Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Ending of "Shirley"

Dear Mary Beth,

I'll give my reflections on the ending of Shirley by discussing the fates of its two main characters, Shirley and Caroline.

You mentioned that part of Shirley's disappointment in Robert's proposal was because she was probably aware of Caroline's feelings for Robert. I agree with you. Shirley and Caroline know each other quite well by the end of the novel. And Caroline seems to be the only person (other than Shirley) who sees Shirley's feelings for Louis. Caroline tells Robert, in Chapter 35 when he's confessing to his proposal to Shirley, that she thinks Shirley is in love with someone who has not yet made Shirley an offer. Clearly Caroline is referring to Louis. If Caroline can pick up on Shirley's feelings for Louis after such a short time, then surely Shirley is aware of Caroline's feelings for Robert, which have been obvious for the entire novel.

As for Shirley and Louis's relationship, I suppose I see things a bit differently than you do. I don't think Louis sees himself as unworthy of Shirley (at least, no moreso than any Victorian man sees himself as unworthy of the woman he loves); rather, I think Louis is painfully aware of the class/fortune differences between the two, and the likely objection of Shirley's uncle to such a match (and geez, is he right, yikes). Louis always seemed to me to be very self-confident, self-aware, and socially aware, not to mention very intelligent. As for Shirley, I don't see her as giving up her purpose to marry Louis. Sure, she backs off on the running of Fieldhead, as she confesses to Louis after they're married, but I think she did that to give Louis a chance to step up and be seen as her equal by the people at Fieldhead and in the community. I imagine the two of them running the show together before long.

As for Caroline's fate, it reminds me quite a bit of Jane Eyre's. Both women long for more than an ordinary life but end up in seemingly ordinary endings with their husbands. I find both endings a bit difficult to reconcile with the feminist messages that precede them. However, I tell myself that Charlotte Bronte felt the need to give the reader happy endings to sort of sugar-coat her message. At the same time, Robert indicates that he hopes to build up the community around his mill should he continue to be successful, and that Caroline will teach Sunday school, and Caroline and Shirley may someday run a day school for the children of Robert's workers. I think such an arrangement would suit both women particularly well, especially given some of the points you have made about their characters.

Feel free to have another go at the ending of Shirley. There's no such thing as being done discussing something when it comes to Charlotte Bronte! On the other hand, there's also the burning question, what do we read and discuss next? I'll leave the choice up to you!

Your Sincere Friend,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shirley, Chapters XXV-XXXVII

Dear Amber,

I think that while we’re meant to think that Caroline’s illness is the result of pining over Robert Moore, it’s really a culmination of all the things we’ve been talking about with regard to Caroline – her lack of purpose and the benign neglect she’s subjected to growing up in her uncle’s care. She also seems to be a person who needs someone to love and care for – and I think this is why Robert’s apparent indifference wounds her so much. As we’ve read, she’s developed detailed fantasies of what it would be like to be Robert’s wife and to care for him. Shirley cannot fill this need for her because she is so supremely independent.

Caroline’s yearning for a mother, which she had also expressed prior to her illness, is not only a wish to be mothered, but a wish to do some mothering of her own. Indeed, she acts on this almost immediately upon learning that Mrs. Pryor is her mother – “lecturing” Mrs. Pryor on fashion and declaring that she should have a new dress.

This is a side of Caroline we have not seen prior to this – Caroline in charge, Caroline being “bossy.” This interlude with Mrs. Pryor and Caroline sets up the interaction between Robert Moore and Caroline later.

After Robert is shot and is convalescing in the Yorke home, Caroline conspires with young Martin Yorke to sneak into the home to visit Robert. We could not imagine the Caroline of the first part of the book, timid and shy, defying the inexorable triumvirate of the Mrs. Yorke, Hortense Moore and the brutish, drunken nurse, Miss Horsfall.

But what a reward Caroline receives for her daring! Robert Moore confesses that he has wished for her, and Caroline tells him that had she even dreamed that he would want to see her, she would have found a way to see him sooner. Again, could we imagine Caroline, prior to her illness, making such a bold declaration?

But let’s talk about Robert Moore for a while. As we have seen throughout the novel, Robert is a man of great ambition combined with a cool head and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Indeed, his actions can be considered cold at times – his actions seem heartless to the workers who lost their jobs when Robert decided to bring in the mechanized frames. He does not care about public opinion and shows that he is willing to literally back up his beliefs with firepower. Though he is not too proud to ask Shirley for financial backing, he does have a rather high opinion of himself. He even describes himself in mechanical terms to Mr. Yorke when describing his ill-fated proposal to Shirley: “The machinery of all my nature; the whole enginery of this human mill: the boiler, which I take to be the heart, is fit to burst.”

Before he can be considered worthy to have Caroline for his wife, he must be completely humbled – first, by Shirley.  He admits to Mr. Yorke that he proposed to Shirley not out of love but out of self-interest. He admired Shirley a great deal, but his only motive for marrying her was money. Shirley sees right through him (and notes that she respected and admired and liked him as a brother, for in her heart of hearts, she did want him as a brother!) and lambastes him for his mercenary impulses. I wonder, though, if some of Shirley’s disappointment is for Caroline’s sake. Surely she sensed Caroline’s affection for him.

Next he is humbled by injury and illness, left helpless to the mercies of Mrs. Yorke, his sister Hortense and Miss Horsfall. And it is at this time that he realizes who his true match is, and Caroline gets her happy ending.

What a contrast Robert Moore is to his brother, Louis! Though Louis is a man of keen intellect, patience and reserve, he does not think himself worthy of Shirley, whereas Robert Moore sees himself worthy of any woman, at least, until Shirley sets him straight. To wander into a different genre for a moment, Louis Moore reminds me of Remus Lupin — another man of keen intellect, patience and reserve who, due to poverty and lycanthrope, did not think himself worthy of a woman’s love.

What I find curious, though, is how after everything is settled and Shirley and Louis have declared their love for one another, Shirley becomes completely passive, leaving all decision-making to her fiancĂ©. I find this a little hard to swallow. As I mentioned in my last letter, Shirley was not a woman to whom housewifely pursuits came easily. She was too quickly bored with sewing, her housekeeper cheated her constantly, and so forth. Her real interest lay in the affairs of her estate. But if she gives those over to Louis, what is left for her to do? Shirley is a woman of energy and spirit, and though rich, never idle. It’s odd that at the end of the book, Caroline, who has longed for purpose, finds it, and Shirley abdicates hers.

Once again, I’ve grown long-winded, and I didn’t even touch on some of the things I wanted to address: All of Shirley’s proposals and the battle of wills with her uncle; the incident with the mad dog — based on a true story! — and Martin Yorke and the shifting of the narrative to his point of view during the chapters covering Caroline and Robert’s courtship.

I may have to come back and discuss these end chapters a little more!

In the meantime, what’s your take on the end of Shirley?

Sincerely yours,

Mary Beth