The dichotomy that exists between city and country life is a theme that many writers have been drawn towards across the centuries, not least since the Industrial Revolution. Typically, the country is associated with idyllic life, a place with a strong sense of community, where relationships are wholesome and meaningful and life ambles past at a leisurely pace, uncomplicated and relatively trouble free. In contrast, city life is most often portrayed as being full of complexities, where individuals work hard and play hard, and where life is self-orientated and relationships are often futile.
Through a literary and linguistic comparative study of their works, Great Expectations, The Waste Land, and Tales of the City, respectively, I will attempt to show how Charles Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and Armistead Maupin deal with this theme, showing to what extent the depiction of city and country life within these texts corresponds or contrasts with the stereotype. In so doing, I will concentrate most fully on the relationships hat exist between the characters in each of the texts.
Set in the heart of 1970’s San Francisco, Armistead Maupin’s novel, Tales of the City, follows the fortunes of Mary Ann, a twenty-something female protagonist who has moved to the city in search of a more exciting and fulfilling existence than her rural hometown of Cleveland can offer. Much like a soap opera in structure, the novel charts each episode that Mary Ann and her new-found acquaintances encounter within the bustle of the city.
In a similar way, Great Expectations concerns the fortunes of Pip, a young male who moves from the countryside to the metropolis of London to realize his great expectations and become a financial and social success, only to find that these goals were not as great as he first assumed. Finally, Eliot’s epic poem, The Wasteland, has at its core – amongst an array of other themes, such as religious and sexual depravity – the emptiness and monotony of life in the city.
PART ONE – THE LOVELESS RELATIONSHIPS WITHIN CITY LIFE From a first reading of each of the three texts, it is apparent that the majority of relationships depicted within the city are both loveless and futile. Most often, these meaningless relationships are in contrast with the stereotype of the idyllic life of the countryside, and reinforce the stereotype of the debased existence that characterizes life in the city, where relationships are predominantly shown to be empty and self-fulfilling.
In Maupin’s novel, this is seen in the infidelity and promiscuousness of Beauchamp, but is most clearly shown in the behaviour of Connie, Mary Ann’s ex-school friend who she meets up with when she first arrives in San Francisco. The many relationships Connie enters into are promiscuous in nature and are based merely on loveless sex and little much else. This is apparent when she informs Mary Ann about a bad experience she had at a club she frequented: ‘I recognized him straight away, because him and me did a little number last month’ (Tales of the City, page 21).
Just who ‘him’ refers to is never made known. This suggests that Connie’s relationships are shallow in the extreme, since she only recognizes her recent sexual partner by his appearance: his name and personality are of no importance to her, it is only the man’s ability to function sexually that matters to Connie. Further still, her use of the colloquial phrase, ‘did a little number’, reinforces how casually Connie treats sex, making it seem a mere form of entertainment rather than an expression of love.
Love, it seems, is a quality she rarely associates with sexual activity. More to the point, while informing Mary Ann of her bad experience, Connie makes known that the man she spoke of did not even recognize her, suggesting that sexual activity to him is also about self-satisfaction, rather than about expressing one’s love for another. As such, by placing this episode so early in the novel, Maupin creates the immediate impression that relationships within the city are shallow and devoid of love, their basis being founded merely on satisfying one’s own sexual appetite.
Similarly, throughout The Waste Land, Eliot also utilizes loveless relationships and meaningless sex to show how hollow relationships within the city are, exemplifying once again how self-orientated city life is. This is realized most fully in ‘A Game of Chess’, where Eliot describes a couple stuck in a hopeless relationship where all sense of understanding and communication has broken down. At this point in the poem, we encounter the woman in the relationship questioning her husband, desperately asking her partner to communicate:
Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think. (The Waste Land, lines 111-115 ) The constant questioning, added to the repetition of the words ‘speak’ and ‘think’, creates a tone of extreme anxiety as the woman tries to communicate with her partner. Nevertheless, this is a futile attempt, as she fails to elicit any verbal response from the man, despite allowing him time to respond, signified by the caesura between the two stanzas above.
From the initial imperative the woman uses, ‘Stay with me’, it is apparent that her desperation is more the result of a fear of being alone, rather than a fear of losing the man’s love: the fact that all sense of communication between them has broken down indicates that, if love ever existed between the pair, it has long since vanished. On the other hand, while the man fails to respond to his wife’s utterances, we do receive an insight into his thoughts throughout the episode.
