Author Archives: Ravenna VanOstrand

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about Victorian literature this semester?

When I started out, I knew next-to-nothing about Victorian Literature. Sure, I had read Great Expectations back in high school, but you can’t depend on one novel to represent an entire genre. I think I anticipated Victorian literature to be a lot more fluttery and romance-based than it turned out to be. Wuthering Heights definitely had darker and spookier moments than I expected to read, but I liked it. I guess I didn’t expect to enjoy what I was reading as much as I did. I suppose the characterization of women in Victorian times was what I found to be the most interesting, or rather what I kept going back to. Specifically, the Catherines, Isabella, and Estella in particular, the characteristics you would assume for them to possess on a surface level versus what you found when you took a deeper look made them all quite fascinating. Isabella Linton’s entire character arc from the naïve girl to a woman who escapes from abuse was one of the more underrated and complex parts of Wuthering Heights. As for Estella, how she was manipulated by Miss Havisham to execute her revenge while balancing her own autonomy or lack thereof, while it wasn’t discusses much in our class, I can remember back to my high school debates on how much agency she had over herself or whether she was fully under Miss Havisham’s direct or indirect control. Overall, how characters are composed and interact with each other usually interests me, but specifically the female characters in these two novels read this semester, intrigued me.

Getting Lit: Pip’s Characterization

In Chapter 49 of Great Expectations we see Miss Havisham have another tragedy befall her, a poetic consequence, getting heated for raising such a cold-hearted girl. What was curious was Pip’s reaction here: “I was astonished to see that both my hands were burnt; for, I had no knowledge of it through the sense of feeling.” (Dickens, Chapter 49). Pip was so mentally involved with trying to save Miss Havisham that he was completely oblivious to his own pain. An obvious connection to be made is that Pip, a previous blacksmithing apprentice, was merely used to the heat, but I think this connects more to Pip’s character over his previous occupations. Despite Miss Havisham manipulating Estella and marrying her off to Drummle, and manipulating and misguiding Pip, Pip doesn’t let her burn, he immediately goes to help her. This portrays a fundamental component to Pip’s personality, regardless of which Pip he is: Pip will help people. As Handel, he may become snobby and entitled, but he retains some of the characteristics that young Pip who snuck food and the file to the convict in the swamp. Moreover, Pip’s interference and actions have a more potent result on his own life than he realizes. When young Pip helped Magwitch, he was led to repay Pip and elevate him to a gentleman’s status. The consequences of Pip attempting to stop Miss Havisham –when he could have left her– are likely to impact both his and Estella’s lives.

Miss Havisham and Her Puppets

In Great Expectations the narration is told by the present reflective Pip about the seemingly naïve past Pip. One of the several threads sewn into the narrative is the manipulation of young Pip and Estella by Miss Havisham. The reflective Pip seems very aware of her manipulations as in Chapter 29 he remarks: “She said the word often enough, and there could be no doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love—despair—revenge—dire death—it could not have sounded from her lips more like a curse.” (Dickens). This is present Pip noting her manipulation of his past self to fall in love with Estella. However, the naïve Pip, as noted towards the end of Chapter 29, he states:  “Far into the night, Miss Havisham’s words, “Love her, love her, love her!” sounded in my ears. I adapted them for my own repetition, and said to my pillow, “I love her, I love her, I love her!” hundreds of times.” (Dickens). This is the obvious result of Miss Havisham’s manipulation of Pip, to the young Pip the “I love her” might seem childish, hopeful, and perhaps even sweet, but the knowledge of the narrator Pip and the reader, puts a dark twist on those words. All that we can do is watch young Pip fall into Miss Havisham’s trap, helpless to do anything.

