Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The roused forces of Evil in herself - beginning an attempt at the ethics of No Name

First I spend two days gumming up the works with plot; now I am going to take a run at the ethics of No Name.  Not exactly my strengths.  Reading along with this is a kindness.

No Name is built on an ethical disconnect, one that has changed since the book was published.  The protagonist, Magdalen, suffers a great loss at the same time discovering that she is of illegitimate birth.  I have been calling her No Name, but she does, in fact, have a name, one that may have some extra-textual meaning, for the events of the beginning of the novel lead Magdalen to become a fallen woman of a sort.

Of what sort, though?  Few modern readers will put much weight on Magdalen’s illegitimacy.  We can imagine ourselves into the values of the time to some degree, but if the moral argument of the novel were about the exact timing of a marriage (strictly speaking the discovery is not that she is illegitimate but that she was) no one would care anymore.  In fact, the argument has more to do with her desire for vengeance than anything else.  Magdalen’s governess somehow detects her former ward’s new hardness and coldness (Norah is the elder sister):

Was the promise of the future shining with prophetic light through the surface-shadow of Norah's reserve, and darkening with prophetic gloom, under the surface-glitter of Magdalen's bright spirits?  If the life of the elder sister was destined henceforth to be the ripening ground of the undeveloped Good that was in her – was the life of the younger doomed to be the battle-field of mortal conflict with the roused forces of Evil in herself?  (Scene I, Ch. 14)

"Evil" seems awfully strong, and "ripening ground of the undeveloped Good" is ridiculous, although I too have been lazily accepting the governess’s ethics by describing Magdalen's motivation as "revenge."  What if, instead, she is righting an injustice?  In her mind, sometimes it's the one, sometimes the other, but still, Evil?

The thoughts in that passage are, however vaguely, the governess’s, but the narrator later baldly uses the same language (earlier, too, in the Preface):

That night no rest came to her.  That night the roused forces of Good and Evil fought their terrible fight for her soul – and left the strife between them still in suspense when morning came.  (Scene II, Ch. 3)

Collins later earns his language, but not until quite a bit later, in what may be the best scene in the book.  I want to save most of it for tomorrow.  He does not do it until he is two-thirds of the way into the novel, but Collins proves to be more ethically sophisticated than I had suspected.


  1. Like Borges says, we have to make allowances about the times the books are set. Still I think I'd read this novel and fully enjoy it without bothering about the outdated aspect of illegitimacy.

  2. Yes, absolutely. As I hope I say clearly in my new post, where this becomes interesting - I mean artistically interesting - is when the ethical argument, whatever it is, becomes part of a character's struggle, not something brought in from outside the novel, by Collins or by his readers. Then there is no need for any allowance.