Saturday, February 9, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Great Expectations" and "Hard Times

To conclude this series on the Heart vs. the Head, I’m going to look at two similar characters from Charles Dickens.  Both are young women who are trained to deny their emotions, with dire implications. 

I find it interesting that of all the characters I’ve analyzed in this series, almost all of them are women.  Maybe this is because women are (stereotypically) the more emotional and intuitive of the sexes, while men are stereotypically logical.  If these novels were always proponents for reason over feeling, I would be led to believe that the moral would be “Stop being so emotional, woman!” But it isn’t.  Almost all of these stories let the heart win, or encourage a balance of feeling and thought rather than total suppression of feeling. 

In the following two novels, Dickens explores what happens when people do suppress their emotions.

Great Expectations illustration by F.A. Fraser, 1877

The character Estella isn’t a huge player in Great Expectations, but she is a pivotal one.  The childhood crush of the hero, Pip, Estella is adopted by the crazy man-hater Miss Havisham, who trains her to be a maneater as revenge against the entire male population for her being left at the altar years before. 

Estella learns only to be beautiful, charming, and disdainful of any affection Pip shows her.  Yet he loves her, and is broken-hearted when, as young adults, she spurns him and marries a rich suitor.  Even Miss Havisham sees that she’s created a monster, only hurting more people rather than punishing the ones who originally caused her pain.  But by that time it’s too late to reverse the damage done to Estella’s character.  Even the end of the novel leaves it up in the air whether there is hope for a happy ending for Estella and Pip.
“Now, all I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”
~ Opening Lines of Hard Times
This is the philosophy by which experimental schoolteacher Mr. Gradgrind trains his students, most strictly with his daughter Louisa and son Tom.  When he takes in the imaginative Sissy Jupe after her own father abandons her, Gradgrind tries to root out “everything else” with her, too, with little success. 

The three children grow up, and much to Mr. Gradgrind’s approval Louisa soon receives a proposal of marriage from a man she doesn’t care for, but whom she accepts because his riches and station make it “only logical.”

Yet no matter how she was able to subsist only on logical fact before, marital life is insufferable without an emotional connection.  Louisa runs away from her husband and returns to her father, asking him, “Where are the graces of my soul?  Where are the sentiments of my heart?  What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness” (Chapter 12).  
Too late to save herself from a loveless marriage, Louisa realizes that she is completely lacking the emotional maturity an adult should possess.  She has fallen under the spell of another man, and confesses to her father she is tempted to leave her husband and elope with this man.  She is so confused with these new emotions of passions, that she doesn’t know how to distinguish them from morality, since she tells Mr. Gradgrind, “In this strife I have almost repulsed and crushed my better angel into a demon” (12).

Tom turns out badly, too, robbing a bank and ruining the family name.  In the end, Sissy Jupe is the one that comes to the Gradgrinds’ rescue, confronting the Cad that has dishonorable intentions toward Louisa, saves Tom from arrest, and becomes a sort of mentor to her former schoolteacher and guardian in the matters of seeing life realistically not just as Fact, but also of emotion.   

Verdict: Heart Wins

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