Tag Archives: plot

Thomas Hardy – Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

Gabriel Oak’s dog chases his herd of sheep off the side of a cliff. Oak goes on the road and happens to pass by a huge fire in hay-field. He helps and asks the owner if he can comeone as a shepherd. It happens to be the farm of Bathsheba Everdene, to whom Gabriel had proposed marriage before he lost his sheep. She hires him.  Meanwhile, Boldwood tries to court her, but she rebuffs his advances. When Oak chastises her for this, she fires him, but rehires him when she needs his help saving her flock from “the bloat.” The seducer Sergeant Troy comes to town and beings to court Bathsheba, who falls in love with him despite her better judgment. It turns out that he actually loved her old servant Fanny Robbins, to whom he had proposed marriage but through a mix-up she had stood him up at the altar. He doesn’t accept her apologies. Troy and Bathsheba fin her on the road, and Troy gives her money, promising more in a couple days. She barely makes it to town, with the help of a dog. She dies. Bathsheba suspects Troy (Oak knows about everything all along) and keeps the coffin, which contains Fanny and her infant, in her house. Troy returns and tells Bathsheba that he will never love her. He leaves. Bathsheba promises to marry Boldwood in six years of Troy does not appear, but on the eve of the promise’s consummation, Troy returns to interrupt Boldwood’s Christmas party. He shoots Troy and tries to kill himself, but is prevented. He is saved from hanging by his friends, and is just imprisoned. Gabriel tenders his resignation, but then decides to stay, proposes marriage to Bathsheba, and they marry.

Preliminary notes

Time: Hardy frequently contrasts rustic time with city time, granting the peasant a “Present” which can encompass “three-or-four-score years”: “The citizen’s Then is the Rustic’s Now” (127). Also, Gabriel’s watch is able to mark the minutes with precision, while the hour hand slips around. There is thus a middle zone between exactitude of a time that would extract a labor down to the second [see EP Thompson on time and labor], but also a radical relativity of those minutes in relation to the entirety of the day. [Can also see in this an adumbration of Murphy’s internal sense of time…the hour striking between 20 and 30, for example.] How can we also see this as a potential solution to the problems of timing in Hardy’s novels? At the same time, perhaps, such inattention is the condition for their emergence.

Labor vs. pleasure: The terms used for describing the “substantial” relationship between Gabriel and Bathsheba:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality, (348)

Curious when read in light of “realism” more generally, since the novel itself verges on the board of realism and fantasy. The melodramatic ending turns the novel into a thriller more than some “naturalist” or even Eliotic portrayal of authentic psyches. But it is also another moment in which manner and matter becomes a problematized binary.

The little Valentine: one of the many “weird scenes” in this novel. Bathsheba finds a post card and just randomly sends it to Boldwood without thinking: the tragedy ensures. Another weird scene is when Fanny is dragged to town on the back of a dog. Relate to te weirdness of the boots in Tess, or in the barn with the bull in Casterbridge.

Charles Darwin – The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)

Origin of Species scrupulously does not mention man (though it could have concluded nicely with such an apogee)…and Descent of Man, formally, seems written in order to make it difficult for any reader to get through it. It withholds the promised clarity of its title. It is introduced as “a collection of notes” (relate to other archival novels, such as Dracula, etc.]

Darwin vs Wallace: the latter turned to superstition as explanation for man’s transcendence of the naimal relam (language, etc.) while the former remained convinced that there were analogs to human life in the animal world. Compare this to Dr. Jekyll vs. his friend Lanyon and contextualize within the discourse of facts.

Evidence for Human Evolution: “[man] still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” He therefore argues against perfect design by way of vestiges. Contrast sharply with Lamarck, who attempted to draw strict causal chains (i.e. Giraffe grew a neck in order to reach tall branches); Darwin, instead, located random variation and mutation at the origin, which was then taken up or not depending on its advantageousness within a particular environment, species, etc. “All variations are the result of and are governed by the same general laws…” Talks a bunch about “rudiments,” such as hair and the coccyx and the increasingly short caecum (a cul-de-sac in the digestive system that can be fatal if food gets stuck there…) Only a natural prejudice and the belief that we are descended from demi-gods keeps us from recognizing the community of descent.

Man and Apes: Associates the move to bidpedism with the rapid increase in cognitive ability. Also, could have been advantageous for man to spring from weak chimp rather than powerful gorilla because it leads to greater sympathy with others—in general, a more intellectual disposition for a species that lack natural wepaons.

Mental powers: no fundamental difference between man and apes, here, either. Instinct vs. Intelligence (indirectly proportionate according to Cuvier. However, there is evidence that animals, sharing the same sensory powers as man, also react similarly to various stimuli (terror, suspicion, happiness, etc.).

