Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Idolisation in Thomas Hardy's Tragic Novels

Virginia Woolf once claimed that Thomas Hardy was “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists.” The protagonists of his four famous tragic novels, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, are some of the most pitied characters in English literature. Their tragic falls are caused by a number of contributing factors, including societal conventions and the cruel nature of fate. However, one cause of their downfalls that is often overlooked is their frequent idolisation of places, ideas and people, an idolisation that reality is unfortunately unable to live up to. Eustacia, Tess, Jude and others all fall victim, in one way or another, to this human tendency to idolisation. Though this is a frequent theme in literature, there are very few writers who approach it with as much skill and sympathy as Hardy.

One of the most striking instances of this Hardeian idolisation is found in Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure. The novel’s male protagonist, Jude Fawley, lives in Marygreen, a village in Hardy’s Wessex. As a young boy, he works in his great-aunt’s bakery and at night he teaches himself Latin and Greek. He is “crazy for books,” hoping one day to become a scholar at the University of Christminster, a city modelled on Oxford. Jude is isolated and lonely in his childhood, often taking long walks by himself. He feels that his life is “an undemanded one” but that studying at University will bring change and fulfilment. Indeed, simply visiting Christminster is an idea that occupies Jude for the first portion of the novel, as Hardy writes in free indirect discourse: “Perhaps if he prayed, the wish to see Christminster might be forwarded.” He sees it as “a city of light” where “The tree of knowledge grows,” and he feels as if the voices of the city call to him, “We are happy here!”

However, when Jude attempts to become a scholar by sending a number of letters to various Christminster colleges, he only receives one response, from the Master of Biblioll College: “judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.” Despite his lengthy and persistent commitment to study, Jude is restrained by his position as a working class man, and thus his dreams cannot be fulfilled. But Jude also learns that Christminster is not as wonderful as he originally thought. Half of the city is made up of dingy slums and Sue describes it as “an ignorant place”. For the working classes, it is not so much a “city of light” as a city of walls dividing the rich from the poor.

But still Jude cannot let go of his dream, as he explains: “I love the place—although I know how it hates all men like me—the so-called self-taught.” He cannot let go of his ambitions, and it is this persistence that results in Jude and Sue’s return to Christminster: “I should like to go back to live there—perhaps to die there!” When they arrive, the couple realize the full societal effects of their unmarried relationship. Indeed, after they are repeatedly rejected from lodgings, Little Father Time, Jude’s son with Arabella, begins to believe that he and his siblings are the cause of the family’s woes. This belief leads to the tragic infanticide accompanied by the poignant note, “Done because we are too menny.” As Edmond Gosse argues, “The ‘grimy’ features of the story go to show the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead, and the squalid real life he was fated to lead.” The death of his children is a prime example of one of the novel’s ‘grimy’ features. And so, Sue is right to call Jude “Joseph the dreamer of dreams” and “a tragic Don Quixote,” because it is in part his Quixotic idealism that leads to his tragic fall. Even though his dreams are persistently left unfulfilled and crushed by reality, he never gives them up, eventually wishing that Little Father Time might go to the University. Thus, it is clear that idealism plays a huge role in Hardy’s final novel.

In the same way that Jude wishes to escape his working-class roots in Marygreen, so Eustacia (from Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native) wishes to escape the barrenness of the heath and Bloom’s End. When she goes walking on the heath she carries a spyglass and an hourglass, the latter representing her obsession with time, the former her hopes for a change of environment and her will to escape (though she also uses it to spy). Just as Jude sat on the roofs of barns and looked into the distance at the lights of Christminster, so Eustacia walks the heath dreaming of the luxury of Paris. As Hardy remarks: “One point was evident in this; that she had been existing in a suppressed state, and not in one of languor, or stagnation.” She is not lazy or idle; rather, life in Bloom’s End has suppressed her true, passionate personality. Indeed, when Clym asks Eustacia what depresses her, she replies with one word, “Life.” She later adds: "But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?"

She turns to Clym, the native who has returned from his prosperous life in Paris, to deliver this life of passion and excitement. But the tragedy of the novel is that he is unable to do this because he has dreams of his own, dreams of becoming a teacher in Bloom’s End. He explains: “I want to do some worthy things before I die.” In the same way that Jude and Sue begin with opposing religious beliefs and suffer because of this, so Clym and Eustacia have opposing hopes and dreams. This is summed up by Casagrande, who notes that Clym’s plight is “complicated, of course, by Eustacia’s being as desperate a dreamer as he, a dreamer moreover (of future rather than past dreams) who looks to him to fulfil her yearning.” Whereas Eustacia dreams of a future in Paris, Clym has attempted to go back to his past, returning to Bloom’s End and his mother’s house.

