Copyright  Brannon Costello

University of Tennesse, 2000


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Education and Domination in The Wide, Wide World

     In an early feminist treatise, Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller sets forth her theory that women and men, although divinely endowed with certain spiritual and pragmatic differences, ultimately must consider these differences as equal halves of a whole rather than a hierarchy which privileges the male half. She asserts that "the growth of man is two-fold, masculine and feminine," (99) and that each half has certain characteristics that the other half complements and completes: "There cannot be a doubt that, if these two developments were in perfect harmony, they would correspond to and fulfill one another, like hemispheres" (100). In the simplest terms, she states that "We only ask of men to remove arbitrary barriers" (101). Implicit in this call for equality lies Fuller's ideal vision of inter-gender relationships, a vision that encourages men and women--possibly husband and wife, but preferably brother and sister--to regard each other as intellectual and spiritual companions. Fuller consistently praises this sort of marriage, in which each individual treats the other as a peer and helps the other along in some great enterprise: she says they "speak of aspiration of the soul, of energy of mind, seeking clearness and freedom," and they "are wed by the only contract that can permanently avail, of a common faith and a common purpose" (46). This notion apparently lies--albeit problematically--at the heart of the relationships between John and Alice Humphreys and Ellen Montgomery in Susan Warner's sentimental novel of education, The Wide, Wide World. Although the brother-sister team of John and Alice apparently live out this ideal of intellectual partnership, when John attempts to mold Ellen into a proper partner, a surrogate Alice or a sister-wife, he betrays his inescapable indoctrination into the culture of inequality, denying Ellen the opportunity to become an intellectual individual and teaching her not to reason independently but rather to rely utterly on his interpretations of texts, paintings, and indeed the world around her.

     This education takes center stage throughout much of the novel. John reveals his eventual aim for Ellen's studies when, as Ellen grapples with a dense bit of metaphysical doctrine, John tells her that she is "hardly a full-grown philosopher yet" (479), a statement that implies he intends for her to become one. One could conceivably argue that Ellen's education at John's hands has nothing particularly original about it: American history, the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, drawing--nothing particularly revolutionary or subversive. However, though Ellen's education may not appear exceptional for a young woman of her class and time, Warner takes pains to make it appear so by contrasting Ellen's intellectual strivings with the shallow foppery of Nineteenth century social life that her relatives and age-mates seem to prefer. Nancy Vawse certainly has no concern for education and reading, and she claims that neither does any one else: when she sees Ellen reading the Bible, she tells her that "all the rest of the folks that ever I saw are happy to get it out of their hands, I know" and wonders herself "what's the use?" (361). The Lindsays in Scotland place much more emphasis on society than they do religious education. Indeed, when Ellen's demeanor becomes "soberer than her friends like" (540) they assume that her withdrawal has to do with American religious notions and force her to give up her Bible for a time.

     Perhaps the best example, however, comes during Ellen's stay at Ventnor: Ellen and all the other young people in attendance listen to Margaret Dunscombe spin a petty little tale about a wedding party she once attended. However, "the speaker forgot herself and raised her voice much more than she meant to do" (315); this conversation draws John's attention. John observes Ellen listening with "rapt attention" and "hanging upon [Margaret's] lips and drinking in what seemed to be very poor nonsense," a nonsense that eventually began to branch "out right and left into worse than nonsense" (315). John responds by calling Ellen into the library to practice a bit of drawing, a task which eventually gives her great pleasure. Here, Warner portrays the simple task of drawing instruction as a salvation from a prattling and superficial society, thereby privileging education as a sort of intellectual high-road that sets Ellen apart from the teeming masses of her friends.

