decipi frons prima multos

Never judge a book by its cover. This popularly overused proverb never ceases to lose its relevance; it is, indeed, hard to argue against. Appearances often can be deceiving. Can anyone claim that when meeting new people he/she does not pay attention to their appearances and the notorious ‘social status’? Everyone has a snapshot evaluation instinct. Nonetheless, many try to argue that they do not take this into account.

Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality or moral characteristic by appearance, is a recurring topic throughout the novel. Physiognomy grew popular throughout the 18th and the 19th century and was even discussed seriously in the academics. From the beginning of the novel, an application of physiognomy made Doctor Stevens decide to rescue Mervyn.

Stevens’ physical description of Mervyn, and in particular his “youth, unspoiled…uninured”, allow us to justify the “claim to affection”, on a physiognomic level. Based on his clothing alone, Stevens is able to infer a ‘manlike beauty…so powerful’, he can make definitive statements about Mervyn’s fortunes and ‘misfortunes’. The sense of innocence of character that Stevens acknowledges even before conversing with Mervyn illustrates this physiognomic attitude of the era.

Mervyn is not an exception to applying these norms. However, he goes further, metamorphosing outward-in; his personality, thoughts and beliefs evolve with each new facade. After going through his own Welbeck-endorsed transformation, Mervyn is in fact committing his ‘original sin’ in the book. The initial exterior transformation soon enough develops into the interior transformation, or perhaps self-reconstruction. To put in more metaphorical terms, Mervyn initially wears a Mask, and he becomes the Mask itself.

I was now conscious of a revolution in my mind. […] Subsequent incidents, perhaps, joined with the influence of meditation, had generated new views. On my first visit to the city, I had met with nothing but scenes of folly, depravity, and cunning […] but my second visit produced somewhat different impressions…[I met] beings  who inspired veneration […] If cities are the chosen cities of misery and vice, they are […] the soil of  all the laudable and strenuous productions of the mind. (Brown, 221)

Mervyn, however, is not the only person to transform, or seem to transform. He too commits the error of misjudging someone based on their physical appearance and endowments, on several occasions. Priding himself on his superior analytical and deductive abilities, and taking into consideration his antiestablishmentarian stance (with regards to gender roles especially), it is thus notable that he falls into the trap of stereotype. This is particularly acute with the curious case of Eliza Hadwin. Mervyn comments:

Her total inexperience gave her sometimes the appearance of folly […] Ah! thought I, sweet, artless, and simple girl![ …] the extreme youth, rustic simplicity and mental imperfections of Eliza Hadwin (Brown,  215, 221)

 Upon Eliza demonstrating a mental proficiency at par with Mervyn’s, he remarks,

I was suprized[…]I had certainly considered her sex unfitting[…]I could not deny, that human ignorance was curable by the same means in one sex as in the other (Brown 224)

Be it by sex, by clothing, by class, by appearance, eloquence or education, and through the character of Welbeck, Brown goes to lengths to show that people aren’t always who they seem to be, and that intuitively, there is something we can gain, and a lot we lose, when we use physiognomy.

By: Suel, Kee, and Kefa

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.


1790s Philadelphia

Fever Killed the Men
Slave Owners
Statistics during the Fever (Defoe Style)
The “Swelling” of the Fever

Here are four pictures that portray several aspects of the city during the Yellow Fever in Philadelphia. Statistics from the photo on the left shows the abundance of women in the city as “Wives were deserted by husbands” and “Men were seized by the disease in the streets” (pp.99).
















These photos can be found here (for the maps), and here (for the mortality rates)

Moral Plagues on a Beachy Day

As we were reading Arthur Mervyn on the pristine sands of the Corniche, we could not help but be distracted by the azure Gulf waters and the towering skyline of Abu Dhabi. In a moment of reflection, we realized how our new life at this Arab Crossroad shared several key themes with that of Brown’s protagonist. Abu Dhabi is a city of both substantial wealth and gross socioeconomic inequalities, two ideas which shape the volatile character interactions within Arthur Mervyn.

The titular character, with his humble agricultural background, is intelligent and adaptable, but inexperienced in the norms of upper-class life. When he is exiled from his rural home, Mervyn is at the mercy of Philadelphia’s streets. Here, we find an essential theme which unites Abu Dhabi, Mervyn’s Pennsylvania, and Daniel Defoe’s London in Journal of the Plague Year. With sickness and socioeconomic inequalities against the backdrop of an urban landscape, class interactions take on contrasting forms under the influence of moralism, religion, and self-preservation.

At the first signs of plague in London, the affluent would flee the city out of panic, abandoning the poor to pestilence. Furthermore, as the epidemic seized the city, all interpersonal relationships crumbled — leaving each individual to fight for his life both isolated and despairing.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is in some ways an antithesis to Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. The latter novel is introduced with a deed of altruistic charity. The narrator finds Arthur Mervyn penniless and stricken with yellow fever. Without scruple, the narrator invites Mervyn back to his house, where he is nursed back to full health. One might ask what the benefits are in risking one’s life for that of a helpless other. Inspired by a humanistic and moral obligation, nearly absent from the London populous during the 1665 visitation, the narrator quotes:

“I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim.”

This moral debt, which the narrator takes action upon, often arises when both philosophy and religion are confronted with plague. The practices of Islamic martyrdom (in the face of disease) and almsgiving are two principles highly present in modern Arabia and Justin Stearns’s examination of plague and Abrahamic faith.

But what is altruism? Defined as “selfless concern for the well-being of others,” we see in Arthur Mervyn, that like Yin and Yang, generosity is always complemented by greed. Quoting Brown’s titular character:

“…interest and duty were blended in every act of generosity.” (Brown, 27)

As yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, no good act remains unrequited. When Mervyn is most desperate, the wealthy Welbeck shows him charity, but not without its price. Bound to his benefactor, Mervyn is sucked into a world of corruption, betrayal, murder, and intrigue. The plot only thickens when Mervyn himself, and Welbeck, are confronted with yellow fever.

Under the societal pressures of a city devastated by plague, what would you do? Flee to the country in hopes of escape? Flock to the city in the hopes of some fortune? Ambivalence is inevitable, but choices necessary. What will go first, your life, your soul, or your resolution? Think about that next time you’re enjoying the beautiful waves and powdered sands of the Corniche.

“My poverty, but not my will consents.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, V.i.75)


Allen, Adam, and Diana

Award Winning Short Film Based on Defoe’s “A Journal of a Plague Year”

The Periwig-Maker is an animated film, so it might spice ol’ Defoe up a little bit. It is directed by Steffen Schaeffler and was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards in 2000.

I can’t seem to embed it, so here is the link to the vimeo page. It also exists on Youtube, here is the first half.

Run-time is just under 15 minutes. Its Wikipedia page is more informative than its Imdb counterpart, further evidence that Wiki will shortly make all other websites obsolete.

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 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)