Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Mind and Character of Helena Charles

Physical Description
The stage direction describes Helena as being of the same age as Alison, of medium height, and carefully dressed. When she is first introduced to us, she is busy preparing tea for the inmates of the house where she is staying as a guest.
She is feeling perfectly at home and is assisting Alison in household work. She has a rather judicial expression of alertness on her face, but when this expression softens, she looks very attractive. She possesses a sense of matriarchal authority and she behaves as if she were a gracious representative of some visiting monarch. Actually, she belongs to the middle class which feels perfectly secure in its basic rights. Most men would be anxious to please and to impress a woman of this kind. Even from other young women, like Alison, she receives her due respect and admiration Jimmy is, however, absolutely impervious to both her strength and dignity.
Helena's Prolonged Stay at the Porters' Flat
Helena had come to stay with the Porters only for a week or so, but she has been staying for a much longer time, to the great irritation and annoyance of Jimmy. In fact, Jimmy bluntly asks her why she has been staying on longer than originally proposed, and her reply is that she had been asked by Alison to stay on. This reply makes us a little suspicious about her intention in staying on, especially because she is conscious of Jimmy's hostility to her.
Her Attitude to Jimmy
Just as Jimmy is openly hostile to Helena, she too makes no secret of her dislike for him. When speaking privately to Alison, she is quite blunt in her criticism of Jimmy. On hearing Jimmy playing loudly on his trumpet, Helena says to Alison that it seems that Jimmy wants to kill someone with the noise of his trumpet. This is how she expresses her feelings on this point: "It's almost as if he wanted to kill someone with it. And me in particular. I've never seen such hatred in someone's eyes before. It's slightly horrifying". A little later in the play she describes Jimmy to Alison as a real savage.
Helena's Influence over Alison
Helena seems to have a great hold upon Alison. Under Helena's influence, Alison agrees to go to church for prayers, much to the annoyance and disgust of Jimmy who is not only opposed to church-going but also openly critical of Helena. But Helena's influence upon Alison is much greater than her merely succeeding in taking Alison to church. After observing Jimmy's habitual ill treatment of Alison, Helena begins to work upon Alison's mind and urges her to settle once for all how the relationship between her and Jimmy is to be adjusted. Helena does not mince matters when discussing the situation with Alison. She points out that, now when Alison is going to have a baby, she cannot go on living in this way any longer. "Before, it was different—there was only yourself at stake. But you can't go on living in this way any longer", says Helena. She goes on to say that either Jimmy should learn to behave properly and look after his wife or Alison must get out of this "mad-house", this "menagerie." According to Helena, Jimmy does not seem to know what love or anything else means. But Helena does not stop here. She further says to Alison: "Listen to me. You've got to fight him. Fight, or get out. Otherwise, he will kill you".
Helena's Verbal Skirmish with Jimmy
At the tea-table Helena asks Jimmy why he tries hard to be unpleasant and offensive and then says that in her opinion he is a very tiresome young man. Jimmy, of course, knows how to hit back. When Jimmy denounces Alison's mother, Helena intervenes, saying: "Oh for heaven's sake, don't be such a bully! You've no right to talk about her mother like that"! When Jimmy still does not stop, Helena says: "I feel rather sick, that's all. Sick with contempt and loathing". A little later, Jimmy denounces Helena herself, and this time Helena threatens to slap him, saying: "It's a pity you've been so far away all this time. I'd probably have slapped your face." When Jimmy threatens to hit her back, Helena says: "You probably would. You're the type." When a few moments later Jimmy goes out, Helena expresses her reaction to him in the following words addressed to Alison:" You feel all right, don't you? What's he been raving about now? Oh, what does it matter? He makes me want to claw his hair out by the roots. When I think of what you will be going through in a few months' time—and all for him! She then rebukes Cliff for keeping quiet and not doing any thing to curb Jimmy's habit of speaking offensively and insultingly to everybody.
Helena's Responsibility for
Alison's Decision to Leave Jimmy
It is Helena who is directly responsible for Alison's decision to leave Jimmy. She makes Alison more conscious than the latter was before of Jimmy's brutal treatment of her. Then, without telling Alison, Helena sends a telegram to Alison's father to come and take away Alison because Alison is very unhappy. She then reveals to Alison her action in having sent the telegram to Alison's father and obtains a promise from Alison that the latter will leave Jimmy and go away with her father. In all this, Helena is apparently acting as Alison's well-wisher. We have no reason at this point to suspect Helena's intentions or motives. We ourselves realize that it is dangerous for Alison to continue to stay with Jimmy in her pregnant condition when Jimmy is all the time scolding her and trying to hurt her. (Jimmy himself at this time is unaware of the fact that Alison is pregnant).
