so sensitive to. Thus, the Sewellian gentlemen plays an integral part in the devolution of Pip’s sense of justice in Volumes I and II, physically made real by his geographical removal from Biddy and Joe and emotionally manifested in Pip’s utter emotional desolation at the beginning of Volume III.

Pip is a character of dynamic and fluid nature, however, and indeed much personal progress is made from the beginning of Volume III. In short, the gentleman of class and blood, the gentleman of Sewell, has left Pip spiritually ruined, and it is from this total destruction that Pip begins to make personal progress. Here at the foundation of this progress, after nearly everything has been taken from Pip, he admits, “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it” (Dickens 353). Here we see a Pip who is utterly devoid of a sense-of-self or any purpose whatsoever. From this point of utter spiritual desolation, Pip does make significant gains as the prose advances. Interestingly, these revelations are coaxed out of him by an assumed death at the hands of a figure from his childhood. Pip’s abduction by Orlick catalyzes a great deal of emergent feelings of justice and empathy within Pip, and the rise in his moral character seems to lead the reader to believe that a happy ending is imminent; all catalyzed by Pip’s belief that he is soon to die. As Pip ponders his imminent doom, he laments, “Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.. by the thought that I had taken no farewell, and never never now could take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors” (Dickens 450). In this near-death moment, Pip almost miraculously is broken from his Volume II stupor and sees the true “great hearts” (Smiles) of Joe and Biddy, and laments deeply that he cannot explain himself to them. Indeed, Pip now reflects that his intentions were “true” but had left him in great “agony” and ponderous with “miserable errors.” In this moment near death, Pip is softened and returns to his sense of justice highlighted above, in this case, to do himself justice; to plead his case to those who cared for him truly and ask for their clemency. In a novel with very little repetition, the repetition of never is also noteworthy in the way it focuses on Pip’s desire to do himself justice in a farewell to Joe and Biddy and deal with them honestly for the first time in many pages. Is this, then, evidence of Dickens support for the progressive notion of a gentleman as one of true intentions and heart? A more finite understanding of what that notion is, is first necessary.

Samuel Smiles’ “The True Gentleman” is paradigmatic of a progressive urge in Victorian society to claim that any man with sufficient intuition, inclination and good moral character was a “true gentleman..” Smiles elaborates, “Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman” (Smiles 582). Indeed, the “man with the great heart” of Smiles is identical to Joe’s own dubbing of his abusive father as a man with a good heart (Dickens 83) and Biddy’s own terming of Pip as “ever a man with a good heart” (Dickens 248). These two examples seem to lend a keen sense of ambiguity to Dickens’ acceptance of the idea that any man with a good heart is a true gentleman. Indeed, the latter half of Great Expectations is marked by a significant improvement in Pip’s character as elucidated above, one where he sees more feelingly the thoughts of others and one where he appreciates what he had not before. This notion, that Dickens is supporting a depiction of a gentleman as someone of a good heart only is contradicted by the critical scene were Pip emmerges from sickness to see Joe at his bedside subsequent to the gains he makes in a peculiar and violent event.

