Laura’s Longing

Longing kills. Christina Rossetti is not the first author to breach female loneliness in her works, and she is far from the last, but there is something to be said about the angle from which she approaches the experience. It is oftentimes easier to say that when a woman chooses her independence, she will ultimately be fulfilled without caveats. After all, everyone enjoys a happy ending to a powerful narrative. Rossetti instead lives in the what ifs: what if we are not truly satisfied, what if happiness is not infallible, what if we always want what we cannot have? Her poem “Goblin Market” explores the consequences of the necessary choice women must make between freedom and love, and illustrates a greater collective struggle within oppressed women to choose between independence and companionship at their personal loss.

“Goblin Market”’s central conflict revolves around the potential consequences of consuming the goblin men’s fruit. When reading the poem through the lens of sexuality, it is often thought that Rossetti aims to depict the dangers of men’s implicit violence in sexual encounters. The goblin men pressure Laura into giving up what she does not wish to lose, leaving her alone to yearn further for their fruits. This narrative doubly portrays the choice women are made to make: Laura cannot enjoy the company of a man and live as herself at the same time. By taking the fruit, she makes the transaction of her livelihood for pleasure; we learn that in this metaphor, the two cannot coexist. When Laura goes to bed for the evening, she “[sits] up in a passionate yearning, / And [gnashes] her teeth for baulk’d desire, and [weeps] / As if her heart would break” (stanza 13). “Yearning” and “desire” are both very loaded words typically associated with the romantic and even carnal. Laura wants. And this very wanting is her downfall. Through the language Rossetti employs, she is able to emphasize the lack of agency women are given to have both love and their own lives.

The Panopticon of Femininity

The Lady of Shalott is doomed from the start. The existential dread of her circumstances is tangible, isolation without a foreseeable end and endless work that can produce only reflections of truth making this apparent. The poem’s own structure reinforces her entrapment, sealing her fate before it is said plainly. When she breaks from her inescapable circumstances, her life is taken from her, and as she floats down the river, she dies with grace and beauty. The Lady of Shalott does not scream or cry, only sings mournfully as the curse graphically freezes her blood. She does not make a scene of herself or make an attempt to alert others to her condition, only lies down in a boat and accepts her fate idly. The Lady of Shalott is not given humanity by the people of Camelot, only shunned out of fear—that is, except for Lancelot. He takes the opportunity to admire her physical beauty while the others cower. On the surface level, Lancelot’s compliment is merely that; but underscoring Tennyson’s literary decision is a fascination that has existed for centuries involving the beautiful dead woman.

Images of women whose beauty defies the absence of life have persisted for a long time, and “The Lady of Shalott” is no exception. Tennyson details the Lady’s journey that ends in her death gorgeously, as she “[lies], robed in snowy white / that loosely [flows] to left and right.” The image is almost ghostly and otherworldly, calling to mind spectral figures robed in their own snowy white sheets. She sings as she floats, invoking tropes reflective of characters like Hamlet’s Ophelia, who herself floats down a river, singing eerily in her madness before she drowns. Unlike Ophelia, however, the Lady chooses to pass in such a dramatic manner. She paints the perfect picture to be found within, a beautiful maiden clad in innocent white floating peacefully toward Camelot. 

Once the Lady has passed, one can hope that she will be able to achieve the freedom and peace she was denied in life. The one trait that is noted about the Lady once she is found by others, besides their own anxiety regarding her origins, is her appearance: “But Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, ‘She has a lovely face.’” Before Lancelot even wonders about the Lady’s circumstances or history, he thinks to point out her beauty. She cannot exist, even in death, without being viewed for her looks over all else. The reader is not told exactly what is done with the Lady after Lancelot’s comment, but it is all too clear that Tennyson’s construction of the story around the Lady’s beautiful death suggests larger themes at play.

Noses, Nails, and Nosferatu

From the moment that British solicitor Jonathan Harker steps foot in Dracula’s fictionalized Eastern Europe, he is far out of his depth. He is blindsided at every turn by mysterious and unusual sights and experiences, forewarned by those on his path to not continue, and tossed about until he lands in the hands of one Count Dracula in his Transylvanian castle. The Count himself is a rather peculiar individual and one whose charming looks are often portrayed as part of his appeal–and while later events within the novel provide a basis for this appearance, it is a supposedly hideous and monstrous old man that Jonathan encounters when he first arrives in Transylvania. He details the count’s features, such as his “lofty domed forehead” (chapter 2) and hair that “[grew] scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere” (2) and “seemed to curl in its own profusion” (2). Altogether, Stoker illustrates to his readers that Dracula, put simply, does not look like our heroic British protagonists. Furthermore, when this passage is put into conversation with the text’s fixation on physiognomy, I would argue that Stoker’s grotesque description of Dracula’s Eastern European features in relation to his vampirism serves to alienate him from the “good” British characters he is juxtaposed against. The linkage of Dracula’s non-British appearance to his sinister nature suggests deeper underlying beliefs regarding physiognomy and Britain in the Age of Empire.

