Archive for category John Milton

Victorian Lit Essay

Or: Two Hours and This To Tell For It?

I was not going to post this because it was a rush job (per the assignment) and I can’t really say I am exceedingly happy with it.  It is okay, but it does suffer from the same faults that many of my essays do.  I feel like I am standing in the archery range, releasing arrows one after another and coming within a few inches of the bull’s-eye but always just ever so slightly missing the mark.  I feel like my essays of the last year have been plagued with shy attempts to articulate my thoughts and occasionally succeeding and often coming just short.  Still, if I don’t try I will never improve.   It occurs to me that I certainly got the better end of the deal in that I never have such problems when writing narrative/fiction (though I will leave this open for any of my readers to debate).

(Oh dear, I just realized I submitted this  to Hube with a rather silly grammatical error.  I should probably recognize the insignificance of such and be absolved of my shame, but I find such far from simple.)

The essay:

As soon as Henry Tilney can utter these words at the end of the twenty-fourth chapter in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Consult your understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. . .” Catherine is altered irrevocably, and, as Austen succinctly summarizes, “The visions of romance were over” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, XXIV, XXV). And thus Austen, who was living on a nebulous line demarcating the cusp of the Victorian era while Romanticism was slipping away, announces the end of that framework that defined Romanticism. In Northanger Abbey, Austen takes advantage of the Victorian’s acute, self-conscious, and explicit awareness of themselves and makes a microcosm of that shift from Romanticism to Victorianism, embodying it in the life of Catherine Morland.

Catherine, throughout Northanger Abbey, embodies some of the most obvious of those characteristics that define Romanticism. Austen constantly reminds us of Catherine’s brilliant imagination and emotive cognitive processes. The ubiquitous reminders of her fascination with those Gothic novels that so define her is also a driving motif throughout the work. Moreover, Catherine has a persistent belief in the innate goodness of individuals—or, at least, she has a faith in the total goodness of those good individuals, and the total depravity of those evil individuals. As we see, one of the results of her paradigm awakening or disillusionment towards the end of the novel was the realization that, while in Romanticism “such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend,” in the Victorian era, in the real world, is instead “a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.” In the character of Catherine, those Romantic traits are displayed in an extreme. The most blatant, of course, is her obsession with the Gothic, the sublime, which drives the plot of much of the second volume of the novel.

The plot of Northanger Abbey through the twenty-third chapter builds up the character of Catherine and enables us to see what she only sees in hindsight, that she arrives at Northanger Abbey “craving to be frightened.” Before she has arrived at the Tilney residence, Catherine attempts to imagine it more than simply an abbey just as she attempts to integrate something beyond life into the character of General Tilney. This constitutes the essential flaw in the character as well as an essential distinction between Romanticism and Victorianism.

In a manner analogical to that with which the classical Romantics attempted to find meaning and truth in nature, the pre-awakening Catherine attempts to find the meaning in things, places, and people that she is unable and unwilling to concede are nothing more than things, places, and people. There is a place called Northanger Abbey. There is a man known as General Tilney. Yet, to Catherine, if there is nothing more, they have absolutely no meaning. And so, from her Romantic framework developed through prolific perusal of Romantic and Gothic literature, Catherine integrates the places, things, and people that she knows with standards that are not in any conformity to the real world. Her “sense of the probable,” as Henry Tilney calls it, is skewed to such a degree that to overlay these Gothic stereotypes onto reality in order to discover or create some meaning is fully sensible.

The reversal in chapter twenty-four is utterly simplistic and yet strikingly profound within the context of the plot around the well-developed character of Catherine. Catherine finally makes her way into Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, the bedroom that must reveal the nefarious truths about Mrs. Tilney’s death that must be more than simply a sudden, fatal illness. And, of course, Catherine finds a bed, and a wardrobe, and chairs, and, in the end, exactly what one would expect to find in a bedroom: perfectly mundane innocence and simplicity. It is a testament to Austen’s narrative skill that the seemingly self-evident discovery that a bedroom, in fact, is a bedroom, can be such a dramatic upheaval for her characters. The recognition of the “common sense” (and her hitherto lack thereof) that immediately overcomes Catherine begins the paradigm shift away from Catherine’s Romanticism to an almost skeptical Victorianism which rejects far-fetched integrations. In the stead of the Romantic risk of absurdity by going to such extremes as Catherine has done in order to find meaning in daily experiences and interactions, the Victorian Catherine rejects the search for such integrations by denying the necessity that a house be any more than a house or a man be any more than merely a man. There need not be any sublimity. In other words, Catherine’s revelation exemplifies the Victorian era’s reaction to the Romantic’s over-wide realm of the probable by limiting the meaningful to only the extant and eliding the excessive, and external integrated meaning.

