Author: Bryan

Ibsen and fatherhood

Our discussions of Ibsen’s use of congenital syphilis in Ghosts raises the specter of the absent father, whose sexual excesses have literally infected his family. Unlike his earlier play A Doll’s House, this play’s father figure is off stage throughout. He’s already dead before the play starts, so we’re living with his legacy, figured as inheritance, in monetary terms, in public reputation, and in physical and moral health. The critic Jørgen Lorentzen, writing in general about representations of fatherhood in Ibsen plays, begins his study with a set of questions that might guide our discussion on this topic. “I can hardly think of a more pervasive motif in Ibsen’s works than fatherhood,” he writes, though he acknowledges that we more often focus on Ibsen’s famous female protagonists, such as Nora (in A Doll’s House) or Mrs. Alving.

However, fatherhood is not what most of us associate with Ibsen’s dramas. Most of us think of women who fight for the right to a life of freedom or heroic men who become embroiled in great moral battles related to truth, freedom, power, suppression, and bourgeois double standards of morality. The reason for this is rather obvious. Ibsen’s dramas do not explicitly deal with fatherhood. It is not the relationship between fathers and their children that comprise the dramatic plot. Fatherhood lies in the background, ahead of the drama and underlying the dramatic interactions and scenes. Fatherhood is pervasive, yet kept discreetly in the background. This makes it even more fascinating to study. What is it that leads Ibsen to dramatize so consistently the relationship between father and child without fully developing it as a theme? In what ways are issues of fatherhood part of the realistic discourse on truth, freedom, and other issues under discussion?

Later in the piece he makes plain his interest in Ibsen’s fathers and not just male/female relations:

Quite simply, Ibsen wanted to explore the dramatic workings of the family … specifically the relationship between mother, father, and child—not just between the woman and man or the relationship between the adults. The children occupy a deliberate and central place in both plays, with an emphasis on how children are wounded to their core in the bourgeois family drama.

If you’re interested, you can find the rest of Lorentzen’s piece here. For now I’m willing just to entertain these issues as we continue our discussions this week.

Image: David Claudon, 1/2-inch scale model of the set of Ghosts (c. 1967).

Mervyn’s men and women

As you’re wrapping up the second volume of Arthur Mervyn this week, I want you to mull over a couple paragraphs from Norman Grabo’s early and influential book The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown (1981). In his chapter on Mervyn he notes that

the whole second part … turns on [Mervyn’s] relationship with women — Mrs. Wentworth, Mrs. Althorpe, Mrs. Villars, Mrs. Fielding, Clemenza Lodi, Miss Carlton, Eliza and Susan, Fanny and Mrs. Maurice, and Mrs. Watson. Stevens the authority figure has effectively disappeared from the foreground in this part, and the extent of his absence is thrown into significant relief when we remember who most strikingly occupied our attention in the first part — Stevens, Wortley, Wallace, Watson, Welbeck, Medlicote, Thetford, and Estwick. We realize that Brown, intentionally or not, has given us Arthur in two kinds of education: the first into the possibilities of fatherhood, the second into the possibilities of mothers and wives. Part one is a book of masculine cunning, deceit, and sickness; part two the exposure to forces of healing and wholeness. Sons and lovers? Exactly. (116-17)

What do you make of Grabo’s summary? He follows up later in the chapter by citing a few paragraphs from Brown’s essay “Walstein’s School of History,” which includes what seems to be an early outline of Arthur Mervyn‘s plot, with a few significant variations. (It’s included in full in the volume we’re reading.) These are the key paragraphs for Grabo, taken from what he and many other critics take to be one of Brown’s key statements of his theory of fiction:

The relations in which men, unendowed with political authority, stand to each other are numerous. An extensive source of these relations, is property. No topic can engage the attention of man more momentous than this. Opinions, relative to property, are the immediate source of nearly all the happiness and misery that exists among mankind. If men were guided by justice in the acquisition and disbursement, the brood of private and public evils would be extinguished.

Next to property the most extensive source of our relations is sex. On the circumstances which produce, and the principles which regulate the union between the sexes, happiness greatly depends. The conduct to be pursued by a virtuous man in those situations which arise from sex, it was thought useful to display. (337)

Can we talk these issues through this week? Is this an anticipation of Jane Austen’s famous opening to Pride and Prejudice?

