The Heroic Change: Examining The Dynamic Character

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Protagonist in fiction literature is almost required to be dynamic. It is an unspoken law that governs nearly every genre of narrative composition. A consistent theme among varied forms of story-telling. Tribulations mark the transition from innocence lost, to wisdom inferred. This seems common knowledge and yet the audience is rarely disappointed with predictable 'sun-set' endings. It is the process and intensity of identity adaptation which drives the gears of narrative mechanism. The viewer wishes to know their hero intimately. Every thought and reaction is important. Change is constant and at odds with us all; these events loom over the lives of everyone, but rarely are we afforded the opportunity to understand them. Fiction presents life changing events with expanded explanation but change is ever more poignant when it is tragic.
“TRAGEDY, as it was antiently compos'd, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other Poems: therefore said by Aristotle to be of power by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is to temper and reduce them to just with a kind of delight, stirr'd up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated.” (John Milton)
The novel All Passions Spent was Victoria Sackville-West's second novel and is prefaced with an excerpt from John Milton's tragedy Samson Agonistes. This is a very illuminating poem, in it are details of the tragic fall of biblical Samson. Captured by the Philistines, his hair cut, his super-human strength gone and his eye's gouged out. Samson is left 'blind among his enemies' Vita Sackville-West symbolically connects the epic hero of legend with the elderly protagonist Lady Slane at the end of her long life. Time and age have ravished the luster of youth and beauty and broken the indomitable spirit.
Her husband lays dead and she is left in the precarious position of spending her remaining days in internment within the confines of her children's homes. A virtual prisoner among Philistines.
The mechanism in which Vita Sackville-West chooses to intensify drama is clearly the lifespan of her chosen protagonist. That she is surrounded by enemies is highlighted by Lady Slanes' narrative in combination with the observations of her slightly more sympathetic daughter Edith.
“Alone in the room his widow contemplated him, filled with thoughts that would greatly have surprised her children, could they but have read her mind. Her children, however, were not there to observe her. They were collected in the drawing room, all six of them; two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine. A sufficiently formidable family gathering – old, black ravens, Thought Edith, the youngest” (Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent. 19)
A rather poetic description of mourners and yet drawing parallels between family and eaters of the dead, cannot help endear these characters. So we are introduced to this family and explicitly warned of their scheming sinister plans.
“Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of.” (23)
That her children did not understand or even know their mother may have been a consequence of aristocracy and environment. But that does not make them any more likable. That they have no concept of their mothers plans is made clear when Herbert remarks to the rest of the family.
“Thank goodness, Mother is not one of those clever women.” That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate. They anticipated no trouble with their mother. That she might turn round and play a trick on them – several tricks- after years of being merely a fluttering lovable presence amongst them, never entered into their calculations either She was not a clever woman. She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.” (24-25)
This then becomes the first clue that our protagonist will shrug off the yoke of matriarchal servitude. That her children love her is clear and yet they do stand as an obstacle of her own intentions. Unable to separate their mother's life from that of their fathers. They see her as ancillary to his life and now that the connection has been severed, she must be quietly disposed of. She has essentially lived beyond her usefulness, now that their father has perished.
The narrative shifts to Edith as she observes the mourning and she provides the reader with insight into the wealth of the family and its maintenance. Not content to simply put their mother out to pasture and retire with dignity, Lady Slanes son William brings up the matter of finances. Even though Edith remarks on the 'sacks and sacks of treasure' William has in personal possession. Upon Herbert's revelations as to the quantified amount of finances inherited to his mother, William becomes covetous of the family jewels. His ironic greed for wealth becomes a point of contention. Later used as a turning point in the development of a dramatic change in Lady Slanes character.