Morality: Establishing a sort of “universal moral sense” based not on propriety, but instead on the necessity of the preservation of certain basic social structures (the self, the family, the tribe, etc.) : that is, the natural instinct shared by the lower animals naturally leads to the higher moral demands of the golden rule. Sympathy, therefore, is an instinct. Relate this to Arnold’s The Study of Poetry (1880), where he argues for the self-preserving power of poetry. 

On Civilization: Charity is a vestige, rudiment of sympathy, that persists despite reason. Believes private property is a good thing for the sake of the arts >> believes there should be a class of men who do not need to labor so that they can rule those who do labor. America is the place where the most energetic and restless people go to find wealth and succeed…calls it a “great country.” But all civilized nations are descended from barbarous tribes: clear traces of barbarism in civilized traditions + the ability of the lower races to raise themselves up given the proper conditions. Man is digressing; he is rising!

Compare the affectionate orangutan (Jenny) with the savages from Tierra del Fuego.

Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species (1859)

Important topics:

The difference between natural selection and sexual selection. Gets taken up by Mill in On Liberty to distinguish the role of government: on the one hand, the rigorous respect for individual growth, and the processes of selection which occur through discourse and conversation.

Species vs. individual: Darwin refuses the fixed category of a species. It is merely a name for a set of creatures that resemble one another. This will trouble, eventually, the division between man and animal.

The tiny sublime: in Darwin, the sublime becomes infinitesimally small: “Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small modifications, each profitable to the preserved being.” This follows the extended discussion of domestication, the visible  and invisible, man’s ability to see or not, etc. Connect to the broader topics of the secret: small, inhering in change, transformation. Connect this to the larger topic of transition, historical, aesthetic and otherwise. Also connect to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where the “author” claims that the “beginning” of any story is arbitrary because the units of experience can be cut up into infinitely tiny pieces, thus making the discovery of some originary cause impossible.

The domestic: good way to start a conversation about domestic fiction more broadly. Written in 1859, so in the midst of later Dickens (Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and the same year as Collins’ Woman in White. Darwin’s argument is that man can select for the purposes of domestic farming, but that no man can see the processes of “natural” selection. “Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature cares nothing for Appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being” (65).  As evidence, he shows that domesticated animals revert back to a state of nature when released into the wild, returning to certain instinctual patterns that are inexplicable within the parameters set by human understanding.  Interesting to talk about Wuthering Heights as presaging this work on domestication.

“Perfection” – argues, just as Ruskin does in The Nature of the Gothic” that nothing in nature, nothing living, can be held to the standards of human or aesthetic perfection: nevertheless, these processes recur as the very thing judged according to the beautiful…and as constitutive of that very beauty.

Geological record: as an imperfect text that tells the history of mankind extending beyond mankind, in languages that are not our own. Relate this to the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

The Tree Of Life as an analogy for the development of the world–i.e. dead branches fall off, new ones replace them, and the tree keeps growing. Connect this with the notion of perfection and the aesthetic more generally. What is metaphor accomplishing for Darwin? How does this relate to wonder? How does the shift the conversation from worries about the dry and mechanical, to one of beauty and wonder.


Thomas Huxley: “a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond.”

Cathy Gallagher on The Body Economic: distinguishes between bioeconmic plots (how political economies circulate Life) and somaeconomic plots — how accounts of pleasure and pain, unhappiness, desire, exhaustion, etc. stimulate bio plots and are in turned transformed by them. Central paradox: “the social body is growing old precisely insofar as the actual demographic proportions of the society are increasingly weighted towards youth, since, under optimal conditions, each generation would be twice as large as the generation preceding it. For Malthus to make sense, the body/society homology needs to be considered as a body/society opposition.”

George Levine: distinguishes Darwin studies from Literary Darwinsimsm; among other points, talks about hwo Darwin inspires wonder and not dry mechanical reducitonism. Everything signifies beyond itself, infinitely but immanently.

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

A “rewrite” of Jane Eyre, this novel tells the back-story of Bertha Rochester (Antoinette Cosway) before she is locked in the attic at Thornfield. Antoinette is a white creole living in Jamiaca, the daughter of a slave-owner and a mother who is purportedly crazy. Her nurse/maid  is Christophine, who plays a similar roll to St. John Rivers (neither novel can fully contain their stories). At a young age, Antoinette’s house is burnt down, following the Emancipation of slaves. After a brief sejour in a convent (her mother has moved to the countryside) her step-father Mr. Mason “provides for her” by arranging a marriage between her an unnamed man from England, presumably Mr. Rochester. He narrates the second part of the novel, which tells of their marriage that goes through a honeymoon phase before souring completely. Rochester has married for money, and now he feels the burden of having what some angry quack has called a “madwoman.” He readily adopts these fears, believing that Antoinette, Christophine and the entire Jamaican landscape harbor the secret that will destroy him (the secret turns out to be nothing other than the violence of colonial slavery). Antoinette, whom he violently renames Bertha, want shim to love her, so has Christophine (who practices the magical obeah) give him a “love potion” that makes him sick.  Ant moves with Christophine to some place in the countryside where she attempts to recover from an illness. The third section opens with Antoinette now narrating. She is in England, being nursed and jailed by Grace Poole. She  assaults he step-brother Richard Mason after he does not “recognize” her. She then burns down the house, but not before seeing herself in the mirror as the ghost that haunts Thornfield Hall.