However, neither of their dreams can be fulfilled: Clym does not want to go to Paris, and Eustacia is not the schoolmaster’s wife that Clym wants her to be. As D.H. Lawrence explains, “He did not know that Eustacia had her being beyond his.” He has made her into “an idea”. And so, he has idolised not just the past, but also Eustacia herself, and this is the problem. Moreover, Clym is unable to turn back time and he is never fully reintegrated into Bloom’s End society. This is demonstrated by the St George play, a play that is supposed to be about regeneration but which is acted by dull and unenthusiastic mummers, exemplifying the hopelessness of Clym’s ambition. John Paterson is right to argue that the plot moves the characters “through the phases first of purpose or will or desire, then of passion or suffering as what the characters intend or desire is resisted and defeated, and finally of perception or knowledge as they recognize the limits of their world and of their power to change it.” It is this final recognition, amongst other things, that leads to Eustacia’s death and Clym’s descent into grief and failure. In the knowledge that she will never reach Paris without fleeing from her husband and becoming a fallen woman, Eustacia throws herself or falls into the stream near Shadwater weir. Clym, blind and wifeless, must also come to terms with reality, realising that it is impossible to turn back the clocks and truly reintegrate himself in Bloom’s End. And so it is clear that Clym and Eustacia both suffered for their idolisation, Clym of the past and Eustacia of the future, and for their projection of ideals onto one another.

It is interesting to note the undeniable similarities between the lives of Jude and Clym and the life of Hardy himself. Like Jude, Hardy was unable to study for a degree at Oxbridge, and he pursued self-directed study whilst working as a stonemason and then architect. Like Clym, Hardy gave up a successful career as a London architect and returned to his native Dorchester to become a writer. But this does not mean that Hardy is warning against self-education, as might be suggested by Jude the Obscure’s Pauline epitaph, “The letter killeth,” taken from 2, Corinthians 3. Nor does it mean Hardy is warning against successful employment and the gaining of wealth. After all, he famously wrote that a novel is “an impression, not an argument,” and so we can only infer that Hardy observed the restrictions on working-class men and that he noticed the difficulties of returning home after a long absence.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is another novel that portrays the dangers of idolisation, also eloquently expressed by Carson McCullers in her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. As Jean Brooks notes, “Respect for the real being of the beloved is lost in illusory wish-projections which cause suffering when they clash with reality.” Angel views Tess as a woman of inhuman purity, and like Clym, he imagines that his lover will make the perfect wife for him. She appears to him as “a visionary essence of woman” or “merely a soul at large,” a pure and sexless being. He calls her “Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names,” taking away her individuality to such an extent that Tess is forced to tell him, “Call me Tess.” It is worth noting that Artemis lived in celibacy, and thus that Angel is again projecting a false image onto the technically ‘impure’ Tess.

When, on their wedding night, Angel learns of Tess’s seduction or rape in the Chase, he is horrified and eventually leaves her for Brazil. This, in itself, shows how Tess too was tricked by Angel: he himself has had a pre-marital relationship with an older woman in London, so for him to desert Tess is incredibly hypocritical. Moreover, he has repeatedly attacked the conventions of Victorian society, and yet, when confronted with a crisis, he falls back in cowardice on traditions of marriage and purity. And so, one could argue that, just as Angel has been deceived in believing that Tess is ‘pure’ in terms of Victorian mores, so Tess has been deceived in believing that Angel is the perfect man, which he certainly is not. Likewise, Lucetta fails to realise that Henchard is the impulsive, domineering “woman-hater” that he himself professes to be, and to an extent, her ignorance of this leads to her tragic death. Angel, Tess and Lucetta are all victims of idolisation, deceiving themselves and therefore suffering upon their confrontations with reality.

Philip Larkin, one of Hardy’s biggest fans, wrote a poem entitled “Deceptions”, a poem that refers to what Larkin called “fulfilment’s desolate attic.” Throughout his career, Larkin perpetually portrayed the failures of love, religion and other ideals, and it is easy to see Hardy’s influence. It is clear that Hardy saw the dangers of our human tendency to idolise people and ideas, and I have attempted to outline the most significant instances of that impression, though there are others: Clym’s idolisation of his dead mother and her harsh opinions, Jude’s idolisation of the neurotic Sue as a normal woman, and many more. Thus, the conflict between the ideal and reality is central to the novels. If Jude had not projected such fantastical ideas onto the city of Christminster, if Clym had not obsessed over his past and his origins, if Eustacia had not clung to her dream of a future in Paris, and if Angel and Tess had not allowed love to mask their vision, then all of the novels’ tragedies might have been averted. Of course there are other reasons for the tragic falls of these protagonists, including fate and personal flaws, but idolisation and over-expectation certainly contribute to some of the saddest scenes in all of literature.

The Role of Fate in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"

The idea of fate is one of the most prominent themes in tragic writing. Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare and many others wrote about the extent to which our actions are predetermined by divine providence, one of the many forms of what we now call ‘fate’. This idea is summed up by Gloucester’s oft-quoted reflection, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods.” But Thomas Hardy lived in the early twentieth century in a world that doubted providential action, so for him, fate was more a question of fortune than celestial foreknowledge. Hardy’s reflections on the perils of fortune and fate reach their pinnacle in his novels The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, novels that also question the roles of society and personal autonomy in our lives. Though Hardy has often been branded as pessimistic in his tales of life’s cruelties and injustices, he himself denied this allegation, humorously arguing that he had adopted “a higher characteristic of philosophy than pessimism… which is truth.” Thus, the truth or ‘impression’ that Hardy’s novels convey is that, though his protagonists are complicit in their downfalls, there are a number of contributing factors they were powerless to prevent. As Jean Brooks persuasively argues, “In the tragic universe human errors become tragic errors which co-operate with Fate…”

