Term Paper: Close Reading of Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth

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¶ … close reading of Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell in the Victorian period

Misery in "Sylvia's Lovers"

As a writer, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a wide array of works of literature including rural idylls, industrial novels, and ghost stories. However, Gaskell also wrote her only historical novel, titled Sylvia's Lovers, set in 1863 in a seaside town where a press-gang causes problems to the dwellers of the town. The novel is a tale of the impact of the pressure on a distant fishing town of Monkshaven with contradictory claims of two lovers who are battling for the love of one woman, Sylvia Robson who lives with her parents. Although the title of the novel sounds like a Harlequin romance, it is a stunning evocation of life in the old town of Monkshaven during the late 1790s. In the novel, what concerns Gaskell is not the substantial historical and political events, but with their effect on the lives of the provincial lower-class society (Bowen 254). The novel is a tale of the impact of the war on the lives of the people in the remote town. Although the book explores a number of themes, Misery is one of the major themes that a reader gets from the novel.

From the onset, the author advances the theme of suffering from the description of the conflict between two men competing for the love of one woman. The lovers of Sylvia in the novel's title are Philip Hepburn and Charley Kinraid with both competing for the affection of Sylvia. Whereas Philip is a bright stooping clerk in a neighboring shop, Charley is a subtle figure of a man who is an audacious harpooner on a whaling ship. On the other hand, Sylvia is an attractive farm girl who has a repugnance to all book learning, which does not entail the "Greenland seas" where the passionate Kinraid pursues his hazardous icy trade. A classic love triangle sets up when Philip falls in love with Sylvia, but she falls hard for Charley after he is hurt while courageously protecting his shipmates from a press gang. The two men use the antics at their disposal to win her love. On the side, there is the hushed modest Hester Rose, who loves Philip with the faithfulness and commitment that any man could dream of but rarely find.

Gaskell's novel has a feeling of actuality with the events of the story being in line with historical events. Just like other historical novelists, she embeds her novel in the actual events. For example, the author bases Robson, Sylvia's father, on William Atkinson who incited gangs to riot leading to his execution and Sylvia's feather uses Atkinson's words in urging the rioters to move forward (Shaw 85). Through the Battle of Acre, the author advances the description of the events of the war between Britain and France, which led to a lot of misery on the side of the public. The fiction is a story with an emotionally charged atmosphere because of the effects of the war especially on Sylvia following her father's death. Using Sylvia's father and the events surrounding the war, Gaskell endeavors to show how wars affect the lives of lower class individuals, especially women. The author advances the theme of suffering by describing the misery that people went through the Battle of Acre.

During this period, the English are at battle with the French and the harbor town of Monkshaven bustles with whaling action while the King's press gangs wander through the narrow streets looking for strong sailors that they can forcefully recruit into a navy that is desperate for the new workforce. As the locals attend to their daily chores, they have to walk cautiously while being ungraciously vigilant for the detested gangs. During these moments, emotions are running high, and there are many violent outbreaks. The writer displays the effects that the Napoleonic war had on people's social life as it denies them their basic human freedoms and cause turmoil and unrest. They go through a lot of suffering, as they fear for their safety because of the raging war, as it was the case with the battle between Britain and France.

Gaskell presents the novel in a way that the events that she describes portray a bleak moment in England. Public events, as depicted in the novel, impose only grieve and loss. For instance, the king's press gang forcefully recruits Charley, the "specksioneer" into the navy. Although Philip is aware of this, he does not inform Sylvia making her believe that Charley is dead. Out of desperation, she marries her cousin Philip, and she gives birth to a daughter. This shows that in cases of war, the poor despair and out of the situation, decide to act against their wishes just to receive consolation. Sylvia's father irrationally leads a gang against an energetic press gang, which is going about recruiting young and energetic men as directed by the king. In the event, the gang hangs him leaving his family grieving. This is especially worse for his wife who cannot cope with the grief. Historic events in the political arena leave the lower class people grieved to the extent that sometimes they cannot cope. During the war between Britain and France saw a number of people lose lives, leading to grief and suffering among families.

The war between Britain and France disrupted people's social lives as it separated individuals from their relations, which caused a lot of suffering and misery. In the novel, Gaskell explores a conflict between two men who are competing for one lover. Gaskell is pursuing an unsettling of a political history through a deliberately artificial and disaffection style, which punctures the narrative standards of the novel (Bowen 255). This is just as the violence of a battle has ruptured the continuities of the characters' lives. The war separates Sylvia from her love Charley, Sylvia's father dies, her mother is beside herself with grief, and Philip has a deformed face. All these misfortunes, which come the characters' way, are a result of the violence that war brings.

The novel resonates the events that were taking place in England during the 1790s, and the happenings probably concerned Gaskell because her daughter was in a relationship with a soldier involved in the Indian mutiny (Shaw 87). The fiction does not reflect the mutiny directly, but through her characters, she advances the turmoil and confusion that come because of a conflict. The Mutiny involved a lot of violence on both sides, and affected the British trust in a benevolent partnership between Mughal emperors and the East Indian Company. The author demonstrates this abrupt and violent outbreak through Sylvia's father who unleashes a riot. However, like the Indian regiments, he is unable to control it and the results are death and agony. The Indian mutiny, instead of bringing relief to the regiments, saw the relocation of the administration of India from the East Indian Company to the British crown, which meant that their suffering and misery was still on.

A love triangle is evident where Philip and Charley falls in love with the same woman, Sylvia. This condition creates a struggle of social class owing to the difference in social status of the three people. When Charley is taken prisoner in the events of the war, Philip is present and witnesses everything that happens to Charley. Charley, also sends a message through Philip who fails to convey the message because he is envious of the connection between Charley and Sylvia. Philip's action makes everyone think that Charley drowned while sailing. Suffering is evident where Charley has to bear the pain inflicted by the press gang, in addition to the fear of losing Sylvia. Also, although an ill-fated marriage occurs between Philip and Sylvia, Philip suffers the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Close Reading of Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth."  Essaytown.com.  February 20, 2013.  Accessed May 25, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/close-reading-sylvia-lovers-elizabeth/5118201.