The Divine And The Marginal Essay, Research Paper
When relating the divine to the marginal, one is struck by the ambiguity of both terms. Adivine being can be supernatural, pure, sweet and naturally good, or, in contrast, bad,evil, vengeful, and inhumane. Marginality defines the place of ambiguity, the thin linebetween the normal and not-normal, the center of social chaos. Both divinity andmarginality blind us, forbid us to see a complete picture. Society and literature act outthe conflicts between good and evil, love and hate, the angelic and demonic child, but areblinded by the very nature of those concrete divisions of positive and negative. Divinitybecomes marginality in The Turn of the Screw; James deliberately constructs charactersthat conform so well to the social expectation of perfection that they cannot be other thanthe marginal. Again, it comes down to the line between blindness and enlightenment; it isonly when we doubt and question reality that we can incorporate and comprehendmarginality. Children in Early Modern England describes a society that pushed lower classchildren even further into marginality; children had their own subculture that provided anon-adult view of the world and rejected adult systems of value, order and classification. This . . .juvenile subculture included a casual attitude to private property, an addiction tomischief, and a predilection for what most adults regarded as noise and dirt (Thomas 57). Both linked to and separate from the adult world, these children passed the thin line; theywere children but unable to act as children. Besides [s]hop-lifting, pick-pocketing, andstealing pidgeons and chickens. . . , [they had] no more idea of what we call justice than.. . blackbirds. . .have of nets. . . (Dickens, qtd. in Thomas 56). The marginality of thesechildren is confirmed by their poverty, their education, their social class, and their age;what makes the social judgment against them final is the fact that they have no adultrepresentative to speak for them within the system. Without a voice credible to society,they have no opportunity to define themselves beyond that marginality, so they create asubculture that re-confirms their own identity within– and despite– their marginal status. The marginal status of the children discussed in Children in Early Modern Englandrelates them to the divine: …children [were] perceived as innocent and good and madeinto a focal point of attention (46) in spite of the fact that they were also . . .thought toepitomize original sin (45). Children are born into this world innocent and pure even inthe face of original sin. Those encouraged to develop reason, to interact socially, and tomaintain beauty reflect that which is innocent and pure; those unfortunate enough to existoutside the boundaries of acceptable society become the embodiment of original sin:uncontrollable wretches pissing upon stones in the Churche (57). Society examinedthe gender roles of children in the same light; girls, the origin of sin and damnation, wereexpected to perfect themselves socially and morally, while boys, free of the stain of guiltover the human condition, were at times even encouraged to push the limits of normalsocial play and behavior . The focal point of society splits to include both the devilishand the divine, the pure and the stained; instead of recognizing that these dual oppositionsrevolve around each other, society creates absolute definitions. The ideals of Romanticism influenced the way society depicted and dealt withchildren. The idea of the divine, romantic child became the new focal point by whichsociety interpreted itself and its systems. Children were seen to have . . . qualities whichmake [them] Godlike, fit to be worshipped, . . . the embodiment of hope (Cunningham78). Children . . .[had] the radiance and innocence of reinstated divinity. . . (Ruskin,qtd. in Cunningham 76), they were . . .still fresh with the dew of heaven.. . (76). In thisworld view, [c]childhood was. . .a special time of life in which gender was no longerstressed as an attribute; rather it was the childlike quality of the child which needed to bepreserved (75). The increased tensions of a newly industrialized society created in adultsa longing for the freedom and fantasy of childhood, which developed into a socializednostalgia for a return to childhood and nature [,] which was central to the romanticvision (74). In this social system, there are no absolute distinctions between the goodchild and the bad child; the poor child, like Oliver Twist, is to be pitied (74), the bad childis to be encouraged to be good. An idealization of childhood does not mean that childrenwere removed from the boundary of the marginal; if anything, they became more so as thelink between pure divinity and childish innocence began to be explored: Mighty prophet!Seer blest,/ On whom all truths do rest/ Which we are toiling all our lives to find (Wordsworth, qtd. in Cunningham 78). Children hold the voice of the divine in theirinnocence; only by relating to the keener perceptions (73) of children can adults hope toavoid becoming dried up and embittered (73) as the experience and toil of life degradesand corrupts them. However, the keener perceptions (73) of children made them more susceptibleto crossing the line between society and the divine and marginal: Little hearts are to betaken (76). God values these little hearts, steals them away from society to preservetheir purity, but at the same time removing that which society needs to maintain and regainits innocence and purity. The act of death frees and maintains the purity of the souls ofchildren, leaving society to cope with and grow from the reality of mortality. The littlewatercress girl discussed in London Labour and The London Poor who . . .had entirelylost all of [her] childish ways. . . (64) symbolizes the duality between experience andinnocence. Despite her age and appearance, the girl . . .was, indeed, in all thoughts andmanner, a woman (64), a being trapped between childhood and adulthood, unable tostand on either side of the line. Instead of representing the evils of society, the