The extent to which Michael Henchard, the protagonist of The Mayor of Casterbridge, is responsible for his tragic fall, is one of the most hotly debated questions in all of literature. Indeed, it is hard to know whether he is an admirable character or a loathsome one, since throughout the novel Hardy encourages us to see him in different lights. Robert Schweik identifies four movements in the novel, and in each there is an initial situation that seems to offer hope for Henchard, encouraging us also that he is a good man. The first movement begins with Henchard as the affluent Mayor of Casterbridge, an apparently reformed man, grown older and more mature. His earlier harshness to Susan and Elizabeth Jane, in selling them to Newson as his “goods”, is made less significant by his kindness to Farfrae and his care for the returned Susan and her daughter, whom he gives five guineas and sets up as a genteel new arrivals in town.

However, as the movement continues, Henchard becomes more ruthless and his “temperament which would have no pity for weakness” begins to show more prominently. When Farfrae sets up his own corn business, Henchard cruelly decides that he wants to “grind him into the ground” and “starve him out.” This one-sided rivalry increases as Henchard begins to feel more and more threatened by Farfrae, particularly because of his relationship with Elizabeth Jane, a relationship that Henchard attempts to prevent. When he discovers that Elizabeth Jane is not his daughter (after the death of his wife), he begins to be cruel to her, too. Finally, Henchard’s courting of Lucetta reveals to both her and the reader his impulsive and uncaring approach to other people as he tries to force her to marry him.

Thus, though Henchard appeared to be reformed, the introduction of a rival and of financial danger arguably reveals his true personality, and his cruelties are, to an extent, revenged: Schweik marks the end of this movement with the furmity woman’s public disclosure of Henchard’s past. When the people learn of his drunken selling of his family, “public disgrace and bankruptcy come like a retribution and precipitate him to social and economic ruin.” (Schweik) As Hardy explains: “On that day – almost at that minute – he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side.” This first of Schweik’s movements seems to reinforce the dictum that “character is fate”, that the good succeed and the wicked suffer. After all, as Henchard is forced to admit, his actions directly cause his suffering: when he disregards his wife’s last wishes and reads the letter revealing that Elizabeth Jane is not his child, though at first he believes that events had been caused by “the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him,” he realises that the events “had developed naturally” and that “If he had not revealed his past history to Elizabeth he would not have searched the drawer for papers, and so on.”

This model of goodness and relative success, followed by ruin, is repeated again and again. The second movement begins with Hardy’s stressing Henchard’s generosity and integrity: for example, Henchard sells his watch in order to repay a needy cottager. He also tells his rival and employer Farfrae “I – sometimes think I’ve wronged ‘ee!” But then Henchard undergoes another “moral change” and his drinking brings a new “era of recklessness.” However, he does begin to show a sense of inherent moral goodness in that he cannot bring himself to tell Farfrae that the letters he reads to him came from Lucetta (“Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him”). Furthermore, he does not kill Farfrae in the fight, even though he could easily do so. Indeed, after the fight, he takes “his full measure of shame and self-reproach,” and we arguably begin to pity him at this point. Schweik is right when he argues that Henchard now appears to have an “incapacity for callous destructiveness which repeatedly frustrates his reckless antagonism.” Hardy now sees him as less of a Faust figure, who is to blame for his fall, and more of a “less scrupulous Job,” a man at the mercy of external causes, such as Jopp’s vicious decision to make Lucetta’s letters public, letters that Henchard wanted to be returned discreetly.

The third and fourth cycles similarly encourage us to pity Henchard, particularly in his moral struggles and his pathetic subjection to Elizabeth Jane (he takes on his duties in her house with “housewifely care”). Indeed, Elaine Showalter argues that Henchard undergoes an unmanning throughout the novel and experiences a typically “female suffering”. Hardy notes that “he was not now the Henchard of former days”. We also sympathise with him in his vow not to interfere with Elizabeth Jane’s marriage, even though he is “doomed to be bereft of her”. Henchard’s intense love for his wife’s daughter can also be used to explain his lie to Newson which, though cruel, was motivated by sincere affection. When he is rebuked by Elizabeth Jane and departs from Casterbridge once again, we come to view Henchard as the victim of fate’s nonchalant cruelty. As Elizabeth Jane ponders, there is a “persistence of the unforeseen” in men’s destinies, and “neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given” while “there were others receiving less who had deserved much more.” Henchard is surely one of those beings that deserved more than his lonely, exiled death, especially considering his “new lights” and “wisdom” upon which Hardy remarks. Thus, whilst the first movement suggests that Henchard deserves his suffering, the novel’s ending seems to imply that Henchard, though undeniably flawed and partly responsible, is more the victim of fate than the victim of his own actions.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles also suggests that, whilst human autonomy can be partly to blame for the tragic falls of Hardy’s protagonists, fate and society also play a significant role. To an extent, Hardy emphasises Tess’s passivity in his descriptions, for example, of how there has “been traced such a coarse pattern” on her “feminine tissue,” a pattern which he says “it was doomed to receive”. As Kristin Brady argues, she is presented as more of “a passive victim of male aggression and idealization than an active participant in her own disastrous fate.” However, there are, in fact, various instances in the novel for which Tess can be held partly responsible. Though Alec admits that he played a “trick” on her, she is described by Hardy as a “victim of seduction,” and thus it is unsure whether she really was raped. Indeed, as Brady explains, “Tess’s real thoughts and feelings are rarely presented in the novel, except when she suffers the consequences of her actions.” Again, this makes her seem more passive than she may really be. She is, for Brady, “both the betrayed maiden and the fallen woman.” Tess herself says that she had “succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness.” This, of course, makes Alec’s actions no less cruel, but it does suggest that the events in the Chase did not quite amount to a rape.

