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A Revolution In Perception English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5888 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Speaking of modernist literatures revolutionary project, Maren Linett correctly states that writers had to break with convention and show how life was experienced rather than as it was conventionally recorded.Such a notion is highly relevant in elucidating how writers such as George Egerton and Katherine Mansfield strove, through their revolutionary use of the short story, to expose the failure of the Victorian novel’s dominant male perspective at accurately rendering the reality and ‘terra incognita’ of mothers and wives. [2] This essay will therefore argue that, in Egerton’s ‘A Cross Line’ (1893) and Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’ (1918), the use of a ground-breaking female perspective allows them to facilitate the reader’s gaining of ‘new eyes’ on the commonplace subject matter of motherhood and matrimony; a purpose that will be shown to be far more concerned with revolutionizing the Victorian perception of these roles as idyllic and harmonious destinations for women, than with creating ‘some new particular thing’. [3] The first half of the essay will consider the ‘new eyes’ that Egerton and Mansfield give to motherhood and will demonstrate that each writer revolutionizes the reader’s perception of maternity by exposing what Nicole Fluhr confirms was the inadequacy of inherited nineteenth-century ideologies and symbols, and also by subverting the eugenic perception of motherhood, meaning highly nurturing or affectionate, provided by their Victorian antecedents. [4] Firstly considering ‘A Cross Line’, I will analyse how Egerton achieves her reversal of Victorian beliefs in an innate maternal instinct through a realist aesthetic and focalized narrative which exposes Gypsy’s repugnant reaction to the bucolic image of the chicks, before demonstrating how this revolutionary perception is reinforced in an aposiopetic statement. Secondly, an examination of ‘Bliss’ and Mansfield’s critical use of the symbolic pear tree will demonstrate that this inherited symbol provides an invaluable framework for exposing Bertha’s aesthetic, rather than eugenic, approach to motherhood that is then explicitly reinforced in her interaction with ‘little B’. [5] The second half of the essay will then move to Egerton’s and Mansfield’s depictions of matrimony, and reveal that each writer adapts this subject to their purpose of providing ‘new eyes’ by revolutionizing two components of the Victorian marriage plot: the elision of female sexuality within marriage, and the predominating perceptions of adultery provided by omniscient narrators in sensation novels. [6] In my analysis of ‘A Cross Line’, I shall illustrate that the psychological moment of Gypsy’s Saloméic dream-vision provides an elucidating frame of reference through which to reassess Egerton’s illustration of the marital union from an unexplored and eroticized female perspective. The final examination of ‘Bliss’ will then demonstrate that Mansfield revolutionizes an omniscient narrator’s perception of the subject matter of infidelious marriage by mediating it through Bertha’s female perspective in two of her psychological moments, which expose its stagnant and adulterous reality as a rejection of the Victorian ideology of marriage as a sacred institution. [7] Ultimately, by appropriating commonplace and eternal subject matter, rather than ‘new particular thing[s]’, within the most appropriate form for exploring and revealing the inner lives of women, Egerton and Mansfield refashion their reader’s normative view of motherhood and marriage and succeed, as Jenny McDonnell confirms, in presenting excellent examples of ‘mak[ing] it new’; in accordance with Ezra Pound’s summation of the modernist project. [8] 

