Thursday, September 27, 2012

"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me." - No Name's artful ethics

"Thousands of women marry for money," she said. "Why shouldn't I?"  (Scene 4, Ch. 13; all quotations today are from this chapter)

We are about two-thirds of the way into No Name when Magdalen, whose scheme for revenge or perhaps justice involves marrying a rich idiot under false pretenses, asks this question.  I had already been asking it, off and on, for about a hundred pages.  To state the problem more narrowly, thousands (roughly) of characters in Victorian novels marry for money and nobody seems to give it a second thought.  Modern readers might, but in, let’s say, a Trollope novel the practice is perfectly acceptable, although not for the heroine, not ever, which suggests that there is some underlying doubt.  Still, no one calls marrying for money evil, do they?

Magdalen fears that her carefully planned, entirely justified fraudulent marriage will be an evil act, a violation of a sacrament:

That interval passed, they grew restless again, and pulled the two little drawers backward and forward in their grooves.  Among the objects laid in one of them was a Prayer-book which had belonged to her at Combe-Raven, and which she had saved with her other relics of the past, when she and her sister had taken their farewell of home.  She opened the Prayer-book, after a long hesitation, at the Marriage Service, shut it again before she had read a line, and put it back hurriedly in one of the drawers. After turning the key in the locks, she rose and walked to the window.

"The horrible sea!" she said, turning from it with a shudder of disgust – "the lonely, dreary, horrible sea!"

The key to that drawer ends up lost in the garden, tossed out the window.  Magdalen spends the single most remarkable chapter of No Name wrestling with her conscience, her debt to her family, and her religion.  The chapter lasts for four days and nights, each one with a new arc of despair.  Perhaps death is preferable to this marriage (which is, I remind myself, part of her own scheme).  If death is preferable, perhaps suicide is justified.

This central chapter is basically ten pages in which the nineteen year-old heroine of a Victorian comic novel struggles against the impulse to kill herself.  It is full of surprises:

"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me."

Underlying everything is Magdalen’s sexual repugnance towards the groom, expressed symbolically, of course, likely as part of the sea-and-ship motif that runs through the chapter, as seen in Magdalen’s odd non sequitur above.  The sea is death, ships are life:

All the misery of her friendless position, all the wasted tenderness of her heart, poured from her in those words.

"Would you love me?" she repeated, hiding her face on the bosom of the child's frock.

"Yes," said the boy. "Look at my ship."

She looked at the ship through her gathering tears.

I am over-simplifying with the “sea = death” business, but not with the ships, one of which saves her life at the end of the chapter, and another of which wraps up the novel a couple hundred pages later.

The reason any of this works as fiction is that the symbolism, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is Magdalen’s, just as the sense of good and evil is finally not that of the omniscient narrator or Victorian society but Magdalen’s own.  It is Magdalen’s struggle that is meaningful, that gives No Name its unusual ethical power.


  1. It sounds like this novel uses a sort of nested structure, with the middle of the narrative being the "internal" conflict which has to be resolved before the "external" conflict is resolved. So you'd have a map of the novel like this:

    (External conflict introduced
    (Internal conflict shown & resolved)
    external conflict resolved)

    Magdalen's "fallen" status and redemption (or whatever) story is interrupted while she figures her way out of the moral problem of marrying for money. Once she's decided that issue, she can go on to deal with her status as an illegitimate person, or however it works. Maybe the narrative doesn't have that form at all; I'm just guessing.

    I think that the use of symbolism/metaphor as a direct way of showing character has become more common over time. The world as viewed through the character rather than as presented by the narrator is a commonplace in today's genre fiction, where it's all about "voice" and so much is written in first person. Lots of that stuff is really clumsy and unsophisticated, though. What Collins seems to be doing here is, maybe, what Woolf and the other Moderns did later on, in a movement to dissolve the presence of the narrator into the awareness of the characters. Or something like that. I am for some reason moved to write about these last two posts, but I'm not sure what it is I mean to say. Possibly just to remark that maybe the "ethical power" you mention is really the power of Collin's well-crafted, internalized character arc, and the ethical question Magdalen deals with is entirely beside the point; she could be working out any old problem, maybe.

  2. Wait: I think I have it. You're saying that Magdalen's ethical problem isn't the reader's ethical problem, nor is it Collin's ethical problem; it's entirely Magdalen's ethical problem. That Collins is able to make it real and vital for Magdalen even if it seems a slight thing to us--especially at this historical distance--is what makes Collins a good writer and what makes No Name a good novel. Yes?

    I kept asking myself, "Why's he keep going on about ethics? What's ethics got to do with this?"

  3. Yeah, that's it. The steps are more or less:

    Is this going to be a novel about illegitimacy? I can imagine my way in to the Victorian point of view, but I don't really care. Wait, it's not.

    It's about marrying for money? That does seem weird to me, although a lot of Victorians seemed fine with it. But that turns out not to be quite right either, and it is really this chapter where the character works through her values. And since that would be deadly as fiction, she does it emotionally and symbolically, attributing her own meaning to the sea, ships, etc.

    And even though none of this is really my problem, Collins convinces me that it is her problem, which becomes interesting.

    Your map is exactly right, except that it is needs one more piece: the resolution of the external conflict renews or creates a new internal conflict, which then needs a new resolution to end the book back on the domestic note where it started. The ending would be trivial without the chapter I wrote about here.

    I was really pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of Collins's blending of the internal and external. I knew he was aces with the external stuff.

  4. Great, now let's make maps of every other book. It'll be like Schenkerian analysis.

  5. Yes, good idea, although I will warn you I am a lot better with graphs than with maps.

  6. Tom,
    This is several years late, but I've just written about this here:

  7. In literature, there is no "late." The books are patient. I am recovered from my vacation, so I can maybe respond to what you wrote. Off I go.