The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity. Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation. Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute. These spectacles allow their wearer to “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.
Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought (British, 1964), in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him. Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are. For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye. For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is. If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering. He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.
Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness. The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst. Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin. Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period. An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve. In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors. Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground. Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess! Forgiveness does not apply to the case!” Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined. What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.
One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (British, 1826) in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world. This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward. Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition. Humanity’s demise is not immediate here. It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action. Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.
I have been enjoying — very much — reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!). My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.
While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature. I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.
I didn’t intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I’ve been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction. This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny: Nabokov’s Lolita, Thompson’s The Nothing Man, Ellis’s American Psycho, and Hamsun’s Hunger(ok, this novel isn’t quite 20th century –1890 — but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction). In each of the these texts the hero’s actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him. The thought of brutally murdering these women — anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers — seems, at times, to be the only force pushing him onward through his unique journey.
Ruth Hall (British, 1854) is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a “continuous story” rather than a novel. It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity. At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship. Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself. Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women’s writing and economics. The “domestic tale” is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a livable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.