Dracula’s emphasis on physiognomy makes it impossible to ignore the deliberate word choices employed by Stoker: the Count’s initial features are intentionally not those the remainder of the work associates with beauty. In fact, before this description, Jonathan outwardly claims that his host is of a “marked physiognomy” (2), establishing that he considers Dracula’s features to be of some importance to his personality and morality. When a man who is by all means a “good” British citizen is faced with an aquiline nose, curly hair, and coarse hands, the implication of malice or immorality is undeniably present. To Jonathan, Dracula’s appearance is “strange,” “peculiar,” and “cruel,” altogether words that are undeniably negative; and when Dracula turns out to be sinister, it is revealed that his appearance has said so all along. A valiant crusade is led against this hideous Eastern European man by brave British men and women, and once more, through Stoker’s narrative, physiognomy is proven justified.

Holmes and Watson’s Cat-and-Mouse Chase: The Hound of the Baskervilles

“‘Really, Watson, you excel yourself,’ said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. ‘I am bound to say that in all accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.’ He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I have often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods.” (Doyle 6)

Though one of the first interactions the reader is privy to between Sherlock Holmes and his companion John Watson, the above passage provides a great deal of insight into the relationship between the two. In this moment Watson is examining a walking stick they have come upon and voicing his observations to Holmes. In response, Holmes showers Watson with compliments, drifting from his usual no-nonsense manner of speech to one notably more flowery and emotional. The inclusion of the light metaphor drifts from his typical literal language and suggests a bit more consideration than he gives to other characters he talks to. He pauses more than usual (noted by the inclusion of commas throughout the piece), signifying a bit more thought behind his words than one expects. Holmes is known for his quick thinking, so the minute shift in how he processes an event and comments on it is notable. It is possible that he must take more time in emotional affairs as he is so unused to them. Watson preens under this praise and informs the audience that Holmes typically acts indifferent to his obvious infatuation, so this praise is a rare treat. If it was not already evident, Watson follows Holmes around like a lost puppy, attempting to soak up all he can and marveling at his expertise. His admiration is palpable, and Holmes seems very much aware of Watson’s attention.

It is all the more revealing, then, that Holmes’ complements were teasing and that Watson’s observations were almost entirely incorrect. Why would Holmes, someone so down to earth and to the point, waste time letting Watson down instead of sharing his own correct observations? His bluntness is one of his defining traits, and through the earlier analysis of his facade, it is clear that he is putting thought into what he is saying, ever detail-oriented. I would argue that Holmes is showing his own affection in the best way he knows to: teasing Watson through the lens of his own worldview (the attention to detail, the slight shifts from normalcy that only a detective would notice) with the understanding that Watson will then continue to follow him and attempt to reach his expertise. Though it is very easy to read this interaction as one between Holmes and Watson as a reader insert, I find the implications for Watson as a character outside of this interesting. There is a sort of cat-and-mouse chase occurring between the two men, but one of mutual respect—Holmes keeps Watson around for a reason, and Watson will always follow in his footsteps. Even if they cannot necessarily comprehend the other entirely, it is this mutual understanding that makes their relationship so captivating.

What Lies Beneath: Lady Audley Blog Post #1

“‘Dear me!’ she said, ‘this is very strange. I did not think men were capable of these deep and lasting affections. I thought that one pretty face was as good as another pretty face to them, and that when number one with blue eyes and fair hair died, they had only to look out for number two with black eyes and hair, by way of variety,’” (Braddon 88).

Chapter 11 opens with a conversation between Robert, Michael, and Lady Audley regarding the fate of George Talboys. During this exchange, when Lady Audley questions Robert’s concern for George, she learns of the grief Helen’s death has caused him and speaks the aforementioned passage.

The way Lady Audley approaches this topic is notably very straightforward despite the previous awkward silence (stemming from Robert’s implication that George has potentially committed suicide). Though she is revealing a great deal about her own approach to relationships and cynicism, she does so with a very matter-of-fact tone. The lack of emotive punctuation (question marks, exclamation points, etc.) indicates her cadence to be rather stable, and her speech is unmarked by any indication of true distress. Despite this tone, such a comment seems deeply out of character for the agreeable persona of Lady Audley. As she has shown herself to be capable of maintaining a composed appearance before, this is not surprising but contributes to her character as someone suspiciously put-together and perfect.

Returning to the text, we see this attitude has persisted since before the story takes place, and Lady Audley’s past has left a lasting impact. She feels undeserving of the affection Michael showed her; clearly, she has had negative experiences that color her current understanding of relationships. But what? Her disbelief in the affections being “deep and lasting” (Braddon 88) seems to imply that she does not think of love as a constant, but rather as fleeting. She also refers to the women in her example as “number one” and “number two” (88), like objects or cattle more than humans with appropriate worth. Her prior beliefs that she is unlucky supplement this idea of instability in love. She herself is very conscious of the many factors that influence a relationship other than pure love, and the idea that George’s love was so great he would end his life in the absence of Helen is something she cannot fathom. This passage prompts the reader to delve further into Lady Audley’s true personality past the impression the narrator gives of her.