marginality of this child-woman defines her as the essence of adult experience: at eight,she has endured poverty, the responsibilities of motherhood, physical abuse, hunger, andlabor (66-67). Her declaration of I ain t a child (68) inspires pity, Christian charity,and a renewed sense of social responsibility. The children in The Turn of The Screw form a bridge between the socialexpectation of goodness stemming from beauty and the innate corruption of the soul. Inthe beginning of this tale of delicious (James 2) horror, the governess is encouraged tobelieve that the physical beauty of both Flora and Miles is a reflection of theirtranscendence above ordinary mortals: See him, miss, first. Then believe it. . . .Youmight as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her. . . look at her (10). Mrs. Grose sconnection of physical beauty to the marginal is no accident; these children are so perfectlyformed that they exist outside the normal boundaries of right and wrong. The governessmistakenly equates their beauty with goodness when she assumes that Mrs. Grose has never known [Miles] (11) to do wrong, following social patterns that demand thatbeauty and ugliness be equated with their obvious characteristics. The divinity of Milesand Flora is not a radiance of peace and innocence, as in the Romantic vision of childhood;it is, rather, a reflection of the duality between human and divine, society and marginality,that is generally and conveniently ignored. Other evidence of the otherworldly qualities exists in the children s ability toentrance, to mystify, those around them; they become partly symbolic of the corruptiveelement of the universe, although not of man. They have the ability to corrupt but are notnecessarily corrupted themselves. The governess, blinded by . . .the vision of . . .angelicbeauty (7-8) that was Flora and the passion of tenderness (13) she felt for Miles, wasthrown off [her] guard (14) into a trap . . .to [her] imagination, to [her] delicacy,perhaps to [her] vanity; to whatever. . .was most excitable (14) that the childrenengineered. She feels charm[ed] (14) by Miles and sees the childish light (11) radiatedby Flora even as she recognizes the possibility that they have the ability To contaminate.. . [and]. . . [t]o corrupt (12). The marginal status of Flora and Miles is further supported by their ability toremain untouched, unstained, despite their actions. They seem to have no center ofmorality, no ruler by which to judge their actions: They were like the cherubs of theanecdote, who had– morally, at any rate–nothing to whack! (19), untouched by thenormal restraints and restrictions of mainstream society. Even as the governess wondersat their ability to corrupt, she notices the remarkable state of their personal purity: [they]struck me as beginning anew each day (19). Time has not made these children slaves;they [have] never for a second suffered (10) the human indignities of guilt, uncertainty,remorse, and fear because they are above them. It is their casual approach to the spiritsthat finally convinces the governess of their marginality: They know– it s toomonstrous: they know, they know! (29). That the children can look through the finalmarginality of death and not face fear is proof of their divine, marginal status; they do nothave the natural, human, aversions to contact with and evidence of the non-corporealrealm. The governess in The Turn of the Screw recognizes that the spirits are not forher– [They] had come for someone else (20)– but she does not understand the natureof those spirits. She instinctively sees them as a threat to Miles and Flora, and determinesto the last to protect them. By the end of the novella, she is able to understand therelationship between Godly and Devilish, and she recognizes the ambiguity and blurrinessof words such as divine and infernal (66). They are human terms that speak ofpowers higher than humanity and are equally interchangeable: the Devil can be and usuallyis charming and irresistible, and God is simultaneously punisher and redeemer. Even though she can recognize the duality and ambiguity of human nature, thegoverness is unable to shake her impression that the possession of Miles and Flora canbe anything but evil. Determined to end forever the connection Miles and Flora have withthe marginal, she separates them and attempts to get them to admit to their obsessions. When Miles loses the connection to Peter Quint, he loses his connection to the onlysystem that had ever supported him. The children walked in a world of their invention (28) and lived freely by the rules of that world. Their subculture, if you will, created forthem a place where they could be free of the toils, burdens, humiliations and uncertaintiesof adult reality; they live in the world between fantasy and reality, the world that theRomantics envisioned when they experienced their nostalgic reliving of childhood. Although a creature of earth and heaven, Miles can t bridge the gap alone; when Quintdeparts, . . .[Miles] uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss. . .and his littleheart, dispossessed, stopped (87). Little hearts are to be taken (Cunningham 76),only this time God didn t do the choosing. A human act of interference with the divinecan only be corrupt, and while Miles is freed to pursue his spirits and fantasies, both thegoverness and the reader are left with the uncertainties of human experience. The fate of Flora is never known, leaving the reader in a position that can only bedescribed as ambiguous and marginal in itself, despite the textual claims that [t]here wasno ambiguity in anything (James 28). The visions that the governess witnesss andmisinterprets are, even to her human eyes, alarmingly clear. It is the normal world ofmortal experience that appears fuzzy and blurred in relation to a vision of the divine. Theclarity that comes from a text such as The Turn of the Screw is one that results in facingambiguity and marginality without adult inhibitions and fears. Miles and Flora are representative of the uncanny link between adult perceptions of a harsh reality andchildlike aloofness to that reality; even in their death Miles and Flora embrace theirfantasy, leaving the adults to mourn, grow, and learn.