While present Pip as narrator can confirm that Miss Havisham is enacting revenge on men through her manipulation of young people, and likewise that Pip is eventually aware of this, is Estella is her youth at all aware that she is merely an instrument of revenge? Miss Havisham is recorded to have said in Chapter 29: ““Hear me, Pip! I adopted her, to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!” which explains a vital insight into how Estella was raised. Miss Havisham cultivated her “to be loved,” which an obvious example of that is to have men fall for Estella and subsequently have their hearts broken. But, there is another side to this coin, where Estella could be argued to also “want to be loved,” or in other words, be attention-seeking. Reflecting back to Chapter 12, Pip points out: ” Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like “Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!” (Dickens). This ties in two elements: the first being an early statement of Miss Havisham’s plot for revenge, and the second is the “lavish fondness” bestowed upon Estella. It would appear that Estella’s cruel behavior towards men and her actions that please Miss Havisham are being positively reinforced. However, is Estella aware of this before Pip? Again in Chapter 29, Estella comments: ‘ “You must know,” said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, “that I have no heart,—if that has anything to do with my memory.” ‘ (Dickens). She is certainly aware of the effects of Miss Havisham’s manipulation on her own person, but I have yet to see any true indication of her self awareness. This moment after Pip and Estella leave the garden: “As Estella looked back over her shoulder before going out at the door, Miss Havisham kissed that hand to her,” is clear Estella yearns for affection and is being reinforced for leading Pip on. Is this just a childish need to impress a parental figure or has Estella consented to working with Miss Havisham in her plot for revenge against men?

A Difference in Narrations

The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was written a little before before the Victorian period in the 1810s, but it displays potent examples of unreliable and manipulated narration. The original version of the tale was the draft of the letter written by the captain to his sister. But, Victor Frankenstein towards the end is noted to have edited it, which erased the captain’s original perspective, and biased the novel to favor Victor’s narrative and presumably increasing the written hostility towards the monster. This is an obvious example of the loss of other perspectives, a “could have been,” or insights withheld from the reader. In Wuthering Heights, written in the 1840s, the narrators are primarily Lockwood and Nelly, with Isabella Linton as a arguable third narrator, while the main characters focused upon are Heathcliff, the Catherines, and the Lintons. In Wuthering Heights, there is a lack in the “true” perspectives of Heathcliff and Catherine for the details are biased by Nelly and Lockwood telling their points of view, much like how Victor Frankenstein wrote over the captain’s perspective. In Great Expectations, written in the 1860s, the main character and the narrator is one and the same: Pip. This first person narration, seems a bit more modern-YA-novel-protagonist, since the perspective of only one character is conveyed. What seems to be lacking in Great Expectations (so far) is those other “true” perspectives of characters such as: Joe, Mrs. Joe (which I might add, there has been no obvious notation of her own name), Estella, Miss Havisham, and other prominent characters. The machinations concealed in their minds, the reader will only be able to discover when Pip notices or through details he may note but not recognize. Both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights utilize the manipulation and omission of the main characters “true” perspectives –the loss of Heathcliff’s, Catherine’s, and the monster’s perspectives– while Great Expectations, is utilizing the more familiar (dare I say modern) first-person-and-protagonist sole narrator. Is this indicating a post-1850s shift of the narration style in novels? Or perhaps, am I, the reader, biased and picking up on a false pattern created by the few novels I have read?

Wuthering Heights and Darwin: “Struggling to Exist”

In Darwin’s second paragraph of the On the Origin of Species excerpt, he defines and gives examples of the “struggle for existence,” which animals and plants both compete against weather, each other, and competitors to survive, but to add a dual quality, things also are dependent upon each other. This struggle for existence can be superimposed on Wuthering Heights in relation to the characters and their challenges. The obvious example, is Heathcliff starting out being treated poorly by Mr. Earnshaw to becoming wealthy and owning Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, and then his eventual demise in becoming ill, to put it simply. Heathcliff did not accomplish this all on his own, he depended on young Cathy marrying Linton Heathcliff, Edgar Linton dying, and Linton Heathcliff’s inheritance from his uncle which he willed to his father, Heathcliff upon his death. The key to struggling to exist and still being successful, is knowing when to depend on others, and when to not. A further example is the Catherine, Edgar, Heathcliff, and Isabella conglomerate. Heathcliff depends on Isabella to fall in love with him so he can get revenge on Catherine and Edgar. He charms her at first and they marry, but he could not depend on her to stick around too long because she eventually got fed up with the abuse, and escaped. With Nelly, he has to depend on her to send a letter to Catherine for him. If it was any other servant that Heathcliff depended on, his letter may not have slipped past Edgar and gotten to Catherine. People need connections with each other in order to survive and succeed, and likewise, so do animals and plants, but even with our connections, we may still struggle. Sometimes the outcome, like with young Cathy and Hareton, will be positive; the shade-bearing trees and the shade plants flourish together. Other times in life, like with Heathcliff, the end will be tragic, as some plants just can’t get enough moisture, and begin to wilt before death.