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In relation to Egerton’s and Mansfield’s accordance with Pound’s demand for revolutionizing and ‘making new’ the reader’s perception of standard subject matter, I will firstly consider each author’s innovative representations of motherhood. With reference firstly to the impressionistic image of the ‘hen’ [9] and her chicks in ‘A Cross Line’, I suggest that Egerton self-consciously directs her reader to a new interpretation of this stock pastoral image through her use of the focalizing narrator. [10] By employing this modernist technique, the reader is forced to align themselves with the revolutionary reaction offered by Gypsy as she receives what Virginia Woolf termed the ‘myriad of impressions’ contained in Egerton’s realist aesthetic. [11] In her catalogue of crude and rustic perceptions, Gypsy therefore does not perceive the hen to be a maternal ‘beaut[y]’ (52), but as ‘dishevelled-looking’ (52); her call to the chicks is not endearing but ‘screeching’ (52); and motherhood has not evoked the hen’s serene beauty, but has left her ‘breast bare’ (52) through ‘sitting on her eggs’ (52). [12] Thus, the reader immediately cannot ignore Gypsy’s interpretation of the hen as one which does not evoke the normative Victorian response of what contemporary commentator Maud Churton Braby asserted should be a nurturing desire to ‘find a mate, build a nest, and rear’ her own brood. Instead, Gypsy presents a conception of motherhood that, as Gail Cunningham correctly observes, is ‘ruthlessly stripped of its sentimental trappings’. [13] As the focalized narrative then shifts to the ‘new eyes’ of Gypsy’s perception of the chicks, a further revolution of motherhood emerges as Gypsy refutes what Fluhr confirms would have been the eugenic Victorian perception of ‘fine’ beauty in this impressionistic image of birth. [14] Instead, Gypsy focuses on the crudeness of the chick’s ‘disproportionately large’ (52) bills, ‘slimy feathers’ (52), and the fact that their ‘fluff’ (52) is ‘splashed with olive green’ (52) faecal matter. [15] By omitting any betrayal of Gypsy’s nurturing maternal affection, Egerton facilitates an indubitable revolution in the Victorian perception of motherhood provided by writers such as George Eliot, who stated that there is an innate ‘mother’s love which flows in … great[…] abundance … [and] tender[ness]’. [16] What the reader in fact finds through their new perception of motherhood, achieved through Egerton’s realist aesthetic and focalized narrative form, is her revolutionary suggestion that maternity is in fact a learned behaviour, rather than what Sally Ledger terms the Victorian ‘essentialist, biologically driven maternal impulse’. [17] 

In Egerton’s continuation of providing her reader with ‘new eyes’ on the subject matter of motherhood and maternity as a learned, rather than innate, impulse, an instance of aposiopesis at the conclusion of this section of focalized narrative is significant. [18] Through the statement that the stranger ‘is covering basket, hen and all -‘ (52), I suggest that Gypsy’s earlier reaction of ‘disgust’ (52) at the raw image of the chicks ‘curled in the shell’ (52) is reinforced. Through the use of hyphenation and by describing the chicks anonymously and vaguely through the use of the pronoun ‘all’ (52), Egerton’s aposiopetic statement reveals a further example of Gypsy’s rejection of an innate maternal feeling through her elision of any reference to the chicks as a metonym of eugenic motherhood. Additionally, as part of this episode’s exposition on ‘new’ perceptions of motherhood as a learnt behaviour and institution which Gypsy rejects, her revolutionary privileging and preference for an egoistic female autonomy and identity is certainly revealed through her specific reference to the presence of the singular ‘hen’ (52). By identifying the hen individually and by eliminating any reference to the chicks, Gypsy achieves an emphatic illustration of her rejection of any maternal impulse since she segregates the hen from both her offspring and her identity as a mother through this highly nuanced use of aposiopesis. Constructing this revolutionary approach to maternal behaviour in a typically modernist use of an aposiopetic statement, Egerton is able to further her modernist project of accurately articulating the maternal ‘terra incognita’ of her female protagonist; by depicting her reaction to motherhood just as ‘how she knew herself to be, not as they [Victorian novelists] imagine[d] her’ as an undeviating paradigm of innate maternal instinct. [19] By exposing Gypsy’s lack of a eugenic Victorian perception of motherhood, and her evident repugnance at the crude realist aesthetic of the ‘young things’ (52), Egerton’s focalized, impressionistic and aposiopetic episode certainly gives the reader ‘new eyes’, in the words of Ledger, to perceive the commonplace literary subject matter of motherhood not as a hereditary ‘biological given but a learnt behaviour’. [20] 

