To speak or not to speak?

Given the many miscommunications that drive the plot of Deerbrook, I rather expected the art of speaking truly and earnestly to be upheld as one of the highest virtues of the novel. Martineau is certainly not hesitant to offer moralistic proclamations throughout this work; even though it is a fictional forum, there are several passages that read like nonfiction as they strive to educate readers. Throughout Deerbrook though, Martineau espouses the complicated tension between speaking and silence instead of proclaiming a clear moralistic rule. Because words are so overwhelmingly powerful, characters are often compelled to silence as their only method for control, and, as readers, we are left asking “what is the role of speech? Is it better to speak or to remain silent?”

There are certainly instances throughout the novel in which the act of speaking is affirmed. Early on, Mrs. Grey explains that what could be called “love at first sight…passes away with a name, without a record” if no one comments on its existence (52). Hester and Margaret’s closeness is also based on a pact to be honest with each other, sharing deeply of their feelings by telling each other what they really think. And Hester’s admission that she “poisons everyone’s lives” and her desperate statement that she “shall never anyone happy” is the start of her redemption, as well as the deepening of Hope’s affection for her (171). Her silence in this instance would have kept her husband from knowing the roots of her pain—indeed, from knowing her as a person.

 However, in most painful situations, silence is upheld as the only method of control: it becomes a matter of honor to bear one’s pain alone. Hope explains early on in the novel that “grief which reveals itself is very endurable,” suggesting that true pain is unspeakable (55). Hester discovers the truth of this when she discovers “a great sad secret” about herself: she has been unconsciously in love with Hope. But she comforts herself by the fact that “no one else knew it or need[ed] ever to know it…[a]ll was not lost” (117). Maria further explains that “there is not on earth a being stronger than a woman in the concealment of her love” (190). We are also prompted to think that Morris truly felt pain upon leaving the sisters, for we are told that “she could not speak” (526).

The notion of silence becomes further complicated, however, in light of failed love relationships. Maria, Margaret, and Hope all pointedly decide to remain silent about their feelings, as if a lack of speech will unable them to bear their circumstances. When Margaret decides that “I must live wholly within myself now…as far as he is concerned. I can never speak of him,” her silence is seemingly rewarded: she trusts the ring sitting silently on her finger until Enderby returns (477). But Maria’s silence, a silence which she maintains for her entire adult life, is not rewarded in the same way: her closest friend is the very woman who marries the man she loves. And the two friends never speak of it (though Maria’s sending word of her engagement by mail signifies that she knows of Maria’s previous attachment). Hope’s final silence about his love for Margaret also remains potentially problematic. All knowledgeable characters enter into a pact never to reveal his initial feelings about the sisters, but the text notes that when Hester speaks happily about Margaret’s final engagement, “he made no reply” (577). Thus, while Martineau champions silence at many points in the novel—the narrator explains that “true lovers do not want to talk together in company” and Margaret gives Enderby “a look which said what words cannot” at one point—silence can also be a mysterious cover for lasting sadness. Finally, in the direst of times, “the choice of suicide” can also be read as a silence–a controlled silence that will last (189). While the novel does not necessarily support this form of silence, it sits in the back of characters’ minds as a consistent option. Silence, then, potentially promises more power even than speech.

Given our discussions about how Martineau views writing and speaking (especially in different genres), how does her depiction of the power of the spoken word vs. the power of silence figure into her understanding of speech in general? Do her novels leave room for the kind of speech that Martineau herself engaged in as a news writer? In what ways did she as a writer value silence over speech?

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