Pip’s improvements after his abduction by Orlick and then his subsequent almost idyllic period with Joe during his recovery from what can only be considered a broken heart leads the reader to expect an ending similar to that of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Certainly Joe emerges as a man of rich heart, caring for the boy who had so rudely treated him in London. Yet in what can only be considered intentional by Dickens in a novel that uses the word “gentleman” ad nauseum, Dickens refuses the title to Joe in the one moment where he can rightly be considered nothing else in Smilesian terms. Pip implores Joe to dislike him for his “ingratitude” (Dickens 483) which Joe ignores and remarks that they were “ever the best of friends.” Pip then proclaims, “god bless this gentle Christian man”(Dickens 483). Why would Dickens use this language, if almost to specifically deny Joe the title, after a sequence where Joe’s good heart has been highlighted so deeply in his self-sacrifice and forgiving heart towards Pip? This is the first appearance of Dickens disinterest in reappropriating the title of gentleman  to his characters that truly resemble one. Indeed, when Joe is truly a good person to Pip, his class status and his title, are truly unimportant which is reflected in Dickens deliberate side-stepping of the term. After Pip’s moral downfall from chasing the title of gentleman elucidated above, Dickens is unwilling to call Joe a gentleman, only a “gentle Christian man,” demonstrating that perhaps, being such a man was all that really mattered; regardless of the license of title associated with “the gentleman.” Indeed, when Joe is forced into an environment of gentlemanliness in Mrs. Havisham’s company, Pip remarks, “that he looked far better in his working-dress… I could hardly have imagined dear old Joe looking so unlike himself” (Dickens 132).  It is no coincidence that Joe, a character who is so very kind to Pip, who is a gentleman in behavior but not in name as per Dickens deliberate use of a similar yet different term, is “unlike himself” in a suit or a mansion. Dickens critique is clear, Joe is a gentle Christian blacksmith, and that is all the license he needs to be dubbed good, wholesome and kind. Pip’s denial of true reconciliation with Joe is then a further elucidation of Dickens’ rejection of the gentleman as a title. Pip’s past quest for gentlemanliness denies Pip reconciliation, with Joe, just as the specter of the Sewellian gentleman denies true Smilesian self-determination.

Dickens’ denial of Pip true reconciliation with Joe is demonstrative of Dickens’ unwillingness to allow Pip’s journey to come to a wholesome end due to the aftershocks of Pip’s quest for uncommoness. Reflecting upon the good times they had spent together, Pip realizes, “I too had fallen into the old ways, only happy and thankful that he let me. But, imperceptibly, though I held by them fast, Joe’s hold on them began to slacken; and whereas I wondered at this, at first, I soon began to understand that the cause of it was in me, and the fault of it was all mine…Had I given Joe’s innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold up me would be weaker?”(Dickens 490).  Not only does Dickens deny the title of gentleman to Joe, he denies true reconciliation between Pip and Joe because of Pip’s actions as the Sewellian gentleman. Pip’s past denies him Smilesian self-creation, as the aftershocks of his actions as a gentleman of high class has disallowed him from coming to equal footing with Joe in their relationship. Thus in Dickens’ prosaic construction, the gentleman of Smiles is unachievable and barred by the specter of the traditional gentleman; just as Pip is disallowed present self-creation by past self-destruction. This relationship is best summarized by Joe himself, who says to Pip in apology for not being able to save him from the tickler, “my power were not always fully equal to my inclinations” (Dickens 489). This statement summarizes the ending of the novel with precision, as Pip’s power is not equal to his inclination in reconciling with both Joe and Biddy; and this greater narrative structure, that is, the denial of Pip any sort of happy or reconciled ending, is demonstrative of Dickens’ rejection of the Smilesian gentleman and the title at large.

Great Expectations  is a novel that frustrates the efforts of readers who seek an emotional synthesis for its flawed protagonist, as its deeply ambiguous nature leaves the reader wanting  a finite conclusion to Pip’s personal struggle. As Graham Law points out in his introduction, it is perhaps the ambiguity itself that is driving force of the novel; an ambiguity concerning what a gentlemen is and one’s ability to rehabilitate relationships long strained. By studying Pip’s loss of justice from his acceptance of  a Sewellian vision of a gentleman and Pip’s ultimate prevention from Smilesian reconciliation and self-elevation by the specter of Sewell’s gentleman, a greater understanding of the gentleman in Great Expectations emerges. The gentleman,  in short, is destructive and unreachable for Pip; demonstrative of Dickens own disillusionment with the license the title supposedly represented. Great Expectations is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the permanency of “miserable errors” and the inescapable social barriers that surrounded 19th century England. The reader’s duty is that of Estella;  to not be incompatible with the admission of the ambiguity of love and identity in emerging modernity, and give the sad story of Pip’s quest for uncommonness a place in their hearts, and in doing so, witness the folly of chasing license over authentic virtue.