This argument is also supported by the fact that, to an extent, Tess seems to like Alec: she stays with him for a few weeks after the loss of her virginity in the Chase, and she accepts various gifts from him. She even tells him: “My eyes were dazed by you for a little…” Tess eats Alec’s strawberries “in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state,” and though she resists his whistling lessons, she finds herself smiling “involuntarily” at her “momentary pleasure of success”. It is also possible to argue that Tess’s sense of pride contributes to the events in the Chase, perhaps explaining why she accepts Alec’s offers to “rescue” her from Car Darch and the other revellers. She feels both “indignant and ashamed,” showing a wish both to triumph and to escape, a wish that Alec’s arrival fulfils when she goes off with him “in triumph”. And so, one can argue that this will to triumph in part led to the events of the Chase. Moreover, Tess’s partaking in the laughter of the other revellers can be seen as her entering into the world of sexual depravity amongst Alec’s other victims. This idea is reinforced by the names The Queen of Hearts and The Queen of Diamonds, and by the earlier description of sexual frenzy in the barn (Tess is at the door, described by Hardy as “on the momentary threshold of womanhood”). It is also worth adding that, in an earlier draft of Tess, she is described as drinking a cordial that Alec gives her before they arrive at the Chase, perhaps suggesting Tess’s complicity and her willing entrance into this sexual, adult world. And so, Tess is not completely the victim of fate: her personality and actions can be held responsible, too.

It also helps to look at other examples throughout the novel of Tess’s self-assertion and pride because, as J. Hillis Miller points out, Tess’s life seems to be a constant re-enactment of the night in the Chase. The most obvious example of this is the incident with Prince, the family’s horse. Though it is obviously not her fault that her father gets too drunk to drive to the market, she is certainly to blame for taking on too much responsibility and “proudly” refusing her mother’s suggestion that a young man take the carriage. She also allows Abraham to fall asleep because, although she “was not skilful in the management of a horse… she thought that she could take upon herself the entire conduct of the load for the present.”

This is not to say that Tess is wholly to blame for her tragic fall – that would be a ridiculous assertion. But it is true that personal responsibility, along with external events, contributes to her tragedy. As I have outlined, she is partly responsible for the death of the family horse, which leads to her being forced to visit Alec. She is also partly responsible for her seduction, though it is difficult to blame her for her innocence and naivety. However, it does seem throughout the novel that the world is conspiring against Tess: for example, the letter that she slips under the door to Angel is hidden under the carpet so that Angel never sees it, and this event causes the suffering of both on the night of their wedding. Moreover, there is an omen of a cock crowing at the wedding, and there is also an ill-omened stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand as Tess meets Alec for the second time. All of these events suggest that, though Tess may be responsible in not preventing the disasters of her tragic fall, she was the victim of terrible misfortune.

Thus, Tess is undeniably the victim of fate, but also the victim of society itself. It is the stringent and unjust mores of Victorian traditions that lead to Angel hypocritically leaving her despite his own ‘sinful’, pre-marital relationship. It is also because of the difficulties women faced in her time that Tess is inevitably forced to return to Alec in order to survive, and we can certainly pity her in her decision to kill him (though, again, this could be seen as another instance of her personal responsibility for her fate). As Tanner notes, “Throughout the book Hardy stresses that Tess is damned, and damns herself, according to man-made laws which are as arbitrary as they are cruel.” But he also goes on to add that Nature itself seems to turn on Tess, and just as Tess is tortured by man-made laws and orthodoxy (as represented, perhaps, by the violent, man-made threshing machine), she is also tortured by the forge of the sun, the “steely stars”, and the “glass splinters” of rain at Flintcomb-Ash. Incidentally, the policeman that arrive to arrest Tess appear at sunrise, and so it is as if the sun is bringing forth Tess’s doom.

And so, it seems clear that both Tess and Henchard are in part to blame for their tragic falls, but that they are also both unfairly treated by the cruelties of fate. They both acted in such a way as to encourage their doom, but that surely does not make them deserving of the immense suffering and lonely deaths they experienced. Henchard does not deserve to be ostracised because of his reckless and impulsive personality, and nor does Tess deserve to be ostracised and killed for her pride and her naivety. This is the skill of Hardy: he allows his characters a certain amount of autonomy, and he allows them to sin and make mistakes, whilst also encouraging us to see their falls as unfair and unjust. As F. Manning argues, in order to truly sympathise with a character, they must have exercised their freedoms and they must have sinned, because only then can they be human. This is what makes Hardy, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists.”

