Anthony Trollope's: An Eye for an Eye

Anthony Trollope's: An Eye for an Eye

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Anthony Trollope's: An Eye for an Eye

Anthony Trollope's intense commitment to drawing for his readers a picture of the world as it actually is, to creating a fictional reality in which they "might recognise human beings like to themselves" (Autobiography 145), can obscure the depth and sincerity of his concern with the moral dilemmas confronting the characters he has so painstakingly rendered lifelike. But as the startlingly candid passage quoted above from the Autobiography reveals, Trollope's purposes in his fiction are not merely descriptive, but normative as well; he sets out both to show us "the way we live now" and to direct our attention to questions that are in the broadest sense ethical: how ought we to live? His unflagging desire to "please," however, and his firm belief in the primacy of characterization among the novelist's tasks render the extraction of his "system of ethics" from his novels a delicate and difficult task: his characters are, ineluctably, individuals and unlike those populating the works of more overtly "philosophical" novelists, cannot often be taken as unproblematic representatives of an abstract quality larger than themselves. Trollope's "system" is to be an ethics of everyday life, one that takes as its province situations irreducible to arid formulae.

Close examination of the late novel An Eye for an Eye illustrates both the nuanced, even protean, subtlety of Trollopean ethics and the ways in which his moral code is complicated by the gender, class, and national dimensions of the life he portrays so vividly. The novel, in its remarkably evenhanded treatment of the agonizing choice facing a young English aristocrat who seduces and impregnates an Irish girl of disreputable provenance, displays a sophisticated and sympathetic understanding of the manner in which larger social and historical forces impinge on the decisions we make as supposedly free moral agents. The story dramatizes the tension between two approaches to moral problems: on one hand, there is what we might call an ethics of particulars, represented by Scroope Manor and the older members of the Neville family, an insistence that questions of right and wrong can only be justly resolved by reference to the social position of the moral agent and to the organic structure of the society in which he or she is enmeshed. On the other hand, there are the claims of a universalizing ethical praxis in which each individual must be viewed as an end in himself or herself, regardless of circumstance.

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In depicting the clash of these two radically different and, Trollope makes clear, socially contingent codes of justice, An Eye for an Eye invites scrutiny of prevailing mores and manifests a profound compassion for those whose lives are deformed in the name of higher intangibles.1

Significantly, it is with a jarring glimpse into such a mangled life that the novel opens. Our encounter with the "unfortunate lady" (xxxix) in the asylum, later revealed to be Mrs. O'Hara, mother of the wronged Irish girl, both arouses our sympathy for her sad condition and excites our curiosity as to what "past action of her life" (xxxix) she is attempting to defend through her incessant repetition of the commandment from which the book's title is drawn. The narrative interest thus generated renders the reader alert to questions of justice and injustice in the pages that follow.

This affecting picture of madness and spiritual turmoil is succeeded by one of deep tranquility and harmony. The village of Scroope, described in the first chapter, and the manor from which its eponymous earls exercise their unfailingly benevolent authority are completely devoid of visible social conflict. The "beloved and respected" (5) old Earl, uncle of the male protagonist, Fred Neville, presides over the affairs of village and household with a sort of absent-minded generosity; he "hardly ever interfere[s] with his domestics" (4) and liberally subsidizes the omnibus that provides the only means of intercourse between Scroope and the outside world. Indeed, the narratorial voice tells us, "if he had been told by his steward to subscribe to keep the cap on Mrs. Brock's head, he would have done so" (4). Despite the succession of familial tragedies that have left the Earl with a "painful stoop," our general impression of Scroope is one of sedate contentment. Much later in the novel, after the old Earl dies, leaving a surprisingly large bequest to the vicar and his "affectionate love to every tenant on the estate," we are told that "all the world" approved of his supremely tasteful last testament (148). The Earl's reign was, patently, favored with the quiet approval of all those whom his actions or inaction affected; Fred, on becoming Earl himself, tells Lady Scroope, "'Everybody says I am to change nothing'" (149). Scroope's satisfied denizens thus live out a sort of organic justice; their lives fit together into a harmonious and orderly whole. It is significant that Trollope, although he raises doubt early on about whether Lady Scroope "could in truth be called good" (6), invests Scroope with this torpid goodness; the choice Fred will have to make later on between preserving this unity and fulfilling his obligations to Kate O'Hara is, Trollope's picture of Scroope ensures, a morally substantive one: Scroope's code of right and wrong has behind it the weight of tradition and of a community's happiness.