As re-writing of Jane Eyre, the political consequences of Rhys’ novel cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives a face and history to a character that, in the original, was merely a “madwoman in the attic” that needed to be repressed for Jane’s emergence as chaste, moral, properly feminine, etc. But Spivak argues, convincingly, that such an argument appropriates the form of individualization that radical feminism, and critique more generally, should unsettle or reject. In Spivak’s reading, Bertha self-immolates so that Jane can emerge as the individualized feminist heroine  of European literature. The true Other, Christophine, remains outside this circuit of Western literature, the dialogue between literary feminists, because she is not just a white Creole, but a servant that is displaced from her home country Martinique from the very beginning.

Interesting endpoint for looking at the trope of the looking-glass. Antoinette sees herself in Tia just as the latter the latter throw a rock at her head. She herself in the eyes of the other. What are the ethical stakes of this identification. How does it differ from the self-recognition that occurs at the end of the novel, where Antoinette sees herself as the necessary sacrifice for the emergence of Jane Eyre/Jane Eyre? Connect to Wilde’s comments on cracked looking-glass, Joyce on cracked looking glass, and deKoven on mirrors, water, etc.

Mother-daughter text – Rhys’ novel is the daughter text that seeks to be the mother text. Compare to Zadie Smith’s rewriting of Howard’s End.

Literary history – the patronymic in the form of English literature is eaten away as Rochester scans the decaying book collection at the old mansion.

Narration – Rochester granted the role of narrator for all of second part. Does this render him sympathetic? Perhaps. Talk about the novel as Antoinette’s “quest” for a voice. The opening section’s voice is able to ventriloquize the thoughts of the town itself…the voice of the third section has fully imbricated itself into a text that has already been written. How qualified is that power of writing? Connect to the emergence of Stephen’s voice at the end of Portrait.

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Starts off with Utterson and Enfield taking their weekly walk. Enfield tells a story of his randomly coming home from some “end of the world” and seeing Hyde turna  corner and trample a young girl in the street (contingency of the urban). He offers to pay the family 10 pounds but gives them a 100 pound check signed by Jekyll. Utterson, who knows that Jekyll has recently signed over hsi entire will to Hyde, is worried. He hunts down Hyde, who turns out to be hideous, and asks for his address, which Hyde gives him. Jekyll tells Utterson not to worry. The circle of bachelors hang out quite a bit until one day Jekyll, who has laid off the potion that transforms him into Hyde, buckles under the pressure and kills an MP by the name of Carew. Investigation ensues but the murderer has vanished and only the broken cane is found in Jekyll’s apartment. More time passes has Jekyll tries to ameliorate himself…he employs his friend Lanyon to help him procure the potion that transforms Hyde back into Jekyll. Lanyon suddenly dies of shock. Eventually Utterson breaks into Jekyll’s laboratory to find Hyde dead in Jekyll’s clothes, with a letter that explains everything that happened. Jekyll had started to be overwhelmed by the potion, turning into Hyde in mid-day. He eventually ran out of potion. Jekyll’s narrative ends by saying he does not know what will happen with Hyde, but that his life is over.

Can think of Hyde as the creature of Dr. Frankenstein in a post-Darwinian age. He is in this sense simple the product of Dr. Jekyll: he is the product of his society (the “species”): we can think of this “splitting” as the harmful bifurcation that occurs in organisms as they evolve. [Relate this to Ruskin’s worries that men are being “split” because they are disallowed freedom in “Nature of the Gothic,” and also to Hopkins “splitting,” which reduces the variety of the world into black and white, right and wrong.] Adrian Poole (2005) says that Hyde is specifically the product of the ‘patriarchy’ that dominates the tale. The community is composed almsot exclusively of childless men: Hyde as returned of the repressed à la Picture of Dorian Gray? Problematic.

Formally, is is a short story, a novel, or a novella? Poole argues that Stevenson wanted to “explode” the categories of fiction because he thought the Jamesian dictum–“Art imitates Life”–was bunk; instead, Stevenson’s story etched down to the bare minimum, and beyond, with ellipses, inexplicable entrances and exits, unanswered plot questions, etc.