     That John has an interest in Ellen's education is obvious; his motivations, however, may not lie quite so close to the surface. John and Alice have a relationship that appears very like Fuller's ideal of philosophical partners. As they chat on the way to Ventnor, John reveals that in a world in which it is difficult to escape the corruption of "man's presence and influence," he has "confidence and sympathy" in almost no one--except his sister Alice. John tells her, "I long for you every day of my life" (281). His statement reveals the depth of their relationship: they are united not only by familial bonds, but they draw on each other for spiritual strength in a fallen world. Unfortunately, Alice is not long for this world, and John will soon find himself without such a companion. Warner makes Ellen's role as a replacement for (or continuation of) Alice most explicit in the scene involving the preparations for Alice's funeral, a scene that doubles as literal funeral and symbolic wedding. Margery reports that while Ellen, "pale as her lilies" (446) and wearing a "white dress" (447), knelt before Alice's flower-strewn bier--perhaps as she might at an altar--John appeared, and "knelt down beside her, and softly took away one of her hands from under her face, and held it in both of his own, and then he made such a prayer!" (447) before they left the room together. In this passage, rife with matrimonial images--white dress, flowers, joining of hands, joint prayer--Warner not only foreshadows Ellen and John's eventual matrimony but suggests a sort of changing-of-the-guard: Ellen will take over the sister/wife role of intellectual companion to John. Mr. Humphreys's comment to Ellen that "All is yours--except what will be buried with her" (449) seems to further this theory.

     Of course, John's manipulation of Ellen's education begins long before Alice's untimely death; indeed, almost from his first appearance in the novel he begins to take control. As they prepare to ride to Ventnor, the Humphreys decide that Ellen's "little red Bible," the primary emblem of her education, "should go in John's pocket" (279). This outwardly insignificant and merely pragmatic decision actually represents the beginning of a long tradition of Ellen's texts falling under John's control; though he only takes physical command of her Bible at first, he eventually takes a more complete control of not only the physical textual artifacts she reads but also Ellen's very means of interpreting those texts. Though John provides her with an abundance of intellectual stimulation--Wiem's Life of Washington, books on natural history, and so on--he also heavily censors her reading, ordering her to "read no novels" (564) and forbidding her to peruse Blackwood Magazine or any other fiction-heavy periodical. John's influence does not cease at a mere delineation of proper and improper books; indeed, he even causes her to read the proper books in a prescribed manner. John does not seem to have faith enough in Ellen to believe that she could draw the proper conclusions about these texts without his assistance. For instance, when she reads Lord Nelson's account of the Battle of Trafalgar and comes away with the impression that Nelson "was so very fine, in every thing," John asserts that her "eyes were blinded by admiration," and that Nelson is actually "a man of very fine qualities without principle." John insists that she return to the book "with a more critical eye" (478), and his obvious disapproval of Ellen's take on Nelson's character naturally alters her opinion.

     The most striking example of John's imposition of his will on Ellen's education involves Ellen's discovery of Pilgrim's Progress. Although this text would seem fairly innocuous, John still carefully controls Ellen's access to and interpretation of the work, a decision that again underscores his inability or unwillingness to accept Ellen as a true intellectual companion, denying her the independent equality that Fuller demands. He first begins by reading it to her, and Warner significantly describes her reception of his reading with much of the same language that she uses to describe Ellen's reception of Margaret Dunscombe's vacuous yarn: Ellen listened with "rapt delight; she devoured every word that fell from the reader's lips" (351). Thus, rather than teach her to think critically about what and how she hears, John has instead taught her only to consume uncritically his words, the words that he feels appropriate--hardly a quality desirable in an intellectual companion.

     John further uses Pilgrim's Progress to extend his regulation of Ellen's education when he must leave to return to school. Though John lends her his copy of the book, apparently a gesture of good faith and confidence in her mental capability, he undermines that very gesture by insisting that "she should not go further than he had been" (353), a dictate that Fuller might refer to as an "arbitrary barrier" to Ellen's eventual transcendence. John fears that she would mis-apprehend Christian's journey in much the same way she did Nelson's character, and feels that he must be on-hand to guide her own journey through the text. Of course, John finally hits on a solution to his dilemma: if he cannot be present in the flesh, then at least his spirit of intellectual limitation can. John presents Ellen with not just any copy of Pilgrim's Progress, but the John Humphrey's Critical Edition, with annotations on each page to ensure that no errant independent thinking transpires: when Ellen cracks the book, she finds "in John's beautiful handwriting, a great many notes--simple, short, plain, exactly what was needed to open the whole book to her and make of it the greatest possible use and pleasure" (370). Though on one hand this certainly appears as a liberating measure--now she can access the book freely--John still maintains his iron grip on her intellectual development, ensuring that his construction of Christian's journey will be the one that Ellen remembers. The fact that his notes are "short" and "plain" might even suggest that John has too little faith in Ellen to trust her with a more complex reading. Indeed, his strategy pays off: his marginalia becomes, for Ellen, an implicit and inextricable part of the text itself. When she reads Pilgrim's Progress to an ailing Mr. Van Brunt, she reads it "notes and all," and believes that they "said exactly what she wanted Mr. Van Brunt to hear, and in the best way, and were too short and simple to interrupt the rest of the story" (412). Thus, John's view of the text becomes the only possible construction for Ellen, and in turn she passes on this version to Mr. Van Brunt.

