Community, Stereotype, and Insanity: Eliot's Adam Bede and Dickens' Great Expectations

A community establishes its mores, its priorities, and even its social problems in the process of defining itself and its parameters. The members of a community essentially agree on definitions of right and wrong, socially acceptable behavior, and the roles the individuals play, usually determined by gender, age, and rank in society. The fact that these roles may be hotly contested by those individual community members does not seem to have much bearing on their existence. In any community, there will be those who rebel, who do not fit in, or who choose to live on the fringes of society.

In addition, the community even comes to a consensus on recognizable stereotypes. Cultures everywhere either contain variations on or can easily recognize "the hen-pecked husband," the "dumb blonde," (or any of its several incarnations, such as "dumb jock" or "the village idiot"), the "court jester," or the "evil landlord." Many of these stereotypes not only cross cultural boundaries but they also persist in their appearance throughout historical periods as well.

Too often, these stereotypes follow along racial and/or gender lines, victimizing women in particular. In a very real sense, insanity itself is a gender stereotype. So many examples of Western literature, art, and music use the image of the hysterical woman that the picture would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The lunacy of Ophelia in Hamlet, the agony of any operatic tragic heroine (such as Madame Butterfly), and the misery of any artistic madwoman (such as those photographed by Hugh W. Diamond) stand as viable proof of Western society's morbid obsession with hysterical women. And far too many times, Western society has too readily labeled a woman mad because she dares to step out of the narrow role prescribed for her by the patriarchal power structure.

According to today's more enlightened standards, we realize now that very few of the women previously deemed insane were insane at all: these are merely women who responded to the barriers their communities have erected before them with either negative or positive defense mechanisms. How women respond to their community's restrictions informs the observer not only about the strength and resiliency of women in the face of enormous opposition, but also about the community itself.

To examine the position of women in the community of Victorian England, therefore, we use its literature. In George Eliot'sAdam Bede and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, for example, the female characters are surprisingly similar in their personality traits, in the actions they take, and in the consequences they face. These female characters (Lisbeth and Mrs. Joe, Hetty and Estella, Dinah and Biddy, Mrs. Poyser and Miss Havisham) represent stereotypes of the women of Victorian England, as well as the variations on how harshly their society judged them, depending on the severity and the manifestation of their deviation from the norm. In the characters of Lisbeth, from Eliot's work, and Mrs. Joe, from Dickens', the reader sees the obvious stereotype of the scold, the nagging woman, who is never happy with her family's work, behavior, or decisions. The extent to which the other members (both men and women) of their communities tolerate them surprises the modern reader. First of all, Lisbeth is not a very pleasant character. Not only does she favor Adam over Seth, she also has no compunction about this hurtful show of preference. Seth, to his credit, suffers his mother's favoritism in dutiful silence. In spite of her obvious preference for Adam, she still does not always approve of Adam's actions or decisions. When Adam comes home from work to find his father has neglected to make the promised coffin, Adam furiously begins to make the coffin himself. Lisbeth scolds Adam for judging his father too harshly: 
'Thee mun forgie thy feyther -- thee munna be so bitter again' him. He war a good feyther to thee afore he took to th' drink. He's a cliver workman, an' taught thee thy trade, remember, an's niver gen me a blow nor so much as all ill work -- no not even in's drink.' Lisbeth's voice became louder, and choked with sobs: a sort of wail, the most irritating of all sounds where real sorrows are to be borne, and real work to be done. (Eliot 85-6)
Since Lisbeth's nagging and scolding is really just an outward form of worry -- worry about her son's welfare, her husband's drinking problem, her family's future and happiness -- Adam and Seth (and the rest of their community) endure her emotional outbursts. Adam does worry about Lisbeth's reaction to his engagement to Hetty, but he steels himself to endure the battle and eventually prevails. The community all know that Lisbeth is difficult to please, but they only sympathize with Adam and Seth, without casting Lisbeth out of their midst. The final outcome, that of Adam's marriage to Dinah, is convenient as well as the perfect solution to the problem of satisfying a woman notoriously difficult to satisfy.

Of the two women, Mrs. Joe is the more terrible scold. Nothing either Pip or Joe does is right. Pip even performs the most outrageously inconvenient deed of surviving, requiring looking after "by hand." Mrs. Joe constantly makes Pip pay a heavy toll for this imposition. She treats Pip as if his very presence keeps her from enjoying the fruits of her (and Joe's) labor. Pip recalls: 
I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when I was taken to have a new set of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs. (Dickens 54)
She even inhibits the design of Pip's clothes, as if the "free use of [his] limbs" would release Pip also from the obligation of the gratitude he owes her for taking him in and providing him with food, shelter, clothing, and education.

Joe too suffers under Mrs. Joe's nagging tongue. Once, he goes so far as to hide the size of a slice of bread that he shares with Pip, fearing her disapproval. However, Joe's own upbringing (with a mother who was regularly battered by Joe's brutally violent father) provides the reason he so easily tolerates Mrs. Joe's abuse. He explains it best himself to Pip: 
'I see so much in my poor mother, of a woman drudging and slaving and breaking her honest hart and never getting no peace in her mortal days, that I'm dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what's right by a woman, and I'd fur rather of the two go wrong the t'other way, and be little ill-convenienced myself. I wish it was only me that got put out, Pip: I wish there warn't no Tickler for you, old chap; I wish I could take it all on myself; but this is the up and-down-and-straight on it, Pip, and I hope you'll overlook shortcomings.' (Dickens 80)
Joe shows remarkable understanding and true sacrifice (as opposed to melodramatic martyrdom) for a man of no education or refinement. By anyone's standards, he is an honorable man for persevering in his choice of roads to take with Mrs. Joe. It is to Joe that Pip owes the gratitude demanded by his sister. And yet, in spite of all of Mrs. Joe's shortcomings, everyone in town admires her for undertaking the raising of Pip "by hand" and her skill at managing Pip, Joe, the house, and the forge. After the brutal attack by Orlick, her condition elicits sympathy and compassion from everyone in the community. When Pip comes into his expectations, everyone regards Pip's good fortune as a direct result of Mrs. Joe's arranging for Pip to entertain Miss Havisham. All in all, the townspeople consider Pip a lucky young man, "selected" for raising by Mrs. Joe. In spite of their negative depictions by both Eliot and Dickens, neither Lisbeth nor Mrs. Joe are deemed insane by their respective communities or even remotely odd or different. In fact, in spite of their one-dimensionality, it seems as if these depictions were not intended by their respective authors to be negative. Indeed, they rather seem to suggest that part of a woman's essential nature is to nag, since she must carry the weight of the responsibility of the welfare of others.

Just as the characters of Lisbeth and Mrs. Joe parallel each other, so Hetty and Estella also share many of the same characteristics. They are both extremely beautiful, and both lack any sort of inner life at all. Although Eliot provides the reader with an omniscient narrator who would show the reader Hetty's inner thought (if she had any worth reading), Dickens' narrator is Pip, who is totally consumed with his own assumptions, and is therefore not the best judge of Estella's thoughts or desires. Even so, their respective authors portray Hetty and Estella as "vain, coquettish, [and] materialistic," according to Michael Squires in his 1974 work The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence (59). In Estella's case, she even appears calculating in her quest to marry well (perhaps as a consequence of her tutelage under Miss Havisham). ...
Julianne White


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