Linked to Ledger’s assertion that, in modernist texts such as Egerton’s and Mansfield’s, eugenic conceptions of motherhood are revolutionized by not being depicted as hereditary impulses, I move now to a demonstration that a similar lack of nurturing, maternal attachment is depicted in Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, through the presence of Bertha’s aesthetic approach to motherhood. [21] I suggest firstly that Mansfield’s critical use of the pear tree as a symbol of fertility and motherhood inherited from nineteenth-century works, such as the nurturing maternal symbolism within the ‘branches [of the] jargonelle pear-tree rich in autumnal fruit’ belonging to the titular character of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), certainly provides an illustration of Bertha’s revolutionary aesthetic, rather than eugenic, approach to motherhood. [22] Initially, in a further example of the modernist focalized narrative form, Mansfield permits the symbolic pear tree to be imbued with Bertha’s impressionistic perceptions of blissful abundance and fertility. The tree is therefore characteristically described within a feminine vein, like the example just cited in Gaskell, as being ‘in fullest, richest bloom’ (148) and that there was ‘not a single bud or a faded petal’ (148). Thus, it could certainly be concluded at this moment that this description provides no ‘new eyes’ for the reader’s perception of motherhood within the text. [23] 

However, for the attentive reader that is alert to Mansfield’s critical use of symbolism, I suggest that Mansfield’s use of ambivalent phraseology, coupled with the weak physical characteristics of the tree’s trunk, soon expose the inadequacy of the pear tree as an accurate ‘symbol of [Bertha’s] … life’ (148) as a nurturing mother; since it is only ‘seem[ing] to’ (148) or ‘almost’ (153) embodying her didactic assertion of its vivid and nurturing ‘bloom[s]’ (148) and health. Instead, the tree begins to be exposed as anything but an accurate symbol of what Bertha perceives to be her sturdy state of motherhood as a vocation of what Van Gusteren terms ‘unblemished emotional harmony’. [24] Thus, what should be the sturdy, nourishing core of the trunk, as in the ‘branches’ of Gaskell’s symbol, is now revealed as emphatically weak and flexible by being ‘tall’ (148), ‘slender’ (148), ‘quiver[ing]’ (153). [25] Hence, when considered in parallel, I suggest that the separate components of the symbolic pear tree’s flowers and trunk expose Bertha’s preoccupation with the aesthetics of the tree’s colourful ‘bloom[s]’ (148), and her resulting lack of attention towards the nurturing core of the trunk as part of the symbol which she has uniformly claimed to represent her own life and maternity. It is therefore unsurprising that the reader’s eyes are now undoubtedly opened to a new and revolutionary perception of the ‘lovely pear tree’ (148) as representative of Bertha’s revolutionary aesthetic attitude to motherhood, rather than that of a robust eugenic approach. In achieving this end through her typically critical use of a supposedly uniform inherited symbol, Mansfield not only reveals what Van Gusteren observes as Bertha’s mingling of ‘data with interpretive [inaccuracies]’, but also establishes Bertha’s inchoate grasp of maternal life; since she sees it symbolically in revolutionary aesthetic terms, as a superficial ‘bloom’ (148), rather than what could be paraphrased as the wooden eugenic core of Victorian motherhood which, in this instance, is ‘quiver[ing]’ (153). By attaining this revolutionary perception of an aesthetic approach to motherhood through an exposure of the inaccuracy of an inherited nineteenth-century symbol of fertile motherhood, I suggest that Mansfield equips her reader with ‘new eyes’ that will enable them to recognise her use of the commonplace subject of maternity, within Bertha’s interaction with ‘little B’ (147), as a further example of her revolutionary aesthetic and detached illustration of motherhood. [26] 

