The Death Wish Controlling the Book; Mrs O'Hara and Fate

To Trollope-l

December 7, 2001

Re: An Eye for an Eye: The Death Wish Controlling the Book

Another way of reading the action of this book from Fred's perspective is that the young man has been driven all along by a death wish. I went over to look at some of Freud's papers analyzing "thanatos", the death wish he argues is implicit in all people and comes out strongly in the form of pathology in certain cases of intense conflict between an individual and society is embodied in this story, and especially in these last final chapters.

Victoria Glendinning argues the "ur-situation" in a Trollope novel is the young man pulled between two women. I suppose this novel may be regarded as an anomaly if you feel she's right. Here the ur-situation is one of sheer escape, a "thanatos" situation. The plot line dramatizes it: Fred has courted death all book long: Ardkill Cottage, the place where Hard Kills have and may continue to happen. In this week's chapters we find him return to it and make no attempt to escape.

The scenery or repetitive narrative line dramatizes this death wish too: continually Trollope has taken us to the edge of the cliff. The mother sits there all the livelong day staring out into the winds and the waters. She defies nature; she dares it; but when you dare nature, nature may act back, and in such a setting nature is not kidding with the small individual awaiting her powers. Here is where Fred is a figure parallel to Mrs O'Hara: she too has waited all novel long to escape. Her daughter attempted to enter society and "live" once again; from well before the novel opened she has been "absolute for death". The first dialogue between her and her daughter shows her offering as consolation, as what to live for, the peace and rest of death, its sublimity. I had been seeing the book as a realistic explication of the mad woman with which it opens; now I see it as a psychoanalytic projection of the meaning of a woman in an asylum still driven by confused rage at how her life has ended up.

The two times I've taught this novel I have assigned it in a course in gothics, and presented it as Anglo-Irish realistic gothic. I usually concentrated on the gloomy mansion, the bleakness of Scroope, the wild landscape of the cliffs, the erotic story at the center. Now I see the narrative at the heart of the book is patterned to enact a lunge into death. The formula at the heart of this book -- one which controls the storyline, narrative, pictorial scenes -- is Freud's death wish. Death is at the heart of the gothic; the gothic may be said to dramatizes a knot of grief through its many variants (this is seen especially in ghost stories). So this heart has generated the patterns of An Eye for an Eye.

This other ur-situation, one quite different from Glendinning's triangle, dominates a number of Trollope's novellas, many of which come from his later years, e.g., Linda Tressel, Cousin Henry, Kept in the Dark and The Fixed Period. The Fixed Period is the comic alternative to An Eye for an Eye. Even the titles fit this formula. Suddenly it all fits. Suddenly I see how they come together and where they came from.

To call Trollope's later books "kidnapped romance" (which is a description I've seen to get at their use of a dilemma and over-the-topness) is to trivialize it though: Trollope is expressing something he feels within quite seriously, as an older man, in his frustrations. The only biography to do justice to this is the Stebbins, and they didn't have the critical instruments to say how we find this in the books. One needs to go to narratology and then back to the books.

You could also make sense of the late large "dark" books by seeing the ur-situation in An Eye for an Eye. Mr Scarborough's Family the last of the "mighty" books yields up its meaning in the light of this death wish (or "thanatos") pattern seen in An Eye for an Eye and the above novellas. I connect it to The Way We Live Now_ where the anti-hero, our Colossus of the money, ends a suicide. Perhaps, Roger, David Suchet did right to play the part.

Cheers to all,

Re: An Eye for an Eye, Chs 21-24: Mrs O'Hara and Fate

These last chapters move swiftly across several encounters; as I wrote on Friday it seems as if Fred has been all novel long been moving inexorably towards Mrs O'Hara who herself was the novel "absolute for death". Her problem was her daughter was not, and this conflict between mother and daughter is striking in these chapters. As we have been reading Trollope's Irish novels in a row and have been talking of them, the scene where the daughter goes wild with the not unexpected news that her mother has killed her lover reminded me of a closely similar response in The Macdermots of Ballycloran to Thady's murder of the Feemy's lover: like Mrs O'Hara, Thady has also been driven by society's humiliations and is isolated; like her, Thady strikes out partly at the world in striking out at the man who impregnated and now will elope with and shame his sister by living outside marriage with her; like her, Thady means to protect his sister, and has demanded marriage; and finally, like Kate O'Hara, Feemy abhors Thady for cutting her off from whatever joy she has dreamed (it is even more a dream in Feemy's case as her lover is a total corrupt shallow sleaze) and wants never to see him again, and we are told died in cold hatred. Our narrator in this novel says of Kate: "she learned to execrate the mother who had sacrificed everything -- her very reason -- in avenging the wrongs of her child!" (Oxford An Eye for an Eye, ed Sutherland, Ch 24, p. 199). Thady sacrificed his life on the scaffold.

One theme of these four chapters is how people cannot step outside their passions to see another's case. Fred just does not foresee how hopeless it is for him to make Father Marty or Mrs O'Hara see marriage to Kate in the light he does; he is so naive he does not imagine that he will be continually berated by them. A striking moment showing how (in Thackerays' words from Pendennis) everyone lives inside their own heads, under their caps, and sees everything from their own emotional point of view -- in the Father and Mrs O'Hara's case this includes anger at themselves which they project out -- is when Kate slips out of her room to tell Fred she will go away and live with him on any terms he wants: "'Oh, Fred, I will go with you anywhere if you will take me'" (Ch 10, p. 187). The berating of Fred by Father Marty and the later scene between him and the Father and Mrs O'Hara are strong because there is no melodrama. The language is believable throughout.