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

[Illustration: Charles Brockden Brown, attributed to Ellen Sharples, after James Sharples Senior, circa 1810. I always imagine Arthur Mervyn as looking a little like this.]

Some Arthur Mervyn follow up

First, be sure you don’t miss Christy’s post below and the link Caroline put in comments earlier.

Second, I just wanted briefly to follow up on today’s discussion by asking for some comments from you. Anyone can chime in. (And by anyone, I even mean people who’ve read the novel who aren’t in the actual course, as well as students who may not have an official charge to comment this week.)

We spent nearly an hour today talking about the last four paragraphs of ch. 13, in which the fever rumors first arrive at the Quaker country house Mervyn has retreated to:

My thoughts were called away from pursuing these inquiries by a rumour, which had gradually swelled to formidable dimensions; and which, at length, reached us in our quiet retreats. The city, we were told, was involved in confusion and panic, for a pestilential disease had begun its destructive progress. Magistrates and citizens were flying to the country. The numbers of the sick multiplied beyond all example; even in the pest-affected cities of the Levant. The malady was malignant and unsparing.

The usual occupations and amusements of life were at an end. Terror had exterminated all the sentiments of nature. Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. Some had shut themselves in their houses, and debarred themselves from all communication with the rest of mankind. The consternation of others had destroyed their understanding, and their misguided steps hurried them into the midst of the danger which they had previously laboured to shun. Men were seized by this disease in the streets; passengers fled from them; entrance into their own dwellings was denied to them; they perished in the public ways.

The chambers of disease were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation.

Such was the tale, distorted and diversified a thousand ways by the credulity and exaggeration of the tellers. At first I listened to the story with indifference or mirth. Methought it was confuted by its own extravagance. The enormity and variety of such an evil made it unworthy to be believed. I expected that every new day would detect the absurdity and fallacy of such representations. Every new day, however, added to the number of witnesses and the consistency of the tale, till, at length, it was not possible to withhold my faith.

If we’d had a little more time, we would have moved from the micro-analysis of this isolated passage to a broader analysis of the novel at large (or the portion you’ve read so far). What connections can we make between the concerns of this passage — the patterns you identified so well — and the larger story? Do issues of language/storytelling/rumor — and the almost material qualities of language — have a place in the novel at large? What about the representation of the disease as martial or violent, an invading force? Is there a larger question here to be asked about the relationship between diseases and the language we use to describe them? What about the social and familial roles discussed here? How does the disease affect them, and how does the rumors’ preoccupation with such roles relate to similar concerns in the larger work so far? Do these concerns relate at all to the comments Kefa and Suel made regarding altruism? We’ll almost certainly return to these questions on Thursday, but feel free to get the ball rolling here.

 

Defoe and the history of the novel

In class today I mentioned two approaches to the history of the novel that may help us think with greater precision about Defoe’s novel as a novel.

The one I got to before time was up comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771 and was first published in 1790. In the passage I read from, Franklin, who spent his formative years setting type and writing for newspapers, recalls the emergence of a new style of prose narrative around the turn of the eighteenth century. He begins with a chance encounter, during his initial voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book he knew well from his youth:

In crossing the bay, we met with a squall that tore our rotten sails to pieces, prevented our getting into the Kill,[25]and drove us upon Long Island. In our way, a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep, taking first out of his pocket a book, which he desir’d I would dry for him. It proved to be my old favorite author, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Dutch, finely printed on good paper, with copper cuts, a dress better than I had ever seen it wear in its own language. I have since found that it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible. Honest John was the first that I know of who mix’d narration and dialogue; a method of writing very engaging to the reader, who in the most interesting parts finds himself, as it were, brought into the company and present at the discourse. De Foe in his Cruso, his Moll Flanders, Religious Courtship, Family Instructor, and other pieces, has imitated it with success; and Richardson[26] has done the same in his Pamela, etc.

[Footnote numbers take you to the gutenberg.org etext of Franklin’s book.]

