Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
Chapter 13: Rachael
Stephen returns to his room and finds Rachael attending his wife, who is in a feverish, semiconscious state from which she is not expected to emerge until the morning. Rachael has changed the woman’s clothes, tidied and swept the room, and rigged a sheet around the bed, so Stephen can’t see her. On a low table by the bed stand two bottles of medicine, one marked “Poison.” The sight of it makes him shiver, which Rachael attributes to his staying out late in the heavy rain and high winds.
At Rachael’s urging, Stephen goes to sleep in his chair. He dreams that it is his wedding day and he is standing in church by his bride. During the ceremony, he becomes aware of a great light shining from the words of one of the Ten Commandments by the altar. Then he hears the words sounded out, “as if there were voices in the fiery letters.” The scene changes, and he is standing with the clergyman before a vast crowd, all staring at his face. He is on a raised stage. Above him is his power loom, which, as he hears the words of the burial service, changes shape, and he knows he is there to be executed. He feels himself falling…and is returned, still dreaming, to regular life, gloomily convinced that he has been condemned never to see Rachael’s face again. He is haunted by a shape: the shape of the bottle with the deadly label. Everything he sees keeps turning into the bottle—the very chimneys of the mills turn into the bottle, with the dire warning wrapped around them. Still dreaming, he finds himself back in his own room, in the chair, with Rachael asleep in another chair. The woman behind the sheet starts to move. As if in a trance he watches her reach for the fatal medicine, pour it into a mug, and bring it to her lips. Just at this moment Rachael wakes up and snatches away the cup. Stephen, too, starts out of his chair, demanding to know if he has been awake or dreaming what has just passed.
Rachael calmly gets rid of the poison and says she has to leave. As she is about to descend the stairs, he asks in a low voice if she’s not afraid to leave the woman with him alone. Kneeling down to her, he goes on to confess the dark thoughts he had had about the bottle. Horrified, she puts her hands on his mouth. He grasps her hands with his, and, still kneeling, declares that from now on, whenever he sees or thinks of his wife, he will see Rachael beside her as she was this night.
Two powerful Victorian stereotypes of women are at play in this chapter. Rachael is the woman as ministering angel, a figure to be worshiped, as Stephen almost literally does at the end of the chapter. The other, his wife, is the woman of abandon with degraded appetites. Dickens has made Stephen’s unnamed wife a chronic alcoholic into the bargain, so that there is never any possibility of learning what her perspective might be on her situation. This is because she has no perspective, Dickens evidently not thinking it necessary to endow her with one. She is in fact a creature barely human, a monstrous, deformed thing who must, rather like the “Elephant Man” be kept hidden behind a sheet.
Stephen’s wife was once a girlhood friend of Rachael’s. Rachael’s loyalty to her old friend, and her certainty that Stephen would want her to, made her come to the woman’s aid. In a chapter supercharged with Christian imagery, Rachael quotes the words of Jesus: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone at her!”
This chapter, in which at one point all three people slip in and out of conscious awareness, is a good example of Dickens’ remarkable pre-Freudian familiarity, not just with the secret and forbidden impulses and wishes revealed in dreams, but with border states between consciousness and unconsciousness.
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