Conclusion / Victorian Networks / Digital Middlemarch

Thank you to both sections for a fantastic semester of Victorian Literature and Globalization.  To conclude our blog, I re-post the famous passage from Middlemarch on the pier-glass — itself a kind of parable for our discussions of interconnection and so-called modernization in the Victorian era.

“An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will beminutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent [.]”  (248)

Please browse through the students’ DIGITAL MIDDLEMARCH project for further thinking about the content, form, and implications of Eliot’s “particular web.”

Thank you to all the students for a wonderful term!  Please don’t be strangers.



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The Journey of the Heroes

Now that the novel has ended and come full circle back to England, I realized how well She follows Joseph Campbell’s archetype of the ‘Journey of the Hero,’ as the main male characters from England leave their familiar world and enter the unknown in Africa on a quest to solve “the greatest mystery in the world” (Haggard 35). In his letter to his son, Mr. Vincey warns Leo that “the unknown is generally taken to be terrible,” yet he gives Leo the ‘call to adventure’ to “investigate” it if he chooses (35). Leo accepts the call, “I am going to set the matter at rest once and for all,” despite hesitation from Holly, “I believe that the whole thing is the most unmitigated rubbish,” who puts his doubts aside to assist Leo in his journey (49).

The last leg of their voyage to Africa when the storm hits represents the ‘crossing of the threshold’ from the familiar world of England to the unknown Africa. After they have crossed over, “[t]he storm had entirely passed, leaving a clean-washed sky behind it” (58). The three men are now through the threshold and fully committed to their journey. After making an ally in Billali, and a few enemies with the other Amahagger people who attack them, the men continue deeper on their journey and enter ‘the belly of the whale’ through “the mouth of a tremendous cave,” She’s cave (122). She represents the supernatural aid, or in some models, the goddess, who will assist the heroes in completing their quest. The archetype also often includes a figurative death of the hero. Leo’s illness that he caught on the journey worsens, and soon, “Leo was in the throes of death” (176). She cures him, and then reveals to him the body of Kallikrates. Destroying the body, She proclaims that Kallikrates lives in Leo, representing his rebirth from his illness. At the climax of their journey, She takes them to the place of Life.

There are many tests along the way, but eventually they reach this place, “the very Fountain and Heart of Life as it beats in the bosom of the great world” (252). Holly and Leo gain their boon, their elixir, of knowledge from this fountain of fire, “we became sensible of a wild and splendid exhilaration, of a glorious sense of such a fierce intensity of Life,” without having to bathe in it and become immortal (252). After they receive this reward at the end of their journey, the hero is changed, as Holly says, “I was another and most glorified self, and all the avenues of the Possible were for a space laid open to the footsteps of the Real” (252). Leo has changed as well, “his curling hair had been of the ruddiest gold, now it was turning grey, and by the time we gained the outer air it was snow white” (259). Now that they have completed their journey and solved the mystery of She and of Life, Leo and Holly make the journey home, which takes them several months and is not easy. After returning home, Holly demonstrates how he has been changed by the journey in admitting his belief. He says that it is possible that She wrongly identified Leo as the reincarnated Kallikrates, but in his opinion, “she made no such mistake” (275). Before the journey, Holly was skeptical, and did not believe that the myth concerning She was true.

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Final Exam Now Posted

I have now circulated the final exam for English 161 by email; please let me know immediately if you have not received it.  The basics of the exam:

 **90 minutes, start to finish. Time starts when you open the document.

**Open book, open notes, open blog, but no Googling / Wikipedia.

**Format: two essay questions (30 minutes each), two close reading questions (10 mins each), and one extra credit (5 minutes).  Five minutes are allotted to read the exam and proofread before submitting.

**Please type your answers into this document, save, and…

**Return completed exam by email no later than Friday, May 3, at 5 PM.  Late exams will not receive credit.

Please let me know of questions before, during, or after the test.  Thank you all for what was (for me) a very exciting semester.  I’m looking forward to seeing what you do on the exam — I’ve done my best to make it a place for creating new syntheses and chances for thinking-on-the-spot.

All best wishes and have fun!


