Critical Evaluation (Masterplots: Revised Category Edition)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

During 1848 and 1849 while Charlotte Brontë was writing SHIRLEY, her sisters Emily and Anne and her brother Branwell all died. Since her two older sisters and her mother had died earlier, Charlotte, thirty-three years old and unmarried, was left to care for her father. Some evidence suggests that these sad experiences made her add a happy ending to SHIRLEY. Her original plan called for Caroline to become an old maid.

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In this novel, as in JANE EYRE, which it followed, Brontë showed her keen interest in the inner selves of her characters. Here she has concerned herself principally with two contrasting characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone, one spirited and independent, the other shy and delicate. Her divided interest between these two characters, however, is the main cause of the novel’s structural disunity. Shirley, whom the reader expects to be the protagonist, is not introduced until nearly one third of the book is completed, and thereafter the writer shuttles back and forth between the two characters, oblivious of integration; concern with the labor problems of the early nineteenth century, obviously not the author’s forte, also detracts from the structural unity. The plot is too contrived, leaning heavily on unrealistic turns, such as the revelation that Mrs. Pryor is Caroline’s mother and Robert’s sudden declaration of love for Caroline. Emotion often degenerates into sentimentality; but there are moments, particularly in the description of the Yorkshire countryside, when the finer Romantic qualities of Brontë reach the peaks of JANE EYRE.

In SHIRLEY, Brontë uses the omniscient point of view, an experiment that did not suit her artistic theory. Furthermore, she tried to write about historical social movements outside her immediate experience, and although she researched the material carefully, she was unable to endow it with the intense living quality that JANE EYRE possesses. She was no doubt influenced to use the omniscient narrator—who comments often and at length to the reader—by the contemporary writers she admired, Thackeray and George Henry Lewes (lifelong companion of George Eliot). SHIRLEY is in the Victorian tradition of a “public” novel, employing characters of various classes and much information about the society of the time. The novel is set in 1811-1812, during the Luddite riots, the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars when the Orders in Council had cut off most markets of the Yorkshire woolen trade. The Luddites were textile workers who banded together to destroy the new labor-saving machinery in protest against reduced wages and unemployment.

Such subject matter demands the omniscient narrator, and the Victorian novelists excelled in this manner of presentation. SHIRLEY’s point of view, however, lacks coherence. The omniscient narrator never seems to understand clearly her own voice: she is at various times ironic, amused, sympathetic, or analytic. There is none of the unity of tone that marks the first-person narrator in JANE EYRE or VILLETTE.

Nevertheless, SHIRLEY is interesting if only to present ideas with which Brontë was much concerned, especially the problem of the unmarried woman in a society that accorded status only to the wife and mother.

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Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)

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