He makes known that he believes that, metaphorically speaking, they are ‘in rat’s alley, where the dead men lost their bones’ (TWL, ll. 115-6 ). As such, he suggests that the relationship is already dead, ‘rat’s alley’ holding connotations of the grave, where the rats can gnaw upon the bones of the dead relationship. The relationship is, ultimately, beyond revival; and to return to the earlier point, it seems even more valid to suggest that the woman only wants to hold onto it out of a fear of being alone, rather than out of love.
Once again, then, relationships in the city are depicted in a negative light, this one being almost as loveless and futile as Connie’s in Tales of the City. Eliot’s title for this section of the poem, ‘A Game of Chess’, gives a further insight into the nature of the couple’s relationship. A two player strategy game where the opponents engage in a battle of wits, each being required to out maneuver the other and to anticipate what the other is thinking before making the next move, chess is the perfectly chosen metaphor for the relationship described.
The use of the indefinite – rather than the definite – article in the title, however, suggests that such occurrences as those described in this section are common within the relationships held in the city; while the fact that the two players, so to speak, remain unnamed and are only ever referred to as ‘I’ and ‘you’, suggests that their individual identities are of little importance, since they are one of many couples engaged in such futile games. Eliot continues this portrayal of the meaningless sexual relationships inherent in the city when he describes the actions of a young secretary and her lover in ‘The Fire Sermon’:
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired, Endeavors to engage in her caresses, Which still are unreproved if undesired. Flushed and decided he assaults at once. (TWL, ll. 236-9) Though undoubtedly charged with greater sexual energy than the actions of the couple in ‘A Game of Chess’, once again this relationship appears to be devoid of love and feeling for the other. The couple have engaged in one of the formal means of romance, sharing a meal together, but this has failed to provoke the expected feelings, since the secretary is ‘bored and tired’.
Nevertheless, her lover is unperturbed by this and sets out to gain the sexual satisfaction he is looking for by endeavoring to caress the young lady. Moreover, while these advances are ‘undesired’ by the secretary, they remain ‘unreproved’, suggesting that the secretary is going to engage in sexual intercourse with the man despite having no feelings for him. Again, like with Connie’s relationships in Tales of the City, this implies that sexual encounters in the city are not associated with the expression of love for another, but merely serve as satisfying sexual needs.
Eliot’s word choice used to describe the man’s advances, ‘assaults’, shows just how self-centered and unfeeling these relationships are, as this word holds connotations of the most predatory and self-orientated type of sexual encounter, rape. While it may be assumed that like Connie and her former lover, the characters in the relationships described thus far in Eliot’s poem are not parents (and the couple in ‘A Game of Chess’ are not necessarily married), Eliot also provides a depiction of one other relationship in ‘A Game of Chess’ which shows that loveless and futile relationships exist within family life in the city.
Moreover, while the first couple described in ‘A Game of Chess’ seem very affluent – not only does the room consist of ‘marble and ‘golden’ objects, but it is lit by a ‘sevenbranched candelabra’ which makes the lady’s ‘jewels’ glitter – Albert and Lil, the second couple he describes, are drawn from the opposite end of society. Nevertheless, like all of the other relationships described thus far, theirs is also loveless and built on selfish satisfaction of one’s sexual desires. This is shown when Lil’s friend tries to persuade her to smarten herself up for Albert returning home from the army so that she can satisfy his sexual needs:
I said, and think of poor Albert, He’s been in the army four years, he Wants a good time, and if you don’t Give it him, there’s others will. (TWL, ll. 147-50) Once again, the relationships held within the city are shown as being depraved and devoid of love, given the implication that Albert will be forced into an infidelity if Lil won’t give him ‘a good time’. Moreover, the fact that there are ‘others’ who ‘will’ readily give him ‘a good time’ suggests that immoral behaviour is commonplace.