The ethical structure that undergirds this benign state of affairs can perhaps be teased out of the often maddeningly elliptic comments of the old Earl and his consort. That the pair is fundamentally well-intentioned Trollope never calls into question: his interest lies in exposing the ways in which their good intentions, indeed the conceptual framework from which they derive their ideas and vocabulary of "good," precipitate the events of the novel's melodramatic climax. Lady Scroope indicates what qualities they hold dear when she catalogues her late husband's virtues for Fred's benefit:

"Honourable, true, affectionate, self-denying, affable to all men, but ever conscious of his rank, giving much because much had been given to him, asserting his nobility for the benefit of those around him, proud of his order for the sake of his country, bearing his sorrows with the dignity of silence, a nobleman all over, living on to the end sans reproche!" (161-162)

What is critical here is the explicit link Lady Scroope draws between the Earl's "conscious[ness] of his rank" and his social usefulness: his life was of value to all because he refused to regard himself as being in any sense on the same plane as his beneficiaries. In "asserting his nobility for the benefit of those around him," he embraces an ethical system in which duties are grounded intractably in social specificity. Rights and responsibilities are apportioned primarily on the basis of class; not only is such an arrangement unavoidable, it is, in the eyes of the Earl and Countess of Scroope, in the best interests of all concerned.

Lady Scroope herself shares her husband's high-mindedness and benevolence: she is described, like him, as "self-denying" and, furthermore, as "possessing wonderful energy in the service of others" (6). Trollope heaps this praise on the noblewoman just one sentence before bluntly calling into question "whether she could in truth be called good" (6); his intention is, perhaps, to force consideration both of the adjective's ambiguity and of the possibility that it is Lady Scroope's notion of what constitutes "good" that invalidates her benevolent motives. We can glean some clues as to what this notion is from her declaration to her husband on the subject of Fred: "it would be so great a thing if he could be settled," she sighs (13). For Lady Scroope, to be "settled" means to have nestled permanently into one's designated place in the social hierarchy; the term connotes for her a mature readiness to assume the burdensome responsibilities of class alluded to in her eulogy for her husband. Indeed, the Earl himself independently expresses a desire to see Fred "properly settled" (33).

The use of the adverb "properly" points to the heart of the Scroope system of ethics. "Improper marriages," we are informed (28), are the chief objects of Lady Scroope's hatred. "Proper" can mean not only "correct" but also "appropriate," "fitting." The word carries with it heavy connotations of particularity: what is "proper" to oneself is irreducibly one's own. To deem something "improper" is to found the case for its unseemliness on its failure to acknowledge the exigencies of circumstance, of environment. The adjective "suitable" employs a similar rhetoric; things and people that "suit" are adapted to and in harmony with their physical and social surroundings. The Earl is thus echoing his wife's concerns when he implores Fred to marry "in a manner suitable to [his] position" (32). "Impropriety" and its cousin "unsuitability" flow, in the Scroope view of the world, from a facile universalization of judgment, from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to life that does not take into account that which is particular to the individual. A nobleman guilty of an "improper" deed has not remained "conscious of his rank;" his transgression thus amounts to an alienation of self. As we have seen, aristocratic consciousness is, for the Earl and Countess, inextricably bound up with the ability to be of service to others. It may be surmised, then, that impropriety in general and "improper marriages" in particular may have catastrophic consequences not merely for the noble family involved, although indeed Lady Scroope has seen families "scattered, confounded" by such misalliances (159), but also for the community at large.

