Faulty Observations, Untrained Observers

Could the unhappy domestic situations in Deerbrook have been prevented? Or, what exactly brought them about in the first place?

The small town of Deerbrook in Harriet Martineau’s novel of the same name seems to be filled with unhappy families. Even with the exception of Hester and Mr. Hope, the older families in the village do not seem particularly happy with their lot. Is Martineau telling her readers that domestic bliss is simply not attainable? What exactly went wrong here? We may actually find a clue to Martineau’s thinking, not in Deerbrook, but in her advice to travelers in her sociological treatise How to Observe Morals and Manners. At the very beginning of this text, Martineau tells us that “There is no department of inquiry in which it is not full as easy to miss truth as to find it, even when the materials from which truth is to be drawn are actually present to our senses” (7). In order not to miss truth, Martineau insists that “the power of observation must be trained, and habits of method in arranging the material presented to the must be acquired before the student possesses the requisites for understanding what he contemplates” (7). In Deerbrook, the failures of marriage and relationship come from the fact that the characters in the novel to not follow Martineau’s advice – there observations are faulty and incomplete, and they are untrained observers and ‘readers’ of others.

And we see this throughout the novel. When Mrs. Grey tells a convalescing Mr. Hope about Hester’s love for him, Hope asks her if she could be mistaken: “’No, Mr Hope, it is not possible.’ And being for it, as she said, Mrs. Grey gave such a detail of her observations … as left the truth indeed in little doubt” (136). What may have, for Hester, ultimately been a temporary flood of affection rising from concern about Mr. Hope’s condition (like a nurse “falling in love” with a patient), was interpreted by the untrained observers of the village as genuine love. It could also be argues that Hester, who really does lack a great deal of emotional maturity and is at times quite selfish, is an untrained observer of her own feelings. Even Margaret, who is a much more careful reader of character than Hester, fails to observe correctly. When Philip returns, he critiques her for not relying on her own observations of his behavior rather than the others in the village: “I thought that you knew me enough and cared for me enough, to understand my mind, and trust my conduct through whatever you might here of me from others” (321). Of course, the least trained observer is the one who also causes the greatest domestic discontent, even in her own home – the town gossip Mrs. Rowland. She is almost single-handedly the cause of the town’s castigation of Mr. Hope, and spreads the rumors about Philip and Miss Bruce.

Faulty observations and untrained observers bring domestic discontent to Deerbrook. Through this, Martineau is telling us a few things – first of all, she is warning us to not lose objective observation when strong emotion comes into play (this seems to make sense when the most objective and careful observer, Maria Young, is also the character for which domestic attachment is seemingly impossible). More than this, however, Martineau is showing the readers of the age of social media and mass communication just how important it was to be a trained observer of people and personal character in the Victorian Era – a skill we may be losing in the 21st century.

One thought on “Faulty Observations, Untrained Observers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *