English 3412: Introduction to Victorian Fiction, Lakehead University, Ontario, Winter Session: 2004

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

The topics listed below on the major works in the course are available for subscription on a first-come/first-served basis. Please adhere to the style guide of the Modern Language Association in all matters of format, including double-spacing and parenthetic citation. This term paper, which will account for thirty-five per cent (35%) of your final mark in the course, should be submitted during the penultimate week of the course. Each topic is intended to let the student demonstrate his or her own critical capacities and research abilities; accordingly, some reference to critics is expected. No two students may write on precisely the same topic.

A. The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray (1844)

1. "With its anti-hero, its sordid subject matter, and its deliberate emotional detachment, The Luck of Barry Lyndon . . . is not a very profound or moving book. But, as Miss Thackeray suggests, it commands respect for its skill and art."

Refute or defend this assessment of the novel with specific discussion of such aspects of the work as its style, subject, and technical control of narrative point of view. The question of Thackeray's "skill" and "art" must be addressed in your answer.

2. "In its ironical tone, if not in the nature of the hero or his exploits, ...Thackeray's rogue novel is imitative of Fielding's Jonathan Wild." Compare the two short novels as examples of the picaresque in order to assess the validity of this remark.

3. "The wit of Barry Lyndon depends . . . on the incongruity between what the narrator wants us to believe about himself, and what we actually infer from his testimony." With this statement in mind, explore Thackeray's ironic use of the narrator as a device for creating irony.

4. "Instead of reciting great actions modestly . . . Barry Lyndon recites modest actions greatly." Discuss with reference to this quotation how Thackeray through his narrator satirizes the stereotypical military hero of "pugnacious and horse-racious" novels such as those of Anglo-Irish writer Charles Lever. No specific reference to other novels is required, but may allude to other "action stories" which use the first-person point of view.

5. Explain to what extent one should take the word "luck" both literally and ironically in the title The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Your consideration of "luck" should be supported by considerable reference to the characters and action of the novel., as well as to the narrator's remarks.

B. "A Terribly Strange Bed" (1852) and The Moonstone (1867) by Wilkie Collins

6. "In The Moonstone, investigation and experiment, rational thought and intuition, become the method of advancing and understanding the story." Discuss the above quotation with specific reference to the novel's many narrative voices, characters, and incidents, including the "red herrings" inherent in any example of the mystery genre.

7. The reader of a novel like The Moonstone necessarily plays with the text as he tries to assess what is happening, interpret the evidence, predict new developments, and guess at solutions to its mysteries or problems. In the course of coming to terms with what he reads he or she becomes an active participant, and the activity, rather than the resolution, is the primary source of his or her enjoyment.

Apply this assessment to your own responses to the various narrative voices, the characters, and the principal incidents in the novel, utilizing "A Terribly Strange Bed," if you wish.

8. Discuss the function and style of each of the story's narrators, explaining how the readers response to a narrator's character conditions the reader's response to his or her narrative.

9. As in "A Terribly Strange Bed," "in The Moonstone [Collins] wanted to avoid any trace of the supernatural. The book has . . . exotic elements, but all can be logically accounted for . . . ."

Point out the "exotic elements" in the short story and the novel, and then discuss their logical or rational explanations to demonstrate (or refute) Collins's scientific/ rationalist bent.

10. Although T. S. Eliot has hailed The Moonstone as "the first and best of English detective novels," it is, in fact, a romance with elements of the novel of crime-and-detection. However, as Eliot concludes, the best English detective fiction has relied less on the beauty of the mathematical problem and much more on the intangible human element" Discuss The Moonstone as a Novel of Crime and Detection in light of these remarks. You may wish to allude to "A Terribly Strange Bed," as well as to the works of other crime-and-detection writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Dorothy L. Sayers.

C. Silas Marner (1861) and Middlemarch (1872) by George Eliot

Note: since the reading of Middlemarch is optional, topics may be modified to apply only to Silas Marner.

11. Silas Marner has been described as a novel based on "recollected personal experience and feeling," and consequently flawed by "sentimental indulgence." Support or refute this anti-sentimental/pro-realist criticism by direct reference to the text.

12. George Eliot in Middlemarch "abandons the effort to construct tragedy around an inarticulate and imperfectly self-conscious character and turns instead to studies of greater complexity. . . ."

Assess the characters and conflicts of the novel in light of this remark.