Strict observance of the code of "propriety" is thus a matter of extreme gravity for the elder Nevilles. We now see the outlines of the ethical consensus they share: the social necessity of class consciousness mandates a morality founded on particularity, one that not only takes into account but indeed is crucially shaped by the specific roles played in the larger community by each individual. Justice cannot be blind. It is in this conception of morality that we must search for the roots of the "good" Lady Scroope's vigorous and even callous efforts to forestall the Neville-O'Hara nuptials; when she, as the novel's spokesperson for the social order typified by Scroope, vehemently attempts to dissuade Fred from marrying Kate even after she knows he has pledged himself to her, she acts not out of cruelty but rather from a code of ethics in which such concepts as "cruelty" become meaningless in discussing people such as Kate. The unyielding specificity of Scroope morality simply leaves no room for the Irish girl. We can distinguish three ways in which Kate's circumstances place her beyond the reach of Lady Scroope's compassion: she is assigned an immutably subordinate position in the latter's ethical system by virtue of her class, her nationality, and her gender.

The way in which Trollope's narrative presents Mrs. and Miss O'Hara is vital to understanding why they lie outside the scope of operation of Lady Scroope's goodness. Our first glimpse of the ill-fated duo, excepting the cryptic Foreword with its description of Mrs. O'Hara's life in the asylum after the action of the novel has been transacted, comes through the eyes of one who shares what we might call the Scroope consensus. This individual, the Protestant Irish noblewoman Lady Mary Quin, is an acquaintance of Lady Scroope who has been deputed to keep an eye on Fred during his military service in County Clare; the scandalized and gossip-laden reports she dispatches to Scroope Manor, breathlessly relaying secondhand news of the goings-on at Ardkill Cottage, are instrumental in driving the plot forward and in providing the reader with a picture of how Fred's indiscretions are viewed by his class at large. Trollope scholar James Pope Henessy suggests that the purpose of introducing the O'Haras in Lady Mary's letter is to surround them with an atmosphere of mystery (Henessy 365); indeed, they become almost supernatural figures for the reader in the chapters before they finally appear on the same diegetic level as the other characters. It seems equally likely, however, that Trollope's intention is to allow us access, on a subjective, first-person basis, to a representative viewpoint of the class whose collective will Fred is to waver on the brink of defying.

Indeed, class concerns obtrusively push themselves to the fore in Lady Mary's missive. "'Nobody knows anything about them,'" she tells Lady Scroope (16); the O'Haras are classless outsiders without any definite position in the rural Irish community they have chosen as their place of refuge. Their social isolation and relative poverty place them squarely outside the range of "suitable" associates for a young aristocrat. Lady Mary Quin expresses doubt as to "whether they belong to the real O'Haras;" she adds, "'I should think not, as they [Mrs. and Miss O'Hara] are Roman Catholics'" (16). (The "real O'Haras" are presumably an illustrious Irish Protestant family.) Even the O'Hara name is rightfully the property of the aristocracy; the unfortunate pair's class and religion debar them from any legitimate claim to what should be among their most personal and inalienable attributes.

Their poverty renders all their motives in extending hospitality to the wealthy heir Fred Neville open to his family's suspicion. "'Our beauties wouldn't have a chance'" without the prospect of rich English officers to marry them, Father Marty explains to Mrs. O'Hara (51). Apparently, then, such marriages between local women and members of the garrison were far from rare; Lady Scroope thus likely sees Kate as one of an undifferentiated horde of penniless Catholic girls waiting to be whisked off to Dorsetshire country houses by naïve English noblemen. Indeed, the circumstances of the women's lives at Ardkill invite speculation as to whether some sort of trap is being set for the unsuspecting Fred; John Sutherland, in his introduction to the Oxford edition of An Eye for an Eye, quotes Simon Raven as advancing a particularly anti-O'Hara variant of this theory (xiv-xv). It seems more likely that the O'Haras' penury and exclusion from the class-stratified local social life make Kate understandably receptive to any development that appears to offer hope of escape. As Henessy points out, "boredom becomes automatically a great danger," (Henessy 365); the ennui in which Kate's Ardkill existence is enveloped makes her more willing to compromise her "virtue" than she might be under more lively conditions.

