Disease in Literature: Reminders from the Past

The current crisis unfolding across the world is one of those things, it seems, we humans are plainly not going to avoid. As we stack ourselves upon the technologies that make us feel kingly, Mother Nature always steps in to show us who’s boss. Have we learned from the mistakes of our past when it comes to disease and viral outbreaks? (a.k.a. contagion, pestilence) Or are the qualities of these malicious entities simply and purely inextinguishable, no matter the defense we enlist against them? Whichever way the wind may blow, the literary arts have taken note.

Mayhem in Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (1562).

Thucydides wrote about the “Pestilence at Athens” (430 B.C.E) in his History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.). “‘The account of the plague of Athens written by Thucydides is one of the most vivid and terrible pieces of writing in all literature.’ Many years later Lucretius (c.98-55 B.C.) converted the record of Thucydides into Latin hexameter verse in his great poem, ‘On the Nature of Things.’ And it is safe to say that all later accounts of the plague of Athens are built around the story of Thucydides” (Source).

In Dante’s Inferno (1320), Canto 29 brings us to the Eighth Circle of Hell (Malebolge — “evil ditches”), where Bolgia 10 contains various fraudulent types who are suffering from terrible, plague-type disease. Here the notion not only foreshadows events to come, but seems to ask the question: Does the human race need to be visited by plague?

Virgil and Dante at Bolgia 10, by Gustave Doré.

The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is a frame narrative in which a group of young people seek safety from the Black Death as it ravages the town of Florence, Italy. They tell stories to pass the time and their behavior reflects the modern medical advice to avoid large gatherings.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400) features “The Pardoner’s Tale.” After a corpse is rolled past a tavern, a boy is asked of whom it was the unlucky person; the boy goes on to describe:

“And he was slain, all suddenly, last night,
When drunk, as he sat on his bench upright;
An unseen thief, called Death, came stalking by,
Who hereabouts makes all the people die,
And with his spear he dove his heart in two
And went his way and made no more ado.
He’s slain a thousand with this pestilence;
And, master, ere you come in his presence,
It seems to me to be right necessary
To be forewarned of such an adversary:
Be ready to meet him for evermore.”

An entry dated June 7, 1666 from The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-1670) reads: “This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.”

Daniel Defoe wrote the Journal of the Plague Year (1722), in which he describes quack doctors trying to profit (or maybe help) during the London Plague: “It is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Never-failing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ etc.”

A quack doctor is someone who peddles medicine that is not real; but during the olden days, people were far less-informed. Painting by anonymous.

La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas (1886).

The problem of tuberculosis for the longest time was described as people suffering from “consumption.” In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns dies from the disease, thankfully without infecting her best friend; Paul Dombey meets with a similar fate in Dombey and Sons (1848), by Charles Dickens. Bessy Higgins from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) succumb in much the same way; and in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Katerina Ivanovna’s experience is chilling, her nightmarish life unfolding while “coughing and spitting blood too.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) is superb for the way it shows that not even the well-to-do can escape the clutches of an infectious disease like tuberculosis.

One of Ours (1922) by Willa Cather offers depictions of the Spanish Flu pandemic; it won a Pulitzer Prize. Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) was written by Katherine Anne Porter, who actually endured that flu; she writes, “Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils…she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse, white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand.” Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (2013), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, is set historically against the backdrop of 1918 Reykjavik, where Spanish Flu wreaks its havoc with abandon.

Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918-19. U.S. school gymnasium converted into a flu ward where patient beds are separated by screens and masked health workers. An estimated 25% of the US population contracted the flu and over 500,000 died. (CP/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus considers an outbreak of cholera and The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton portends a viral threat that could come from outer space; Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez revisits the topic of cholera as it affects a city in South America, where the streets had been “decayed” and “rat-infested.”

Matters really get out of control in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks, who apparently wonders if it’s possible that a plague might turn people into rabid, infectious zombies; Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (2010) does much the same thing, the situation in this case being, Mother Nature’s microscopic threat is not the only thing stifling the lives of human beings.

People in Resident Evil (2002) are infected with the T-virus.

A completely empty San Marco Square in Venice on Monday (3/9/2020), after Italy enforced travel restrictions to try to contain the worst outbreak in Europe.

Literary art provides a space for documenting humanity that matter-of-fact documentation cannot; it reveals how the large-scale spread of disease can affect lives at the level of the individual. But even as the phenomenon might make for compelling reading, if you happen to be reading during this potentially dangerous time, please remember to wash your hands regularly; read up on what you can do to play a part in protecting the lives of those whom you love as well as the common stranger. Together we can get through this, to show that pandemics don’t have to run the gamut of our lives. Ultimately speaking, please be safe out there, with love and care, yours truly.

