Thursday, June 1, 2017
A Structural View of Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel
Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel has much to recommend it: a compelling plot that reserves its most dramatic turn for the end, figurative rhetoric that can mount and build like banks of clouds, and layers of irony highlighted by the constant choric commentary and wit of the mordant observations of The Pilgrim’s Scrip and Adrian’s sybaritic musings. Further, these thematic and stylistic qualities appear in a novel structured according to an elaborate design of bipolar oppositions which may be read as a great formal pattern unfolding in time rather like a fugue. This structure, implied by the references to “Magian” or Manichaean conflict, governs the entire work.
It is far from clear just what the ordeal of the title might be. The word is used repeatedly with different implications throughout the text. It sometimes means Richard’s upbringing under his father’s notorious System, which would seem an appropriate focus, but in other passages it signifies simply his initiation into love (or adulthood more generally). Toward the conclusion the word is used (and capitalized) to refer to Richard’s confession of his infidelity to Lucy. Then, too, the reader thinks of his self-imposed ordeals of separation from her and his acceptance of the duel, an “ordeal” in almost the old technical sense of a sort of trial with God as judge. Over all, of course, hovers the legitimate sense of life as a whole constituting an ordeal. Over this most fundamental subject matter, in effect a story of Everyman in spite of Sir Austin’s singular notions (for Everyman is more peculiar than he may think), Meredith spins an elaborate interwoven texture in which warp is as significant as woof.
This ironic ambiguity which critics take to be distinctly modern characterizes the entire novel. The book reads like a comedy throughout yet ends in pathos if not tragedy. Richard, the “Hero,” is often decidedly unheroic. Sir Austin, the philosopher, is far less philosophic than he thinks. On the other hand Austin Wentworth, who appears only now and then, is the sensible Austin, though he can do little to aid the others. Adrian, who is in truth only as much the “Wise Youth” as Richard is the “Hero” or Sir Austin the Philosopher, is in fact shallow and detached, passing his time in self-amusement spouting trifling witticisms each laden with further layers of irony. Lucy Desborough, nearly the only character other than Austin Wentworth to be presented in an altogether positive light, benefits from the lingering idealized convention of the irresistible love-object, a woman altogether virtuous, modest, and lovely. Still, she has her counterpart in Mrs. Berry who plays Emilia to her Desdemona. If Sir Austin is the man betrayed by trying to live too wholly in his brain, Hippias does little but complain of the burden of his body. For every type there is a countertype, for every assertion, its equally valid contradiction.
The thematic pattern of the book is scrupulously dialectic. The opposition between science and philosophy on the one hand and human nature and common sense on the other is sustained throughout at a high state of tension. The author’s own experience of a faithless wife and his authorship of a volume titled The Pilgrim’s Scrip are two among many correspondences that would support the notion that Sir Austin in some sense represents the author. Yet he is regularly depicted as no less deluded, egotistical, and misguided for all his high principles. His “System” is the error that sets the plot in motion.
Likewise, the epicurean wisecracks and arch rhetorical turns which constitute Adrian’s every speech seem at least as close to Meredith’s own convictions as Wilde’s were to his, but Adrian is characterized as shallow and incapable of either deep thought or feeling. In this way most every line that might seem an assertion of the author is no sooner uttered than the ground is cut from under it. The book is a series of mistaken or partial propositions, a catalogue of humors and of error.
Clear as the point may be in the work as a whole, it is more precisely demonstrated in close reading. Though one might almost open to the book at random for evidence, I will cite only two passages, chosen very nearly at random.
Chapter 29 begins with what Meredith terms a “necessary” prelude to Richard’s move toward decisive action. “Let it be some apology for the damage caused by the careering hero, and a consolation to the quiet wretches dragged along with him at his chariot-wheels, that he is generally the last to know when he has made an actual start.” Whereas one might expect a hero to be fully conscious and deliberate, to Meredith he is blundering as blindly as everyone else. Though much of the novel implies the impotence of science in the face of human nature and mere chance, he employs the language of the science of his day: “He may be compared to one to whom, in an electric circle, it is given to carry the battery.” The fact that the séance-like gatherings called electric circles or circuits since the eighteenth century, then popularized by Mesmer, would today be called pseudo-science only strengthens the point. According to Meredith, power is “all Fortune’s,” and humans can only caper comically and helplessly, the victims of ineluctable fate. The Pilgrim’s Scrip reinforces this idea, saying that to be “intent upon his own business” is “with men to be valued equal to that force which in water makes a stream.”
This brief paragraph first evokes the traditional concept of a hero, then denies it by suggesting Richard’s lack of control over the consequences of his actions, describing him as no more the agent of his own life than is an electric current or the onward push of a river. There is of course a strong convention of heroes from Achilles to the Existential “man of action” who are ultimately unable to alter their fate, but whose nobility consists of their persistence, as they go down to defeat with courage, looking at reality without illusion. Richard on the contrary vainly imagines that he is captain of his destiny. Yet, as critically flawed as Meredith’s hero may be in his vanity and selfishness, most readers would sympathize with his romance across class boundaries. If to be a force of nature like that of electricity or flowing water is to be a hero, is not everyone likewise heroic? So in this opening paragraph, one can trace the hero made non-hero and back again multiple times, resulting in a rich ambiguity, a tense contradiction that flickers from one valid evaluation to its opposite, equally valid.
The same paradoxical alternation of judgments is illustrated by Lady Blandish’s attitude toward Wordsworth in Chapter 26. She is discussing literature in a letter to Sir Austin after having, with some misgivings, assisted him in his plan to separate Lucy from Richard. Having said that she is repelled by Gibbon’s cynicism and impiety, she continues, “How different it is with Wordsworth!” Though this line might seem to introduce an enthusiastic endorsement, she follows immediately with, “And yet I cannot escape the thought that he is always solemnly thinking of himself.” Seeking to regain balance, perhaps, this line is succeeded by the defensive ejaculation, “but I do reverence him!” A few lines later he has become “a donkey,” though (we remain on a tightrope with the pole extending equally to the right and left) “a very superior donkey” whose most impressive quality is “stubbornness” as he is incapable of “sublimity. “I love Wordsworth best,” the paragraph concludes, “and yet Byron has the greater power over me. How is that?”
This entire complex system is then itself ironized. To Sir Austin her confusion is explained, not by her humanity, but by her sex. “Women are cowards, and succumb to Irony and Passion, rather than yield their hearts [as he presumably believes he and Wordsworth do] to Excellence and Nature’s Inspiration.”
Many students, and not a few of their professors as well, cherish the notion that one may apprehend truths about lived experience through reading literature, but the fact is that writers are not experts in philosophy, psychology, or science. Their skill is in writing. But, if they cannot prescribe answers, they can precisely and passionately, point to the questions most important to our species. They can then create the most affecting symphonies out of these very mysteries and ambivalences. A claim to solve the great issues that engage us all is in fact a confession of arrogance and reductionism. The great writers leave us always in suspense.