Father Marty's role further complicates the question of whether the O'Haras' motives can fairly be classified as mercenary. It is certainly easy to see how his indulgent view of the proper level of supervision necessary for unmarried couples, as outlined to Mrs. O'Hara (52-53), could be deemed alarmingly lax from a Scroope vantage point; indeed, the narrator speculates that "Lord Scroope and the Countess, had they known the priest's views on this matter, would have regarded him as an unscrupulous villain, prepared to destroy the happiness of a noble family by a wicked scheme" (52). The lenient visitation policy the priest suggests to Mrs. O'Hara is an indication both of the former's easygoing good nature and of his fervent wish for "justice for Ireland in the guise of wealthy English husbands for pretty Irish girls" (52). For Father Marty, then, Kate's putative position as future Countess of Scroope is a matter not merely of personal advancement for his young protégée, but also one of "justice;" he sees in the "improper marriages" so deplored by Lady Scroope a private and domestic rectification of the public and collective wrongs done to Ireland.

The course of action the priest and Mrs. O'Hara decide to adopt, that of encouraging the nascent romance, is thus for them dictated by social necessity as well as personal expedience. Lord and Lady Scroope, in adopting the sort of outlook that labels this plan a "wicked scheme," wage a form of defensive warfare on behalf of their class. Father Marty's designs represent a direct attack on the stability and structural integrity of the English aristocracy; the Neville family's assessment of Kate O'Hara as unworthy of protection can be construed as a reflexive parry of this maneuver. Class thus shapes the Scroope attitude towards Kate in ways that transcend Lady Scroope's dismissal of her as "ill-born, ill-connected" (159): Father Marty's class-tinged struggle for "justice" inexorably pits the two women against each other.

Categories of class are in An Eye for an Eye closely bound up with those of nationality, religion, and ethnicity. The O'Haras' Catholicism and their close association with the priest render them inalterably suspect even in the eyes of that portion of the Protestant aristocracy that is prepared to disregard their poverty. As the narrator tells us in the first extended third-person discussion of the O'Haras,

Lady Mary had said in her letter to her friend that Mrs. O'Hara was a lady, and as Mrs. O'Hara had no other neighbor, ranking with herself in that respect, so near her, ? charity, one would have thought, might have induced some of the Quin family to notice her. But the Quins were Protestant, and Mrs. O'Hara was not only a Roman Catholic, but a Roman Catholic who had been brought into the parish by the priest. (36)

Mrs. O'Hara's self-identification as and classification by others as a "lady," thus avails her and her daughter nothing within the context of the religiously and ethnically charged colonial conditions that prevail in Ireland. Indeed, after Lady Scroope receives her friend's letter, the narrator informs us that "Roman Catholics-and especially Irish Roman Catholics-were people whom, as she thought, every one should fear in this world, and for whom everything was to be feared in the next." Kate's religion, and by extension, her membership in the politically disenfranchised ethnic and national group that we might with Lady Scroope term "Irish Roman Catholics," are thus central to the Neville family's categorical refusal to sanction her planned marriage to Fred or even to admit the moral validity of Fred's obligations towards her.

