Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Nineteenth century fiction maintains a delicate balance between realism and Romanticism, often with a strong foundation of sentimentality. In England at the end of the century, George Moore led the way toward the kind of literary realism represented in France by Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola, but he believed that the most carefully observed facts are insufficient unless seen through the glass of imagination and humanity. Marked by unprecedented frankness, Esther Waters was the first English novel to reveal the pilgrimage through life of a human being as a physical creature. The novel caused a scandal almost as great as that caused by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) and was for a time banned from circulating libraries; it had a tremendous influence on the works of younger writers, among them W. Somerset Maugham, who was inspired to write his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897).
Moore deliberately took a mundane subject, wrote about it using circumstantial and realistic detail, and did so without melodrama; his simple prose style nonetheless establishes place and setting with surprising poetic impact. The novel presents a vivid picture of the life of a lower-class young woman from a large family, with a mother who has married a man who is not prepared to support his step-children. Blessed with little education, Esther Waters has few alternatives other than to become a servant, and Moore portrays in unflinching detail the lives of such girls in the nineteenth century in large country houses and lower-middle-class homes. At best, such work represents a temporary refuge, and servants live in fear of being cast out and thus being deprived of shelter. Often the only alternatives for a girl like Esther, once she becomes pregnant, are prostitution or suicide. For Esther, as a deeply religious young woman, such alternatives are untenable, depriving her of further means of survival.
While Esther is a woman of great principle, those same principles are limited and limiting. Functionally illiterate, despite her employer’s efforts to teach her to read, Esther is also unable to read her life in emotional terms. Having led a sheltered existence, she is frequently unable to read the situations in which she finds herself. Although she has a well-developed sense of what is right and wrong, she is easily led by arguments that center on her religious belief. Thus, William Latch is able to persuade her to marry him by hinting that it is her Christian duty to do, even though she knows that she will be much happier with Fred Parsons, whose outlook is similar to her own. Thus, while Esther briefly enjoys the fruits of William’s seeming success, elevated to the role of mistress with servants of her own, it is inevitable that the rise in her fortunes will be followed by a fall. It is enough that Esther has managed to educate her son, Jackie, during these prosperous years.
Esther has been absorbed by one central focus: her child. Her thoughts are on how to save him, how to raise him, and how to make him into a decent man. Her overwhelming concern for her son has led her to make heroic stands against social injustice. One thinks in particular of her refusal to pay for her newborn son to be murdered by the baby farmer and, similarly, of her rejection of a post as wet nurse to save her own son. When Esther suggests to Mrs. Rivers that she might like to nurse her own child and, thus, ensure the survival of two children, Esther’s criticism of the wet-nurse system is unequivocal. Her speech, however, is directed purely by her care for her own child rather than by any awareness of social injustice. Her moral sense is powerful but limited because she cannot see beyond her own situation (she lacks even the opportunity to do so). This is her strength in terms of her ability to survive, but it is perceived as a weakness by early commentators because Esther cannot represent anyone but herself; middle-class heroines have a more universal appeal and an ability to speak.
Nonetheless, Esther’s struggle, told in human terms, speaks powerfully to the reader. Regardless of how limited her viewpoint may be, she emerges as a heroine of majestic proportions, all the more magnificent because in her own eyes she is only a miserable creature doing the best she can with little hope and few expectations. Moore offers a powerful critique of the narrowness and hypocrisy of the middle-class households through which Esther passes, which by their very contrast illuminate the genuine goodness of Esther, Miss Rice, Mrs. Barfield, and a few others. He also provides a vivid portrait of the ways in which the lower classes struggle to survive. The various social scourges—drinking and gambling among them—are described in detail, but Moore provides a view that is as much sympathetic as it is critical. He also grants Esther a final respite when, having lost her husband and her home, she is able to return to her original situation at Woodview, where she supports her newly debt-ridden former mistress. While this irony will not be lost on the reader, Esther herself remains content.
Similarly, Esther reveals her pride in her son, Jackie, when he visits to say good-bye before he goes to war. She is proud of having brought him up to serve the imperial project. The reader wonders whether Jackie will ever return. Esther has no long view to take, and for that reason she is content.
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