Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Sinclair’s interest in psychoanalysis informs her investigation of the retarding effects of culture on the individual, especially on women. Like Gwenda, Sinclair herself had been repressed by Victorian attitudes. In this novel, for example, the Vicar (representing social norms) stereotypes his daughters as either monsters (Alice and Gwenda) or angels (Mary) and denies their validity as individuals. Marriage, the most sacred of Victorian institutions, is repeatedly attacked by Sinclair as dehumanizing. Furthermore, Victorian moral priorities, which place sexual purity over kindness, are questioned. For example, when the maidservant of the vicarage is dismissed for being pregnant, Gwenda tells her father, “I’d rather do what Essy’s done. . . than do mean or cruel things.” The most sympathetic men, Steven and Jim, are praised for doing things as gently and carefully as women, indicating that compassion is a necessary quality for both sexes. Sinclair also reveals the antagonism between nature and culture through symbolism. Houses stifle and crush people and are compared to tombs, while the moors are “naked” and foster “freedom.” Alice is unable to make love to Jim in the house which oppresses her, so he takes her to the barn where her natural instincts are not overshadowed.

Sinclair’s use of Freudian psychology, especially in her emphasis on unconscious motivation, assumes a deterministic natural force at work that is stronger than human cultural ideals. Sinclair does not, however, intend to show that the ultimate purpose in life is to satisfy unthinkingly one’s sexual drive, as Alice has done, but rather to attain a “sustained lucidity” or at least moments of lucidity in which the individual can become conscious of herself and rise above mere instinct. These moments come through both ecstasy and pain. The high points of Gwenda’s life are thus the transcendent moments of joy (the mystical experiences triggered by the beauty of nature and Steven’s love) and the moments of sorrow (the tragic insights) through which she lives a more intense life than do those around her. Gwenda’s tragedy is that her potential remains undeveloped.