A view of the entrance to the Louvre, Paris, France (3/2/2020). Getty Images

The Gypsies of Austen’s Emma (1816)

Throughout the six volumes that comprise the canonical masterworks of Jane Austen, so much creative effort is devoted to the gentry classes that when we encounter something as out of place as a roving band of gypsies, it becomes quite the source for a moment of fascination. The scene comes to us from Emma, Book III, Chapter III, where the young Harriet Smith and her friend Miss Bickerton encounter a “party of gipsies,” and there was a child “who came towards them to beg.” Miss Bickerton reacts by screaming and running away, leaving Harriet to fend for herself. Harriet was approached by more children, a grown woman and a large boy, but after giving them money, the situation becomes terrifying considering that she was then “surrounded by the whole gang, [who are] demanding more.” By the time the text refers to these gypsies as “such a set of people in the neighbourhood,” the critical reader realizes that we are dealing with the “other” in ways that don’t get any more “other” than that.

As is standard for an Austen novel, people are divided into social strata; the plot itself is hinged on the notion that Harriet should not marry a lowly farmer. We’re to understand that Emma and her father are at the top of the novel’s hierarchy, with George Knightley considered an equal; the Eltons, the Westons, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are below them; mother and daughter Bates are situated down low. People below the Bates don’t even get a name; Emma pays a “charitable visit” to a “poor sick family” that lives in a “detached cottage.” At the very bottom, the gypsies are not only nameless, they’re barely human; they are “trampers…all clamorous, and impertinent in look…loud and insolent.” That Miss Bickerton screams at the sight of the gypsy child suggests that we’re dealing with some sort of monster species.

Emma’s charitable visit serves to foreshadow the gypsies as the “other.” When she is with Harriet during the visit, she mentions the act of giving from her “purse,” which sets a distinction to be made between the types of people who are eligible to receive donations. The gypsies are keenly aware of this in that the need to force money out of people to survive has become a required portion of their behavior. In real life, the gypsies of England are known as Romanichal (Romani), and as Austen describes, they are quite clearly the victims of xenophobia.

Geraldine Chaplin portrays the gypsy fortune teller Maleva in the remake of The Wolfman (2010).

Encyclopedic sources have the Romanichal arriving in England around the 15th Century, much to the dismay of Henry VIII. His Egyptians Act (1530) “banned Romanies from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. During the reign of Mary I the act was amended with the Egyptians Act (1554), which removed the threat of punishment to Romanies if they abandoned their ‘naughty, idle and ungodly life and company’ and adopted a settled lifestyle, but on the other hand increased the penalty for noncompliance to death” (Source).

During Austen’s time, laws against the Romani had been eased, but as Susannah Fullerton points out, life was obviously still a struggle; people were simply not ready to accept the Romani as citizens of the country, to the extent that to be seen with them, or even conversing with them, meant consequences for an English subject. Miss Bickerton’s fear of the Romani child may very well be related to a fear of these consequences and not of the child or the group itself. Fullerton describes a situation in which, “In 1782 a fourteen-year-old girl, desperately protesting her innocence, was hanged for being found in the company of gypsies” (Source). This of course doesn’t change the fact that such consequences are based on a fundamental un-acceptance of the “other.” Non-Romani people such as Emma’s poor family are entitled to charitable acts, but the Romani are despised because of the difference that defines them.

Actual Romani explain to Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) the supernatural dangers of the Borgo Pass in Nosferatu (1979).

As it turns out, scholarly research, as well as a basic hunch of humane thought, brings to light the nature of the Romani, which tends to make the people who look down on them look like the monsters. As David Cressy tells us, “Despite accusations of idleness and fecklessness, they [the Romani] were mostly busy. Far from being mindless wanderers, they were purposeful travellers who filled a niche in the economy of itinerancy. The men handled logistics, and dealt in animals and games of chance, while Gypsy women earned pennies from fortune-telling. Common folk were said to have flocked to them, when they arrived in their midst, though local authorities disapproved of their predations. Even in gaol, one Jacobean writer reported, certain Gypsies contrived to exploit ‘the simplicity of many of the townsmen’s wives, daughters and servants’ with fraudulent divinations. People allegedly ‘wondered at them, and gave them money, sent them meat every day to dinner and supper, saying it was pity such skillful people as they should not be provided for’ – a generosity not extended to common vagrants. Unlike other itinerants and the ordinary roving poor, the Gypsies owned horses, baggage, and supplies of goods and money, and were rarely associated with begging. If it is true that Gypsies sometimes picked pockets, then that was work too, as some modern Roma attest” (Source).

Of course, this knowledge has been gathered and presented to us in a modern sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Austen was out to thoroughly bash gypsies. They’re hardly the subject of focus. She knew of their existence and as a storyteller, she makes use of them both as a plot point — the means by which Emma contrives another scheme for match-making — and as a kind of meta-textual reference, such that the story of the gypsies becomes a source of exhilaration for Emma’s nephews, who continuously seek to be told of the tale of Harriet and the gypsies, “tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.” Austen describes later on a state of peskiness in which some poultry-yards in Emma’s neighborhood were pilfered (hinted to be the work of gypsies), and so it adds to the character of her novel, such a valuable resource for what life was like during the late-18th-Century.