With further reference to Mansfield’s perception of an aesthetic mode of motherhood, Bertha’s interaction with ‘little B’ (146) certainly figures as one of Mansfield’s most revolutionary episodes when it comes to the ‘new eyes’ she provides for her readers on the subject matter of maternity. It is here that the reader arrives at the most explicit perception of Bertha’s approach to motherhood not as the eugenic and morally nurturing vocation of her Victorian antecedents, but, as Diane McGee has suggested, as an occupation wherein the child merely becomes one more entity in Bertha’s spurious life of aesthetic ‘bliss – absolute bliss!’ (145). [27] Mansfield’s revolution and subversion of Victorian motherhood, with what Nelson and Holmes confirm was its emphasis on moral and spiritual nurturing, is immediately nuanced as the extra-diegetic narrator reveals Bertha’s perception that the ‘baby had on a white flannel gown and a blue woollen jacket, and her dark fine hair was brushed up into a funny little peak’ (146). [28] To re-invoke the language of the symbolic pear tree, I suggest that such a detailed report of the infant’s clothing therein exposes, once again, Bertha’s aesthetic preoccupation with the child’s external ‘bloom[s]’ (148) and attire; rather than a focus upon strengthening their moral sensibility which, to make an enthymematic use of Mansfield’s symbolic language, would appear to be only ‘slender’ (148) in comparison.

This revolutionary depiction of a maternity which is eugenically deficient and entirely misdirected in its attention to aesthetic details, is then confirmed in Bertha’s lack of effusive, nurturing language as she supposedly declares her affection for ‘little B’ (147) in a manner that McGee confirms possesses overtones of awkwardness, ineptness and ‘an air of novelty’. [29] Stating that ‘you’re nice’ (147), Bertha then attempts, unsuccessfully, to magnify this feeling with the addition of an adjective in stating that the infant is in fact ‘very nice’ (147). Coupled with the emotional laxity of Bertha’s successive statements that she is ‘fond of you … I like you’ (147), her aesthetic perception of motherhood in Mansfield’s text is, as Lee Garver observes, shown to be ‘far from ennobling’ or nurturing for the infant due to Bertha’s profound inability to penetratively move beyond the aesthetic and superficial. [30] Therefore by aligning her revolutionary use of a character’s inaccurate interpretation of symbolism, that exposes its inadequacy within modernist literature to faithfully represent what it may previously have done, with an entirely aesthetic and superficial approach to motherhood, Mansfield adapts this subject matter to her own revolutionary ends. She provides her readers with ‘new eyes’ through which they can facilitate a new perception of maternity as a state that has moved irrevocably away from the eugenic, utopian state depicted by Mansfield’s predecessors. [31] 

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Moving now to the second half of the essay, I turn my attention from Egerton’s and Mansfield’s revolutionary perceptions of motherhood to the methods with which they revolutionize the conventional subject matter of marriage. Firstly considering ‘A Cross Line’, and the revolutionary scene of Gypsy’s Saloméic ‘dream of motion’ (58), Egerton herself asserted that she was fashioning a ‘new particular thing’ and an unexplored area of literature: the ‘plot [of women’s] terra incognita’. [32] However, I suggest that within this essay’s concern with Egerton’s revolutionary perception of marriage, this psychological episode of her protagonist serves as an elucidating framework through which the reader can attain ‘new eyes’ on Egerton’s ‘fresh’ (57) and revolutionary erotic perception of marriage. The scene in fact illustrates a direct rejection of what Sarah Maier correctly observes as the ‘Victorian ideology of [women’s] sexual passionlessness’ that is consistently observed in nineteenth-century texts, such as Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), where women’s explicit sexuality is omitted from the narrative. [33] Referring initially to Egerton’s use of a performative metaphor within this psychological moment, the focal point of Gypsy upon the ‘stage’ (57) of an oriental ‘ancient theatre’ (57), coupled with the emancipatory ‘open air, with hundreds of [male] faces upturned towards her’ (57), certainly allows Egerton’s protagonist, as both Miller and Pykett confirm, to reveal the revolutionary presence of ‘[autonomous] female sexuality as a source of [powerful] identity’, and to open the reader’s ‘new eyes’ to its unapologetic presence in Egerton’s married protagonist. [34] Furthermore, I suggest that by self-consciously including literary and Biblical allusions to the identities of ‘Cleopatra’ (57), her ‘jewelled snakes’ (57) and Salomé’s ‘voluptuous[…] sway[ing]’ (57), Egerton explicitly aligns her protagonist with a historical culture of autonomously erotic women which unequivocally presents the reader with her revolutionary challenge to what Gail Cunningham terms the late nineteenth-century belief in women’s ‘latent sexuality’. [35] Egerton’s psychological moment of insight to Gypsy’s ‘terra incognita’ therefore constructs female sexuality as an identity which is powerfully erotic in its autonomous ability to provide the ‘soul of each man [watching her with] what he craves’ (57) through its ‘intoxicating power’ (57); an idea that is about to be revisited as I move to consider Gypsy’s ability to impart ‘subtle magnetism’ (56) to her husband and make ‘his eyes dilate’ (56) in Egerton’s revolutionary perception of the marital union. [36] Perhaps unsurprisingly, at its publication this episode was criticized for its ‘hysterical frankness of … amatory abandonment’. [37] However, in this essay’s concern with the modernist project of ‘making new’ the neglected corners of well-used subject matter, the ‘seductive … note’ (57) of female sexuality depicted in this example of a modernist psychological moment, that has ‘inseeing’ (58) eyes, will now provide an invaluable framework of new perception through which the reader can interpret, with highly attuned ‘new eyes’, Egerton’s revolutionary erotic female perspective on the marital union. [38] 