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Oscar Wilde in Defence of Himself

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency with men. During the trial of Sir John Sholto Douglas, the homophobic father of Wilde’s lover, evidence was unearthed that led to Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol, about which he wrote his famous poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. To some extent, this event demonstrates Wilde’s aversion to the stringent morality of Victorian society, which he believed led to self-denial and an admonition of life’s splendour. In his earlier comedies, Wilde expresses these beliefs through his plots, which imply the need for a less extreme moral code, though they still adhere to traditional moral ideas. But he also demonstrates his opposition to conventional morality through the dialogue of his dandies and through their complete rejection of conventions and mores, a rejection that reaches its pinnacle in his final play, The Importance of Being Earnest. An examination of these two methods points to the clear division in Wilde’s work, possibly the result of his desire on the one hand to please his audience, and on the other hand to scold them. Despite this division, throughout his career Wilde appears to defend those who transgress, and thus in a sense, his work can be seen as a defence of his own actions, either suggesting that he should be forgiven, or suggesting that his so-called sin is really no sin at all.

Wilde’s earlier comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of no Importance and An Ideal Husband, all adhere to somewhat traditionally moral plots, whilst also suggesting that those who have transgressed should be forgiven and that moral rules should not be so “hard and fast” (Lord Darlington). The plays have a number of similarities: all three feature a character with a secret sin in their past. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mrs Erlynne describes herself as being “despised, mocked, sneered at” for running away from her husband. Similarly, in A Woman of no Importance, Mrs Arbuthnot has an illegitimate son, Gerald, though this is not such a concealable secret. Finally, Sir Robert Chiltern has also sinned in his past, selling private state information to boost his political career and personal fortune.
The plots necessitate, to an extent, the forgiveness of all three of these characters. Though Mrs Erlynne continues to live a life of trickery and wickedness, her act of true maternal affection in protecting her daughter indicates that she is still good at heart. Indeed, we pity her when she laments her position as an outcast, explaining how “One pays for one’s sin, and then one pays again, and all one’s life one pays.” The same goes for Chiltern (An Ideal Husband), who tells Lord Goring that he does not regret what he did, though he has “paid conscience money many times” to public charities – again showing that he is good at heart. We pity him in his predicament and his fear of ruining his marriage: “I couldn’t do it. It would kill her love for me.” By contrast, Mrs Arbuthnot is, according to Lady Hunstanton, a “good, sweet, simply” woman who lives a life of unparalleled virtue and spends her time in helping the poor. She has sinned, but she has thoroughly repented, and so she too deserves forgiveness. This idea alone implies that Wilde sympathised with the figure who has transgressed, arguing that a person who is inherently good should not be ostracised from society for a mistake they made years ago.

There is also a character in each of these three comedies that is forced to give up their stringent moral beliefs. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, it is Lady Windermere herself who preaches rigorous principles to Lord Darlington.

LORD DARLINGTON: Well then, setting aside mercenary people, who, of course, are dreadful, do you think seriously that women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven?

LADY WINDERMERE: [Standing at table.] I think they should never be forgiven.

At the end of the play, however, Lady Windermere is forced to see that a sinner like Mrs Erlynne can indeed be a “very good woman,” as she tells Lord Augustus. It is somewhat ironic that she is perfectly happy to see goodness in a well-intentioned lie, and to cover up Mrs Erlynne’s real reason for going round to Lord Darlington’s. Likewise, Lady Chiltern ends the play on good terms with her husband even though she has discovered his flaws. As Lord Goring says, it is a woman’s job to pardon her husband, not to punish him. And finally, the American puritan Hester Worsley has her beliefs altered throughout the play. When Mrs Arbuthnot first enters, Hester exclaims: “Let all women who have sinned be punished,” but at the end of the play, she comes to realise that “God’s law is only love,” and that sins can be forgiven.

Thus, in every play, a sinner is forgiven and a strict moralist is taught to forgive. However, not every offender is pardoned: the likes of Lord Illingworth (who crudely tries to seduce Hester) and Mrs Cheveley (who tries to blackmail Lord Chiltern) are villains who have not repented and show no real goodness, and so they are not forgiven. Perhaps this is because Wilde wanted to illustrate his belief, as expressed in the St James’s Gazette, that “All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.” The renunciation of Lady Windermere, Lady Chiltern and Hester Worsley is challenged, just as the excess of Lord Illingworth, Mrs Cheveley and Dorian Gray is punished, though the case for Dorian Gray is somewhat different, as his youth is corrupted by Lord Henry and he does inevitably repent. Thus, by working with and suggesting changes to the conventional morality of his time, and by implying that those who have sinned but who are not necessarily ‘evil’ should be forgiven, Wilde seems to suggest that he himself should be forgiven by society for his transgressions and apparent sins.