There’s more to be said here about what this new mode of writing represented to Franklin, but at minimum we should note that he associates it with popularity and with aesthetic experience — with a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, as if we’re allowed to eavesdrop on characters. Certainly Defoe got high marks from contemporaries for excitement, in spite of the fact that some of us found his account of the plague a little tiresome between the zombie episodes.

The second version of the history of the novel I wanted to bring to your attention is perhaps best represented by the classic 1957 text by Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, which places Defoe, Richardson, and to a lesser extent Fielding at the center of the history of the English novel. Watt’s book was an important departure from dominant modes of criticism in the middle of the twentieth century in his interest in plotting the relationship between society and social institutions and the production of literary works. (At that point, the dominant New Criticism advocated reading literary works as enclosed worlds, separate from the real world of authors and readers.) Watt offered an enduring analysis of eighteenth-century English novels that suggested the genre’s importance to understanding the rise of the middle class (especially the rise of economic liberalism, or liberal individualism) and the spread of Protestant values. He suggested that the novel didn’t simply reflect these changes but actually participated in them, by helping to form new kinds of reading audiences. He draws attention to Defoe’s significant contribution in creating memorable protagonists — Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, etc. — who are believable individuals. The novel’s association with individualism is present even in the tendency of early novels to take on the names of their protagonists. (Think not just of Crusoe or Moll Flanders but of Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, which we read next.) Watt thinks individualism’s emergence has something to do with Protestantism, especially its enshrinement of individual dignity and labor, but also recognizes the appeal to readers of imagining a character’s entire life, of identifying vicariously with a central character who is at once heroic and quite ordinary. We don’t just want to eavesdrop on characters, he’s suggesting. We might want to be like them, or perhaps even to be them, which is perhaps precisely what someone like Defoe wants from us.

Watt’s account has been subject, over half a century, to criticism on several fronts, but it remains enormously influential, even as authors seek to replace it with new histories that recognize transnational influences or the centrality of early female novelists. I’d like to take up some of these issues again on Thursday, when we’ll also return to the question of H.F.’s medical opinions. See you then.

 

These breathed Death in every Place

As he pushes toward the conclusion of his narrative, H.F. reiterates his view that the plague is caused by personal contact with the infected:

Here also I ought to leave a further remark for the use of posterity, concerning the manner of people’s infecting one another; namely, that it was not the sick people only from whom the plague was immediately received by others that were sound, but the well. To explain myself: by the sick people I mean those who were known to be sick, had taken their beds, had been under cure, or had swellings and tumours upon them, and the like; these everybody could beware of; they were either in their beds or in such condition as could not be concealed.

By the well I mean such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them, and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances: nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days. These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection, their hands would infect the things they touched, especially if they were warm and sweaty, and they were generally apt to sweat too. (150-51)

It’s worth noting that Defoe’s narrator is taking a hard medical line here, as he has elsewhere (see also 64 and 85, for instance), as a contagionist. That is, even though he often describes the plague as beyond human understanding, he’s pretty sure he knows how it’s being transmitted, and he doesn’t think it’s just somehow magically floating in the air (see 152). He’s rejecting an alternate theory to the person-to-person contagion model, that people contract the fever from polluted air, not from direct contact with the infected. Nor does he think the plague is simply an act of God without natural means attached, though he comes close to taking that position, also in the conclusion (191).

Among the other things this novel does, then, is make a medical argument about the origins and transmission of the plague. The literary critic Barbara Fass Leavy, whose 1992 book To Blight with Plague has been useful to me as I’ve prepared to teach this course, suggests that both theories — the contagionist view and the miasmatic view — are “morally charged. Miasma has to do with a world of widespread material corruption, and as such is easily translatable into a metaphor for the antithesis of civic virtue, which assumes the possibility for society to be organized for the well-being of its citizens.” Leavy argues further that “The idea of direct contagion serves [Defoe’s] purposes better than miasma” because it presents a more dramatic situation for his narrator, who believes contact with the sick is what spreads the disease, yet chooses to remain in the infected city. Thus his dilemma isn’t simply avoiding polluted urban areas, but having to negotiate contact with fellow human beings who may or may not be carrying seeds of infection in their very breath. And he has to do so without seeming to advocate what he calls “a Turkish predestinarianism.”