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Knowing Sweet Through Bitter: A Dialectical Reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde



              eoffrey Chaucer’s take on Boccaccio’s classic poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is one that honors the original as it innovates and brings in entirely new thematics to the tale. Chaucer’s own version of the tragedy is one that deals intimately with the processes of a happy life and the failure of Troilus to capture that happy life. Of import is the presence of a process within the poem; Chaucer delivers the reader with a keenly dialectical process, one where everything is made known only by its opposite and were all joy must be followed by a period of grief. Certainly Chaucer’s translation of Boethius would make him familiar with the medieval sense of the dialectic which was part of the trivium and deeply rooted in Aristotelian logic. Chaucer’s use of binary dialectics (i.e. the definition of everything coming from its opposite) is but a starting point for his greater exploration of the contradictions of free will and foreknowledge, one that wrenches at the troubled mind of Troilus in Book IV (Grady). Indeed, the entire story is constructed upon this very question – every reader and listener of Chaucer’s poem knows the ending of the story, if not from reading Boccaccio’s own version simply by Chaucer repeatedly telling the reader that the tale is of “The double sorwe of Troilus;” yet Chaucer endeavors to tell the tale nonetheless. By studying the dialectical nature of the triumvirate of main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of happiness as a product of grief, Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination in Book IV and finally Chaucer’s final thoughts in Book V, a greater understanding of the dialectical nature of the story emerges. The dialectics of Boethius, of which Chaucer interacted with deeply, are not simply present in the poem but its main catalyst; the means through which Chaucer establishes his characters in relation to one another and forges the thesis of idealistic love, the antithesis of infidelity and the synthesis of the eighth sphere and the “floures fayre.”

The three main characters in Troilus and Criseyde are emblematic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the way they represent idealistic love, pragmatism and an interesting expression of their mixture. Troilus, of course, is keenly emblematic of the thesis of idealistic and chivalric love. His falling in love with Criseyde is highly conventional, as his eyes by “cas bifel” upon the maiden, causing his heart to “sprede and rise” (I. 270-275). Indeed, the minute he sees Criseyde he goes from teasing lovers to being the most conventional lover of them all. The Canticus Troili is a case study in Chaucer’s representation of Troilus as the prototypical love-struck individual as Troilus ponders anxiously over his churning heart. Yet, Troilus’ song expresses his own anxiety over his naïve understanding of love, as he sings, “If no love is, O god, what fele I so? / And if love is, what thing and which is he? / If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo? /…When every torment and adversite / That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke, / For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.” (I. 400-406). Troilus struggles intimately with just what it is he is feeling, and the dialectical relationship between his great joy and his great woe. He ponders that if it is his own “lust I brenne,” why then should he be upset if such a harm “agree (him)” (I. 407-409). Reading from a dialectical perspective, Troilus’ woe is a product of his singular nature; he mocks lovers and then becomes one, he cannot live without Criseyde’s faithfulness and so on. The tragedy of Troilus’ character is his lack of any pragmatism and his almost innocent dependence on his love relationship.

The antithesis of Troilus is his greatest ally in the poem, Pandarus. Indeed, Pandarus is the catalyst of the entire story yet tellingly he vanishes when the lovers are finally united in mutual love. If we accept that Troilus is the thesis of idealistic love, Pandarus is the antithesis of pragmatism. In Book III, as Troilus anxiously invokes the gods to help in this encounter with Criseyde Pandarus crassly retorts, “Thow wrecched mouses herte, / Artow agast so that she wol the bite?”(III.176) Throughout the poem, Pandarus is emblematic of a pragmatic, results oriented approach. He cannot understand Troilus’ invocation to gods to ease his anxiety because he is not Troilus’ emotional peer. He forces Troilus’ letter on Criseyde and manipulates her into meeting with Troilus by having Troilus ride under her window, he sets up the scene in the gloomy bedroom where Troilus lies falsely ill, and he indeed is the mastermind behind the entire love relationship. But Pandarus’ own failures in love cause Troilus to ask, “How devel maistow brynge me to blisse?” As it turns out, Troilus question is a prescient one as Pandarus truly is unable to bring Troilus bliss. In Book V Pandarus condemns the understanding of dreams, even though dreams have been correct in two instances within the poem. Pandarus scolds Troilus by saying, “Have I nat seyd er this, that dreams many a maner man begile?” (V. 1275). Pandarus cannot escape from his pragmatism, even when both Criseyde’s dream in Book I and Troilus’ dream in Book V are both keenly accurate in their foretelling. In this way Pandarus, like Troilus, is unable to reach a synthesis; the two of them representing only one part of what Chaucer presents as love and happiness and instilling the sense of tragedy within the poem.

