Community, Stereotype, and Insanity: Eliot's Adam Bede and Dickens' Great Expectations
by Julianne White
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's Adam 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).
The worst one can say about Hetty, though, is that she is incredibly naive to believe for one second that Arthur will actually marry her. (In fact, Hetty's dream of marrying Arthur strains the reader's credulity, for one would presume that Hetty's upbringing in a society so steeped in class distinctions would preclude her unrealistic expectations.) Like Effie in Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, both Hetty and Estella share the foible of excessive vanity and self-centeredness. Also, Hetty and Estella are the objects of unrealistic marital expectations on the parts of Adam and Pip. Both Adam and Pip assume feelings that do not exist from Hetty and Estella; Hetty and Estella are as unreachable as Arthur is for Hetty. Adam and Pip must suffer their losses, even though both of them never really "had" the women of their dreams to begin with. And, also like Effie, Hetty pays the consequence of imprisonment, and Estella pays the price of a marriage to a brute.
In addition, according to Squires, Hetty is an important contrast to Dinah (and by extension, here, Estella contrasts with Biddy in the same way). Hetty is the moral opposite of Dinah (or, as suggested by Knoepflmacher, Dinah's "incomplete half ... [which] must remain undeveloped and incomplete, must be made to suffer" ). Squires believes that Hetty's "self-centeredness results in insensitivity to the problems of others, and her character flaw is therefore her lack of sympathy" (59). The same could easily be said of Estella and her lack of sympathy to Pip. The parallels between the two characters in two novels lend credence to the idea that Hetty and Estella (as well as Scott's Effie) represent a certain stereotype recognizable to Victorian society, that of the giddy, vain, shallow, ornamental woman -- characteristics which would usually have direct bearing on her mental stability as well.
In addition to the similarities between Lisbeth/Mrs. Joe and Hetty/Estella, points of comparison may be noted between Dinah and Biddy, who represent another stereotype, that of the selfless, patient caretaker. Each woman plays the role of nurturer. Dinah comes to the village of Hayslope to care for the souls there with her preaching. In the process, she also cares for Lisbeth's emotional and spiritual needs during her time of bereavement. In the novel Dinah, according to Jay Clayton in his Romantic Vision and the Novel, "helps restore a new order ... helps illumine an invisible world .... Land] marks the place where the visible world ends" (151). This is quite a role to play indeed. Biddy comes to the Gargery household to care for the incapacitated Mrs. Joe after Orlick's vicious attack. In the process, she winds up caring for Joe and Pip as well, affording them the tenderness and genuine caring so long denied them by the scold, (now her charge), Mrs. Joe. Neither community harshly judges these women.
True, Dinah's call to the ministry was unusual for a woman to risk undertaking. However, when questioned by Rev. Irwine, her call seems genuine to him. The good reverend, who represents the patriarchal establishment, gives her evangelism his stamp of approval. As maintained by Shirley Foster in Victorian Women's Fiction: Marriage, Freedom and the Individual, Dinah is ''far from being a rebel against traditional womanliness" and indeed "represents in many way the perfection of her sex" (201). Foster continues:
[Dinah's] feminine delicacy, 'modest demeanour, and simple ... candid ... gravely loving expression' make her saint-like and she is regarded as an angel or a Madonna by those whom she helps. But her femininity is deficient in one important respect; believing that she has been divinely called, she has put aside her innermost needs as a woman in favour of serving others. (201)
The nurturing of souls is only a natural extension of a woman's role of motherhood, after all, and the end of the novel, with Dinah giving up her ministry to tend to her own family, seems to suggest that perhaps Dinah had been misreading her call all along. But, as stated by Foster, "because her aberration has not destroyed her inherent warmth of spirit, Dinah is not chastised.... Instead, she is brought to the perfection of complete womanhood'' (202) when she marries Adam and lays aside her ministry.
Biddy is instrumental in Pip's early education, though, teaching him when Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, "that preposterous female" (Dickens 136), could teach him no more. Biddy not only teaches Pip his academics, she also teaches him true humility (as opposed to enforced obligation), respect for Joe, thankfulness for simplicity, and the true meaning of friendship. Estella shows Pip how to feel "common and coarse"; with Biddy, Pip always feels relaxed and accepted for himself. Estella( and all she represents) makes Pip feel ashamed of Joe and his humble beginnings at the forge. In her saintly ministrations to Mrs. Joe, Biddy shows Pip patience and kindness. The contrast between Biddy and Estella and the one-dimensional aspect of both their character, suggest Dickens' utilizes these two instantly recognizable stereotypes as the means by which he fully develops the character of Pip, his main focus. In addition, the one aspect of the characters of Dinah and Biddy which contrasts so intensely with the characters of Hetty and Estella is their selflessness. Hetty and Estella are so thoroughly self-absorbed, that when they receive the wrath of their communities, it is actually for being egotistical, an unforgivable crime for a woman to commit. Dinah and Biddy, self-sacrificing to the end, receive no such wrath.
