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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy by Charles Reade

on April 9, 2014

I had never heard of this novel until last year, and if you’re able to track down a copy anywhere, it’s a brilliant read. I used it in an essay at University in comparison to Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right – see if you can find any similarities between them 🙂 I could only find the book as a PDF file online, so this is probably your best bet to get your hands on it. Of course I always have to go for the difficult out-of-print novels 😛

Published in 1869, Reade’s relatively unheard of novel depicts (not surprisingly!) the character of Griffith Gaunt and the effects of jealousy on his very being. I found it to be a great companion alongside the Trollope, but I’ll tell you a bit about it first, and you can let me know whether you agree 🙂 Reade’s novel centres around the examination of the male state of mind which he portrays to be an extremely fragile entity. The male protagonist of the novel is shown to suffer from severe jealousy regarding the conduct of his wife, Kate, to the extent that his doubts and suspicions overpower his faculty of reasoning, and he succumbs to transform into the monster his jealousy has inspired. I almost make it sound as if he transforms into a werewolf or other beast, but Reade’s expert way of describing Griffith will make any reader instantly think of Jekyll and Hyde. As we already know, there was a certain standard of masculinity expected from the Victorian male. This required emotional reserve in any situation, and the knowledge that he was head of the household, dominating over the passive female. Victorian men were supposed to be able to show they could control their wives; they should be capable of gaining her submission, and to quell her thirst for conduct and acquaintances not deemed appropriate. Let’s just say, Griffith believes there are a few inappropriate acquaintances for his wife, and when she refuses to listen, that’s when things start to turn ugly. Notably, the issue of masculine status doesn’t really seem to be a problem for Griffith like it is for Louis Trevelyan in the Trollope; Griffith’s only concern is his wife’s actions.

Like Trollope’s novel, the reader encounters many allusions to Shakespeare’s Othello. The most notable aspect is the Iago character in Reade. He chooses to subvert the role and adopt a female Iago in the form of the maid, Caroline Ryder. The narrative, like Othello, is a tale of a jealous husband, with a snake of an advisor, whose job it is to pour poison in his ear about his wife. This gender reversal is significant to the text, perhaps showing that women can be just as devious as men when they want to be. In fact, at one point, Caroline is explicitly referred to as ‘this female Iago.’ Griffith believes his wife to be unfaithful based on very little evidence, only that of the lies told to him by Caroline – the Othello plot. His jealousy has distorted his vision and his reasoning, and it’s impossible for him to see a way out of his dilemma. This jealous fury is engineered and exacerbated by Caroline who does an expert job of filling the Iago role. Griffith suspects his wife of nothing until Caroline arrives on the scene. She wants to claim Griffith as her own, and the only way she can do this is by pouring lies into his ear about his wife’s fidelity towards him. She hopes to become his close confidante, but what she doesn’t expect is the monster that she eventually transforms him into. Griffith believes everything he is told without actually witnessing anything untoward, refuses to listen to his wife’s pleas, and drives himself out of his mind with his own constructions. The critic Emerson Grant Sutcliffe, observes that Charles Reade thought that ‘jealous agony is the one torment men cannot fly from; it fascinates, it holds, it maddens.’ To me, this view sums up the main characters of both the Reade and the Trollope novels. Once doubt and suspicion sets in, each protagonist can do nothing to shake it. It becomes all they can think of, consuming every moment of their every day; it is the end of their sanity once it takes hold.

I’d also like to talk about the effect this jealousy has on Griffith. As mentioned earlier, we see a total alteration in the character from happy, functioning man to degenerative maniac. Reade’s descriptions of the changes that occur in Griffith could almost belong in any horror novel. It could be that the works of the French theorist Jean Étienne Esquirol influenced works of literature where madness takes hold. He worked on and analysed the concept of monomania, effectively mad on the subject of one thing only which consumes the sufferer. I believe that Griffith, unable to cope with his wife’s invented adultery, feels forced to plunge himself into a solely internal world where, apparently, only he makes sense. Due to this internalisation, it’s important to ask whether the character of Griffith is really the same man after his jealous alteration takes place. He’s clearly not in control of his actions, even impulsively considering shooting the priest, Leonard, whom he believes is his rival for his wife’s affections. Questions of personal identity through madness were a popular issue during the nineteenth century, where the doctrine of criminal insanity was constantly under intense scrutiny, defining madness as not knowing right from wrong.

Is the madman really responsible for his own actions?