Interestingly, Criseyde is perhaps the most dual character in the entire poem. Her nature is highly fluid and conflicting, illustrated by the fact that within the first 100 lines Chaucer refers to her death in line 56 and then dubs her “a thing inmortal” on line 103 (Grady). To most readers Criseyde’s character is a reasonable one, as she often finds middle ground where Troilus cannot. This theme is found from her first meeting with Troilus, as she agrees to see him but says she will only do so to ease his heart. In Book V, she agrees to see Diomed if he will relent on his romantic advances, a pragmatic and compassionate response. The narrator tells us, “So that Criseyde / Graunted on the morrow, at his request, / For to speken with him at the leeste — / So that he nolde speke of swich matere” (V. 952-3). In this way Criseyde is perhaps ironically the closest character to a synthesis of idealistic love and pragmatism that we are given, and it is perhaps her reasonable nature that elicits Chaucer’s pity in Book V. Like Chaucer, a dialectical reader cannot absolve Criseyde, but it certainly moves us into Chaucer’s party, in that such a reading elicits one to feel sorry for the Trojan maiden separated from her doomed home and lover. So we see that through a dialectical reading that Troilus, Pandarus and Criseyde are keenly dialectical in their representation; as Chaucer uses the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to construct his characters and their relationship to one another. Troilus and Pandarus must come together to create the synthesis that is the love relationship centered on Criseyde, arguably the most dual character in the poem. Indeed, the synthesis of Troilus and Criseyde’s love quickly dissolves into despair and woe, and Chaucer deals intimately about whether or not this invalidates the beauty of that synthesis.

Chaucer from the outset of his poem establishes the known end of the story, the first line having established the imminent twin sorrows of Troilus. Immediately following his mentioning of the twin sorrows, Chaucer elucidates the process through which Troilus will tragically navigate later in the poem. Chaucer expresses his intent to tell of “how his aventures fellen / Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” (I. 3-4). Here Chaucer is not at all diminishing the wele and joie, rather, the language mentions “wo” once; the last tragedy being Troilus falling “out of joie.” Certainly as the story progresses Chaucer makes no effort to at all diminish the joy of Troilus and Criseyde in any way, in spite of the fact that every reader knows of the ever present final sorrow on the horizon. This opposition between “woe and joie” is both the heart of the tragedy and the heart of the truly romantic scenes in Book III, and here in the first lines Chaucer is establishing that very fact. Attached to this fact is the binary dialectical thesis that runs throughout the poem, best described in Book I by one of the frequent soliloquies by the narrator. The narrator states, “By his contrarie is every thyng declared / For how myghte ever swetnesse han ben know / To him that nevere tasted bitternesse” (637-639)? This is the central question within Troilus and Criseyde, as Chaucer endeavors to negotiate whether or not the foreknowledge of Troilus’ fall can negate the flowers faire of the love that illuminates Book III with its beauty. Chaucer begins to elucidate this answer by offering that true sweetness is unknown to those who do not know bitterness. Indeed, the lines immediately preceding this expression is Pandarus’ thesis that he above others could advise Troilus in love, for his failures are exactly what enables him to better advise his friend. In other words, Chaucer acknowledges both dialectical poles; as one necessarily begets the other. In this way Chaucer has not diminished the joy, anxiety and anticipation in the hearts of the young lovers in spite of their foreknown fall, illustrating the tension between foreknowledge and free will that cuts through both Boethius and Chaucer, as is poignantly explored by Troilus himself.

Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination is one that Boethius deals with intimately in his Consolation of Philosophy. Troilus’ debate with himself over the metaphysical concepts of free will and predestination is certainly related to the story but Troilus is much more thoughtful in his explication of the issue than he is at any other point in the poem. A reader can clearly see Chaucer’s own debate with the material coming through, as Troilus ponders the ideas of “great clerkes olde” (IV 973). Within the scope of the story Troilus’ contemplations are of central importance, as Chaucer here is interacting in an almost detached way with the nature of his story; and it’s worth noting that such a contemplation is completely absent in Boccaccio’s version. Troilus begins his exploration by saying that, “For cereyntly, this wot I well, / That forsight of divine purveyaunce / hath seyn alwey me to forgot Criseyde / Syn God seeth every thing, out of doutaunce…/ But natheless, allas, who shal I leeve? / For there been grete clerkes many oon /That destine thrugh arguments preve; /And som men seyn that nedely there is noon, / But that fre chois is yeven us everychon” (IV 960-75). This is the foundation with which Troilus and Criseyde is constructed upon, for every listener and reader knows the end of the story. Does this fact, Chaucer ponders through Troilus, change the crafting and development of the story? This is a keenly dialectical series of thoughts, as fate and choice are opposed to each other in Troilus’ construction. As Troilus continues, he is essentially using the dialectical process to debate himself, bringing up point and counterpoint and using reason to determine a correct answer. He first reasons through whether or not foreknowledge necessitates an event or what the men with “han hire top ful heigh and smothe yshore” suggest; that things happen and thus divine foreknowledge knows of its happening but does not necessitate it happening. Chaucer’s metaphor of the chair is telling, as he certainly used his surroundings to craft the metaphor while he composed his poem. He concludes the metaphor by offering that “And I seye, though the cause of soth of this / Comth of his sittyng, yet neccesite / Is entrechaunged, both in hym and the” (IV 1045). In this dialectical construction Chaucer has elucidated his perceived role in the crafting of the story – to tell of this tragedy necessitates both him as a creative author and the foreknown end, and arguably Boccaccio’s own version. Troilus then ponders over those clerks, of which Chaucer has labeled himself as earlier in the poem, who suggest that all men have complete free will, but this is not Chaucer or Troilus’ conclusion. Troilus’ final conclusion is thus, “So mot it come; and thus the bifallyng / of thynges that ben wist bifore the tyde, /They mowe nat ben eschued on no syde” (IV 1080.) Ergo, Chaucer places himself between the two camps of predestination and free will; and this is certainly where he sits as he writes the very poem – he and his audience all know the end, yet he writes anyway, the final foreknowledge unavoidable “by any means.” Thus the dialectical relationship between fate and free will is one that drives the entire story, one that drives the reader on to an end already known to them; and indeed, what drives Chaucer’s own anxiety over leading his characters to the gallows of shattered love.