As Sarah Maier correctly observes, in continuing her ‘new’ purpose of using the presence of sexuality to revolutionize the prior Victorian ‘construction of [married] women as passionless’, Egerton details an interaction between Gypsy and her husband, where Gypsy is the active seducer and the focus of the narrative, in order to exactly refute this philistinic approach to the subject matter of marital union; as part of what Pykett suggests is Egerton’s ‘rethinking of [Victorian] domestic realism’. [39] Aside from the sexual autonomy Gypsy appears to desire for a euphemistic ‘jolly old spree’ (55), a suggestion that is certainly reminiscent of the connotations of her identification with ‘Cleopatra’ (57) in her dream-vision, Gypsy’s physical actions in this section of discourse are particularly revealing and is what I suggest contributes to the ‘new eyes’ through which the reader perceives Egerton’s revolutionary depiction of the marital union. [40] I suggest firstly that the most pivotal part of the discourse is Gypsy’s statement that ‘it isn’t the love you know, it’s the being loved’ (55) as, through the crucial addition of the active noun ‘being’ (55), Egerton nuances her female protagonist’s revolutionary desire to actively render, and physically enact, marital affection. Thus, in accordance with what Angelique Richardson confirms is Gypsy’s ‘defiant disregard for conventional [Victorian] sexual mores’, she commences her physical seduction of her husband. [41] Tactilely ‘stroking all the lines in his face with the tip of her finger’ (55) and ‘rubbing her chin up and down his face’ (55), Gypsy consistently reverses and revolutionizes the Victorian ideology of the passive and sexless married woman. Furthermore, subsequent to her most assertive and eroticized action of ‘bit[ing] his chin and shak[ing] it like a terrier in her … teeth’ (56), that is reminiscent of the ‘untamed spirit’ (57) in her ‘dream of motion’ (58), Gypsy finally exposes the subtle magnetism’ (56) of the marriage by eliciting her husband’s reaction to her ‘tantalizing changes’ (56) as ‘his eyes’ (56) euphemistically ‘dilate and his colour deepens’ (56). Thus, though this episode culminates in the union that presumably impregnates Gypsy, Egerton’s revolutionary perspective on the presence of active female sexuality within marriage, as conveyed through the psychological Saloméic dream-vision and Gypsy’s seduction of her husband, has unequivocally provided the reader with ‘new eyes’ through which to perceive the stock subject matter of marriage and marital union by representing the protagonist, as Egerton suggested, entirely ‘as she knew herself to be’ and with a ‘total disregard for man’s opinions’. [42] 