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The Marriage Plot

As I was thinking back on the novels we’ve read this past semester, the concept of the marriage plot has been particularly pervasive and on my mind. We’ve read about the intricate social network, made up largely of marital relationships, in Middlemarch; we’ve traveled alongside Holly and Leo as they seek out his destined mate in She; and we’ve struggled to discern the truth by solving the mystery that is The Moonstone, all the while waiting for the inevitable close of the story that comes only once marriage and children are finally achieved for our dearest protagonists. With all of these novels in mind, I thought I would share one of my favorite short stories by Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings.” I shared this with Professor Hensley earlier in the semester, but I thought I’d pass it along to the rest of you as well, since it evokes so many of the themes and conversations we’ve had as we’ve entered into these various worlds centered so strongly around marriage.

The short story can be found here,, but I wanted to point out a few things in particular about the content. Atwood presents her reader with the typical progression of marriage: John and Mary meet, fall in love, get married, and eventually die. But this isn’t all Atwood does. She then goes on to provide alternative endings, those scenarios that you come up with so many times in your head, even if they aren’t true. What if I had said this? What if I discovered this about him, and everything turned on its head? As she draws you along, the plot ultimately remains the same. The pair meets, and despite any difficulties they face, or any other people that they meet, their story ends in marriage, and finally in death. So what does this all mean, and why do these differences matter?

In my opinion, we must do what Atwood commands us to do at the close of her story: “Now try How and Why.” The beginning and the end aren’t the parts that truly matter; and it is the middle part, the part that takes up so much of MiddlemarchShe, and The Moonstone. We don’t care just how the story begins or ends, because that isn’t the inherently human, emotional part of the text. We care why She goes into the fire for Leo; we want to know who stole the moonstone, not just that it ended up in its rightful place. These are the details that matter to us, because they are the interesting part. The word “interesting” may be taboo (sorry for using it, I’m cringing as I write this), but what it conveys is this: we care. The characters matter because we see ourselves in them, not because there is a plot that makes them do this or that. The marriage plot if nothing else provides us with different ways “the stretch in between” (Atwood) can go, and uncover motivations and drives and qualities that we never knew existed. So take Atwood’s advice, and uncover the “How” and the “Why” of the next marriage plot-driven text you read. If we’ve learned nothing else this semester, it’s that the voice of the character matters – so listen to what he or she has to say. 

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The Setting Sun!

In chapter XXV of She, Holly describes the pillar of fire: “Nearer it came, and nearer yet, till it was close upon us, rolling down like all the thunder-wheels of heaven behind the horses of lightening. On it came, and with it came the glorious blinding cloud of many-couloured light, and stood before us for a space, turning, as it seemed to us, slowly round and round, and then, accompanied by its attendant pomp of sound, passed away I know not whither” (253). In this passage, Holly emphasizes the circular motion of the pillar, a force of supernatural energy and agency in the presence of a human being.

This powerful imagery of light, heat, and circular motion reminded me of the end of chapter IV, “The Squall”: “It was a wonderfully beautiful sight, and yet sad, perhaps from the very excess of its beauty. The arising sun; the setting sun! There we have the symbol and the type of humanity, and all things with which humanity has to do. The symbol and the type, yes, and the earthly beginning, and the end also…The sun that rose to-day for us had set last night for eighteen of our fellow-voyagers!–had set for ever for eighteen whom we knew!…But one day a sunrise will come when we shall be among those who are lost, and then others will watch those glorious rays, and grow sad in the midst of beauty, and dream of Death in the full flow of arising Life!” (59) These moments of splendor, both divulged by Holly, occur at opposite ends of the book yet are hardly distant from one another; they create a frame through similar and contrasting imagery. The “excess of beauty” of the sun foreshadows the demise of Ayesha as she steps in the pillar for the second time; she does not recognize the possibility that her immense beauty, which is already an artificial quality, may have a natural limit. According to Holly, whereas the sun is the “symbol…of humanity,” the cycle of the rising and setting of human life, the pillar of fire is supernatural; he describes the pillar as an element of heaven. On the other hand, both the pillar of fire and the sun are directly associated with Death in the novel; beauty and death are inextricably linked. While the “like a rainbow many-coloured” (251) pillar is the direct cause of Ayesha’s death, the sun sets as it always does on the eve of the tragedy on Holly’s boat. The sun reaffirms Holly’s awareness of the harmonizing nature of life as a cycle, of which both life and death are a part. By defying this natural cycle of time, at the end of the novel, Ayesha dies in an unnatural and backwards manner. Yet unlike the sun and the pillar of fire, she is ultimately a mortal human being.


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