Yet Chaucer does not leave the reader with tragedy, he instead leaves the reader one last synthesis; the one between the serene 8th sphere and the beautiful flowers of earthly spring. Ultimately, Chaucer endeavors to reconcile the tragedy of Troilus, dead at the hand of Achilles, and a compassionate higher power. Indeed, Troilus’ entire speech elicits the reader to question why a god should let such a tragedy happen. Chaucer presents the spirit of Troilus as spiteful of the “blynde lust” he felt on earth and the sorrow he endured, and this is much in line with his singular nature highlighted above. Chaucer, however, does not deliver us with such a simplistic notion in his final lines of Troilus and Criseyde. The end of Book V is not a simple condemnation of all things worldly, but in an Augustinian sense, worldly things done incorrectly. Chaucer uses repetition to illustrate the fate of Troilus, writing, “Swich fyn hath all his great worthynesse! /Swich fyn hath his estat real above!” It’s clear Chaucer is condemning very specific parts of sublunary life, and not all of material life. The image of the “floures faire” certainly lends the reader to a certain level of affection for this brief time we spend on earth, and Chaucer is not condemning the sublunary pleasures felt by Troilus and Criseyde just to glamorize the superlunary 8th sphere. In between these two concepts is Chaucer’s synthesis of the passing nature of life on earth and a life after; based in the necessity and beauty of both joy and woe that will end in the most serene of places. Thus the dialectics of opposition are the means through which Chaucer conceives the woe of Troilus and indeed Chaucer’s own effort to leave the reader on a positive note; Troilus never stopped to see the flowers faire, wherein lies the tragedy of the tale, but in the end he still ascended to the 8th sphere, where Mars brings him to residence unknown in heaven.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is a work that keenly interacts with the dialectics of opposition, be it through explorations of joy and woe or fate and choice. By studying the dialectical nature of the three main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of sweetness as a product of bitternesse, Troilus’ debate over predestination and choice and finally Chaucer’s last synthesis of material and spiritual, a greater understanding of Chaucer’s dialectical project within Troilus and Criseyde emerges. The dialectic is not only in the poem in numerous places, but it also is present in its very creation as Chaucer deals intimately with the creation of a story with an already known end; as he struggles dialectically to understand whether or not his sitting in a chair, or Troilus’ fall, is a necessity of foreknowledge or an event simply known by foreknowledge. In any case, Chaucer’s wish for his “litel myn tragedye” to kiss the steps of Ovid and Virgil did not fall on deaf ears; for certainly his tragedy is one of his most read and enjoyed works. That the accounting of such woe should elicit such literary enjoyment is fitting indeed to this keenly dialectical tale.

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The Flightless Bird: Choice and Concupiscence in Milton’s Comus

         ohn Milton’s Comus remains as enigmatic today as it was when it was first performed on a night at Ludlow Castle in 1634. Critics have since the 18th century struggled with just what affixed the lady to her chair and with just what Milton was trying to say to an audience so scarred by violated chastity in this masque; a highly personal literary form far detached from Milton’s own ambitions of a national epic to transcend time. Yet in this play performed by two children and a teenager, Milton’s ambitions shine through in the gravity of the story, calling upon as Debora Shuger pointed out in her article “Gums of Glutinous Heat…,” Augustinian struggles with autonomy and human nature. Comus is no ordinary masque, but rather, a tale dealing intimately with the later elucidated Miltonic themes of free will and the Augustinian concept of concupiscence, or, a humans desire, sometimes uncontrollable, for corporeal appetites that stand in opposition to reason. By studying the intellectual dialogue the lady has with herself in the opening scene, the insights of Shuger and Augustine in his Confessions and finally by analyzing the last scene in light of both of these insights a greater understanding of Milton’s creative project emerges. The tale is not one of temptation, as critics such as William Kerrigan have suggested, but rather, of free will. By recreating the intellectual source material of Milton’s Arminianism (Fallon), chiefly in Augustine’s Tenth Book of Confessions, critic Diane Shuger has created the dialogue with which Comus interacts; superseding psychoanalytic methods that force the critic to read in modern thematics. Certainly concupiscence plays an integral part in the development of the story, but the lady is not complicit with it; which is an anxiety that permeates Confessions and Comus. Yet in both Confessions and Comus, Augustine and Milton both find a solvent to unchain the bird of their free-thinking mind, a merciful god and the water spirit respectively; the latter arguably a representation of the former. The concupiscence of the gums of glutinous heat is but the vehicle by which Milton illustrates the true crux of the masque, the tension between concupiscence and choice and the prospects of salvation.