This lack of melodrama, an understatement makes the murder scene strong. What other novelist of the period could have been so truthful to the way people can kill one another. The strongest word Mrs O'Hara uses is "harlot" -- you will not make her your "harlot". This was a terrible word to Victorians: it is the one Louis Trevelyan hurled at his wife Emily. The two people, as it were, slip into murder. They are on the cliff and as they quarrel it suddenly the possiblity comes into her mind; he does not see the reality of his danger until the last instant:

"'You'll have me over the cliff', he exclaimed hardly even yet putting out his strength against her.

'And so I will, by the help of God. Now think of her! Now think of her! And as she spoke she pressed him backwards towards his fall. He had power enough to bend his knee, and to crouch beneath her grasp on to the loose crumbling soil of the margin of the rocks . He still held her by her cuff and it seemed for a moment as though she must go with him. But, on a sudden, she spurned him with her foot on the breast, the rag of cloth parted in his hand, and the poor wretch tumbled forth alone into eternity"

That was the end of Frederic Neville, Earl of Scroope" (Ch 23, p. 194).

This recalls Trollope's other death scenes: they feel modern, not at all the Victorian orgasm into heaven or hell at the end. Trollope's cool deliberation in telling us how the "young man, as he fell, struck them [the rocks] again and again; and at last it was a broken mangled corpse that reached the blue waters below" (p. 194) re-enacts another scene where the mangled body is that of a victim: in La Mère Bauche, Marie whose lover had similarly refused to marry her out of "consideration for society", bullied int marriage to a man very like this Irish captain, throws herself off a cliff.

The mother's meditation is unique though. Trollope does not make explicit that Thady's murder of the police officer arises in part from his rage at how society has treated him. In her musings which are presented without false moralism, the mother feels no remorse, and is filled with energy, "raging with a maddened pride":

"how little had they two [she and Kate] asked of the world! And then this man had come to them and robbed them of all that little, had spoiled them ruthlessly, cheating them with lies, and then excusing himself with the grandeur of his blood! (p. 195).

Excusing himself with the thing that has galled her all her life, the thing used against her. The trouble is as she remembers when she begins to cool down, Kate will not see it this way.

Fred's "false reasonings" are interesting because they are the cover which permit him not to see what no one else ignores. The Countess achieves a certain partial redemption in the reader's eyes by the night before Fred goes having this agony of the soul, and in so many ways letting him know he ought to marry Kate and bring her home to Scoope come what may. The man who becomes Earl (Jack, in Chapter 24 given the dignity of John) tells him he must marry her. They also keep from his consciousness the danger: the Countess tells him not to return; she need not know the people to half-imagine what he will confront. The priest tells him after execrating him; "If I were you I would not go to Ardkill if I valued my life" (p. 188). But Fred does not value his life. That's been part of the problem all along; all along he has fled life -- and people. In the early part of the novel we are told that Kate attracts him because she is so easy to be with, so undemanding.

The kernel of the narrative has a gothic idea at its heart, the landscape and description has been wild and bare and romantic, so the close is again that of gothic retreat. The Countess retires to a cottage: she does take blame on herself now: "I knew that he had wronged her, and yet I bade him not to make her his wife" (Ch 24, p. 200). Kate herself has a child that doesn't live -- there Trollope does allow his age to blind him and (unhappily) suggests this is a cause for celebration -- and ends up with her father in France: she does control the money but this is returning to the non-life she had at the opening of the novel. John Neville does the right thing throughout: he pays and pays. It is he who is providing for the madwoman with which the book opened.

And we end on the "poor maniac" with whom we began the book. I'm with Richard Holt Hutton and think the moral of the book -- if a moral is required -- is the cost to the vulnerable of societies' hierarchies. It costs Mrs O'Hara, Kate, the Countess, the old Earl -- and Fred who is vulnerable for some for perhaps less sympathetic reasons than the powerless and poor but vulnerable nonetheless because weak out of his puzzlement and lack of aggression. When I think of Fred and Mrs O'Hara (who I see as curiously paralleled in that last scene and early in the book) I remember an epigraph in a modern novel about those who died in Hiroshima:

"'there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn't understand why she died'.

Not that there is any way we can make such a thing understandable if by understandable is meant just or acceptable or reasonable. Why did the people whom the WTO buildling collapsed upon die? For oil? Because the US needs to be in the Middle East to protest its monetary interests and gets involved in a morass?

Nonetheless, the experience of the book is not moralistic, and especially these last chapters and those set in Ireland. Rather in these Irish chapters -- and also in sequences in _The Macdermots of Ballycloran and Castle Richmond the text leads us to dwell on (in the words of Adam Phillips in this article I'm still reading on "The Soul of Man") "inter-, and intra-psychic pressures between people which makes them suffer. Ireland is convenient terrain because the social situation there was so stark in this era. These three novels are among Trollope's most powerful tragic texts.


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