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E. WARWICK SLINN 'God a Tame Confederate': The Reader's Dual Vision in Pippa Passes The literary problems associated with impersonal narration are now well known, and the extensive arguments that have developed about such works as A Portrait of the Artist or The Turn of the Screw should make changing interpretations ofPippa Passes less surprising. This experimental work, with its hybrid elements of picaresque, stage play, and monologue,1 and its varied tonal qualities from the opening lyrical splendour to Bluphocks's cynical doggerel, demands of its reader the same balancing of sympathetic involvement and ironic judgement as leads to so much of the ambiguity in modem literature. The difficulty of interpretation, however, is not only that caused by the disequilibrium between experience and idea or between sympathy and judgement which has been the subject of debate about dramatic monologues;2 the - .. problem also involves the role of illusion in defining identity, and a dramatic method which uses irony as a means of unity. Structurally, Browning brings together two essentially different approaches, the expressive and the mimetic, or the lyric and the dramatic, juxtaposing the single vision of an isolated mind with the multiple views of the social world. It has always been recognized that this method causes a problem_ in unity, but what has not been so obvious is the nature ofthe dual vision which, through the resulting ironies, Browning provides for his reader. In the absence of any clearly defined authorial figure, the burden of unity has fallen upon Pippa herself, since the whole is circumscribed by her monologues. This focussing on her thoughts, however, has meant that the drama was read as a parable about a moraillniverse supervised by God, and the variety of perspectives has thus been distorted. Rather, the structure of Pippa Passes emphasizes the multitudinousness of life, which is more the raw material for irony than for theological optimism. As usual in Browning, abstract themes are intimately related to men's hopes and fears, their obsessions and assumptions; ideas are only given meaning by their human context, so that the possibility of irony is admitted in almost any circumstance. The context in this instance is hidden from Pippa, yet is seen by the reader - the stock situation for dramatic irony - and it produces not only the ironic contrasts of a world about which Pippa is ignorant, but also alternative conceptions of human behaviour. In this respect, considerthese seldom noticed lines by UTQ, Volume XLV, Number 2, Winter 1976 'GOD A TAME CONFEDERATE' 159 Phene when she describes the smile of the students who have tricked Jules into marrying her: That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit Which seems to take possession of the world And make of God a tame confederate, Purveyor to their appetites.3 These lines not only counter Pippa's innocent vision, they overshadow the play, applying in varied degree to each episode and encompassing even Pippa herself. Phene provides both a parallel and a contrast to Pippa, being a girl of similar age,4 although with a clearly different experience of life. Phene, who has seen the realities of jealousy and vanity, has seen how men 'make of God a tame confederate/ whereas Pippa, largely ignorant of human duplicity, accepts the declaration of her New Year's hymn that 'each only as God wills/Can work' (Intr. 193-4). The experienced observe the crabbed realities of human conceit, while the innocent accept a more hopeful prospect, although, ironically, even Pippa unknowingly condemns all human action to a deterministic charade. It is a mistake, I believe, to regard Pippa's view or the philosophy of her New Year's hymn as representative of Browning's attitude in this work. In context, the theme of Pippa's hymn, that all men are God's puppets, is ironic, since the play then presents the appearance of free egos in a deterministic universe - a point frequently missed by those who read the hymn as Browning's concluding message. The latter, more theologically positive view is given its most sophisticated defence by Eleanor (Glen) Cook, who concludes that the theme of the narrative is 'the irony of God's ways when regarded from man...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 158-173
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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