The narrative of Comus asserts almost to an excessive extent the lady’s true nature and steadfastness against the allure of Comus, yet the lady herself struggles with youthful curiosity and concupiscence in our first introduction to her. When we first meet the lady there are undeniable signs of youthful curiosity verging on temptation of what Comus represents. Yet, each time in her opening speech we find evidence of temptation, for example, “A thousand fantasies / Begin to throng into my memory, / of calling shapes and beck’ning shadows dire / And airy tongues that syllable men’s names…” (205-208), a refuting antecedent statement immediately follows. From lines 210 to 235, a long and drawn out proclamation of the lady’s utmost faith in both god and the power of chastity unfolds to counter the temptation of the beckoning shadows. To say as some critics have that this scene is purely demonstrative of temptation is selling the “virtous mind” (210) of the lady short. Earlier in the speech the lady wonders about “gamesome pipe” and “bounteous pan” yet again immediately following her wonder is a blunt refutation, “I should be loath / to meet the rudeness and swill’d insolence / Of such wassailers…”(170-180). What Milton unfolds before us in our first introduction to the lady is just the anxiety that one finds throughout Confessions and Comus, as the lady’s reasoning mind counters her concupiscent curiosity. One cannot curtail the sequence into either temptation or steadfast faith; as the lady is in the midst of the battle Augustine found himself in his tenth book of Confessions. In this battle between the mind and the body, Milton is laying the groundwork for the lady’s firm denunciation of Comus in the debate sequence, and indeed, her inability to get up from the chair. An understanding of the latter sequence comes from Augustine’s and Shuger’s analysis.

Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo is a deeply personal work of prose that deals with the Saint’s own anxieties with becoming a person of faith; and these anxieties are keenly reflected in Comus. Critic Debora Shuger elucidated in her article “The Gums of Glutinous Heat” an approach that fits Milton’s own deeply scholastic approach; suggesting that an understanding of Comus must start in the source material from which Milton draws from in his project of free will and concupiscence. Mid-way through Book X of Confessions Augustine uses a curious term to describe concupiscence, writing, “Thou wilt increase, Lord, Thy gifts more and more in me, that my soul may follow me to Thee, disentangled from the birdlime of concupiscence” (Augustine 186). Shuger makes the obvious connection – birdlime is what affixes the lady to her chair given the description of the substance we are given being very similar to birdlime. Further, in the context of Augustine, “wet dreams are birdlime” (Shuger 2). Past the obvious comparison is something Milton tapped into directly in Comus; free will and concupiscence. Wet dreams are demonstrative of a nascent concupiscence in post-lapserian man, yet Augustine struggles deeply with the anxiety of his inability to control them. God must give him more gifts over time for him to begin to break free and fly from the birdlime. Yet Augustine’s solution is not so simple as to put fanatical faith in god’s ability to save him. Augustine wrestles with the specter of trying to both refute sin but also not to fanatically refute it and forge a new kind of concupiscence based in pride. This dilemma is reflected directly in the lady and her brothers. The Lady’s elder brother is perhaps too confident and too zealous about the power of chastity; leading to his extremely hyperbolic speech concerning chastity. Augustine reflects, “Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it. At other times shunning over-anxiously this very deception, I err in too great strictness…” (Augustine 190). Ergo, Comus cannot merely be a moralistic story about the power of chastity or the allure of evil to a young woman; it is far more complex than that. Comus is intimately concerned with degrees of faith and their implications on salvation. Shuger goes on to suggest that the English renaissance poets such as Donne and Milton all show a keen anxiety towards human passion and the divine (17). Shuger cogently suggests that poets such as Donne and Milton reflect the title of Augustine’s masterwork in their own work: confession. Shuger writes, “Like Augustinian theology, it dwells on the urgent and unwilled movements of thought and feeling…fascinated both by the soul’s wings and by its birdlimed feet” (17). Comus, then, in short, is an exploration of the flight of the soul and the birdlimed “corporal rind” that keeps it fixed to earth; and the anxiety that is inherently part of this relationship. Comus is a tale of the lady’s choice to fly yet having her feet stuck in the birdlime of post-lapserian man. The question remains then; what is Milton trying to say to his keenly personal audience, and what can be said of the lady’s entrapment and savlation?