     Ellen eventually comes to rely on this guiding influence to give her her own identity. Though she does, perhaps, learn to exercise some independence in Scotland--albeit an independence rooted strongly in commitment to the principles she learned at John's hand, like her promise to devote one hour a day to Bible study that so perplexes her adoptive family--John remains such a strong influence that she immediately cedes her own will to his almost immediately upon their reunion. When the Lindsays finally allow her to re-establish communication with John, she is delighted that John wants maintain "a regular and full correspondence" (563) with her, for, as she tells John, "I will tell you every thing about myself; and you will tell me how I ought to do in all sorts of things? that will be next best to being with you. And then you will keep me right" (564). Essentially, even after a long absence, she most desires from John some sort of textual guide to life, some guidelines to shape her perceptions of herself and her experiences.

     In the final, unpublished chapter of Wide World, Warner describes the final outcome of John's education of domination. Again, John presents Ellen with a gift meant to be liberating but which actually turns out to be another sort of limitation. John gives his new bride a room furnished with everything necessary for the "luxury of the mind" (575), a room that Ellen proclaims "a delicious place for reading! (576). John has furnished the room, not insignificantly, with "a little antique book-case," as well all manner of statuary and paintings and curiosities, "things to seize the eye and lead off the wandering thought upon some track of pleased fancy or useful research or stirring remembrance" (575). However, though the room is designed for the purpose of free intellectual exploration, John has located it "between" his rooms, so that his influence pervades and surrounds the room; thus, no "pleased fancy" or "stirring remembrance" can get to Ellen without going through him first. Further, John cannot resist imposing his own reading on some of the artistic artifacts. He leads Ellen to two pictures, "a fine copy of Correggio's recumbent Magdalen" and "two heads, the Madonna and child" (578). When John asks her opinion of the second picture, Ellen exclaims, "I have no words!"; and indeed, she does not. Rather than offer her own interpretation of the picture, she regards it "with her eyes fixed" and lets John reveal the spiritual truth behind the artwork. Ellen's eyes remain "still fixed" on the picture while John instructs her on how to view it; it is as though she receives optical and auditory stimuli at the same time, in the same moment. She perceives the painting and the interpretation as a unit, and she can make no original comment on it except to prompt John along or respond to his questions with more questions.

     Ultimately, then, this novel of education becomes a novel of domination, a story that illustrates how even the best of forward-thinking educational intentions can be tainted and twisted by the deeply embedded oppressive inequalities of the Nineteenth century. Though John Humphreys sets out to create for himself an intellectual companion, a mate that might satisfy Margaret Fuller's ideal of male-female relationships, he eventually makes the very knowledge that he imparts nothing but another "arbitrary barrier" that keeps Ellen from attaining her full spiritual potential. Ironically, by his very attempts to hand Ellen the tools of her own intellectual liberation from the trivialities and travails of life of a woman in the Nineteenth century, John actually imprisons her within an equally limiting, if somewhat more high-minded, system of thought: his own. Rather than encouraging the development of Ellen's divine differences, he insists on an ultimately restrictive and separative philosophical unity that refuses to see Ellen as an intellectual equal capable of interpreting life on her own terms; Ellen becomes not a partner but a perpetual student forever subservient to John's vision. In all fairness to John, even Fuller does not commit herself completely to concept of intellectual partnership; Fuller's own text reveals a profound lack of faith in her own ideal.