Catherine Heathcliff and Harriet Martineau: Women and Marriage

I wanted to explore the death of Linton Heathcliff, in relation to Catherine and Heathcliff, while cross-referencing Harriet Martineau’s Society in America. Heathcliff plays a tricky and manipulative game involving Catherine, who is the central piece in his move to access Thrushcross Grange. When Heathcliff trapped Catherine at Wuthering Heights when her father was dying, she became emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to Heathcliff manipulating her into a marriage with Linton. Martineau’s discussion on “The Political Nonexistence of Women,” (TPNW) does not only reflect American society, but Victorian England as well. As Martineau states: “Governments decree to women in some States half their husbands’ property; in others one-third. In some, a woman, on her marriage, is made to yield all her property to her husband; in others, to retain a portion, or the whole, in her own hands.” (TPNW, Paragraph 4). In relation to Catherine’s situation, if she was unmarried, the property bequeathed to her would remain in her hands until she married and would transfer over to the husband for “safekeeping,” but since Heathcliff forced her to marry Linton, it became his property upon Edgar’s death. Step one: complete. The other phase kicked in when Linton was dying and Heathcliff was able to get Linton to bequeath his access of Thrushcross Grange to Heathcliff who was “[claim] and [keep] it in [Linton’s] wife’s right” (Chapter 30, Paragraph 19), which in reality, means that Heathcliff has the property. Technically speaking, the property still belongs to Catherine, but that last tidbit of Heathcliff maintaining it for Catherine, is the loophole that allows him to have it. Catherine, having neither money nor friends for she is in an isolated area, has no choice but to comply. This points out how the Victorian period politically is still not fulfilling the true “consent of the governed” for if it did, Heathcliff could not have been able to take Thrushcross Grange so easily. Certainly, Heathcliff still could have manipulated his son into dedicating his will to Heathcliff, but Linton Heathcliff would not have had Thrushcross Grange in the first place. There seem to be some claims about how Emily Brontë’s work is ‘different’ or treats female characters differently, but this is a prime example of how it falls into a stereotypical (for the time) instance of how society used to work.

On Isabella Linton

I have found Isabella Linton to be a very intriguing character within Wuthering Heights as she is pushed aside by Heathcliff and Edgar, for Catherine. At first she starts out as a naïve girl who foolishly becomes trapped in a marriage to Heathcliff, while he is still in love with Catherine. Her marriage to Heathcliff in Chapter 14 manifests as Isabella being deprived of love, living with a mad husband, with no escape. I assumed it would be the end of her, that she would fade into the background as Heathcliff pursued the Catherine drama, and at a later point in the novel, there would be a line stating “and Isabella Linton had died a few years ago,” but Chapter 17 surprised me, for Isabella leaves her husband and moved south to raise her son.

Isabella taking initiative to get herself out of this situation displays strength grown within herself, for she no longer stands as a defenseless naïve woman. She leaves for preservation for her unborn child and herself to remove both of them from the toxicity of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, caused by Heathcliff and Catherine. Is this a courageous act showing the strength of Victorian women? There is no denying that it does take a lot of mental resolve to remove one’s self from an abusive situation. However, the insight into Isabella’s feelings and actions is usually brief, expressed through Nelly, and overshadowed by Heathcliff. While Isabella did not simply fade into the background, she still cannot escape how she impacts Heathcliff. Her actions continued to reflect Heathcliff’s character, whether it be displaying his manipulativeness in taking advantage of her naïvety, his abusiveness in their marriage, or even when she leaves, it’s furthering his isolation because he once had positive connections to Catherine, Edgar, and Isabella, and now each of them have left him in their own ways.

