English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, University of British Columbia, Summer Session Two: 1989

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

Course Requirement B: A major paper of 2,500 words on one of a host of topics (only one student per topic). The topics are available for subscription upon a first-come first-served basis. Please adhere to Modern Language Association style and double-space your writing, typing, or word-processing. This paper, which will account for 40% of your final mark in the course, should be submitted during the fourth week (at latest, the start of the fifth week) of the course. Each topic is designed for the student to demonstrate his or her own critical capacities; minimal reference to critics is expected.

Thirty-Five Essay Topics on the Works of Seven Victorian Novelists.

I. The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray.

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. 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 novels 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 satirizes the stereotypical military hero of "pugnacious and horse-racious" novels. No specific reference to other novels is required.

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.

II. The Moonstone 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.

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 becomes an active participant, and the activity, rather than the resolution, is the primary source of his enjoyment."

Apply this assessment to your own responses to the narrative voices, the characters, and incidents of the novel.

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

9. ". . . 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 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 detective novel in light of these remarks. You may wish to allude to the works of other crime-and-detection writers, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

III. Silas Marner and Middlemarch by George Eliot

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 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.

15. 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 the Eliot novel and a work by Dickens.

16. Barbara Hardy notes that, compared to the works of Henry James, 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 Hard Times. Discuss Middlemarch in light of these remarks, comparing it to either a work by Henry James or Dickens's Hard Times.

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 Martin Chuzzlewit and/or Hard Times and Middlemarch.

IV. The Return of the Native and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

18. After his initial venture into published fiction with Desperate Remedies Thomas Hardy followed his publisher's suggestions and wrote "a story of rural life," in which, said Hardy, an "attempt has been made to draw the characters humorously without caricature. . . ." He conceded that he "thought it just as well not to dabble in plot again." Agree or disagree with Hardy's own assessment of his characterization and plot emphasis (or lack thereof) in Under the Greenwood Tree.

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.

20. 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/or Under the Greenwood Tree.

21. Illustrate how in 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. 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 Weddings 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/or Under the Greenwood Tree, elaborating on the 'out-of-the ordinary' elements.

23. While Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) predates and The Return of the Native (1878) postdates Hardy's conception of his works as a series, "the Wessex Novels" (a term he coined in 1874), both works emphasize what D. H. Lawrence called "the spirit of the place." Demonstrate to what extent either one or both of these novels are regional in character. If you discuss both, attempt to identify whether Hardy provides a greater connection than mere commonality of setting.

24. Although the sixth book of The Return of the Native seems to violate the unity of time established in 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 this light.

25. 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."

Attempt to justify Hardy's attempt to combine the qualities of classical tragedy and the novel form with reference to The Return of the Native.

26. 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/or Under the Greenwood Tree.

V. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

27. Hardy 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 North and South in light of this remark.

28. Like Hard Times, North and South emphasizes "the moral influence of women" in industrial society. Indeed, the two works belong to the same subgenre, the Industrial Novel.

"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)."

Justify or refute the truth of Gallagher's assessment of these two industrial novels, both serialized in Dickens's weekly journal Household Words.

29. "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' style and vision in Hard Times.

VI. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

30. 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? What other definition of the novel might better fit?

31. Symbolism is an integral part of Brontë's technique to convey theme; compare her symbolism with that of either Dickens in Hard Times 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 essentially six possible topics.]

32. Compare the dreams of Jane Eyre to those of Jonas and Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit in order to contrast Brontë's and Dickens's understandings of dream psychology and the operation of the subconscious.

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

34. 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.

35. Discuss how Dickens in Hard Times and Brontë in Jane Eyre use the figure of the mad wife 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.

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Last modified 12 December 2001