A Close Reading of Margaret Cavendish’s "The Contract" and an Analysis of its Narrative Strategies and Structures

Essay, 2014

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A in England)




I. Introduction

II. Narrative strategies and structures in The Contract
a. Part one: presentation of the characters and of the ‘problem’
b. Part two: Quest for a solution
c. Part three: Arrival in the city and masque
d. Part four: The anagnorisis
e. Part five: Quest for a solution to the new problem
f. Part six: The dénouement

III. Conclusion: social conditionality and self-made determination and their relation to love in The Contract

Works cited

I. Introduction

The aim of this essay on Margaret Cavendish’s novel The Contract is to approach the text from a new perspective and to attempt a close reading of the narrative strategies in the novel and the way the mode of narration mirrors society’s wish to capture and determine social relations.

Research has already shown that The Contract is “the earliest extended critique in English prose fiction of the marriage market from a woman’s standpoint” (Donovan 59). Attention has been drawn to the political references and allusions made in The Contract, and to the gender issues that are being raised in the novel. Concerning the former, Victoria Kahn has reminded us that romances were used politically during the reign of Charles I and the Protectorate (527) and has emphasized the analogy between the marriage contract and “the hierarchical, inequitable political relations of sovereign and subject” (527). This analogy is especially valid in the contemporary context of the engagement controversy (1649-1652), “when parliament sought to secure alliance to the new government of Cromwell after the execution of Charles I” and a statement of engagement had to be signed by all male citizens (535). According to her, The Contract raises questions about the validity (529), the different sorts of contracts, and the motivation of people to sign contracts (526). Kahn has shown that The Contract is a comment on “contemporary debates about political obligation”, a comment that argues for a form of political obligation “that is based on love rather than on filial obligation” (529), and which ironically makes the royalist Cavendish “draw[] near to the parliamentarians’ theory of an original and revocable contract between the people and their ruler” (530).

With regard to the gender issues alluded to in the novel, Ramona Wray has revealed that agency in The Contract belongs with the women, because the “young and wealthy heroine[] […] reform[s] [her ] libertine lover[]” (100). Josephine Donovan has underlined the importance of casuistry in the novel and has stated that “feminist casuistry takes its place within a more general feminist tradition in the early modern period, whereby women attempted to refute or problematize misogynist maxims and thus to challenge ideological assumptions about women” (59).

These aspects having been treated already, it is the aim of this essay to do a close reading of the novel and to analyse the altering narrative techniques in the novel in a first step, and in a second step to relate the mode of narration to attempts in the depicted society to fix social relations, and to capture them by reflections upon their conditionalities and causalities.

II. Narrative strategies and structures in The Contract

It is very interesting to analyse the narrator’s role in the novel and the narrative strategies and structures arising from it. The narrator’s role is especially fascinating because, as will be shown, it changes strongly in the course of the novel. The narrator is a heterodiegetic omniscient narrator who provides the reader with background information about the characters and their lives and with excerpts of dialogues of the main characters (in the form of reported speech and quoted direct speech). On the one hand, the narrator seems to be an emotionally uninvolved, casual bystander. For instance, he narrates in a neutral, factual and even nonchalant way that “the Duke when to the wars; but in short time he was called from thence by reason his elder brother died, and so the Dukedom and the estate came to him, being then the only heir” (4-5).

However, on the other hand, our narrator mixes parts of direct and reported speech when he is narrating. This gives the impression of a passionate, excited narrator who gets muddled up/confused in his excitement and attempt to give as much information as possible. This can be shown by the following instances:

“His father told him, she had great estate, and it was like to be greater […], and her riches may draw so many suitors when she is a woman, said he, that you may be refused.” (4 own emphasis)

“This is a dogged fellow, said her uncle; whereupon he told her, she must put up her scarf, and speak herself; for everyone domineers in their office […], wherefore you must speak.” (13 own emphasis)

“When her uncle saw her so dressed, now by my troth thou lookst like a Heaven stuck with stars”. (16 own emphasis)

A similar observation can be made with regard to the following aspect: The narrator sometimes makes a confusing use of relative pronouns as in:

“He was at that time extremely in love with a great lady, who was young and handsome, being wife to a grandee who was very rich, but was very old, whose age made her more facile to young lovers, especially to this young Duke, who returned him equal affections; he being a man that was favoured by nature” (5).

Here, the first relative pronoun (correctly) refers to the clause which precedes and thus to the Duke; the second “whose” can refer the lady or to her husband; the third relative pronoun (“who”) is the most confusing at first sight. From its position in the sentence, it should refer to the Duke. However, it has to refer to his first wife in order to make the object “him” grammatical. This use of the relative pronouns can also be read as a signal of the narrator’s lively and excited mode of narration.