How do you understand the connection between H.F.’s beliefs and his actions, as he recounts them, in the face of the plague? And how might this question be related to this book’s place in the history of the novel as a genre? We’ll take up these questions on Tuesday.

P.S. Of course both the contagionist and the miasmatic positions were wrong. Bubonic plague was transmitted by fleas like the one pictured above.

Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast

1835, by George Cruikshank (English, 1792-1878), illustration in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (published by Thomas Tegg and Son).

Some went roaring and crying and wringing their hands along the street; some would go praying and lifting up their hands to heaven, calling upon God for mercy. I cannot say, indeed, whether this was not in their distraction, but, be it so, it was still an indication of a more serious mind, when they had the use of their senses, and was much better, even as it was, than the frightful yellings and cryings that every day, and especially in the evenings, were heard in some streets. I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast. He, though not infected at all but in his head, went about denouncing of judgement upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said, or pretended, indeed I could not learn.

— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

via

7-Year-Old Colorado Girl Contracts “Black Death” Bubonic Plague

From wibw.com yesterday:

(CBS/AP) DENVER – A 7-year-old girl is recovering in a Colorado hospital after being diagnosed with the Black Death, scientifically known as the bubonic plague.

The parents of 7-year-old Sierra Jane Downing thought she had the flu when she felt sick days after camping in southwest Colorado.

When she had a seizure, her father rushed her to the local hospital in Pagosa Springs. The emergency room doctor who saw Sierra Jane for the seizure and a 107-degree fever late Aug. 24 wasn’t sure what was wrong either, and called other hospitals before the girl was flown to Denver.

A pediatric doctor racing to save the girl’s life at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children got the first inkling that she had bubonic plague. Dr. Jennifer Snow first suspected the rare disease after factoring in the girl’s symptoms, a history of where she’d been and an online journal’s article on a teen with similar symptoms.

“If she had stayed home, she could’ve easily died within 24 to 48 hours from the shock of infection,” Snow said.

Heard in ordinary Discourse

With Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year we shift from plague frameworks (as in Oedipus and The Decameron) to a full-blown plague narrative, an historical novel that was presented to the public, and in all likelihood understood by its original readers, as an authentic narrative of a plague outbreak. Defoe’s novel was published in 1722, in the aftermath of a plague epidemic in Marseilles, which had generated a lot of newspaper press in London. But the book purports to be an account of the city’s last great outbreak of the plague in 1664-65, some 57 years earlier. To put that gap in perspective, it’s roughly like a book or movie today being set during the 1950s. Maybe the better comparison would be to a narrative or film that claimed to have originated in the earlier moment, and to offer an historical eye-witness.

We’re going to be hard-pressed to take on the question of factual accuracy in Defoe’s narrative, though there is scholarship out there on the subject if you’re interested. Rather, I want to pay attention not just to representations of the plague, thinking about how they may relate to Defoe’s moment as much as to London in the 1660s, but also to other patterns that run through the text. One key issue, I think, becomes apparent from the very title page. Note the full title, and think about how it prepares us for the novel’s concerns. We have the question of genre and generic distinctions up front (something we’ve already been talking about), but also this matter of “publick” and “private.” Why call attention to these categories on the title page? The word “publick” comes up again in the title page’s gloss on the anonymous author: “Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before[.]”

Publicity seems to be a key feature of the novel’s opening paragraphs as well: The story starts not with the outbreak of plague, but with the narrator’s first exposure to “ordinary Discourse” about the plague’s return to Holland. The story precedes the actual visitation of the plague; what might the adjective “ordinary” mean here? Look at how many times “they say,” “some said,” “others said” appear in the sentences to follow. The opening paragraph seems to focus as much on chatter as a genre or sociological phenomenon as it does on the content of the gossip, though clearly the content is such that it’s instilling extraordinary fear in the narrator and his neighbors. Now look at the second paragraph’s opening sentence: “We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see prictis’d since.” I’d like us to start our discussion of the text tomorrow with a reading of these opening paragraphs. What’s the connection between invocations of “the publick” on the title page and the attention to publicity and the circulation of rumor/information, whether in speech or print, in the novel’s opening lines? And where might an historical novel pretending to be a recently discovered factual account fit into such a discussion?