However, there is a whole other aspect to his writing, what Arthur Ganz describes as the dandiacal world, that I have yet to come to. Throughout Wilde’s work, even in these earlier comedies that adopt Victorian morality whilst showing its flaws, there are suggestions that contemporary ethics should be rejected altogether. These suggestions, more often than not, come from Wilde’s dandies, Lord Darlington, Lord Illingworth, Lord Henry and Lord Goring, amongst others. It is from these men that Wilde’s most famous epigrams come (for example, Darlington tells Lady Windermere that “Life is far too important a thing to take seriously about it,”), often purposefully reversing conventions in speech and satirising the foibles and mannerisms of high society. Whether or not they are wicked and full of ‘excess’, these dandies are Wilde’s most alluring figures. They praise aestheticism (“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” says Lord Henry) and seem to embrace life with humour and wit, creating stark contrasts with the more dull characters of the plays. As Ganz argues, whilst the likes of Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Chiltern may insist that their hearts have remained pure and ask society for pardon, the dandies are pugnacious and they defend the sins they have committed.

It is in The Importance of Being Earnest that this dandiacal world is fully realised, in a farcical realm that seems wholly to have escaped orthodox codes of morality. This play is different because, whereas his earlier plays had serious plots with occasional pauses of epigrammatic dialogue, Earnest is based entirely on a pun and is totally farcical – the paradoxes and witticisms fit right in. But this is not to say that the play is not serious (Bentley described it as “a trivial comedy for serious people”) – it still raises serious points about social conventions, largely through satire. As Otto Reinert argues, in The Importance Wilde’s basic formula for satire is his characters’s assumption of a code of behaviour that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore.” To an extent, then, the dandies of the play adopt a moral code directly opposite to that of convention. This is demonstrated by Algeronon’s hatred of husbands and wives flirting with one another in public. He hates this public flirtation precisely because it is a moral convention – he wishes it was not, and that adultery were the norm. And so, the dandy’s standards are the standards of common corruption.

Algernon also reveals the hypocrisy of Victorian society in that, in order to avoid the pretence of being good, he must adopt a false personality and become what he calls a Bunburyist. Ironically, in order to escape the hypocrisy of society, he must become a liar, and this demonstrates the flaws of convention. Indeed, the plot seems to prove the two Bunburyists right, with both Algernon and Jack happily getting married at the end of the play. Thus, this play demonstrates Wilde’s aversion to Victorian morality which, though he has worked with it in his previous plays, he now seems to reject completely. It is largely through Wilde’s famously epigrammatic dialogue that these radical ideas are shown. Whether or not Wilde believed in what his dandies were saying we can never know, though he certainly wanted to question orthodoxy. After all, Ransome argues that the plays were only written “to carry Wilde’s voice across the footlights.”

And so, I have shown that Wilde is torn: he can either win his audience’s moral approval by working with accepted ideas as in the first three comedies, or he can reject orthodoxy completely, as he does through his dandies and through his final comedy. Despite this conflict, all of Wilde’s plays seem to defend his transgression: the earlier comedies suggesting that he should be forgiven, and The Importance suggesting that Victorian morality is inherently flawed and thus that his transgression is really no transgression at all. There may be, as Wilde himself said in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” but Wilde’s books and plays undoubtedly express certain moral opinions and ideas, the overriding opinion being that the renunciation of all desire is dangerous. Nonetheless, Wilde’s audiences seem never to have heeded his advice, and so he suffered for what society viewed as an immoral act. Though he may have fought a battle in defence of himself, it was a battle that he would never win.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Government Are Destroying the Futures of Young People: we Cannot Suffer in Silence