So what led to this radical departure in Lady Slanes submissive character is very slowly built up using subtle methods of story telling. We are introduced to a strange millionaire by way of the narrative of Lady Slanes eccentric son Kay. Mr. FitzGeorge was Kay's only friend and recollects his fondness of Kay's mother in a surprise speech over dinner. Consoling Kay over his fathers death, Mr FitzGeorge makes an incredible proposal that he be introduced to Lady Slane. The retrospective glimpse of a young Lady Slane creates a broader scope beyond her sons understanding and Kay reluctantly acquiesces to his friends unusual request.
An oppressive male dominated family structure comes into contrast with the feelings and aspirations of the individual and women in particular. We are given glimpses into a world quite apart from the ordinary lives of the reader but with strikingly familiar contrasts between the ideas of self determination and society; between the needs of the many vs the well being of the individual. It is easy for the reader to identify with the ridiculed daughter Edith or the under appreciated Kay, two universal personalities that are at a tragic vantage and which the author seeks to maintain a sympathetic angle to both promote this attachment and further events in the tale.
It is after the funeral that we are properly introduced to Lady Slane. Her physical description is lavished and described in detail and led to an opinion which reinforces the feminist themes of the book and create a dichotomy of character by juxtaposing the image of a loyal and honor bound female with that of the widow. A woman set adrift and with no purpose beyond her propitious uses to husband and family.
This is a strong theme running throughout the narrative and a powerful message is being told. As Vita Sackville-West is instilling her own personal history into the character. The frustration and struggle of
women everywhere to achieve independence from the oppressive male dominated society.
“ The complex legal machinations and gender politics at work in determining the Sackville-Wests' ancestral line both fascinated and appalled Vita. At once proud and protective of her aristocratic heritage, she remained disdainful of a system that effectively disallowed the succession of an equally 'natural' maternal birthright.” (Blanch 74)
It is at this point the matter of Lady Slanes future is brought to attention and we hear for the first time a subdued defiance. When she replies to Herbert's question of her plans by suggesting he had already decided for her and need not be bothered to hear her opinion(59). Herbert is not comfortable with his mothers cleverness and attempts to coerce her with a combination of patronizing and guilt. Suggesting that with her energy she spend all her time managing the various committees, clubs and society's founded by Lady Slane. She slyly responds by implying she has completely forgotten about these duties. When these tactics prove weak Herbert attempts to use fear to scare his mother into obedience and suggests her inheritance would not sufficiently allow her a standard of living and that she must kowtow to the male domination of the family. Louise DeSalvo suggests that Lady Slane may not appreciate being taken care of.
“Lady Slane does not like what has happened to happened to her under the dominion of her husband's influence, although she has kept her silence through these sixty long years of her life with him. The opportunity to live a life truly her own only comes to Lady Slane with her husbands death, when she makes a life for herself in Hampstead Heath.”( DeSalvo 210)
So the transformation is nearly complete. Lady Slane has rejected her obligations to family and severs her ties with family with a dramatic flair. She announces her decision to live alone and her rebellious attitude delights the attending women.
Her defiance is expressed by denying William his precious jewels and instead awarding the entire collection to Herbert's wife Mabel. She then announces as yet another surprise that she has made an appointment to rent a home, and all this without the permission of her children. Lady Slane has furthermore decided to travel the distance alone and by train. A metamorphosis takes place in the evolving characterization.
So the journey begins and the narrative shifts to Lady Slane grappling with inner torment. As she changes trains her focus shifts into self doubt and reflection. She seems to be coming to terms with the fragility of her age and the necessity to cherish her few remaining years. She concludes that youth 'were apt to display a slight irritability.'(79) She begins referencing memories with the passing of the stations and the identity of the protagonist is enriched by the retrospective. Lady Slane begins to feel liberated and by the time she meets Mr. Bucktrout and secures her home the transformation is complete.
Once Lady Slane has taken possession of her house at Hampstead. She reinvents herself as the King of her castle. She denies visitors except for those she chooses and she accepts very few family members. We are treated to memories of youthful aspirations and the reintroduction of Mr. FitzGeorge as a force from her past. A gentleman that may truly understand her notions of artistic responsibility. The company she keeps is predominantly male and yet rather than the suppressive relationships of past domination and submission; Lady Slane is accepted as a person within the egalitarian sphere of her home. The text seems to focus on important past events, the crushed dreams of youth and the sacrifice of self for society.
“The feminist ideology underlying both texts emphasize the repression of the female artist by cultural expectations of womanhood, and the necessity of rebellion against those expectations in order to forge the identity of the female artist” (Morse 335)
It is interesting when the aged millionaire Mr. FitzGeorge passes and leaves his immense wealth, not to the museums and community as he had promised, but to the Lady Slane. He had made much of her misaligned priorities and wasted dreams and granted her one last opportunity to relive her ambitions as an artist by giving as a gift to the nation a large deposit of art, collected over a lifetime. At this point Lady Slane becomes satisfied with her life. Despite the outrage from her family she was unaffected by their anger and discovers that she misses FitzGeorge. “She desired nothing more. She desired only peace and the laying down of vexation.”(264)
Her only window to the outside world is the newspapers and she finds herself pleased that her family has achieved prosperity and thanks herself for their lack of troubles. “There would be no battle for them, no struggle in their souls; they would simply set hard into the moulds prepared for them. Lady Slane sighed to think that she was responsible, though indirectly, for their existence. The long weary serpent of posterity streamed away from her. She felt sick at heart and looked forward only to release.”(266)
It is at this turning point that the final dynamic change is seen in our protagonist, that of proud mother. She begins collecting the press-cuttings which reference her family and ignoring those from her own children focusing instead on those of her great-grand children. It is shortly after her maid Genoux reveals the trials of her impoverished youth that Lady Slane selfishly wonders “Which wounds went the deeper: the jagged wounds of reality, or the profound invisible bruises of the imagination?”(273)
The story concludes in a predictable and yet not unpleasant ending. Lady Slanes great grand daughter comes to visit in contradiction of the conventions set forth.
Deborah bears the same name and face of her great grandmother and in a poetic turn of events announces her decision to break the wedding off with her fiancée in order to focus on her own personal pursuits. Lady Slane confuses her own identity with that of her great-grand daughter. She sees at last the spark of resistance take flame in the heart of Deborah.
The narrative shifts from Lady Slane to Deborah as the aged grandmother gently drifts into sleep and her great-grand daughter attempts to articulate her desire to create music and pursue a life of art. When Deborah notices her great-grandmother has fallen asleep she quietly lets herself out of the Hampstead House. Genoux discovers Lady Slain has died and the text leads into a denouement detailing the family's ongoing ironic misunderstanding of the passionate Lady Slane. Uplifting in its pursuit of truth and equality All Passions Spent treats tragedy softly by rejoicing in the spirit of defiance. The protagonist undergoes capricious events and ends like Samson; rancor becomes revenge. By destroying the pillars of foundation, one can upset the stage. Sometimes the hero must become a martyr and especially in a good story.

Works Cited
Blanch, Sophie. “Contested Wills: Reclaiming the Daughter’s Estate in Vita Sackville-
West’s The Edwardians.” Critical Survey 19.1 (2007): 73-83.
DeSalvo, Sophie. “Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and
Virginia Woolf.” Signs 8.2 (1982): 195-214.
Milton, John. “Paradise Regain'd; .... to which is added Samson Agonistes”
London: J. M. Starkey, (1671). B-10 302
Morse, Deborah. “My Next Bride: Kay Boyle's Text of the Female Artist”
Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 34 No. 3 (1988):pp. 334-346


The Devil Uno said...

Grade:72.5% = -B