13. When Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy appeared, it was recognized as "a painting of rural life in the manner of George Eliot." With some consideration of both that Hardy novella and either Middlemarch or Silas Marner, assess what precisely what "the manner [style] of George Eliot" is.

14. Both George Eliot and Thomas Hardy set out to answer Job's question "To what end doth man live?" How do their works reflect both the similarities and differences to their answers to Job's question'" You will have to utilize at least one novel by each author to answer this question fairly, but may choose which Hardy novel and which of the two Eliot novels (or both) you wish to utilize.

15. Barbara Hardy notes that, compared to the works of Henry James, George Eliot's Middlemarch is "less dependent on coincidence and less restricted to crisis, and it shapes its moral argument tentatively through character and action, instead of shaping character and action in accordance with dogma." The comparison would hold true for Dickens's Great Expectations or Hardy's The Return of the Native. Discuss Middlemarch in light of these remarks, comparing it to a work either by Hardy or by Dickens.

16. Virginia Wolfe has called George Eliot's Middlemarch "one of the few English novels for grown-up people." The target implied in this criticism is Dickens. Apply Wolfe's remark to both Eliot's Middlemarch and a major work by Dickens.

17. While "Dickens was interested in the social aspects of sex, … sex as an aspect of personal relations scarcely comes into Dickens, but George. Eliot is plainly giving her action some sexual substance" in Middlemarch. Discuss this observation about sex in Dickens and Eliot with reference to Middlemarch and to "The Tuggses at Ramsgate," A Christmas Carol, and/or Great Expectations.

18. In "Silas Marner": Memory and Salvation (1992), Patrick Swindon remarks that in Silas Marner "The fairy-tale outlines of the melodramatic plot have to be softened and obscured so as to bring into focus the basically explicable motives and attitudes of the characters" (115). Explain how Eliot subtly subordinates the fairy-tale and melodramatic elements to the requirements of realistic characterization.

D. The Return of the Native (1878) and "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" (1888) by Thomas Hardy

19. In "Time, Space, and Perspective in Thomas Hardy," Carol Reed Andersen identifies The Return of the Native as one of Hardy's two best novels. Hardy's "best novels are of theme," she contends. "Yet, the theme is not expressed didactically. Though the plot may be a story, it is certainly not the whole story. It is merely one element in a much larger symbolic whole. . . . If the plot, then, is one objective correlative of the theme which in itself is the novel, the plot must be interpreted not literally, but metaphorically." Provide such an interpretation for The Return of The Native, with (if you wish) some consideration of "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

20. "Hardy's imagination," remarks Charles P. C. Pettit in "Merely a Good Hand at a Serial? from A Pair of Blue Eyes to Far from the Madding Crowd" (The Achievement of Thomas Hardy, 2000), "is fired by the dramatic and the extraordinary, and he uses dramatic events, and particularly life-threatening situations, to demonstrate extremes of feeling" (11). Apply Pettit's analysis to The Return of The Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

21. Illustrate how in "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" and The Return of the Native Hardy's dominant moods are "primitive protest and disillusioned reflection." Explain against what he is protesting, and to what conclusions his philosophical 'reflections' lead us.

22. In "Thomas Hardy's Ironic Vision," Mary Caroline Richards states that in Hardy's fiction "Two of the most indispensable henchmen of this force against man's felicity are Change and Chance." Discuss the influence of these agents upon the characters and actions of The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

23. Hardy once remarked that "A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling. We tale-tellers are all Ancient Mariners, and none of us is warranted in stopping Wedding Guests . . . unless he has something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experiences of every average man and woman."

Apply Hardy's remarks about the writing of fiction to The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion," elaborating on the 'out-of-the ordinary' elements. To what extent do these elements threaten the story's credibility?

24. Both The Return of the Native (1878) and "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" postdate Hardy's conception of his works as a series, "the Wessex Novels" (a term he coined in 1874), and certainly both works emphasize what D. H. Lawrence called "the spirit of the place." Demonstrate to what extent The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion," exhibit a regional character. If you discuss both, attempt to identify whether Hardy provides a greater connection than mere commonality of setting. For purposes of considering "the spirit of the place," you may include Hopkins's illustrations as an integral part of Hardy's novel.

