Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, succeeding The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857). As in the first two novels, Trollope describes the social realities of his mythical county, providing extraordinary insight into the English class structure and the social realities of the nineteenth century. Unlike the first two works, which were concerned with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town, Trollope turns his attention in this novel to the landed wealth of Barsetshire. The gentry, represented by the Greshams, are in decline because of the political imprudence of the squire, who aligns himself with his wife’s family, the De Courcys, notoriously aristocratic and notoriously Whig. Having lost his Tory constituency and his money, Squire Gresham attempts to save the estate for his son.

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It is at this point that Doctor Thorne, one of Trollope’s ideal gentlemen, enters the story. The squire’s only confidant, he serves not only as the family physician but also as its moral and spiritual counselor. Rigorous in his ethics, proud of his social station, and in no way awed by the upper classes, Doctor Thorne supports the squire in his attempt to restore the estate to its former vigor. Despising snobbish and pretentious aristocrats such as the De Courcys, who have no loyalty to the life of the land, he seeks to help his friend by advising various economies and suggesting judicious loans.

If the moral strength that saves Greshamsbury Park comes from the doctor, it is the money of Sir Roger Scatcherd that enables Gresham to recoup and permits Frank and Mary to wed. Scatcherd, who represents the new industrial wealth, unwittingly saves the agriculture of the area from the moneylenders of London. It is in this alignment that Trollope reveals his political sympathies with the English upper middle class and his antagonism to the aristocracy and their morality.

Doctor Thorne surpasses both of its predecessors in its range of characters and situations. It relies very heavily on melodrama, and the ending is distinctly reminiscent of a fairy tale, yet the scene setting and dialogue are as good as anything Trollope ever wrote. “Frank must marry money” is the refrain that integrates the novel. Lady Arabella is quite willing to sacrifice everything—her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation, Doctor Thorne’s medical care of her—if only her son will attach himself to a rich woman. Lady Arabella’s husband, Squire Gresham, supports her, even though in his heart he approves of Mary and wants to honor his son’s love for her. Scatcherd thinks the power of his money will secure Mary for his dissolute son, Louis Philippe, who thinks the same. Doctor Thorne, who is neither intimidated nor awed by the aristocratic Gresham and De Courcy families, realizes the difficulty of Mary’s situation. If she does not inherit her uncle’s money, the prospects for her and Frank are bleak. Even Mary, although she never disavows her love for Frank, is willing (at Lady Arabella’s urging) to write him a letter releasing him from his promise to marry her.

The only character besides Frank who steadfastly refuses to concede to the power of money is Miss Dunstable. An heiress in her thirties who is tired of the many men who have courted her for her money, she tells Frank that if he sticks by his first love, his determination to marry for love will eventually provide him with a living as well. Her advice would seem sentimental if she were not presented as such a worldly character. She is one of Trollope’s finest creations, a shrewd and sophisticated woman who insists that Frank act on his own feelings and principles. To marry money, Miss Dunstable implies, will be not his salvation but his ruin, for he will have lost his real self.

Through the sensible Miss Dunstable Trollope sounds his theme that it is not blood or money that makes the man or woman but rather strength of character. Miss Dunstable seems a happy and well-adjusted person precisely because she knows herself and her society so well. Unlike so many of the other characters, she is not hypocritical, self-deceiving, or self-serving.

Trollope’s other admirable characters have similar traits. Doctor Thorne, though less polished than Miss Dunstable and considerably more abrupt in his social intercourse, exhibits the same trueness of spirit. He is quite willing to offend Lady Arabella in the defense of his niece, Mary, whose excellent character, he realizes, is her only possession. For a similar reason, Doctor Thorne admires Scatcherd, a violent man and a drunkard, for his plain speaking and hard-working life.

Of course, Doctor Thorne and the other honest characters suffer for their plain speaking and their refusal to submit to money interests or the aristocracy. Trollope allows them to survive, however, and even thrive because their fierce defense of self is combined with sensitivity to the power of social norms and authorities. Thus Doctor Thorne continues to treat Lady Arabella professionally as a doctor, even while he takes exception to her treatment of his niece; for one thing, he needs the income from ministering to the Gresham family. Frank Gresham, too, shows respect for his family’s values by agreeing to go away for a year to test their view that his separation from Mary will destroy his love for her. Trollope’s most mature characters, in other words, assert themselves without repudiating societal standards. They have firm but flexible personalities, and in due course they are rewarded with success.

Trollope’s management of plot and dialogue is enthralling. He delays the announcement of Mary’s inheritance of Scatcherd’s fortune until the end of the novel. He ingeniously takes Lady Arabella and Doctor Thorne through several confrontation scenes that gradually intensify the differences between them. Through his description of Louis Philippe’s pathetic decline and death from too much drink and self-indulgence, he shows someone without any inner resources dying in a surfeit of wealth.

Trollope mitigates the melodramatic and fairy-tale aspects of his story with his narrative voice. The narrator often acknowledges that he is telling a story and even apologizes for faults such as the excessive length of the novel’s first two chapters; he considers them necessary to explain the social and historical background of Frank and Mary’s story, but he regrets that he has to introduce so much material so early in his novel. These confessions are disarming. The reader seems to be taken into the novelist’s confidence. Indeed, Trollope invites the reader to feel superior to the narrator and at the same time indulgent toward his loquacious asides and digressions.

Because Trollope’s theme is the nature of society and the power of money, because he draws characters with such precision and allows them to speak for themselves, his narrator is free to embark on many asides and subplots, for each digression from the main story enriches the background. As historian and novelist, Trollope resembles in tone the Henry Fielding of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). Both novelists fully immerse readers in their characters’ lives and yet retain a vivid consciousness of themselves as writing literature. Trollope does not go as far as the earlier Fielding in discoursing on the conventions of storytelling; on the contrary, his voluble narrator assumes an awareness of the tradition of novel writing and confines his comments only to the shape of his own story. The relaxed, casual tone and leisurely narrative are an extension of Trollope’s supple moral insights.

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