Urban Space – The city throws people together by chance and the creation of a story ensues: relate to Poe and Dickens: man of the crowd. Can begin to talk about a “geography of chance” in relation to Darwinian evolution: how Darwin migrates the city. Compare portrait of urban space in Dr. Jekyll and Picture of Dorian Gray.

Transcendental Science vs. Material Science : Wallace vs. Darwin : Jekyll vs. Lanyon. A debate over explanations of species variation and the intervention of “God.”

Jekyll the narrator from the end can see all, and Jekyll in the present, while seeing less, still sees more than Hyde. Jekyll can hide from Hyde’s narrative, but Hyde can never hide from Jekyll. Can talk about the power of concealment. Relate to the “becoming-intense” of the secret.

Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurean (1885)

In lieu of a plot summary (which would amount to very little: Countryside, Flavian, Aurelius, Rome, Fire), some questions:

How is their a built-in poetics in a novel that consciously moves away from poetry to prose…as the form appropriate to late Rome (historically transitioning from Paganism to Christianity)?

The novel searches for the good in terms of particular generic aesthetics (porse, poetry, philosophy, etc..): so what exactly is the relation between poesis and ethos? And even though it’s about different genres, there is a question about the form of a novel that tries to hold all these genres together. For instance, what about plot? What about character? Can we think of the interiority of Marius, Aurelius, Cornelius, Flavian, etc.? Relate this to the larger question fo inside and outside…is there a counter-psychology at work that disallows the very production of the “novelistic?” Is this what it means to write a properly historical novel? Need to think about how the past and memory work together (the act of remembering doesn’t really enter the picture, but rather casts it homogenizing hue over the entirety of the novel: Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, Goethe: all exist within the same representational field. Perhaps relate this to Waverly’s “sixty years since” or Middlemarch’s “thirty years” or the practice of historical fiction-making in Scott’s Redgauntlet.

It is impossible to measure the distance between discoure and story. Contrast with Dorian Gray, which is plotless but turns into an adventure novel at the end. Marius does have a fire at the end but it doesn’t resolve much.

Talk about how narrative authority is established–the spatial or temporal distance that is necessary for taking up a narratorial position.

Is Culture synchronic (structural) or diachronic (historical). The answer is always something like structural-historical. Is infinity a synthesis of these positions?

Chapter 5 is about the golden book, the book of books. It plays a crucial role in Marius’ education–in short, “it awakened the poetic or romantic capacity…It made, in that visonary reception of every-day life, the seer, more especially, of a revelation in colour and form” (38). Relate this to the yellow book in Dorian Gray, and also to the golden water in Mill on the Floss, and the golden hair of Sydney Carton’s imaginary son.

Talk about the politics of pastoral: what does it mean to treat the Greeks like children. Discuss the difference between mode and genre. Pastoral mode in a novelistic genre?

How does Pater’s history of a historical transition tell the history of a contemporary transition? What happens when the ontological “perpetual flux” of elemental forces overflows: abolishing historical coordinates and the division between subject and object? And how can one form an ethical relationship to this flux? Does one join it, experience it, attempt to represent it? Can relate this Auror Leigh.


Virginia Woolf – “Modern Fiction” (1919)

Woolf rejects the idea of scientific or industrial progress being applied to literary history. “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving.” Nevertheless, she wants to mark out the difference between an older generation of writers (Bennett, Galsworthy, Wells) from the new (Hardy, Conrad, and most recently and importantly, James Joyce). The former are what she calls “materialists”: “they write of unimportant things…[spending] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” This is peculiarly close to Woolf’s own methods of composition–one immediately think of the many trivial objects in the Ramsay’s empty house which bear the imprint of human form, the history of life itself. Nevertheless, the problem with materialists is that “life escapes.” Woolf believes that this is because of an unfortunate dependence on convention (social and formal), which restricts the means by which “impressions” are converted into representational forms: of a writer were a free man and not a slave….there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest,” etc. A strange claim: where are these conventions located and who is imposing these forms of repression on the writer-slave? But Woolf insists that these conventional forms do an injustice to Life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Writers that are able to convey this halo are what Woolf calls “spiritual”

Paradoxically, the writer achieves this by way of the ordinary:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives myriad impression–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. (106)

Modern fiction, especially the work of Joyce, is atomic-spiritual. There’s a problematic conflation of the material and the spiritual, but the idea is that by disregarding convention, writes are able to get “closer to life.” Can we think about his in terms of ontological proximity (Levinas) and, at the same time, the discourse of life that runs through Victorian literature (the Brownings, Eliot, Bram Stoker, etc.)?

She concludes with an underhanded jab at both formal and legel censorship, which has been latent throughout.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. (110)