Here are two entries made this year by Perse students to the Cornell Guides Competition:
Becky G: How does Charlotte Brontë challenge the social constraints on women during the Victorian era in Jane Eyre to make an impact on the reader?
Charlotte Brontë used Jane Eyre as a weapon to attack the social constraints on women of the Victorian era, under the male pseudonym of ‘Currer Bell’. This in itself is demonstrative of the constraints of Victorian society on women and on their freedom as they were considered entirely subordinate to their male counterparts. In the novel, Brontë challenges this inferior position of women in the patriarchal Victorian society…
Zoe W: William Boyd wants to know which novel, play, or poem has made an impact on you, and why you find it interesting and enjoyable
A novel which particularly appeals to me is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange which presents a dystopian image of a bleak, state-controlled future. Alex, the protagonist, and his ‘droogs’ spend nights persecuting fellow citizens until he is sent to prison. I was initially horrified by Burgess’ descriptions of graphic violence…
A Clockwork Orange
A novel which particularly appeals to me is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange which presents a dystopian image of a bleak, state-controlled future. Alex, the protagonist, and his ‘droogs’ spend nights persecuting fellow citizens until he is sent to prison. I was initially horrified by Burgess’ descriptions of graphic violence, ‘all the teeth were like wrenched out with a pair of pliers, and the creeching and the blood were terrific’. Although the narrative is interspersed with frequent displays of brutality, there are enjoyable aspects, such as Burgess’ invented language for Alex and other teens. Despite being published in 1962, the novel has surprising contemporary relevance and provides witty commentary on modern society. Though disgusted by Alex’s sadism and lack of respect for other people, I was shocked to discover I still identified with his character; in particular I pitied his ill-treatment by his friends and the State. The novel forced me to question whether the leading figures of a country behave unjustly, such as the Minister of the Interior, who uses Alex as a puppet to advertise the radical Ludovico Technique and prevents him from making an informed decision about undergoing the treatment. This injustice is reminiscent of the CIA using ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques against suspected terrorists without Congressional approval.
The process of gradually understanding the language was rewarding, eventually it became a feature enabling identification with Alex as when incarcerated nobody understands him, aside from the reader, encouraging alliance with the protagonist. Burgess furthers this empathy through Alex’s frequent address to the reader as ‘O my brothers’, fostering familiarity and friendship with the narrator despite his behaviour. ‘Nadsat’ draws the reader’s attention to the persuasive power of language, initially through the attraction of Alex’s creativity and witticism in unfamiliar speech, later a feature bonding the reader to Alex as the only person he can address in his own tongue. Lodge refers to the process of learning ‘nadsat’ as ‘a kind of Pavlovian conditioning, though reinforced by reward … rather than punishment’, linking to Alex’s own treatment by the fictional Ludovico Technique. Lodge’s comparison of the reader learning ‘nadsat’ to Alex’s indoctrination against violence in prison can be corroborated it is almost a subconscious process leading to identification and affection for Alex.
An interesting and stimulating theme of the novel was its commentary on free will and moral choice. In the Communist future of A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s parents are not allowed to decide their own jobs and everyone who is able is legally obliged to work. The society’s restrictions inspired me to research modern day Communist countries and how people could allow their free will to be restricted by the State. A strategy I learnt about was China’s One-Child Policy (1979–present), where in order to continue to be able to provide for its citizens, the Chinese government prohibited families from having more than one child, enforced by heavy fines and even forced terminations. The Communist policy also resulted in female infanticide and gender imbalance, demonstrating how the Chinese State infringed on the free will of individuals for the benefit of society. In my opinion, though written in the 1960s, the novel still has relevance to contemporary human rights issues.