25. Although the sixth book of The Return of the Native seems to violate the Aristotelian Unity of Time established by the previous five, it "reshapes the drama of the first five in a way that changes, qualitatively, our total experience of the novel." Discuss the last book of The Return of the Native in terms of its contribution to our sense of this novel as a tragedy not merely of circumstance but of character.

26. In the opening chapter of The Woodlanders (1887) Hardy describes his Wessex setting as one "where reasoning proceeds on narrow premisses, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely-knit interdependence of the lives therein."

Explain how Hardy attempts to combine the qualities of classical tragedy and realistic prose fiction with reference to The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

27. In the preface to The Woodlanders, Hardy hints that his continuing subject is "the immortal puzzle--given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation." Demonstrate (and possibly, contrast) how Hardy dramatizes problems in sexual relationships in The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

28. When Hardy began writing, the dominant forms of the novel were the social realism of George Eliot and the Sensation Novel of Wilkie Collins. Early critics consigned Hardy's work to the second category, failing to realise that in his handling of dramatic episodes Hardy did not simply intend to create sensation but also to exploit the potential inherent in such episodes for character revelation. Furthermore, although early critics praised Hardy's handling of landscape description, they failed to apprehend how Hardy uses "the natural world both as a force against which individuals define themselves, and as an objective correlative of their emotions and actions" (Pettit 12).

Defend Hardy's fiction from the charge of sensationalism and incident for their own sake with reference to The Return of the Native and (if you wish) "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion."

29. Notes James F. Scott in "Thomas Hardy's Use of the Gothic: An Examination of Five Representative Works" (Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17, 4),

Few serious students of Hardy have failed to notice how frequently he associates the personal mood of a character with some massive, ominous ruin, like Stonehenge [in Tess of the D'Urbervilles], thus creating a physical image which organizes and conditions the reader's response. The scene itself makes us feel whatever anxiety or dread is experienced by the protagonist. (366)

Show how this "Gothic technique" is employed by Hardy in The Return of the Native, Brontë in Jane Eyre, and Dickens in Great Expectations, pointing out what is different about each novelist's handling of this technique.

E. North and South (1854-5) by Elizabeth Gaskell.

30. Thomas Hardy once remarked that "the writer's problem is how to strike the balance between the uncommon and the ordinary so as on the one hand to give interest, on the other to give reality." Discuss Gaskell's plotting and characterization in North and South in light of this remark, stating which aspect, the uncommon or the ordinary, receives the greater emphasis in this Industrial Novel and why.


"The father-daughter relationship serves Dickens as a metaphor for the master-worker relationship; Gaskell, in contrast, uses the relationship between mothers and sons to illustrate the profound effect women have on men's social behavior. Dickens' book emphasizes the role of fathers; Gaskell's stresses the role of mothers." (Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction 1832-1867, Chapter 7: 168)

Compare Dickens's and Gaskell's handling of parent-child relationships in North and South, Great Expectations, and (if you wish) A Christmas Carol and "The Tuggses at Ramsgate."

32. To what extent are the demands of weekly serialisation evident in both North and South (first published in Household Words) and Great Expectations (first published in All the Year Round)? Consider such matters as the rapidity of the narrative, the necessity for curtains and "cliff-hangers," and producing instalments of uniform length.

33. "While being more realistic than Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell [sic] is also perhaps more optimistic." Compare Gaskell's realism and optimism in North and South to Dickens's style and vision in Great Expectations.

F. Jane Eyre (1847) and "Napoleon and the Spectre" (1833) by Charlotte Brontë.

34. Symbolism is an integral part of Brontë's technique to convey theme; compare her symbolism with that of either Dickens in Great Expectations or Hardy in The Return of the Native with respect to each writer's handling of one of these elements: (i) landscape, (ii) buildings, (iii) nature, or (iv) people. [This is potentially six different topics.]

35. Compare the dreams of Jane Eyre to those of Napoleon in "Napoleon and the Spectre" and Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in order to contrast Brontë's and Dickens's understandings of dream psychology and the operation of the subconscious.

36. Compare Charlotte Brontë's handling of the supernatural in Jane Eyre to that of Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. Consider recurring motifs, diction, and style as well as narrative function.

37. If a novel is supposed to be "a portrait of life," how may one reconcile the gothic, romantic, melodramatic, and fantastic elements of Jane Eyre with the usual requirements of the genre? Explain what other definition of the novel might better fit Jane Eyre?