To be sure, the latest Hollywood rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma is in theaters now, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the beloved Emma herself.

The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is an incisive, soul-piercing document. It reaches for your heart with the sincerest intention of ripping it out still-beating from the chest. Even for the most die-hard atheist, it’s hard not to see this testimony as a work brought into existence by the powers of the supernatural. The details are too excruciating; to think that it wasn’t part of some nightmarish dream, that it really happened, is why it seems only divine providence could have intervened, to institute the agency of documentation against the industrialized-scale horrors men are capable of creating, to lay the groundwork for bringing it to an end.

Douglass’s Narrative calls attention to the power of the first-person form and in his particular case, the very substance of what it means to stretch a reader’s credulity. William Lloyd Garrison writes, “It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and, considering how long and dark was the career he had to run as a slave,—how few have been his opportunities to improve his mind since he broke his iron fetters,—it is, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart.” In his opinion the work is “essentially true” and in sum, this is all to suggest that the account is simply — very hard to believe — and that, in order for the readers of his era to believe it, he had to offer a seal of approval so as to get the ball rolling.

The text is one that tends to balk at analytical criticism because of the readerly tendency to wince in dismay as the tale unfolds. It is thematic material to the nth degree, pertaining to the worst of themes considerable to the human race. For the year of its release, the material is shocking, but we can thank the passing of time for uncovering “most” of what went on and presenting it to the public. In that regard, while there is no element of Southern State Slavery that is less or more inhumane over the other, one particular element glows with the intensity of pure evil.

When Douglass relays in but a few sentences how a man named Mr. Thomas murdered one of his slaves, only to boast about it later “laughingly,” the terseness of describing this act-of-the-despicable overpowers what any full-length novel of fiction could ever hope to achieve. The murder of Demby takes up the whole of a solitary paragraph, but we are left with feelings of perplexity that will last for all time. The actions of Mrs. Hicks, who kills a slave-girl with a log, challenges our naturally held beliefs about women, and Mr. Bondly’s actions define him as someone lost from the realms of humanity.

This kind of reading is blistering to the mind because of the brevity of each linguistic moment. Douglass has no desire to craft passages that will draw admiration for his skill as a writer; these are indictments against a system. It forces people to think about what the system does, not only to the people suffering, but as well to its proponents, which is a part of Douglass’s message. I’m inclined to think of the Milgram Experiments, which exposes one of the scariest aspects of being human, dictating that when a person is not completely in touch with the “reality of reality” at any given time, they can be duped into behaving immorally under the guidance of scripted information that is being directed into their minds.

Douglass actually touches on a variable of these experiments when he describes Mr. Hopkins as a man who “whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it.” This is a man whose subconscious is grappling with the tension that extends between the (perceived) duty of his enterprise and the feeling that it may not be right. A woman like Mrs. Hicks, by contrast, has come to feel practically comfortable committing a heinous crime, because she isn’t entirely aware of the localized and greater effects of her behavior; she’s only aware that other people are doing it too. Mrs. Hicks is not a psychopath, she’s been conditioned by a mode of thinking that views slavery as an acceptable part of a system of government; it is a mode of thinking that goes deep into the psyche of humankind, archetypal, stretching well into ancient times and beyond. Thankfully, the Milgram Experiments show that every once in while, a person will question the morality of what is happening and actually defy the orders given. But as we have seen, as played out in the Civil War, the deeper that the structure of a thought-system is ingrained into a larger social consciousness, the harder it is to set matters straight.

Murder is the ultimate inhumanity; it is permanent erasure. In the case as it plays out in the slavery narrative, words can’t fully do justice as to how perverse it really is with regard to the core of humanity; but Douglass delivers more that is certain to have readers reaching for extra tissue. He describes an old woman of whom, “her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness.” They may as well have ended her life, and this highlights the psychological damage that is as crushing as the physical; she’s been sentenced literally to die of sadness. We hear of the voices of those who “would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs,” and we are complete in our privy to the terrors of cause and effect at the most intimate levels. The soul-sickness of believing slavery is acceptable, pervasive throughout the social consciousness of the South, has its inversion in the tormented consciousness of their subjects.

Douglass tells us how it was all kept in order. By allowing time-off between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the vacation was meant to be seen as a gift, “to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” Whiskey was provided along with provisions for a celebratory atmosphere, giving the impression that freedom was in the midst. “[W]hen the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.” The process was meant to serve as a “safety-valve” to prevent uprising, a continuous source of anxiety for plantation owners, and what we have is a concocted system of control. (It’s worth noting that Douglass’s experience is based on life in Maryland, where states further south of the Mason/Dixon line such as Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana were viewed, by rumor and with dread, as inexplicably worse.)

