Our previous conveners’ post casts light on altruism shown by Dr. Stevens and his wife at the very beginning of the novel. In Chapter 1 of Arthur Mervyn, they decide to take the eponymous character with yellow fever “into [their] protection and care,” although they were aware of the “consequences” (Brown 6). This altruistic behavior is indeed unusual during an outbreak of infectious disease, especially when we look back on our previous novel, A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe, in which the narrator delivers stories of inhumane incidents.
Altruism of the sound toward the sick is one thing, but the latter’s concern for the former is another. Quoting H.F. of A Journal of the Plague Year:
But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he (Defoe 128)
The “zombie” syndrome—the “wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others” (Defoe 124)—depicted in Defoe’s novel doesn’t exist in Arthur Mervyn. On the contrary, Arthur Mervyn strives not to harm his host:
He suppressed his feelings and struggled to maintain a cheerful tone and countenance, that he might prevent that anxiety which the sight of his sufferings produced in us. He was perpetually furnishing reasons why his nurse should leave him alone, and betrayed dissatisfaction whenever she entered his apartment.
How can we explain the difference of behaviors portrayed in the two novels? Did Arthur Mervyn’s altruism simply derive from gratitude toward his benefactor? Or does it have underlying religious and/or cultural background? How did the infected people in London differ from Arthur Mervyn in terms of economic and social status?
Another notable feature of Arthur Mervyn is the novel’s portrayal of women. On one hand, females seem to emerge as figures of power, in charge of major decisions that determine the plot. When deciding whether or not to take in Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens allows “the advice of my wife to govern” (Brown, 6) his decision. Arthur Mervyn himself chooses to leave his home because a female (Betty Lawrence) has overpowered him:
No doubt her own interest would be, to this woman, the supreme law, and this would be considered as irreconcilably hostile to mine. My father would easily be moulded to her purpose, and that act easily extorted from him which should reduce me to beggary. … The house in which I lived was no longer my own, nor even my father’s (Brown, 16).
On the other hand, Arthur Mervyn himself develops romantic feelings for three women in succession: Clemenza, Eliza, and Mrs. Fielding. He fantasizes of marrying and regaining social power:
I was raised to a level with her and made a tenant of the same mansion. Some intercourse would take place between us. Time would lay level impediments and establish familiarity, and this intercourse might foster love and terminate in- marriage! (Brown, 46)
He ultimately values women that attain the adequate amount of sophistication and social status he considers necessary to fulfill the lifestyle he dreams of.
Could Brown simply be reflecting the social changes of the time, or offering a sort of critique towards this social phenomenon? Are these women depicted as true powers of figure or simply individuals symbolizing opportunities to climb the social ladder? What are the moral implications of such desires of Arthur Mervyn?
Last but not least, Arthur Mervyn sets out from his father’s house with the intention of making his own fortune and living on his own terms. He’s an unencumbered young man who is physically able, and at first he “trod this unwonted path with all the fearlessness of youth” (Brown 20). But since Arthur has very little money and quickly loses his small bundle of belongings, he lives largely on advantageous coincidences and the mercy of others. Often this mercy springs from the best intentions, such as the doctor’s offer of shelter despite Arthur’s dangerous yellow fever. But Arthur also meets Welbeck, whose mercy is a guise for manipulation and greed. When Arthur sets out from his family’s home, does he find freedom or simply a lifestyle dependent on societal goodwill?
We’ve come up with questions that are worthy of discussion–hopefully they will enrich tomorrow’s roundtable!
Mina, Joohee, Annie