In 2005, David Cameron was elected as leader of the Conservatives in the hope that his youthful and moderate image would appeal to younger voters. He promised to put an end to the embarrassing jeering and bellowing at Prime Minister's Questions and to engage young people once again. But since then, things have only gone from bad to worse. 
Time and time again we've been told that young people are disinterested in politics, and it's no wonder: with a PM who told an outright lie about tax credits during the election, with Labour backbenchers threatening to rebel against a legitimately elected leader, and with a government that is led by three ex-members of the Bullingdon club, the idea of a healthy democracy, for many young people, is a bit of a joke. And that is precisely why something must be done: because unless we fight for our futures now, then we will have no futures to fight for.
Evidence has repeatedly shown that the young have suffered the most under this government. In March of this year, the Resolution Foundation found that, whilst pensioner households saw their incomes increase by about 10% between 2007 and 2014, working-age households suffered a 4% cut. To make matters worse, 22-29 year-olds saw a 12.5% fall in wages during the coalition years, and under 25s are also not entitled to the new so-called 'national living wage'. Add to this the higher rates of unemployment and underemployment amongst the young, and things are looking pretty bleak. As Angus Hanton, the co-founder of the pressure group Intergenerational Foundation, said: "It's hard to escape the conclusion that the interests of the young are being sacrificed for the comfort of wealthier older people."
But it's not just the working youth that are suffering: a study produced at LSE revealed that the main victims of spending cuts made since 2010 were children and their parents. Osborne's ruthless cuts to welfare, which could now be followed by cuts to child tax credits, will lead to an 80s-style explosion in the number of children in poverty, say the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who also revealed that two thirds of children living in poverty live in working families, revealing the absurdity of the so-called 'work penalty'. Why has a triple lock on child benefit and tax credit not been introduced? Because the Conservatives know that we have an aging population and that young people are apathetic: the old, in their eyes, are more important. 
The nonchalant approach to the education system is perhaps the Government's most blatant disregard of the young. The first duty of each generation is to educate the next, and this government is failing drastically. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted, announced last December that standards in secondary schools had dramatically slipped due to poor teaching and leadership standards, undoubtedly due to larger class sizes and a lack of resources. 
In addition, continuous rises in University tuition fees (as announced last week) and the scrapping of student grants for the poorest students, will only lead to higher inequality and fewer underprivileged children in higher education. This truly is a national travesty. But there's more: three days ago, the government announced 30% cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government. These cuts will lead to more playground and youth club closures (or, in the words of the Treasury, "low-value programmes") and to more dangerous environments for our children. Yet again, the youth are suffering the most in austerity Britain. 
"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children," as the ancient proverb goes. But, despite the environmental advances made during the coalition, the government plans not only to make onshore wind farms near-impossible to build in England, but also to slash support for solar energy by 87%. The dramatic cuts to "green crap" may not affect traditional Conservative voters, the old and the rich, but they certainly will affect future generations and the youth of today. If Cameron really does want to lead the "greenest government ever," then he'd better do a u-turn quickly. 
Before he came into office, Cameron repeatedly emphasized the importance of reducing this country's debt because our children "deserve better". Ironically, though, children and young people have and will suffer the most under the Conservative austerity agenda. And it's not as if Cameron doesn't realize the impact of his cuts: this week, the PM wrote to his local council saying that he is "disappointed" at proposed "cuts to frontline services, from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums". The hypocrisy is chilling. 
So, we young people have got a lot of trouble ahead: but what can we do? A Harvard poll shows that young people automatically feel distrust in political organizations and institutions, and the low voting turnout amongst young people shows our inherent cynicism. But we can't just suffer in silence, because the longer we allow this government to get away with their cuts, the harder it will be to reclaim our futures. If we do not fight today, then we will lose our tomorrows. 
The "Climate, Justice and Jobs" march on the 29th of November is our chance to stand up, to unite and to have our say. It doesn't matter whether you support a political party or if you distrust the entire establishment: this is an opportunity to have your concerns heard. This is no longer a partisan issue, this is a crisis, and we must act. You may feel that democracy is failing, but so long as we can protest and demonstrate, then we have the power to change things. Let it be this November that the young people of Britain saved their futures. Let it be this November that change begins.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Tax Credits debate is going nowhere. Here's my opinion.

The Conservatives are right to want to reduce the money we spend on tax credits. But, as is usual with the Tories, though their convictions may be sound, they are absolutely hopeless when it comes to implementing them.

When the Conservatives began their attack on benefits in an attempt to reduce what they called a ‘culture of dependency’, their ruthless approach led to outrageous stories of shamefully unreasonable back-to-work interviews and heart-breaking suicides.

The Conservative cuts to tax credits will have precisely the same effect, with young working mothers losing the vital benefit that they rely on to survive. The simple fact is that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with welfare because they don’t understand what poverty is really like. Cameron himself demonstrated his ignorance this week in his letter to his local council complaining about cuts.

Don’t get me wrong, tax credits have played a big role in one of the most impressive reductions in child poverty since World War Two. Between 1998 and 2012 the number of children living in poverty   fell from 35% of the child population to 19%directly due to the tax credit system. 

But tax credits are now costing the government an astonishing £30 billion a year, and we simply can’t afford it. So, as I have said, the money we spend on tax credits need to be reduced, but not by cutting them and not with the same ruthless approach that the Tories have consistently adopted.

Osborne and other Conservatives have repeatedly referred to the ‘package’ that works alongside the tax credit cuts, a package that includes a higher minimum wage (I shall not call it a national living wage because it is neither national nor a living wage), 30 hours of childcare and changes to income tax thresholds. These are all things that we should be applauding.

However, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, this package will fail to compensate low-income workers for the cuts in tax credits (not to mention the other cuts in the welfare budget). Indeed, as Corbyn told Cameron in PMQs, some three million families could be up to £1,000 a year worse off.

What is more, the Resolution Foundation has noted that a family with three children, making a claim after April 2017, could be £3,450 a year worse off than under the current system. As the IFS said, this budget is regressive and it is taking “much more” from the poor than the rich.

Many people will argue that these people shouldn’t rely on the state, but the fact is that they have to. For most people, the minimum wage is not enough to live on, and so many working people have no other option. The Conservatives, despite claiming to be the party of the working people, are now taking money away from some of the poorest and most deserving people in society, the working poor.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the number of children living in poverty has increased in the last three years from 2.3 million to 2.5 million. They predict that, if Osborne’s plans go ahead, then child poverty will increase to 2.8 million. We cannot let this happen.

So what’s the answer? Well, the money we spend on tax credits should be reduced gradually, but not by making massive cuts. It’s ludicrous suddenly to slash tax credits whilst the minimum wage goes up gradually over five years. The government should continue to raise the minimum wage so that the tax credit bill is more manageable - we shouldn't be subsidising big businesses. 

Also, if they continue raising tax thresholds and the amount of free childcare, then this will allow them to reduce tax credits, albeit slightly. In this way, the Conservatives can ensure that absolutely no one is being made worse-off and that the poorest workers aren’t losing out. 