Certainly Biddy's selfless nursing of Mrs. Joe is not the least bit strange; even though Hayslope looks upon Dinah's ministerial ambitions with suspicion, they still do not think her eccentric or insane, mainly because of the maternal compassion which marked her ministry. Dickens' Miss Havisham, however, is a different case. Here is a character who is more completely self-absorbed even than her protegee, Estella. The only aspect of Miss Havisham's character which resembles Eliot's Mrs. Poyser is that both are the benefactors of young women: Miss Havisham for Estella and Mrs. Poyser for Hetty. In fact, Mrs. Poyser has elements of the stereotype of the scold (mentioned earlier), for her nitpicking of Hetty's work on the dairy farm. However, she harps with an edge of love in her voice, as Hetty is her niece and she does her work in the dairy well. Mrs. Poyser takes Hetty under her wing and teaches her all the secrets of successful dairy farming; she plans to marry Hetty to Adam with a grand show of maternal affection and a good luck cedar chest full of handmade linens and lace. She teaches Hetty how to make a home for her husband. Hetty's predicament sorely embarrasses and perplexes her, and she worries about the consequences her family will face as a result of Hetty's fall from grace. There is much of Lisbeth and Mrs. Joe about Mrs. Poyser, with the added dividend of teacher benefactor. The community widely hails Mrs. Poyser as a woman who does all she can for her young charge, and in spite of all her wisdom, must endure the ungrateful vagaries of a silly, crazy, empty headed girl.
Miss Havisham, though, desires that Estella make up for her mistake of trusting a man. Miss Havisham deliberately allows Pip to deceive himself into believing that she is his benefactor and that she intends to turn Pip into a gentleman, making him a suitable match for her precious Estella. True, much of this scenario comes from Pip's own imagination and aspirations, but Miss Havisham does not correct any of Pip's outrageous notions. She never really communicates with Pip; she merely sends for him, he amuses her briefly, and she sends him away again.
Satis House, where time stands still and rats feast on mouldy wedding cake, represents great power: power that comes from wealth, status (or rank), and the freedom to live as one likes. The community indulges Miss Havisham's eccentricities as one indulges the whims of a precious child who would surely perish dreadfully if everyone of her whims were not satisfied. They see her weird clinging to the past as justifiable, given the circumstances of her abandonment by a charlatan. Had Miss Havisham been merely insane, with no episode in her past to explain her insanity, or had she been poor, like Molly (Estella's mother, Magwitch's jilted wife, and Jaggers' maid), the community probably would not have been so tolerant. Miss Havisham is the one character among all these examples who could rightly be called insane, even by today's standards; and yet, she is not ostracized or chastised in any way by her community. Because she removes herself from intercourse with the community, she therefore relieves them of the burden and responsibility of having to cast her out. Since they do not reject her company, they are not to blame for her withdrawal from them. Without the albatross of blame, they can allow her the right to be bizarre. And bizarre she most certainly is.
The human community continues to accept these stereotypes of women -- the nagging scold, the vain ornament, the selfless saint, and the idiosyncratic eccentric -- as basic personality types, and it continues to place some of its members in these categories. It also persists in judging (sometimes harshly) the women who do not fit the mold. In 1978 when the United Methodist Church ordained my mother as a deacon (and one year later as an Elder), the women at the church we had attended regularly since 1961 claimed outrage and sacrilege. Some even suggested that my mother had lost her senses. (The men, however, displayed remarkable magnanimity, reminding one of the good Rev. Irwine.) Every church which has received her as its pastor bristled at the idea of its flock being tended by a woman. Their eventual acceptance of her comes about as a result of their realizing her uniqueness as a person and the genuineness of her call to the ministry (as opposed to Dinah's "misreading" hers). Since the community not only recognizes stereotypes but also defines them by consensus, they remain. In George Eliot's Adam Bede and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Miss Havisham and Mrs. Poyser, Biddy and Dinah, Estella and Hetty, and Mrs. Joe and Lisbeth Bede, represent certain stereotypical images of women in the community of Victorian England. They serve not just the literary functions of characterization, of "buffers" between characters, or as figurative "mirrors" through which main characters (and by extension readers) "see" themselves. They also serve as mirrors to show a community to itself.
JULIANNE WHITE is a teacher of Accelerated and on-level English at Alief-Hastings High School (Houston). The author gratefully acknowledges Dr. Suzanne Shumway for her insightful comments in the preparation of this article.
Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: White, Julianne. (1993). Community, stereotype, and insanity: Eliot's Adam Bede and Dickens' Great Expectations. WILLA, Volume II, 27-30.