This is made even more deplorable by the fact that Lil’s looks have become so ‘antique’ because, after giving Albert children, she has taken ‘pills’ to ‘pull it off’, meaning that she has had an abortion after falling pregnant once again (TWL, l. 156). It seems that Lil is only there to satisfy Albert’s libido and that if she is not sexually attractive to him, then she is of no use to her husband. As such, Eliot shows that city relationships are loveless and futile, no matter whether these are between singles or married couples, rich or poor. PART TWO – RELATIONSHIPS BASED ON LOVE AND RESPECT
While the relationships described thus far are loveless and futile, these contrast greatly with the majority of relationships involved in Dickens’s Great Expectations. More significantly, these relationships tend to be based in the countryside, rather than the city. For example, the relationship that exists between Pip’s sister and her husband, Joe, is meaningful. No matter what happens, they continue to love one another, even if theirs is not an ideal relationship: throughout the novel, they fail to show any sexual passion for one another, or other outward expressions of love.
Indeed, the closest Joe comes to showing that his thoughts are with his wife is when he tells Pip, ‘Your sister, she’s no worse than she were’ (Great Expectations, page 208). Nevertheless, in their simple relationship, such terms of endearment as Joe’s manner of referring to his wife, ‘Mrs Joe’, show that he values his wife and their marriage. This sense of value is strengthened when Joe describes the effects of his wife’s illness upon her as ‘the waste of my wife’.
This indicates that ‘Mrs Joe’ was of great value to him and shows how deeply hurt he is that his wife is dying and that, with her death, he will lose their relationship. More to the point, Joe sticks by his wife throughout her illness and nurses her, something Albert and the other city dwellers described thus far would seem to find unthinkable. On the evidence presented above, it would seem that while the relationships set in the countryside are more simple than those set in the city in the three texts, they also possess depth and meaning rather than being loveless and shallow.
Nevertheless, to categorise all city relationships in this way is to ignore one important factor: all of the relationships described so far are sexual in nature. When we consider relationships based on friendship, rather than sex, then the picture changes. This may be seen most clearly in the relationship shared by Mona and Michael in Tales of the City. Mona being lesbian and Michael gay, their friendship is not complicated by sexual desire. The platonic love these characters hove for one another is exemplified by the mutual respect they hold for one another.
This is seen when Michael splits up with his boyfriend and Mona unconditionally offers him a place to stay: ‘You’ve saved my life again. ‘ ‘Don’t mention it babycakes. ‘ (TOTC, p. 58) The fact that this is not the first time that Mona has helped out her friend, coupled with Michael’s hyperbolic expression of thanks, shows that this is a relationship built on love and concern for each other. Mona’s instant dismissal of the magnitude of what she has offered her friend – ‘Don’t mention it’ – shows that this is not a self-fulfilling act, but one that is expected between loving friends.
Furthermore, her use of the pet name she has for Michael, ‘babycakes’, highlights the closeness of the relationship they share, much like Joe’s referring to his wife as ‘Mrs Joe’ in Great Expectations. By offering Michael a place of solace after the breakup of his sexual relationship, Mona expresses the love that seems to be missing in the sexual relationships that exist in the city within these texts, showing that friendship can offer the companionship that sexual relationships in the complexity of city life cannot.
If only the female involved in the first relationship described in ‘A Game of Chess’ in Eliot’s The Waste Land had found such companionship, she would not have to yearn for her partner to ‘Stay’ with her despite their relationship being loveless, dead and in ‘rat’s alley’, so that she does not have to face the harshness of city life alone (TWL, ll. 11-6). PART THREE – URBAN DRABNESS VERSUS RURAL BLISS Despite Mary Ann of Tales of the City and Pip from Great Expectations sharing the desire to leave their rural homes and head for the bright lights of the city, the overwhelming impression offered of city life within the three texts is one of a very mechanical, monotonous and drab existence.
While we never really encounter a rural setting in Tales of the City, the other two texts provide a neat contrast between the country and the city, with city life apparently revolving in a day to day cycle of boredom that has little meaning or substance This is very potently expressed in Eliot’s depiction of London city workers making their journey to work: A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many I had not thought death had undone so many . . . And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (TWL, ll. 62-64)
This impression of dehumanized individuals who seem to behave automatically is strengthened by Eliot’s use of metonymy here, where all individuality and uniqueness are lost and the workers are merely ‘A crowd’. The tone is also very pessimistic and there is a great sense of hopelessness in the repetition of ‘so many’ when describing the workers being ‘undone’ by ‘death’. Ultimately, to Eliot, the city workers appear little more than corpses with the life drained out of them by the monotony of city life.
