The Trouble with the Sublime Sufferer

I find Hester’s response to the riot in the middle of Deerbrook troubling. Here is a woman of the most changeable moods, whose reason had very little effect on her feelings, who battled jealousy in happiness and tears when her snow boots were late. Yet when a mob threatens to kill her husband, and burns him in effigy before her very door, then she is noble and cheerful. She seems nearly to equal Maria Young who suffers with philosophical patience.  Yet I think that Hester cheerfulness cannot come from the same place as Maria’s.

I grant that there are places where they seem similar.  Maria tells Margaret earlier in the novel to “set [a governess] free from hankering after happiness in her work, and you have a happy governess.”  We may infer from this that one who pursues suffering would also be happier.  And this is certainly Hester’s philosophy – Margaret comforts Mr. Hope that when the trial grows hot enough for action, Hester will act nobly.  So Mr. Hope wishes for trouble.

But when Hester’s great trial finally comes, her suffering makes an almost absurd comparison to Maria’s.  Maria, by the time of the riot, had suffered bereavement, crippling, poverty, loneliness, unrequited love, friendship with her rival, and finally a broken leg as a result of the mob that left the “family in the corner house” with only a destroyed garden and broken windows.  Maria did not even have a garden to be destroyed, yet her philosophical views make her more concerned with the trials of her friends than her own.  Hers is a quiet, unconscious (though not unacknowledged) suffering.

Harriet must make more of her suffering to work it up to the level of Maria’s.  She is actually more like petty Mrs. Grey who equates her trial of an unpleasant neighbor to Mr. Hope’s trial of impending poverty and loss of reputation. But Harriet is only a little better than this. In comparison to Maria, her sufferings are light, yet she makes them larger in order find a pressure that will sooth her moody soul.  In fact, the entire Hope household is afflicted to great an appreciation of persecution – or at least, of the appearance of persecution.  “People who are persecuted are considered great, you know,” Margaret encourages the maid.  And later, Mr. Hope admonishes his family that, “we have no business to quarrel with our trial because it is not of a grander kind.” How Maria would smile if she heard such a lament as she lay with a broken leg in her pokey room.

Could it be, in fact, that because Hester so values suffering, she seeks it before her time? Could it be that all her angst in the first half of the novel is more than self-reproach, but also an attempt at self-purification through suffering?  Is her torture self-inflicted? At the very least, Hester’s fascination with the self-conscious grandeur of suffering sets the Hope household too close to the Deerbrook interest in appearances for the comfort of this particular reader.

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