Helena's Slapping, and then Kissing Jimmy
When Alison is leaving the flat with her father, Helena stays back, although it was understood that she too would go with Alison. Helena explains her action in staying behind by saying that she has an appointment in Birmingham on the following day about a job, and that she would be staying here for only one more night. After Alison is gone, Jimmy returns from his visit to London and, on his speaking in his usual offensive way to Helena, she slaps him; but, to our great surprise, the very next moment she kisses him passionately and then draws him down beside her. Helena's action in thus making love to Jimmy naturally gives rise to the suspicion in our minds that she had fallen in love with Jimmy in the very beginning, and that her having urged Alison to go to her parents' home was a part of her planning to get an opportunity to acquire Jimmy as a lover for herself. However, this is only a conjecture on our part, because the author himself does not say anything to make the position clear. It is possible to argue that there was no pre-planning on Helena's part, and that her kissing Jimmy, after having slapped him, is a spontaneous and impulsive action which soon afterwards leads to regular love-affair between the two.
As Jimmy's Mistress
Helena then lives with Jimmy as his mistress for several months, and she is obviously quite happy with him as is he with her. Helena has been able to adjust herself wonderfully to Jimmy's habitual manner of talking critically and resentfully about things. Helena has fully replaced Alison, and is ironing the clothes as Alison used to do. She is even wearing a shirt of Jimmy's when ironing the clothes, as Alison had done. However, Helena does not seem to have stopped going to church in order to please Jimmy. For instance, Jimmy refers to Helena's having been busy chatting with the priest on the previous day, and Helena admits the fact. When Jimmy criticizes people's concern with religious and spiritual matters, she asks him whether it is not possible for him to refrain from talking about religion and politics even for one day. This means that Helena, despite her having reconciled herself to Jimmy's mood of dissatisfaction and resentment, has not entirely given up her own ideas. A little later, we find Helena having an exchange of loving and sentimental remarks with Jimmy. (This happens towards the end of Act III, Scene I). We see her fondling his ear and neck, and when he speaks appreciatively to her, she says: "I love you………Oh, my darling………I've always wanted you always!" When Jimmy says that he will give up the sweet-stall and start a new life with her, her reply is: "I say that's wonderful." It seems that Helena has entered into a steady relationship with Jimmy and that this relationship is based on feelings of mutual regard, appreciation and love.
The Awakening of Helena's Conscience and
her Desertion of Jimmy
However, there is another big surprise waiting for us. Just when we had reached the conclusion that Helena and Jimmy had found in each other permanent life-partners (though without getting married), Alison returns unexpectedly. Alison's return, brings about an abrupt and revolutionary change in Helena's attitude. In spite of Alison's assurance that she does not want to disrupt the relationship between Helena and Jimmy, Helena declares that her having lived with Jimmy as his mistress was all wrong. This is what she says to Alison: "Alison—it's all over between Jimmy and me. I can see it now. I've got to get out……….When I saw you standing there tonight, I knew that it was all utterly wrong………..I believe in good and evil, and I don't have to apologize for that. It's quite a modern, scientific belief now so they tell me. And, by everything I have ever believed in, or wanted, what I've been doing is wrong and evil." In other words, Helena's conscience has now awakened and she cannot continue living sinfully with Jimmy any longer. Her religious sense now proves too strong for her physical and emotional desire for Jimmy. In fact, she says that throughout the period of her stay with Jimmy, she had been experiencing a sense of the wrong that she had been committing. She even believes that Alison's miscarriage was a divine judgment on them all.
Helena also at this stage claims, rightly perhaps, that she has discovered what is wrong with Jimmy. According to her, Jimmy was born out of his time. This is how she describes Jimmy's mind and character as she sees them: "There's no place for people like that any longer—in sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile. Sometimes, when I listen to him, I feel he thinks he's still in the middle of the French Revolution. And that's where he ought to be, of course. He does not know where he is, or where he's going. He'll never do anything, and he'll never amount to anything."
Our Final Attitude to Helena
Whatever we may think of Helena in the earlier parts of the play, at the end (in Act III, Scene II) we are filled with admiration for her because she gives evidence of a strong will-power and a strong sense of right and wrong. She is not a creature of lust and, though she loves Jimmy as she can love no other man, she voluntarily gives him up because of a compulsive urge to undo the wrong she has been doing. Her action in leaving Jimmy is a true sacrifice which we generally see only on the Indian screen.

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