The final scene of Comus is what has perplexed critics for centuries, and indeed, upon it the entire story hinges. Yet, Shuger’s insights on the Augustinian roots of Comus offer new and profound insights into the final scene. The first issue is just why the lady is stuck in the first place, if what her brother said was true about the absolute nature of true virginity. Indeed, the spirit refers to the lady as a “true virgin” even while she sits in the “birdlime of concupiscence.” Why then, would the narrator spirit refer to her as a true virgin if temptation is to be the crux of the story? As discussed above, the birdlime is demonstrative of an uncontrollable concupiscence; and this can perhaps help us explain why the lady is silent in these critical scenes. The lady can refute Comus and chose chastity, but she cannot refute the birdlime because it is the very concupiscence Augustine worries over in his tenth book of Confessions. The lady is unable to resist this concupiscence by definition, leaving her trapped and silent in the chair; but this is not the end of being a holy person for the lady. In the baptismal tide of the water spirit Sabrina the lady is freed from the bonds of concupiscence. Certainly, the water spirit is representative of at the very least the divine grace Augustine speaks of in his struggles to overcome the birdlime of concupiscence. Through the forgiving hands of the spirit, the lady is released from her “distress”; a distress deeply rooted in the involuntary concupiscence the birdlime represents. It stands to reason then that the tale cannot solely be a manifesto on temptation because the birdlime does not act upon the lady’s mind but only her body. It is not her mind that cannot escape, illustrated by her cutting debate with Comus, but rather her body. In Augustinian terms, whatever temptation she may involuntarily feel is irrelevant in the way it incurs no guilt or significance in regards to the lady’s chastity or virginity (Shuger 3).  The final lines demonstrate this thesis cogently; Milton writes, “Mortals that would follow me, / Love virtue, she alone is free, / She can teach ye how to climb / Higher than the sphery chime; / Or if virtue feeble were, / Heav’n itself would stoop to her” (1018-1023). Interestingly, the spirit does not say chastity or virginity but virtue. Milton here has switched from the idea of chastity so hyperbolically elevated in earlier passages to virtue. This movement cannot be unintentional, as Milton moves from the “true virginity” of the lady to her true virtue. In previous lines a brother had suggested that virtue, if true, “may be assail’d, but never hurt” (589) and if true virtue is to be hurt, the world is based on “stubble.” So the lady’s liberation then is Milton’s proof that the world is not based on fraudulency or “stubble”, but the divine virtue and grace of the Augustinian, merciful god; a profound message to a family scared by rape and sexual violence. Unfortunately for the young Milton, the family may not have been familiar with his Augustinian source material; which may explain the silence concerning the masque immediately after its performance.

Comus is a text that befuddles as it illuminates. Critics have for centuries opened up one insight only to find it to be a dead end or on the other hand a Pandora’s box of insights. By studying the lady’s internal debate in our first introduction to her, the insights offered by Augustine’s Confessions and Diane Shuger’s “Gums of Glutinous Heat” and finally the closing scene in light of these insights, a greater understanding of Milton’s great masque emerges. By recreating the dialogue with which Milton interacts in his masque, the perplexing issues in the masque begin to solidify. By utilizing the Augustinian concept of concupiscence which Milton is clearly pulling from, the concept of the lady’s temptation travels from critical importance to irrelevancy in the way both Milton and Augustine elevate the free will of flight over the birdlimed feet of concupiscence. In Comus we see the foundation for the thesis of Paradise Lost. The lady did not “by (her) own suggestion fall” nor was she “self-temped” or “self-deceived.” To Milton and his god in book three of Paradise lost the lady stands in opposition to those who choose sin instead of being victims of the deception of others, namely Comus in this work. Therefore, the lady “shall find grace. The other none.”

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