38. In her seminal article "Toward a Feminist Politics" (1979), critic Elaine Showalter coined the term "gynocriticism" to explain her concern "with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, and structures of literature by women" (cited by Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 94). It may be argued that Jane Eyre is not a mere bildungsroman, but an Education Novel with a Feminist orientation, since its object is to provide young women with a developed philosophy of life. This is one of the novel's key features that has led to its being regarded as a landmark in the Feminist Canon. Although hardly a "forgotten" text like many admitted to this canon, Jane Eyre offers modern readers what Harman and Holman term "a wide-ranging exploration of the construction of gender and identity, the role of women in culture and society, and the possibilities of women's creative expression" (A Handbook to Literature, p. 211).

Defend the notion that Jane Eyre is one of the following: (i) a vehicle for gynocritical thought; (Ii) an Education Novel; (iii) a narrative about gender-construction. [This is potentially three different topics.]

39. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has been dubbed "New Gothic" because of her "introduction of comedy as a palliative of straight Gothic" elements. Identify these traditional Gothic elements, then show how Brontë employs comedy of situation, character, and narrative comment to moderate their intensity.

40. Discuss how Dickens in Great Expectations and Brontë in Jane Eyre use the figure of the mad woman for both symbolic and didactic purposes. Since madness in each case may be regarded as a form of escape, indicate from what or whom they are attempting to escape. You may wish to refer to Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea.

41. In one of his early journal entries, Thomas Hardy postulated that "The real, if unavowed, purpose of fiction is to give pleasure by gratifying the love of the uncommon in human experience, mental or corporeal." How do both Jane Eyre and The Return of the Native reflect such a "purpose"?

G. Nineteenth-Century British Short Fiction: Dickens, Collins, Brontë, and Hardy.

42. In "A Note on the Structure of Hardy's Short Stories" (Colby Library Quarterly 10), A. F. Cassis theorizes that in Hardy's short fiction in particular (as in nineteenth-century short fiction generally) there are two distinct and competing traditions at work: "the tradition of the conscious, artistic literary short story, that of the écrivain, and the tradition of the raconteur, the narrator who simulates a spoken story in print" (287). Apply this observation to the works of short fiction studied in this course, including the novella A Christmas Carol.

43. In "English Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century" (Studies in Short Fiction 6, 1), Wendell V. Harris compares the modern short story's striving for "that unity of effect which . . . the writer gains by an economy that subordinates everything to a central thrust" (45) to the nineteenth-century short story's developing "potentially interesting situations . . . [through] the copious application of coincidence . . . [rather than a] central effect or theme" (47).

Apply this criticism to the works of short fiction studied in this course.

44. Alexander Fischler in "Theatrical Techniques in Thomas Hardy's Short Stories" (Studies in Short Fiction 3, 4) contends that the drama of a short story

"will be successful only if it strikes the proper balance between the two elements Hardy considers essentials–the ordinary and the uncommon. A work must be sufficiently rooted in the ordinary to give the sense of reality, yet incorporate enough of the unusual to attract the interest of the reader" (435).

Apply this criticism to the works of short fiction studied in this course, including the novella A Christmas Carol.


As a short story writer Hardy is interested above all in patterns of irony. He likes to balance event against event, to reveal he relationships between seemingly unconnected happenings, to bring about strange conjunctions. (Marie A. Quinn, "Thomas Hardy and the Short Story," Budmouth Essays on Thomas Hardy, ed. F. B. Pinion, page 84)

Apply this criticism to the works of short fiction studied in this course, including the novella A Christmas Carol.


Though it is clearly an illegitimate demand to expect a story to end with a bang, it should not end in a tedious tidying of details. It is not so much knowing how to end a story–putting the problem that way leads one directly into the clutches of those who mechanically methodize–as knowing when to end it. (Wendell V. Harris, "English Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century," Studies in Short Fiction 6, 1: 29)

Apply this observation to the works of short fiction studied in this course, including the novella A Christmas Carol.

47. In The Victorian Short Story (1986), Harold Orel states that

"the best Victorian short stories are astonishingly honest . . . in their examination of human problems" and that these stories tend to "impress us by their economy of means; in them, the questions of why things happen as they do, and why people behave as they do, remain unanswered" (4).

Respond to this pronouncement by specific reference to the works of short fiction studied in this course You may, of course, allude to other first-rate nineteenth-century British short stories.

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Last modified 14 September 2003