Another interesting characteristic of the narrator’s mode of narration is the very frequent repetition of sentence structures as in the following example: “Thus she was always busily employed, for she had little time allowed her for childish recreations. Thus did he make her breeding his only business and employment; for he lived obscurely and privately” (5-6 own emphasis).

All these aspects, the grammatical confusions, the lack of diversified sentence structures, give the reader the impression that the narrator in a way lacks linguistic education[1]. But they mainly and more importantly give the impression of a narrator who is most of the time (exception mentioned above) lively, authentic and direct. He keeps distance from the events he narrates in the sense that he does not comment on them, but they nevertheless seem to move him in a certain way. This makes him narrate in a very “fluid and more familiar way” (Smith 115). In fact, the narrator, just like the “young Lady” uses language “undecked with eloquence” and with no need for rhetoric.

As I have mentioned above, what is mainly interesting about the narrator, is that he remarkably changes the strategy of narration according to the particular part of the story that is being narrated. The plot of the novel can be divided into six parts with changing modes of narration. These six parts will now be analysed separately.

a. Part one: presentation of the characters and of the ‘problem’

The narrator is very present in the first part of the novel. He introduces the reader to the problem of the novel and gives biographical information on the characters. In the very first passage of the first page of the novel already, the key words for the plot are mentioned: nobility and wealth, marriage, youth-age, death, marrying again, virtue, succession. This prepares the reader for what is to come.

Interestingly, the narrator does not introduce the characters by their names. Their names do not play an important role, in fact, the reader is only told at one point in the story that the protagonist’s name is Deletia. The identifying characteristic instead is a social one (gentleman; Duke, viceroy) and age (old gentleman, young Lady). The dichotomy of old and young is important for the whole novel. It is also presented as an absolute category, not a relative one: For instance, Deletia’s uncle is not presented in relative terms as ‘old er ’ but in absolute terms as ‘old’. Moreover, youth seems to be presented as a humane category whereas age seems to be dehumanizing: When Deletia talks about the Duke, she refers to him as “person”. Only one sentence later, however, when she speaks about the viceroy, she says that she likes him as much as she can like “a thing” that time has worn out (19).

Another very striking phenomenon in the first part of the plot is the fact that we find an enormously high number of adverb clauses of cause and effect, the narrator’s language is full of words that create a causality between every single sentence, or even every single clause of his narration: “for”, “so”, “and so”, “insomuch that” and being all that”, “by”, “by reason”, “whereby”, “thus”, “so that”, (especially pages 3 and 4) and numerous participle constructions expressing relations of cause (“having only two sons”). All these constructions of causality[2], especially in the context of the description of the main characters, give an impression of determinism. Everything is structured and can be explained by the things that happened before. Everything is caused by something. The narrator creates an image of a world in which everything is inter-linked and in which everything happens for a reason. The characters seem to be the exact sum of all the things that happened to them (added up in one equation). There seems to be a sort of social determinism, because some causes come socially (birth for instance), but there is also the idea of a ‘self-made’ determinism, because the characters actively choose things which they want to do in order to determine themselves in a certain way. For instance, the Duke’s father is described as “knowing the world by his travels” (3). Thus, he has actively decided to travel in order to become a wise man. In a similar sense, Deletia’s uncle makes her go to the city in order to bring her character to perfection, to make her a “meteor of the time”. This supports the observation made be Donovan, that The Contract can be considered as a “forerunner of the female bildungsroman” (71).

In fact, the causes of things/events/actions seem to be more important as the actions themselves and their results. This has two consequences: firstly, if the cause of something is ‘positive’, then the action/result can be excused, and secondly, there are causes of actions that determine us in such a way that we cannot act freely, but that we have to succumb to what the causes of an action entail. The former can be seen when Deletia says that she would not be sad “for the loss of the man, but for the cause of the loss” (6). The latter can be observed when Deletia argues that “it was the fault of the father to force him to swear against his affections” (21). This belief in the causality and determination of things is expressed, as I have tried to show above, in the level of the mode of narration, too.


[1] Norbrook describes this phenomenon as a „shift to an emphasis on res rather than verba “ and writes that this in a way „legitimizes [Margaret Cavendish’s] own lack of linguistic education“ (228).

[2] There are also other constructions, apart from explicit adverbial clauses of cause and effect, which express such a form of causality as the following example shows: „Her beauty had left such stings behind it, especially in the breasts of the viceroy and the Duke, that they could not rest” (15 own emphasis).

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A Close Reading of Margaret Cavendish’s "The Contract" and an Analysis of its Narrative Strategies and Structures
Oxford University
1,0 (A in England)
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close, reading, margaret, cavendish’s, contract, analysis, narrative, strategies, structures
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Anonymous, 2014, A Close Reading of Margaret Cavendish’s "The Contract" and an Analysis of its Narrative Strategies and Structures, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/336373


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