Of course, this will mean that the government saves far less money from tax credits, but surely that is the only option. Though tax credits can be reduced according to wage rises, introduction of more free childcare and rise in tax thresholds, Osborne's hope of saving £15 billion is simply unfeasible. If they want to reduce the cost of tax credits, then tax brackets and wages must continue to rise.

As of yet, no major political party seems to agree with me. Why is this? Because Cameron and Osborne are pulling out all the stops to reach a surplus by 2020, and they are quite happy to do so on the backs of low-paid workers.

Corbyn, on the other hand, has never supported any reduction in welfare in all his time as a Member of Parliament, so we can’t expect anything particularly sensible from him - though he does support a higher minimum wage, and this will contribute towards a lower tax credit budget. And finally, Tim Farron has continued the Lib Dem reputation for vagueness and ambiguity, happy to condemn the cuts but unable to offer an alternative.

Surely, this is the solution: decreasing welfare spending so that the government aren't subsidising big businesses who refuse to pay a living wage, whilst also ensuring that low-income earners aren’t forced to struggle even more to survive. If Corbyn wants to be seen as electable, this ought to be the argument he adopts.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

"Next, Please" - A Brief Analysis of Larkin's Poem

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

Ever since I studied Philip Larkin, this has been one of my all-time favourite poems. Though it is not particularly well-known, it is completely typical of Larkin: an idiosyncratic pessimism about life, coupled with a fearful vision of death. Larkin, throughout his life, was terrified of dying (he defined death as “the sure extinction that we travel to” in his poem “Aubade”), but he was also incredibly cynical about life, denying the existence of both love (in poems like “Love Songs in Age” and “An Arundel Tomb”) and religion (“Church Going” and “Faith Healing”). His poetry focuses on those facts of life about which we are all afraid, examining the human condition and what it means to be alive – this is what makes him such a great poet.

I love this poem for a number of reasons, not just because it expresses emotions that I have felt all too often, but because it expresses those emotions so skillfully. All of us are guilty of relying too much on future happiness. However, when those long-expected moments of anticipated joy arrive, they never seem to fulfill our desires. As Larkin says, “Something is always approaching,” and yet “they leave us holding wretched stalks / Of disappointment,” a beautiful image suggesting something that has begun to grow but has withered unexpectedly. Those moments either pass too quickly, or, because they have been so long awaited, they do not add up to the ideal we imagined. Every day, in one way or another, we “burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic” (from Larkin’s poem “Deceptions”).

However, what I love most about this poem is the metaphor it employs to express this idea – the approaching boats, “The sparkling armada of promises…” The image of standing on a shore and looking out to sea is usually a positive one, though Larkin brilliantly inverts that optimistic idea to express his undeniably cynical impression of life. His description of the ship’s details – “Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked, / Each rope distinct, / Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits / Arching our way,” – represents the way in which we meditate for far too long on the future, thinking about the exact intricacies (“Each rope”) of what is to come, rather than living and enjoying the present.

These ideas are reminiscent of Hardy’s poem “The Self Unseeing” which describes how “Everything glowed like a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!” The image of the “golden tits” perhaps suggests Larkin’s own frustration at his failed love affairs (of which he had many, though he never married) and how his relationships never turned out as he hoped they would. Again, Hardy repeatedly reflected on how the reality of our partners and lovers is never what we anticipate – Tess is not the pure virgin that Angel so desires, and Eustacia is not the schoolmaster’s wife that Clym wanted her to be. Hardy was one of Larkin’s favorite writers, and the similarities are clear. Similarly, Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” portrays humanity’s innate tendency to idolize unjustly not just future events, but also people in our lives.

Larkin then uses the metaphor of a merchant ship, which will “unload / All good into our lives, all we are owed / For waiting so devoutly and so long. / But we are wrong…” Like in “Love Songs in Age,” where love never fulfills its promises “to satisfy,” so the future is never as bright as it seems. Indeed, the only guarantee of the future is death, described eerily as a “black-/Sailed unfamiliar” that is “seeking us”. Larkin put a huge amount of emphasis on the unknowable aspects of death and its inimitable emptiness, explaining the fearful final lines: “A huge and birdless silence. In her wake / No waters breed or break.”

Unless you have read other poems by Larkin, the word “birdless” may seem somewhat unusual. Larkin frequently portrays nature as one of the few positive aspects of life – in “Solar” he praises the selflessness of the sun and in “The Trees” he admires nature’s ability to renew itself perpetually – and so the word “birdless” reinforces a sense of undeniable pessimism, removing all positivity. Unlike nature, we cannot renew ourselves – as in “Aubade”, death is simply a “total emptiness for ever”. Indeed, the frequent use of enjambment in the poem (except in the second stanza, when lots of punctuation is used), the shortened final lines of each stanza and the strong rhyme scheme, help to create a sense of constant movement towards the final lines and towards death itself.

And so, this is why “Next, Please” is one of my favorite poems – it is carefully crafted and it directly addresses life’s biggest concerns. Larkin is a brilliant poet, and if you are interested in reading any more of his poetry I recommend “Aubade”, “Love Songs in Age”, and “Counting”, all of which I will be writing about soon. Thanks for reading!