Yet the class and national dimensions of this exclusion are-for the contemporary reader and arguably for Trollope as well-in some sense incidental to a more essential determinant of Kate's subordinate place in the Scroope hierarchy of value. It is her gender that most profoundly and indelibly marks her as unworthy of the Nevilles' sympathy. Kate is of course not alone in her marginal status; throughout the novel, woman are in a variety of ways confined within a stifling network of societal pressures and judged mercilessly for any deviation from this exacting set of expectations. To cite just one of the book's vivid illustrations of the gap between men and women in power and rights of self-determination, there is the story of Mrs. O'Hara's catastrophic marriage: despite having begun life with "some small means of her own," she is forced by Captain O'Hara's villainy into penniless exile from her native France, "utterly dissevered from all friends and relatives," and constantly dreading the reappearance of her reprobate spouse (37).

Even women situated in positions of privilege by class and religion are to some extent denied their full humanity within this atmosphere of male supremacy. Lady Scroope, for instance, who is "almost sure that when men went up to the Scotch forests they did not go to church on Sundays" (20) and who views "slang" with comically prim distaste (28), displays what her contemporaries would doubtless label a feminine silliness and prudishness; Lady Mary Quin, variously labeled "a mischief-making gossiping old maid" and a "nasty meddlesome cat" by Fred Neville (71 and 163), manifests similarly "feminine" characteristics with her prurient and self-righteous scandal-mongering; that these ludicrous or unpleasant qualities stem from the harshly restricted and unrelentingly domestic compass of the two women's lives is, however, clear to a modern reader.

We must, then, regard the sexual double standard that precipitates Kate's destruction within the context of a pervasive consensus that women are not to be accorded the same degree of moral autonomy as men. Fred Neville's seduction and impregnation of the Irish girl is viewed by his family as her dereliction, not his; in Lady Scroope's eyes, "that which merited instant, and as regarded this world, perpetual condemnation in a woman might in a man be very easily forgiven" (158). This twofold code of responsibility arises, the novel makes clear, from the deeper dichotomy between the ways in which men and women are permitted to live. When the narrator remarks, in reference to Lady Scroope, "let an old lady be ever so strict towards her own sex, she likes a little wickedness in a young man" (23), we are witnessing the translation into the sexual sphere of the then-prevalent belief that "it is a girl's great business in life to love and be loved" (21). In a climate in which a woman's interests and activities are thus circumscribed, and in which her worth is evaluated primarily on the basis of the manner in which she navigates the ritualized interaction with men that is her "great business in life," it is hardly surprising that "perpetual condemnation" is the lot of women who transgress the social strictures that regulate a courtship process which has assumed hypertrophied importance.

There is abundant evidence that Trollope was keenly aware of the inhumanity of Lady Scroope's harshness towards Kate O'Hara; he devotes several pages of his Autobiography to a spirited polemic against the double standard. Quoting from his own preface to The Vicar of Bullhampton, he argues forcefully, from within a sexist ideology that glorifies passive feminine virtue and purity, for a reassessment of sexual norms:

Cannot women, who are good, pity the sufferings of the vicious, and do something perhaps to mitigate and shorten them without contamination from the vice? It will be admitted probably by most men who have thought upon the subject that no fault among us is so heavily punished as that fault, often so light in itself but so terrible in its consequences to the less faulty of the two offenders, by which a woman falls. (Autobiography 331)

An Eye for an Eye can thus be interpreted as an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of those who, like Lady Scroope, withhold their compassion from "the less faulty of the two offenders" and to dramatize the added cruelty of the failure of women to extend any sort of solidarity towards the "fallen" one: "all her own sex is against her," Trollope laments (Autobiography 331).