“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened.” She is suddenly made aware of the “extravagance of her late fancies,” “[t]he liberty which her imagination had dared to take. . . ,” and “the absurdity of her curiosity and fears” (Ibid. XXV.) In this, Austen sums up the dramatic shift from the Romantic mindset into that of the Victorian era, from the over-inclusive to the skeptical. But there is nothing to fear in this shift, and Austen offers this comfort for Catherine and her readers: “Her [Catherine’s] mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever. . .” (Ibid. XXV).1

1. Dr. Hubele, please know that your temporal restrictions have resulted in this inchoate creation which you have (no doubt) perspicaciously perused. I would have liked to discuss the idea that Henry’s acutely aware recognition of his own framework is a key component of Victorianism, but your restrictions have cruelly cut off the head of these thoughts before they had time to integrate and fructify. I will end this superfluous footnote by mutilating John Milton:

‘Doth Hube exact hard labor, time denied?’

I fearf’ly ask. But Prudence, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: ‘Hube doth not need

Either your work or the whole class’s: who

Simply write their essays, they serve him best.’

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A Few Thoughts on “Paradise Lost”

Or:

Taking Advantage of the Early Dismissal of my Aesthetics Class to Organize Convoluted Thoughts While Awaiting the Beginning of my 11 o’clock Speech Class

I.  The beginning books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost contain a paradox that has plagued every reader since it was published: that of Satan’s heroism.  When I first perused those pages, I was consciously intent on avoiding this admiration of the devil that everyone seemed to feel; I don’t think that I succeeded.  However, as the months passed after reading it for the first time, I began to notice something in the work as a whole.  The first two books display Satan in such a manner that there is no way in which you can not at the least understand if not experience the admiration for the devil.  The first half of Paradise Lost, the heroic epic, is constructed with Satan at the center.  He is dynamic and fascinating.  Hell is organic and even beautiful in its terror and awfulness.  While I might have tried to stubbornly resist the attraction of the devil, I was fully conscious of the work’s shape that encouraged if not necessitated that attraction.

And then, around the fifth book, this all changes.  The epic gives way to a quieter genre and Satan’s appeal dwindles into revulsion and, perhaps, even pity.  There is left nothing grand in him whatsoever.  But it would be a mistake to view this transformation as a change in the character or characterization of Satan.  Instead, we are given another point of view and we see that there was never anything admirable or adoreable in that infernal prince at all.  But this moment of revelation is not simply a moment of recognition of something in the work; it is a moment of terrible recognition of the sin that has been accompanying us throughout the first half of the work.  I realized that all that attracted me to Satan was that selfsame stuff that stirs up the pride and lust and wrath in myself every moment of every day.  It is that selfsame nature that I am in a constant struggle with for the vitality of my soul.  The recognition of one’s misplaced attraction to Satan is the recognition of the sinful human nature.  It is the recognition that I let that sinful nature rule me for the first few books of the work.  Paradise Lost is not only able to convict you of your sinful nature, it draws you into that conviction, makes you a part of the work in a manner that is scarcely accomplished through any other work so that by the time that Eve takes the fruit from the tree and gives it to Adam, you have already fallen and from this fallen state can only beg them not to partake of your guilt.  In a way, the Fall is reversed in Paradise Lost.  It is only after the reader has fallen and recognized his allegorical nakedness that we watch Adam and Eve give into the devil.  It is only after we have recognized the evil in man that Adam and Eve partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I have read extensively, but I can think of no other work that accomplishes a profound recognition as effectively as this other than the Bible.  The feelings that were aroused in me upon this recognition in Paradise Lost were of the same stuff as that horrific guilt that is present in me every time I recognize that my mouth, my sins, and my sinful heart all stand with that crowd crying “Crucify Him!”.

II.  I think one of the greatest aspects of both the Bible and Paradise Lost is that, of course, neither leave you be in this state of guilt and shame.  The consideration of this shall have to be for some other time though.

III.  If there is a more vital and powerful purpose to Story, I am hard-pressed to think of it.  The allegorical potency that allows for this recognition is at the heart of what Story ought to be.  I wonder whether I could ever accomplish this.

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