This surprisingly modern perspective on Communism can be linked to Burgess’ own view of it as fundamentally flawed, since instead of taking into account the welfare of the individual it focuses only on the success of the State. Therefore, I believe the novel is an attack on Communism: the State’s lack of regard for Alex’s welfare makes him ultimately a larger problem, as his suicide attempt due to his indoctrination results in the State financing the removal of the treatment and attempting to quell the scandal that arises subsequently. Alex initially returns to a life of crime, demonstrating the State cannot remove an individual’s right to choose. Burgess poses the question of whether it is right for the State to remove the rights of the few, in order to protect society as a whole. Alex undergoes the Ludovico Technique, which by indoctrinating him against violence removes his right to choose to stop committing crimes by making him feel ill when observing brutality. The chaplain of the state prison Alex is in is vehemently against the technique since he believes ‘goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man’, emphasising the severity of the treatment’s removal of free will and therefore an aspect of humanity.
The theme of free will is succinctly highlighted throughout the novel by the repeated question ‘what’s it going to be then, eh?’, posed both by Alex and the prison chaplain. At first, the question emphasises Alex’s total free will, as he can at that moment pursue any course of action he desires. Conversely, when the chaplain asks it in the second section, it highlights Alex’s newly removed autonomy, as in prison his life is dictated by strict rules. Once released from prison, again asking himself ‘what’s it going to be then, eh?’, Alex has free will, as he is physically free to act how he chooses, but lacks moral choice, since he has been indoctrinated against violence. Only in the last chapter is Alex again free, indicating the novel’s cyclical nature, since free will and moral choice are present, then removed or altered, and finally restored.
Charlotte Brontë used Jane Eyre as a weapon to attack the social constraints on women of the Victorian era, under the male pseudonym of ‘Currer Bell’. This in itself is demonstrative of the constraints of Victorian society on women and on their freedom as they were considered entirely subordinate to their male counterparts. In the novel, Brontë challenges this inferior position of women in the patriarchal Victorian society, as well as the so-called ‘moral insanity’ of women which, as Elaine Showalter states, was ‘associated with women’s sexual desires’. Brontë’s audacity to challenge social conventions throughout the novel, namely the suppression of women, made a great impact, not only on myself, but other readers, contemporary and present-day alike.
Throughout the novel, Brontë challenges the male dominance that was considered the norm in the Victorian era, even in the preface of the novel, arguing that ‘conventionality is not morality’. This demonstrates her belief that, despite patriarchy being the convention in society at the time, this did not mean it was just or morally viable. As such, before the novel even begins, Brontë is disputing the rigid expectations of society on male dominance and other issues overlooked by the unyielding Victorians. The dominant position of men in Victorian society is also portrayed in the Red Room, described by Gilbert and Gubar as the ‘patriarchal death chamber’, an interpretation which is evidently viable, due to the fact that it was the place of Mr Reed’s death. The bed, ‘supported on massive pillars’ and ‘like a tabernacle in the centre’, possessed a ‘vacant majesty’. This grand description of the bed represents the large and superior presence of the patriarch of the family, despite its ‘vacant’ nature highlighting that, although Mr Reed is dead, his presence and dominance still lives on. The first encounter between Jane and Mr Rochester also disrupts the power dynamics as assumed by the Victorians – the male occupying the position of authority – by deflating the authority of Mr Rochester, presenting him as an equal to Jane. By setting their first meeting outside of Thornfield, ‘on the causeway’, Rochester’s power is diminished as he is not in his own realm, where it would seem he is at the pinnacle of his power, resulting in a form of equality between the two. Also, the fact that Mr Rochester falls from his horse in a ‘clattering tumble’ lowers him to Jane’s level; physically, because he no longer has the advantage of height by towering over her on his horse, metaphorically because he is injured, therefore relying on Jane for assistance. Moreover, Brontë develops proto-feminist ideas throughout the novel which thus challenges the conventions of female subordination in the Victorian era. She states that ‘women feel just as men feel’, highlighting her belief in equality between men and women, and argues that women should not simply be ‘making puddings and knitting stockings’. Jane’s recognition that domestic tasks suck as cooking and ‘knitting’ were not all that women were capable of challenges the ‘Angel in the House’, a stereotypical image that depicted the ‘ideal’ Victorian woman, who was domestic, submissive, obedient and self-sacrificing.