It is thus with consciousness of the author's sympathy for Kate's plight that we must search for clues to his "system of ethics" in the novel's harrowing conclusion. A crucial window on his moral consciousness opens when Lady Scroope suffers a late and partial change of heart: previously relentless in her pleas and demands that Fred break the engagement, she implores him on the morning of his final departure for Ireland to trust in his own conscience and his own intimations of divine justice rather than in her advice. "'Now I tell you to look to your Father which is in heaven for guidance, and not to take it from any sinful human being,'" she exhorts him (169); the narrator then states that "it was thus that she intended to tell him that his promise to her [not to marry Kate], made on the previous day, was to count for nought, and that he was to marry the girl if by no other means he could release himself from vice" (170). It would perhaps not be entirely anachronistic to view this reversal in terms of philosopher Erich Fromm's distinction between authoritarian ethics, founded on ukases from a powerful "norm giver," and humanistic ethics, in which the individual is invested with the power "to postulate and to judge the norms valid for his life" (Fromm 20-23). Lady Scroope, tormented by the knowledge that she has counseled, even mandated, a "damnable, devilish" course of action, abandons her attempts to persuade Fred to break the engagement "for [his] uncle's sake" (163). She moves from an authoritarian to a humanistic code when she casts him back on his own moral resources, substituting an appeal to individual conscience for her earlier reliance on the authority of the family and tradition.

A far more direct and forceful critique of the Scroope ethical consensus emerges from the actions of Mrs. O'Hara. She is depicted throughout the novel as a force of primal, even elemental, energy; the "spirit of the tiger," we are told, lurks behind her "rough and dark" beauty (38). The brutal revenge she takes on Fred in the novel's spectacularly violent final scene on the cliffs thus strikes the reader as a straightforward consequence of her untamed nature and fierce maternal instincts. When her murder of Fred is considered in light of the conflict between particular and universal codes of justice discussed above, however, it becomes apparent that her action carries profound significance within the structure of Trollope's "sermon." Kate is, for reasons outlined above, denied consideration as a full human being within the Scroope ethical schema. Because she is "unfitting for nobility" (164), the destruction of her chances for happiness counts for little, from the perspective of the Neville family, when weighed against the necessity of preserving the inviolate purity of the aristocratic bloodline. For Mrs. O'Hara, however, such a code is utterly without validity: as far as she is concerned, Fred Neville has made a promise to her daughter and, Earl or no, he is bound to keep it. When, in her later confinement, she repeats the phrase "an eye for an eye" and again and again asks her attendant, "Is that not the law?," Mrs. O'Hara is thus not simply performing a routine act of self-justification; she chooses her words so as to assert parity between Fred's actions and her own. Decisively rejecting the Neville ethics of particulars, she endorses a universal code of justice in proclaiming the equivalent value of Fred's life and her daughter's.

Trollope's adoption of Mrs. O'Hara's declaration of equality as the novel's title can thus be added to the body of evidence supporting the O'Haras' claim to his allegiance. His achievement in An Eye for an Eye is to convey the dialectical tension between two rival conceptions of justice without flattening the moral nuances of either. The final Pyrrhic triumph of the O'Haras and of their insistence on the reciprocity of moral obligations is shadowed by the tragic awareness of what has been lost. The ambiguity of the novel's resolution perhaps reflects a deep-seated ambivalence on the part of the novelist: Trollope, the quintessential novelist of character and manners, has brought himself to endorse a "system of ethics" that transcends all such considerations.

Works Cited:

apRoberts, Ruth. The Moral Trollope. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1971.

Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Fawcett. 1947.

Henessy, James Pope. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Little, Brown. 1971.

Kincaid, James. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1977.

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. Ed. Michael Sadleir and Frederick Page. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999.

An Eye for an Eye. Ed. John Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992.

1 Ruth apRoberts has made a similar argument for a humanistic and democratic ethical subtext to Trollope's fiction. She contends that "he is always recommending, by means of his cases, a more flexible morality. His stance is that of what we now call Situation Ethics" (apRoberts 52). My intention here is in a sense the mirror image of apRoberts's: I would like to highlight the ways in which the relativistic outlook apRoberts terms "casuistic ethics"(54) lies open to the pressures of class stratification and gender inequity and to draw attention to the egalitarianism implied in the idea of a universal and absolute ethical code. James Kincaid provides a short critical exposition of apRoberts's argument in The Novels of Anthony Trollope (Kincaid 11-16).
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