The arrested heart; familial love and psychic conflict in five mid-Victorian novels
Smith, David James
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Home and family are seldom glorified in modern fiction. In fact, they are frequently not even important concerns. The disturbances which swirl in modern authorial consciousnesses relate to "larger" problems of accommodating antagonisms within the self, or of accommodating self and other-than-self. The other-than-self takes various shapes. In early modern fiction, e.g., Hardy, there may be a sense that the cosmos is overwhelming, impersonal, even brutal, in its transaction with the individual. This sense may be complicated by an intuited imperative of self-assertion: the monster is bigger than us, but we'll go down with our hands at its throat. (I thus throw Ahab into the camp of modern protagonists.) In both cases, the conflict is cosmic. It is a matter of one man on the one side and the universe on the other. The battleground may be reduced in scale, so that the individual's antagonist is the universe of men rather than the universe of God. This antagonism takes several forms. It may be a simple helplessness in face of a brutal and devouring humanity, paralleling the Hardyan vision of a hapless victim in the hands of a malevolent God. More frequently, instead of helplessness the feeling is one of alienation--a life sentence of estrangement from our putative fellows. Blame for the estrangement may lie with them rather than us. They are insensitive, unsympathetic, uncomprehending: spiritual Philistines. We are sensitive, sympathetic, comprehending: tender plants. Or blame for the estrangement may lie with no one. It is a universal condition. It is the human condition. We are sealed in the dungeons of our own feelingless inner lives and there is no escape. There are other variations. The other-than-self may be political, commercial, or religious institutions which coldly and meanly exploit us--us who have enough sense to live private lives, horrified and outraged at the creeping institutional fungi which relentlessly ingest earth and humanity. But we do not necessarily surrender in silence before such forces. We devise strategics of self-preservation: counterpropaganda, subversion, renunciation, retreat.
- English