Can we believe that these acts of mind-manipulation occurred during the Christmas holiday? Douglass addresses the topic of religion point-blank, telling it like it is, calling b*llsh*t when he sees it. The “hypocritical Christian” paradox is threaded throughout much of his testimony. Not only did slaveholders propagate ongoing misery, but reverends and devout men of God are described as capable of committing the most vile acts, all within the omnipresence of a holy lord. This is one that defies even the results of the Milgram Experiments, because the messages of the New Testament do not appear to condone the brutality described. There is no authoritative voice instructing slave owners and people of the South to inflict this kind of pain. Douglass drives the point home, how the institution of slavery taints both the souls of those suffering and the people who conduct it as a way of life.

Easing the matter with the slightest edge of optimism, the passion with which Frederick Douglass sought to educate himself is marveling to absorb. He wrote alphabetic letters on fences with chalk and conned neighborhood kids to teach him various things from books. It shows how neglecting our intrinsic need to learn, by some happenstance biologically-neurological process, can cause the mind itself to formulate a “mind of its own” so as to overcome mental stagnancy. In light of the tremendous skill with which Douglass wields the English language, had not the horrors of slavery been so foremost in his thoughts, great novels could’ve been written by this man. He employs literary devices with ease, the most prominent one being a sort of parallel-inverse play on words to denote circumstances and situations that are flagrantly inexorable. The opening chapters, for example, bring us to Douglass’s aunt, whose master “would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush.” His nemesis, the overseer Mr. Covey, was fiendish about his job: “The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.” This kind of writing reflects an absolute presence and connection with the thematic material such that readers are seemingly doubly-smacked by the points of detail.

If there is any one passage that thoroughly expresses the sorrow and the longing, the integrity and the injustice of Douglass’s experience, the moment when he realizes what’s really going on is where the totality of all that is wrong is entirely defined. “Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” Moments like these speak to the deepest recesses of our souls because they circumscribe the meaning of entire lifetimes, the case here being, the difference between what it means to be free and what it means to be shackled in chains. Frederick Douglass is a man whose life was singled-out and extracted by the ardent sense of purpose he was able to seize, and the world will be a better place for it, for as long as we have his narrative to remind us how it all really happened.

Something to Fear in Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” is the perfect piece for the beginning student of literature. A seventeen-year-old girl is charged with the care of a young toddler-child, following the death of the child’s parents, and with the mechanics of family law in place, the two are tearfully whisked away to a mysterious mansion where the supernatural reigns with abandon. The threat of danger gets real, and in the vein of Poe’s vision for the short story, the ending is appropriate and even satisfying — our storyteller’s intentions have been realized and a chill goes spiraling down the spine as the calamity goes colliding into the mind! It’s sensational writing (provided there’s a candle by your bedside and it’s a stormy night).

A standard haunted mansion cuts the line of a cloudy sky.

And then the analytical work begins. Notwithstanding, it’s the briskness of the story flow that concerns us here, as it seems, our authoress may not have endowed her narrative with the care she put into her novels, which isn’t meant to undermine her worth as a writer at all. Dickens asked her to pen the thing and by God, she penned it. What the close reader finds, accordingly, are convoluted family-lineage paths, a vague story-point or two, and a mystery at the end that, even as we think we’ve solved the riddle, the queasiness of all that’s been written has us double-thinking our conclusions. It may be tempting to go in for the unreliable narrator because, after all, we are talking about a frazzled seventeen-year-old girl here, recalled as she is now, an old nurse; but the writers of The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Part I Vol 3 (2017) are politely keen to suggest that Gaskell was merely “undecided” about certain aspects of the story. Maybe it’s a little of both.

The story begins in that manner so maligned in the modern age — anti-in-media-res — but Gaskell pulls it off with such charm because she is “showing us” that she is “telling” her story to a set of children, speaking in a manner that makes us feel like we’re sitting by the fire along with everyone else. Her aesthetic appears to take precedent over accuracy, considering that if Gaskell had charted out family ancestries on a separate sheet of paper, it may have compromised her narrative beauty. As a result, what we get by the time we learn about Lord Furnivall (the younger), apart from sheer confusion, is the notion that if all the parts of the lineage had been added up with precision, the old Miss Furnivall couldn’t possibly have been his “great-aunt.” But it’s just a little ghost story, right? The effect for the astute reader, nevertheless, draws to mind a sense of whimsy that for all we know, may have been intended.

Literary scholarship takes note (#13) of Elizabeth Gaskell’s continuity issue in “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852).

The overall form makes it something of miniaturized novel. As was the standard at the time, novelists often adorned their opening chapters with a discussion about who was who in the world, replete with social standings and what everyone did for a living. By the time such details are established, the ball gets rolling with the action, which means for the nurse’s story, that the young Hester is being carted away from home with her new charge, the adoring Miss Rosamond, as they contend with feelings of loss — the death of a mother and father, an impending unfamiliar environment on the horizon. And this is where the text really begins to sing.