Characterizing the Genre: A Sample So Far

As I begin my first read of Wuthering Heights, I wanted to track back to previous texts I have explored, in order to do a check in on how I am painting my picture of the Victorian literature genre so far. The simplest solution: jotting down a list of traits so I can begin to pick up patterns between texts. The poem “England in 1819” by Percy Bysshe Shelley and the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë both possess grim characteristics. Shelley paints his poem with mud and blood –quite literally– in order to emphasize the hopelessness and despair of the kingdom. Likewise, Brontë begins the novel in a bleak and nasty storm followed up by a spirit haunting Mr. Lockwood, leading into him falling ill. These two samples of Victorian literature are illustrating dreary and dark elements, which reflects darker undertones of the genre as a whole. To tie in earlier examples, Carlyle’s “The Everylasting No” depicts elements of depression and frustration. Martineau discusses her frustration and displeasure at the political status of women. The four texts tackle very different issues: a poem about a massacre of civilians, a ramble about the negatives before a conversation, a political discussion on women’s rights, and a gothic novel. However, all of these texts dealt with hopelessness, frustration, and despair, and what three of them resulted in was hope. Carlyle’s “The Everylasting Yea” brought the positives after negativity and apathy, in Shelley’s poem it was hope itself illuminating the dark, and for Martineau, she ended her “Political Non-existence of Women” with a strong, hopeful reinforcement in the ‘consent of the governed’ as in all of the governed, men and women. Despite the hopeless beginning, perhaps what will be revealed in Brontë’s novel, is a hopeful ending. This would continue a pattern of starting and working within the grim and desolate, but ending up optimistic, which could be a formula for calculating the tone of future Victorian texts.

Making a Connection: Carlyle’s ‘Everlasting Yea’ and Martineau’s ‘Society in America’

At a first glance, Martineau’s discussion on the lack of political power for women appears very different from Carlyle’s revelations in finding euphoric closure after a long conversion. But, both Carlyle and Martineau’s ideas can be linked together through John Locke. The “consent of the governed” that Martineau discusses, comes directly from Locke’s Second Treatsie where Locke tries to argue against the divine right of kings, the belief that the king’s bloodline and right to rule comes directly from God. Carlyle babbles on about “the beginning of Creation being Light” and “the Son of Man” and other religious references. One might assume here that Locke and Martineau are on one side supporting government and Carlyle favoring religion on the other. However, an argument for a strict dichotomy between Locke and Martineau’s discussions on government and Carlyle’s narrative involving religion, is simply inaccurate. Locke was not anti-God or anti-Christian, he simply wanted to reframe the mindset on where political power derives from, he still believed in God. Locke argues for a “better government,” but doesn’t specifically endorse equality between all genders, just all property-owning men. The ideas that Martineau grew her argument off of, were created by a man whose beliefs about religion and the role of men align far closer to Carlyle than Martineau. So while Carlyle and Martineau’s discussions on the surface seem different, where they are grown from is a similar source.

What do you hope to learn about Victorian literature this semester?

Primarily, I am excited to reread Great Expectations by Charles Dickens which is a novel that I explored in my early years of high school. It will be interesting to tackle different themes and notice details that a high school Sophomore would skip over, or be too naïve to pick up on. Besides that, I haven’t had much, or any experience with the other texts mentioned in the syllabus. I’ve never read Brontë or Tennyson or even Oscar Wilde, and as an English major, I feel like those names are widely known in the ‘literature community,’ so I’m kind of a ‘disappointment’ in that regard. I’ve enjoyed the literature, but I think it will be good for me to become more well-rounded and knowledgeable by exploring Victorian Literature.