Progressing from the revolutionary eroticization of marriage in Egerton’s text, I move now to the final section of the essay and a consideration of the similar revolutionary power of Mansfield’s depiction of an adulterous marriage within ‘Bliss’. Mansfield’s ‘new eyes’ on the subject matter of marriage is achieved by her mediation of its stagnant, adulterous reality not through the use of a Victorian omniscient narrator, as is frequently seen in sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’s The Evil Genius (1886), but through the female perspective of two of her text’s psychological moments; as Mansfield refutes what Miller suggests was the Victorian impetus of marriage as a ‘means of wholesome narrative resolution’ and stability. [43] With reference to this first psychological moment, the reader’s initial attainment of ‘new eyes’ is achieved through Mansfield’s ironic use of free indirect discourse in Bertha’s cataloguing attempt to valorize the satisfaction of her marriage. [44] Mansfield immediately conveys the stagnation of her protagonist’s marriage through an adroit use of the conjunction ‘and’ (148), within her polysyndeton, in order to expose to the reader the fact that Bertha’s assessments of marital satisfaction and wholesomeness are too didactically insistent to be ‘absolutely’ (148) accurate. Thus, suggesting that their ‘friends … and … books, and … music, and … going abroad’ (148-9) must mean that she is ‘too happy – too happy!’ (148), the inaccuracy of Bertha’s polysyndeton inevitably collapses into a bathetic and stagnant conclusion as the free indirect style of the focalized narrator concludes that ‘their new cook made the most superb omelettes…’ (149). Furthermore, I suggest that this portentous, and characteristically modernist, use of ellipsis at the conclusion of this brief psychological moment of insight exposes the revolutionary ambiguity in Mansfield’s text towards what Miller confirms was the Victorian utopian state of bourgeois marriage as the ‘paradigm of enjoyable … integration and stability’. [45] Thus, via what Lee Garver confirms is her pioneering use of female perspective in free indirect discourse, Mansfield constructs Bertha’s marriage as a listless ‘bad beginning’ rather than a ‘happy ending’, and certainly provides the reader with ‘new eyes’ through which they can interpret this new perception of a stagnant marriage that is certainly not ‘too happy!’ (148). [46] By concluding the episode with the unsettling effect of a portentous ellipsis, Manfield’s illustration of marriage through a feminine, rather than omniscient, perspective certainly upholds the contemporary perception of an Edwardian literary critic that the ‘theoretically indissoluble [happiness of Victorian marriage] has become … an open question’ that is not uniformly harmonious; as will now be explored in relation to Bertha’s psychological revelation of Harry’s adultery. [47] 

As Miller correctly observes, much of Mansfield’s revolutionary text sought to enable her readers to perceive the ‘sometimes sordid aspects of [marriage]’, and she sought to achieve this not through the omniscient narrator’s perspective on adultery contained in Collins’s The Evil Genius, for example, but through the ‘new eyes’ of her female perspective. [48] Nowhere is this revolutionary purpose more apparent than in the second psychological and fleeting impressionistic moment in which Bertha realizes her husband’s adulterous ‘moral laxity’. [49] Hence, in the short time that it takes Eddie to open up the ‘little book’ (155) and locate ‘Why Must It Always Be Tomato Soup?’ (155), Bertha sees and comprehends the affair in what Delia da Sousa Correa confirms is Bertha’s only epiphanic moment in the text. [50] Bertha’s perception and realization of the unprecedented lustful and sexualised atmosphere of the hallway scene that she witnesses is, I suggest, conveyed through the focalized narrator’s use of heavily nuanced verbs and adverbs. Bertha’s perception of the lustful actions in the hallway unequivocally constitutes a metonym for an adulterous affair as Harry ‘toss[es] the coat away’ (155) and ‘turn[s] [Miss Fulton] violently to him’ (155). Furthermore, in what McDonnell has termed Mansfield’s continued prioritization of a feminine example of revelatory ‘impressionistic prose and epiphanic structures’, Bertha then comprehends the immediacy of the adultery not only by perceiving Miss Fulton’s ‘smil[ing]’ (155) acknowledgment of Harry’s declaration that ‘I adore you’ (155), but also through the agreement that they will meet ‘tomorrow’ (155). By conveying Bertha’s insight and realization of her husband’s adultery through the revolutionary use of a female perspective and a fleeting psychological moment, Mansfield is thus able to provide her readers with ‘new eyes’ through which to perceive the infidelious reality of this bourgeois marriage. [51] Mansfield’s pioneering techniques within this concluding episode certainly confirm her revolutionary suggestion


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