Gaskell’s tender narrative voice allows us to visualize a teenage girl who travels with her little Miss Rosamond as though their “hearts would break,” with a layover in a roughened town full of “colliers and miners.” (On this point, Gaskell couldn’t resist invoking imagery that is strongly associated with Chartism, an issue she felt very strongly about.) On arriving at the mansion where they are to reside, gnarled trees are overgrown and foreboding, the residents elderly and leering, causing the child Miss Rosamond to feel “scared and lost.” Before long the house organ begins to play by itself, which comes on the heels of learning that no one is ever to enter the east wing. The dreaded east wing! Gothic atmosphere at its finest, what could possibly go wrong?

Something about thick mist can cause the branches of certain trees to become “gnarled,” making for excellent imagery in a haunted house story.

The joy of discovering that a mystery lurks, combined with the chilling atmosphere, is what underscores the lasting impression Gaskell’s story imposes on the literary canon. Which begs the question: Why scrutinize it? Didn’t Barthes teach us about the pleasures of the text? As Ruth from the Ghostwriter so eloquently quipped, leave it to a researcher to ruin a good story with “too much research.” The problem is that quality literature demands scrutiny because, in the end, doing so elevates and edifies the work so that text and author receive the credit due of which they’re completely entitled.

For instance, we have — IMHO — the most perplexing line of the entire story:

“Folk did say he [Lord Furnivall (the younger)] had loved my young mistress; but that, because she knew that his father would object, she would never listen to him, and married Mr. Esthwaite; but I don’t know.”

Alright. The mistress here is Miss Rosamond; Hester is telling the story to this person’s children, also known as “my dears.” This would imply that much time has passed, so how could she not know? Even stranger: Mr. Esthwaite had just been described as Miss Rosamond’s uncle, so did she just suggest that she married him? Multiple readings fail to present answers on this note, but that she admits that she doesn’t know, it’s a curious narrative tincture on both the text and the meta-text, and even the subtext for that matter.

Another curiosity involves the paintings of Miss Grace and Miss Maude. When Hester and old Dorothy are upstairs rummaging through things, Dorothy tells Hester that with regard to Miss Maude’s portrait, she “must never let on” that she has seen it. Later in the story, turns out that portraits of both sisters have been in the state drawing-room the entire time. What’s the big deal about being secretive if everyone sees both portraits every day all the time?

Portraits of unknown beautiful women, circa 18th Century.

At the end, when trying process the thrill of the climax, the obscuring of character identity has us wondering what element of the supernatural we’re supposed to be observing. A woman had been spotted with the ghost-child in the snow; this ghost child is Miss Maude’s daughter. So, when the awful Lord Furnivall (the elder) makes his ghost-presence known visually, and he has two ghost-women with him, which are the two sisters, along with the ghost-child for good measure — then when the elderly Miss Furnivall begins yelling and hollering about the past, are we to understand that we are looking at both: Miss Maude the old in the flesh — AND — Miss Maude as a younger version of herself, superimposed upon the real world through some oddball astral phenomenon of identity projection? Was she, in fact, the woman out there in the snow with the ghost-child? Is she alive, is she dead, or is she both? I don’t know how to explain any of this, but it’s a new one and it’s certainly creative.

Gothic tales were a sensation during the late-18th Century, certain to keep readers on edge as to what the world around them may hold. (Image provided by The Imaginative Conservative)

Any discussion on Gaskell’s nurse’s story does not end without an examination of Lord Furnivall (the elder), and how his behavior stands at the pinnacle of the entire horror of the plot. He represents the patriarchal need for utter control and how this kind of thinking can ruin a family. As a lover of music, he hired a young foreign man from London to play along with him and to instruct him “every year.” This would indicate the amount of time they must’ve spent together; but because the man was “young” and “foreign” and from “London,” what are the odds that he would turn his eye to the lovely daughters roaming about the place, all lonesome amid that northerly British climate? Need I say more?

The logic that follows is that Lord Furnivall did not only exhibit concern about the interplay between the young man and his daughters, which is somewhat natural for a father, but that he was jealous as well. The young man had been attending to him for hours on end, installing a great organ for him to play even, so when Lord Furnivall felt that he was no longer the primary interest, temper tantrums ensued, described on a more whole-scale fashion as his manner of exerting “cruelty.” It’s really just a side-note that the young man was entertaining both daughters, discrediting him with regard to honor and decency; the guy was a player. What it’s really all about is the fact that some bogus marriage unfolded with one of the daughters, Miss Maude, and that she had a child. It was the final straw for Lord Furnivall, but why exactly?

