Thoughts on Thyrza by George Gissing (or: What Happens When an Author Reduces a Dynamic Character to a Symbol)

I once came across a Neil Gaiman quote that rang incredibly true to me: “People tend to find books when they are ready for them.” It’s actually a rather uncanny experience to pick up a book and find that it entirely jibes with—or even mirrors—your current state of mind, but that’s the experience I had recently when I read Thyrza by George Gissing and encountered passages like this:

Mrs. Ormonde had determined that, if her exertion would accomplish it, Thyrza should yet have as large a share of happiness as a sober hope may claim for a girl of passionate instincts…To be sure, such claim cannot be extravagant. The happy people of the world are the dull, unimaginative beings from whom the gods, in their kindness, have veiled all vision of the rising and the setting day, of sea-limits, and of the stars of the night, whose ears are thickened against the hungry cry of music, where thought finds nowhere mystery.

Now, there’s an obvious elitism here that I don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. That said, Gissing gets something about the nature of desire really right, and it struck a chord with me. Haven’t we all felt, at some point, that our lives would be easier if we didn’t want the things/experiences/people that we want? It’s a frustration I’ve felt with increasing intensity lately, so when I read this passage, I was like putty. Gissing could have spent the remainder of the novel discussing the finer workings of the late Victorian millinery industry—not entirely out of the realm of possibility, in a nineteenth-century novel—and I’d still be extolling his genius.

That said, the ending of the novel made me a little queasy, and it did so precisely because Gissing, in Thyrza herself, had earlier created such a wonderfully deep character with such wonderfully complex emotions. Before I flesh out my misigivings, though, let me backtrack by giving a quick synopsis of the plot.

The story, then, is this: Thyrza Trent is a hat-trimmer who, at the age of seventeen, agrees to marry her friend and neighbor Gilbert Grail. Though Grail is considerably older, Thyrza is drawn to both his intelligence and his aspirations; himself a working-class man, Grail is also something of an autodidact who spends his free hours reading voraciously. And, for a time, things seem like they might be looking up; Grail becomes friends with Oxford-educated, upper middle-class Walter Egremont, who plans to make Grail the superintendent of a library. Unfortunately, Thyrza and Egremont meet and fall in love with (as you might guess) suitably unhappy results.

Thyrza is a novel that begins by reading like Thomas Hardy and ends by echoing Henry James—which is to say that it seems to be heading in the direction of high tragedy only to subside into understated bittersweetness. I’m tempted to say this likely has a good deal to do with when the novel was written. Like Hardy and James, Gissing was writing at the tail end of the Victorian period, so it makes a certain amount of sense (chronologically, stylistically, etc.) that the melodrama of the first half of the novel would ultimately shade off into something more subdued. Thyrza breaks her engagement with Grail, but she is not seduced by Egremont, nor does she run into his arms; she does not, that is, become anything like the archetypical fallen woman. In fact, Egremont and Thyrza never once admit—to each other—that they are in love. Instead, this is a novel of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Characters speak around their thoughts and desires rather than stating them directly, and are thus at constant cross-purposes. It is all, again, very Jamesian. And Thyrza herself is ultimately doomed less by society writ large than by one man’s commonplace cowardice; Egremont ultimately marries the middle-class Annabel Newthorpe.

Really, though, I’ve gone through all of this background just so that I can highlight one particular moment: Annabel’s gentle admonishment of Egremont at the novel’s end. It goes as follows:

I saw her [Thyrza] once, here, and I have seen her portrait. The crisis of your life was there. There was your one great opportunity, and you let it pass. She could not have lived; but that is no matter. You were tried, Mr. Egremont, and found wanting.

And then a little later, she continues:

You missed the great opportunity of your life when you abandoned Thyrza. Her love would have made of you what mine never could, even though she herself had been taken from you very soon.

There’s something poignant in this meditation on lost chances, but there’s also something rather disturbing about its reduction of Thyrza to a character test. This is, after all, Thyrza—not Walter or Egremont. Thyrza is at times naive, pettish, and spoiled, but it is difficult to remain cold to the sheer force and intensity of her feelings; she is supremely believable (and sympathetic) as a character. And yes, there is an implicit classism to the idea that Thyrza is “too good” for her circumstances, but as I said earlier, it seems to me that Gissing’s portrayal of her is just as much about the pain of human longing, full stop. So there’s something unsettling in seeing her transformed into a symbol of sacred, guiding femininity in the novel’s last pages; she’s in danger of becoming something like a muse, and that’s a role she categorically rejects a hundred or so pages earlier. And because I spent the majority of the novel in a state of over-identification, I felt personally let down when I read this.

Then again, maybe I’m not giving Gissing enough credit; perhaps the point is that Egremont still misses the point. That would be pretty Jamesian too.

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Filed under Books I've Read (and Thought About), Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

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