Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell Term Paper
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Old Nurse's Story
Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" uses gothic imagery and Victorian themes to elucidate the role and status of women. Online critics claim the story is filled with themes of "male domination, females' sense of powerlessness due to this dominance, and the ambiguous results of women's struggle against males in the Victorian era," ("The Damning Effects of a Patriarchal Society in "The Old Nurse's Story" and "The Yellow Wallpaper"). Indeed, these three core elements are absolutely evident in this haunting tale about rediscovering personal identity via encounters with the past. The motif of haunting allows the past to return to the present in eerie ways. Relying on ghosts allows the author to present the suggestion that the past haunts the lives of all individuals, and that women have trouble extricating themselves from negative situations because of the constraints of dead social institutions and norms.
However, Hughes and Lund maintain that it is not only patriarchy that concerns Gaskell. Hughes and Lund claim that the "betrayal" of the sister reveals deep and sinister yearnings in human nature (175). In the case of Maude and Grace, it is sister-on-sister violence that becomes a central motif. Patriarchy creates the structures and systems by which women turn on other women. It is, after all, a man that comes between Miss Maude and Miss Grace. The symbolism of the relationship is embedded fully within the text. Writing from a Victorian standpoint, Gaskell targets both social institutions that perpetuate patriarchy, but also holds individuals culpable as well. The institutions targeted in "The Old Nurse's Story" include the institution of the family, in which the father is depicted as negligent as best, or at worst, sociopathic. Gaskell develops the theme of "unforgiving fathers" in "The Old Nurses's Story," to underscore the fallibility of the family institution (Hughes and Lund 175).
A cult of domesticity ruled during the Victorian era, and Gaskell directly challenges and critiques that cult in "The Old Nurse's Tale." Families have dark secrets; they are not institutions that noble women uphold out of their innately godly nature. Women are as evil as men; but their nefarious nature emerges in unique ways. From within the cult of domesticity, women are trapped and therefore have no real chance to effect change save through death. Social isolation and alienation result from subverting social norms. Thus, Miss Maude is ostracized because she is pregnant but her husband left her. "Miss Maude, who had always meant to have her marriage acknowledged when her father should be dead, was left now a deserted wife - whom nobody knew to have been married - with a child that she dared not own, although she loved it to distraction." Victorian society constructs Maude into the perpetrator of evil, when indeed Maude is the victim of patriarchy's stranglehold. She was married when she was pregnant, which should override the stigma against her single situation. Yet women have no recourse in a situation like this. Branded and labeled, Maude internalizes her anger, fear, and frustration.
"The Old Nurse's Tale" fits squarely within its literary genre, and is therefore emblematic of its historical and cultural context. There is a paradoxical interplay of strong female characters who are trapped by patriarchy. Negative reactions to patriarchy result in self-destruction or violence toward others. Both sisters are depicted in a negative light, which could suggest an anti-feminist reading of "The Old Nurse's Tale." However, women remain in control of their narrative and attempt to shift perspective from within the patriarchal system. For example, the Old Nurse possesses the secrets of the family to share with the daughter. The women in "The Old Nurse's Tale" do not have political, economic, or social power. However, they do have power over the psychic and supernatural domains. Their manipulative natures and the sister-on-sister deception speaks of an internalized frustration with patriarchy. Victorian gothic literature is characterized by motifs of ambivalent sexualities and gender roles. "Fog, smoke, decrepit mansions, insanity (usually afflicting a young heroine), sexuality, incest, and mystery are just some of the general characteristics of the Gothic literary tradition, and the "Old Nurse's Tale" exhibits all of these features ("Victorian Fin de Siecle").
Embedded within the text are references to the breakdown of social norms, and what that breakdown might mean for human morality. The sisters' pursuit of the young man is a sign of their taking charge of their own sexuality, long
before women were socially liberated to do so. Their strong sense of purpose and confidence sexuality, however, becomes their Achilles Heels. The sisters' demise, and indeed, the demise of the entire family, is due to what is perceived to be a tremendous upheaval of Victorian values. Motherhood is turned upside down, as the cult of domesticity becomes a source of spiritual torment. Mrs. Stark demonizes the child: "Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child'" The social role of motherhood provides women with a double standard: they are damned if they do not have a child, but damned if they do. Moreover, the innocence of childhood is twisted by Stark's assertion that the child is "evil." The nurse's maintaining sanity offers the only hope that society can be redeemed.
Male roles are domineering and patriarchal, and yet men are relegated to the sidelines of the story. Thus, Gaskell creates a paradoxical dynamic that establishes women as protagonists in a patriarchal universe. Lord Furnivall is a one dimensional character. His malignant presence drives a wedge between the sisters: "she and Miss Grace grew colder and bitterer to each other every day; till at last they hardly ever spoke, except when the old lord was by." The Lord Furnivall is lord of his manor, but he has no control over the shifting social norms symbolized by the two sisters. Men remain firmly in control of the political, economic, and social domains, but women continue to control morality and spirituality within the Victorian construct. Gaskell also inserts telling sexual innuendo into Lord Furnivall's character with his ever-present "organ." The lord is known through his organ, which is the only instrument over which he has any control. "The old lord went on playing - playing on his organ." Playing his organ is a euphemism for masturbation. As the nurse tells it, "Lord Furnivall was thinking of nothing but his fine organ, and his finer music." Furthermore, Lord Furnivall also muses about the "dark foreigner" lurking in the woods. Thus, Gaskell comes close to offering homoerotic imagery as well.
Gaskell also embeds social commentary related to the breakdown of social class hierarchies. The Furnivalls represent the outmoded gentry: the lords and ladies of yore who will soon play ancillary roles in modern and postmodern England. Using imagery of death and decay, the author symbolizes the end of the era of entitlement. No longer will families like the Furnivalls be in charge of political, economic, and social domains. The power relationships in society are about to change. Yet before they can, the old must die to make room for the new. The nurse entrusts the young children with the information about their family because the younger generation symbolizes the promise of change, renewal and rebirth.
The motif of imprisoning women in the home is prevalent in Victorian era literature, and especially ones related to feminist themes. For example, the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is also forced by her husband to remain trapped in a large summer home. Like the sisters in "The Old Nurse's Story," the woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper" go insane because of patriarchal rule over their bodies and minds. In both cases, there are children involved. The children are not permitted to be with their mothers, and thus grow up ignorant of their mother's love or vision for the future. It is up to the next generation to reconsider the social structures that function to oppress and systematically deny half the population its rights to economic and political participation. Strong feminist warnings of the breakdown of the moral fabric of society are retold, not from the patriarchal perspective in which women are the keepers of a Christian innocence that forbids sex and pleasure. Rather, women are renewing the social contract entirely. They are rewriting the rules, so that they no longer need to be virginal to be good. The notions of good and bad are twisted in Victorian culture, in which it is alright to imprison and oppress women but not to have sex or raise a child out of wedlock.
Wedlock is a term that Gaskell does not use in "The Old Nurse's Story," as if on purpose. The term includes the word "lock," to underscore the entrapment the institution of marriage entails for the Victorian woman. Both sisters, although they go insane, refuse to buy into the dominant culture vision of female subordination. They live out of wedlock; they are self-liberated, but only in death. Society…
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