Victorian men were happy so long as the household and everything else went according to plan. (Image provided by victorian-era.org)

Of course there’s the jealousy that results from feeling betrayed, but there is the time-period of the age to consider, and how marriages were often arranged, if at all possible, with goals for the future in mind, such as uniting with another prominent family for example. Miss Maude defied her father to marry his private music instructor, without consultation, and he was enraged. Scandal could ruin a man; Lord Furnivall saw pure hell. Some speculation has been given to the notion that because the young man was a “dark foreigner,” that somehow Lord Furnivall beat Miss Maude’s child because he was racist, but there’s not enough information to complete that argument. He hired the young foreign man to play music with him so that the “very birds on the trees stopped their singing to listen,” so I’m not feeling the racist element. I’m feeling the patriarchal need for control: Lord Furnivall couldn’t control his hired musician when he learned what was going on, and he couldn’t control his daughters to stop them from luring the man away for their walks in the woods. In the end, leave it to a man like Lord Furnivall to smack the product of all this riffraff with a stick, in a fit of fury, and with the poor child injured and exiled from the home, it’s no wonder that she froze to death in the snow.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s contribution to paranormal literature certainly doesn’t stop with the introduction of the ghost of such a terrible person. On a deeper level, the thing to fear in her story can be found in the trope of being destroyed by that which we love, or that which we think we love. Little Miss Rosamond was drawn into the cold by something she adored — and it nearly killed her, a fascinating concept to consider. It’s irony in its purest form, murderous. What thing is it that you love, which eats at you day by day? Are you perpetually seeking the affections of a man who drains you of your life’s vitality? You crave the rave, but don’t you wake up the next morning half-dead from overdoing it? Maybe Gaskell is channeling the myth of the Siren, so that when beauty calls and blinds a love-stricken man, all that’s left behind is his dead body. Or maybe you could just eat a bag of delicious chocolate chip cookies until you fall into a diabetic coma (like I do), but just make sure you’ve got one of Gaskell’s ghost stories to get you through the adventure, because she’s certainly worth the read.


For good measure, evolving from when I labored to figure out the elements of the story, a character list has been provided, with an added note from our literary scholars, who helped as well to clear up the confusion about the character of Agnes (also known as Bessy).

Hester [narrator]: age seventeen; nurse-maid to little Miss Rosamond; from Westmoreland; good at sewing; a steady, honest girl, whose parents were very respectable but poor; brave, high-spirited [Hester is narrating the story at a time when she is much older.]

Miss Rosamond: age four or five; orphan, only child; little, sweet, bold, open-spoken; playing and pranking hither and thither, with a continual murmur; a pretty prattle of gladness; behaves pretty

James: old footman; hospitable, kind; lifelong servant at Furnivall household

Dorothy: married to James; originally from Westmoreland, lived on a farm; hospitable, kind

Agnes: servant to James and Dorothy; kitchen-maid

Miss Maude Furnivall: great-aunt to Lord Furnivall [the younger]; not far from eighty; thin and tall; face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle’s point; eyes were very watchful, because of being so deaf as to be obliged to use a trumpet; wore spectacles; had been in youth prettier and prouder than Miss Grace

Mrs. Stark: lifetime servant and companion to Miss Maude, almost as old; she looked cold, grey, stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone except her mistress; dull; treated Miss Maude very much like a child, because of her deafness; wore spectacles

Lord Furnivall [the younger]: Miss Rosamond’s mother’s cousin; a stern proud man, as were all the Lords Furnivalls; never spoke a word more than was necessary; never married, though he thought of marrying Miss Rosamond

Mr. Esthwaite: Miss Rosamond’s uncle, brother to her father; shopkeeper in Manchester; came out of poverty, and grew a family [?with Miss Rosamond?]

Mr. Henry: servant to Lord Furnivall [the younger]

Lord Furnivall [the elder]: Maude and Grace’s father; loved music; could play many instruments; eaten up with pride; fierce, dour, awful temper; broke his wife’s heart with his cruelty; abused Maude’s child; as a ghost he plays the house organ

Miss Grace Furnivall: younger sister to Miss Maude; beautiful, proud; vindictive, seeks revenge

Musician from London: invited by Lord Furnivall [the elder] to play music with him; foreigner; secretly married Maude, got her pregnant; was a player with both sisters; eventually vacated the situation

Brother #1: Miss Grace and Miss Maude’s brother in the British army over in America

Brother #2: another brother of theirs who is “at sea”

Shepherd: finds little Miss Rosamond in the snow

“my dears”: children of Miss Rosamond

Miss Maude’s daughter: specter child; illegitimate; presumed a cottager’s child; beaten and outcast by Lord Furnivall [the elder]; died of exposure

Miss Rosamond’s mother: pretty young lady; died of broken heart, possibly miscarriage

Miss Rosamond’s father: took long rides, sometimes in the rain; died of fever from riding in the rain; came from questionable “stock”

Miss Rosamond’s grandmother: real lady born; no brothers or sisters; ventures to hire Hester as a nurse-maid

Miss Rosamond’s grandfather: Westmoreland clergyman; son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle; clever, fine gentleman; right-down hard worker

Gaskell may have written her story in a blaze of creativity, underscoring the profundity of inspiration, while explaining the mishap between the names of Agnes and Bessy, which is something that’s beyond forgivable for a story that will most certainly endure millennia.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

As defined by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird may well be the quintessential “Great American Novel.” My view of the work has been tempered by two distinct impressions: at first and for the longest time, I associated its perplexing title with flitting, black and white television images of Gregory Peck parading around a courtroom, defending an African American man for reasons that I presumed involved a great injustice. Now that I’ve actually read the novel, all these many years later, I see that courtroom sequences are only a part of the story.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout in the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird (2018).