The critic Chris Wiesenthal examines the physical effect jealousy and madness could have on the body, claiming that the symptoms are similar to that of acute melancholia, such as ‘anorexia, insomnia, and profuse perspiration… [taking] the form of a literal self-consumption, a ‘wasting’ of flesh, muscle, and vital fluids which, ultimately, leaves little more than skeletal remains.’ This is something the reader sees when jealousy takes hold of Griffith Gaunt. We see that:

‘Griffith’s appearance and manner caused Mrs Gaunt very serious anxiety. His clothes hung loose on his wasted frame; his face was of one uniform sallow tint, like a maniac’s… gnawed mad by three vultures… doubt, jealousy, and suspense.’

Gaunt by name, Gaunt by appearance.

At the outset of Reade’s novel, the reader gets a look at Griffith’s destructive jealousy first-hand. On seeing Neville’s admirations of his future wife, we are told of the change in Griffith’s form, through Catherine witnessing:

‘the livid passion of jealousy writhing in every lineament of a human face. That terrible passion had transfigured its victim in a moment… in his place lowered a face, older, and discoloured, and convulsed, and almost demoniacal.’

It is almost as if Catherine can see the poison of jealousy coursing through his veins. Griffith becomes a victim of excessive passions, at once aging and demonising his appearance. Griffith seems to take the concept of the Othello green-ey’d monster to another level; he both physically and mentally becomes that monster. When Griffith does let his jealousy get the better of him later in the novel, it manifests itself in greater ways than ever before. It has been hidden so long, it has developed into insanity and blind rage. On its appearance, Catherine acknowledges ‘she had not seen that vile expression in his face for many a year,’ but in a scene the reader does not see between Louis and Emily in the Trollope, she articulates his insanity to his face. She states, ‘Madman that you are… I throw away excuses on Jealousy, and I waste reason upon phrenzy.’ She knows her denials are wasted on Griffith when he is in such a state, but she cannot continue to let him think ill of her. Throughout the novel, Catherine (or Kate) becomes more and more religious and is therefore drawn towards the new priest, Leonard. Caroline sees this as her chance to influence her master’s thoughts and uses this close relationship to her advantage. However, in his madman state, Griffith is not the same reasonable person, and therefore cannot think rationally of his wife’s pleading statements to him. His passions and jealousy bubble beneath the surface like a dormant volcano, slumbering until an explosion is necessary.

When this explosion happens, it injures all parties involved more than ever before. The extent to which jealousy and insanity overtakes his personality is astonishing to the reader. He is shown to have ‘the face, the eyes, the gestures, the incoherent mutterings of a raving Bedlamite,’ essentially behaving as though he belongs in an asylum. However, this is nothing compared to the extreme consequences he becomes victim to through his own jealous passions. On pouring yet more lies into her master’s ear, Caroline Ryder causes Griffith’s most insane reaction yet. The reader is told that: ‘Griffith’s features were horribly distorted, his eyes rolled fearfully, and he fell to the ground, grinding his teeth, and foaming at the mouth. An epileptic fit!’

Griffith has believed lies, and worked himself into such frenzy, that his body gives out, and he is subject to a violent seizure. His jealousy has overtaken his mind to such an extent that it overwhelms his body’s capability to deal with the situation rationally. By the close of the novel, the reader is presented with a far more remorseful character than we get at the end of Trollope’s extensive read. He writes to Catherine, ‘I do not ask you to forgive me; for, if you had done what I have, I could never forgive you,’ showing he is well aware of his wrong-doings towards his wife – an admittance Trevelyan takes great pains to avoid. Therefore, it could be the case that the reader thinks more of Griffith because he is not afraid to admit he was in the wrong, and has behaved appallingly. The novel therefore ends happily, with Griffith’s wife accepting his apology and agreeing to let him back into her life.

Despite being a rather difficult novel to track down, I really would recommend this to everyone. The allusions to Shakespeare are a welcome addition, and the debate over the responsibilities of madmen is an extremely interesting one. Even though Griffith loses his power of ratiocination, it’s rather difficult not to condemn him for his foolish actions. He’s so blinded by jealous fury that he cannot see the truth that lies in front of him. At least we get an apology from him! Ideally, as I have said, read this alongside the Trollope to get a nice little comparison of how jealousy over nothing can affect the main characters 🙂 A long read, but a great one! 🙂

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3 responses to “Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy by Charles Reade

  1. This is on my library pile, for my 100 Years of Books project, I was having doubts, but now you have dispelled them. For that – and for another wonderful post – thank you!

  2. Helen says:

    Great post. I love the sound of this book, though I have a copy of another of Charles Reade’s books, The Cloister and the Hearth, which I will probably read first.

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