This depressing picture is furthered by the fact that ‘each man fixed his eyes before his feet’, as if the men do not want to be taking part in this ritual, but must do so simply to survive. There is no human contact or communication described, suggesting that not only have the men lost all sense of hope, but that they have nothing of worth to say, so boring and mundane is their existence within the reality of the city. Eliot furthers this notion that city existence is drab and monotonous when he describes another side of city life, the prostitutes found on the banks of the River Thames.
Here, Eliot uses pun to contrast these women with beautiful mythological creatures associated with the countryside: he refers to them as ‘nymphs’ (TWL, l). While this term is used to describe beautiful young ladies, it is also a colloquial term for nymphomaniacs. Moreover, in contrast, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it also describes ‘the variety of mythological semi-divine spirits regarded as maidens and associated with nature, especially rivers and woods’ (The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, page 1001).
The sordid nature of these women’s occupation in contrast to the idyllic life of the mythological nymphs, suggests that life in the city is tainted and debased, as women are forced to carry out this demeaning act night after night. Being described as ‘nymphs’, like the male workers described as a ‘crowd’, these women are allowed no personality by Eliot; and the fact that we are given no insight into their emotions reinforces the notion that city life is not only drab, but mechanical, the women only serving a sordid function within the city and nothing else.
Similarly, this sense of an emotionless, mechanical existence can also be seen in the life of Estella, the adopted daughter of Miss Havingsham, a countryside neighbour of Pip’s in Great Expectations. Jilted at the altar and a spinster all her life, Miss Havingsham raised Estella to feel nothing, especially towards men. Indeed, Miss Havingsham raised Estella with the purpose of breaking men’s hearts with her beauty, in order to avenge her own heartbreak at being jilted. This lack of emotion is shown when Estella remarks to Pip, ‘You must know . . that I have no heart’ (GE, p. 224).
Moreover, when Pip reveals to Estella his feelings for her, her response is startling for its passiveness and coldness in tone: ‘You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there’ (GE, p. 343). While this appears harsh and cruel, Estella’s intentions are admirable: knowing how she has been raised to lack feeling, Estella knows she has to hurt Pip rather than allow him to be devastated by the failure of a relationship she is incapable of sustaining.
As such, while her coldness and mechanical manner seem more in line with the relationships found in the city within these texts, and in contrast to those found in the country, by wanting to do right by Pip, Estella’s behaviour does reinforce the notion that relationships in the country are much less self-orientated and immoral than those in the city: she could have used Pip merely for sexual satisfaction, but does not because of a sense of what is right and because he offers her love.
Finally, one other way that Eliot creates a contrast between the mechanical boredom and predictability of city life and the country setting, is by showing how unpredictable the elements in the more natural rural settings are in comparison. This is shown when the thunder finally sounds in ‘What the Thunder Said’: Ganga was sunken, and limp leaves Waited for rain, while the black clouds Gathered far distant, over Himarant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence. Then spoke the thunder. (TWL, ll. 396-400) Unlike the depersonalized human ‘crowd’ who cross London Bridge, even ‘the jungle’ is presented as an individual through Eliot’s use of personification. Nevertheless, as all around anticipates the thunder, Eliot’s use of syntax shows how this occurs spontaneously. This is shown in his following of ‘Then’ with ‘spoke’ rather than the more common “Then the thunder spoke”.
This use of syntax suggests that the noise startled everything and that recognizing that it was ‘the thunder’ occurred after the noise was made (when the thunder ‘spoke’). As such, rural life being more closely associated with natural occurrences, it seems that Eliot is implying that it too is far more spontaneous and lacks the mechanical monotony of the predictable city life. CONCLUSION While the three texts address the theme of the dichotomy that exists between city and country life in different ways, each of them offers similar interpretations of this theme.
The stereotype of city life being cold and unemotional, where relationships are self-orientated and futile, is for the most part apparent in all three texts. Moreover, the portrayal of country life as a far more moral and loving existence in Great Expectations and the depiction of country life being less monotonous and predictable than city life in Eliot’s The Waste Land, also correspond with the stereotypes.
Nevertheless, by showing that love and companionship can be found in the city, and that the cold mechanical heart can be found also in the country, respectively, Maupin’s Tales of the City and Dickens’s Great Expectations show that the stereotypes are too closely defined and that characters – and people’s – individuality should not be discounted when assessing the nature of country and city life and the portrayal of them within works of literature.