I never would’ve thought, and was quite baffled, when I began reading the first-person account of a young woman recalling her childhood; she comes to be known as “Scout,” though we ultimately learn that her real name is Jean Louise Finch. Scout begins by delving into a sophisticated technique that fuses historical references with anecdotes about her family history to establish a sense of time, then taps into personal memory, stroking our minds with vivid imageries that tell us, “it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square.” History and memory are conjoined to evoke feelings of nostalgia-like sentiment, and that she avoids singling out any particular day, the effect is furthered by denoting a setting to be likened unto an entire era.

Childhood life in small-town, deep-southern-America becomes the narrative imperative. I found it curious that a theme introduced early on had been, in fact, one of those enduring universal themes that finds its way into one of America’s more recent controversial if blockbuster movies. When Scout’s father Atticus tells her, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” I couldn’t help but notice the motif from Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), where Arthur Fleck composed as the Joker says the very same thing to Murray Franklin.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker and Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin in Joker (2019).

It’s a theme that seems to force its way into the American psyche, this consideration for the “other,” what we can do not only to make sense of it, but to incorporate it into our lives. Atticus means it as a lesson for Scout so that she might “get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” whereas the Joker means it as an indictment against Metropolitan life, implicating the divide between the wealthy and the poor as he goes. Temporally speaking, it also seems that Scout authored the theme in the hope that people might come to behave that way, whereas the Joker directly implies that over the years, people simply haven’t caught on to the mantra.

By the time I got to Jem’s dilemma with Mrs. Dubose, I realized all this business about Atticus parading around the courtroom had obviously been film-making craft-work, scripted to underscore that portion of the story as the most significant. With patience I continued reading, entirely accepting and adapting myself to the form, contemplating more and more what it was that I was taking in. And from a 21st Century perspective, I found the episode with Mrs. Dubose a bit thought-provoking. There is the perception of Atticus towards this woman, then there’s the matter of Scout’s linguistic decision-making choices.

Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is a morphine addict whose mouth with regards to racism is as filthy as trash dumpster, reflective of the attitudes that color her heart. With regard to her addiction, it may not have been “as” understood at the time the novel was written, that, yes, indeed, quitting drugs is to be commended; but in recovery circles, life is still there–and that is the part which needs fixing: life itself and the attitudes which govern that life. Atticus nevertheless commends Mrs. Dubose’s effort to quit, but the appraisal seems off kilter. The woman’s racist views are reprehensible and yet for some reason, he sets her on a pedestal: “She was the bravest person I knew,” he states. If the woman had done some serious soul-searching and owned up to the fact that her racist views were plain wrong, she might’ve earned that pedestal, but merely kicking the drugs didn’t seem to merit the praise Atticus was lavishing on her.

As for linguistic decision-making, there may be some leeway accorded to Scout, and I could be willing to let it slide; but in the modern age, as I understand literature (and/or storytelling art), the use of racial slurs in writing has come to be bound by rules. Quentin Tarantino, for example, goes haywire with racial slurs in his movie westerns because his point is to “depict” the age and thus, show how the characters “actually” talked that way. Personally, I believe that because he presents the material in a slapstick form, he shouldn’t be getting a pass to do this, but if his characters were in a book, nonetheless, each racial slur being spoken would be found within quotation marks.

With Scout’s narration, when she places a racial slur “within” quotation marks, we therefore understand that it’s the character who is speaking; and we understand this as an aspect of the literary aesthetic. A person she recalls from her childhood is disgusting for speaking this way, and we feel all the more disgusted actually to observe them in the act of speaking in this fashion. By contrast, when Scout is narrating her thoughts and using racial slurs “without” quotation marks, it comes off as a bit shocking, mainly because we want to identify with Scout, she is our storyteller and guide, yet this is language that no one should feel comfortable identifying with. If Scout insists upon using slurs as part of what she herself is saying, then it tends to situate her down in the muck along with those of whom she is describing. The year was 1960, so I can only leave my perceptions at that, hoping that whoever finds this, if they’re creative writers, will understand how to appropriate a racial slur, and only if the occasion to write such a word is truly necessary.

Dill, Scout and Jem with the Reverend Sykes, in a segregated courtroom of this production of Lee’s novel at the Ontario Stratford Festival, 2018.

But where does all this leave us with Atticus? He’s been hailed as emblematic of American nobility, yet his passive acceptance of Mrs. Dubose’s foul racist mindset is hard to fit into this noble persona. Atticus is certainly a patient, calm and collected father, dearly beloved by his children; this is the attribute that pairs with his willingness to accept Tom Robinson’s legal case that makes him an icon of literature and film. The way he simply neglects the topic of Mrs. Dubose’s racism, then, must a part of the gray area that lurks in any situation regarding the climate of the deep-south at the time: That people are racist and you just have to live with it? Turns out I wasn’t the only one to notice, as Lucinda MacKethan of North Carolina State University advises, “Atticus’s exoneration of Mrs. Dubose could be interpreted as an evasion, a deliberate refusal to acknowledge her complicity in sustaining the town’s racism” (Source).

LaTanya Richardson as Calpurnia and Jeff Daniels as Atticus in the Broadway version, To Kill a Mockingbird (2018).

As well, learning about Atticus brought me to law professors who’ve commented on his character. The pressure of local racism is so intense that even the thought of defending Tom Robinson is difficult to stomach; he tells his brother, “You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind.” Professor of Law Monroe Freedman about this quips, “[This] means that Atticus Finch never in his professional life voluntarily takes a pro bono case in an effort to ameliorate the evil–which he himself and others recognize–in the apartheid of Maycomb, Alabama” (Cornett). Professor Stephen Lubet pokes at the defense of Tom Robinson, suggesting that “Atticus chose to use the ‘she wanted it’ defense,” and that he “employed most, if not all, of the well-worn negative conventions historically used to debase and discourage rape victims…asking the jury to substitute one of their prejudices for another” (Cornett). The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell suggests that because Atticus goes along with the cover up of Boo Radley’s act of murder, it doesn’t exactly make him a saint, and in commenting on Go Set a Watchman (2015), Joni Rodgers of the Boston Globe believes the novel is “about a young woman who discovers her father is not a god” (Cornett).

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, 1962.

My memories of a valiant Gregory Peck amid those flitting, black and white television images be damned, I’d say the graying of his moral character was to be expected; but if there’s truly a devil in the midst, Bob Ewell’s presence in the story makes for chilling reading. Circling back to the notion of walking in someone else’s shoes, I believe there is more power to imagining life in Bob Ewell’s than there is, as Scout intended, in Boo Radley’s. Boo is inherently good, and so is Miss Caroline; Scout is good but imagines the worst, but being in “someone else’s shoes” is supposed to edify her mind with a new understanding of how the world works, by seeing these people as something she thought they weren’t. After the thinking is done, adopting the other’s perspective, together they all come to be understood as good, collectively, like water seeks to be level, and the world is better place.

Is there any point in trying to do the same with a person like Bob Ewell? A man whose home was “supplemented with sheets of corrugated iron, its roof shingled with tin cans hammered flat…[and its] windows were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb’s refuse”? What’s to be learned here? Bob Ewell is the embodiment of all that is horrible about Maycomb, but it reflects back onto Scout, and us as readers, if we become selective about whose shoes we’re willing to consider walking in and whose we are not. With new perspectives can forgiveness foster change? Or does it mean that some attitudes are too deeply ingrained to be worth the effort?

Atticus with Scout (Mary Badham), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

To Kill a Mockingbird moves along at a brisk pace and eventually I did finally come to read through the courtroom dramas as depicted onscreen; and of course I’d been imagining Gregory Peck as Atticus the entire time. I had never known the exact specifics of the case, though I’m not sure if defining them here is entirely necessary. It seems I was the only person on the planet who hadn’t read the book, but was in perfect agreement with the obviousness of the subject matter’s intent, the deadly seriousness of flawed law and the inherent insanity of power based on racial inequity.

Strange is the union that seems to extend between the dramatic, highly-sensitive nature of the material and the notion that the novel is beloved by readers across the globe. I encountered moments where I thought something was wrong, especially in the case of Mrs. Dubose, and had to recall how the bookseller who sold me the book thought it was an endearing read. Her line of thinking must have something to do primarily with the relationship between Scout and Atticus, the many tender moments they share, evoking scenes that draw forth the essence of innocence and the desire to protect that innocence. When Scout writes about moments, like when Atticus says, “‘Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening,'” and Scout remarks, “I never heard Atticus say like a picture of what,” we are forced to perform mental gymnastics as to the balance we are supposed to develop between playful, childlike thoughts put to paper and the potential of a lynch mob having their way with a prisoner.

Much of the power involved with Harper Lee’s novel concerns what has come to be termed Standard Written English (SWE). To Kill a Mockingbird is written in a form in which the sentences are devoid of complication and intellectualism; Joyce and Woolf are fifty years into the distant past. That the reading is easily comprehended and even tailored to seem near childlike, combined with probably the singular and most intense dramas which comprise the American Experience, this goes far in explaining why the novel is such a masterpiece of literature. And because the themes are so virulently critical, to label the piece as part of the canon of literary “art” seems nearly to deplete it as the model that it is for moral understanding. To Kill a Mockingbird is more than art, it is the oracle into which we gaze as we search the innermost parts of ourselves, trying to figure out who it is exactly that we are — as people — and as a nation.

Cornett, Judy M. “The Ethics of Atticus Finch Revisited.” U.T. College of Law. Tennessee Municipal Attorneys Association. PDF. 13 June 2016. (Source)