“Living Encounters” and the Problem of Charity

Third Blog Post:

Anderson’s “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy”

            Amanda Anderson’s chapter takes two of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, to explore the theme of the “fallen woman” and, at least in the case of Mary Barton, it intersects with the novel’s political concerns. She begins by noting “Gaskell’s recurrent ambivalence toward the workers she wants to help” (109), which manifests itself in both the in-novel depictions of characters such as John Barton and in the author’s extra-literary attitude toward reformist movements in her day. For the latter, Anderson draws a contrast with Dickens in particular. According to Anderson, Gaskell placed her hopes in individual charity rooted in the “actual encounter between living persons” (110), linking the suspicion of systemic or “depersonalized” reform to Unitarian belief and practice. I frankly don’t know enough about Victorian era Unitarianism to comment on the accuracy of this characterization. It does raise a question germane to the themes of this course, however. Within Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, the sources for conceptualizing both hospitality and charity arguably privilege precisely these “encounters between living persons.” The Scriptures that we examined earlier in the course featured biblical persons such as Abraham receiving the three Strangers in a highly personal manner, cooking for them, making his home available to them. This also reflects the Near Eastern cultural context standing behind the text, in which individual hospitality is highly prized. One might also think of moments in the Gospels—Mary and Martha’s frequent receptions of Jesus, the anonymous homeowner who makes the “upper room” available for Jesus to eat with his disciples, the wealthy women who support Jesus’s ministry out of their means, even Joseph of Arimathea’s donation of a tomb—that exemplify this sort of individualized, “face to face” charity. Jesus was nothing if not the “worthy poor.” On the other hand, the Hebrew prophets frequently called for a broader, more systemic approach to poverty. We rarely find prophets advocating for this or that poor person. Rather, they call on kings and those in authorityto address the conditions that create poverty in the first place. It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the prophet Amos.

The two streams, personal and systemic, run throughout Christian history as well. The traditional sources that we’ve examined so far have centered on the tales of saints and monks who received individual travelers (including a few who turned out to be far more than they seemed!). Charity in high and late medieval western Christianity was highly individualized as well. From about the fourteenth century on, it was strongly rooted in beliefs concerning merit and the afterlife. The explosive growth of ecclesial—and charitable—structures connected to the doctrine of purgatory has been identified by historians such as Eamon Duffy as thedefining characteristic of late medieval Christianity. “Charity” often meant endowing masses to be sung for suffering souls, who naturally were the worthiest of the poor (their very presence in purgatory rather than hell guaranteed that they were destined for salvation, eventually). Sir Thomas More authored a polemical treatise, “Supplication for Souls,” in 1529 that essentially argued that that to donate alms for departed souls was a far greater deed than relieving the hunger of bodies (early English evangelicals like John Frith and Simon Fish were arguing the opposite).  Social historians such as Carter Lindberg have also noted the increasing and occasionally violent tensions between pre-Reformation city councils (i.e. Strasbourg) and the clerical establishment precisely on this point: cities wanted to feed their hungry poor and were developing elaborate “poor relief” systems to accomplish it. The church wanted to succor souls (and, well, endow large clerical foundations). Which project would claim the territory’s limited resources?

This historic detour is my attempt to show that the tension that Gaskell experienced in the nineteenth century between “personal” and “systemic” approaches to poverty was not at all newin Christian thought. Indeed, the text of Mary Barton arguably serves as a forum in which this tension is negotiated. Anderson dwells at length on the ambivalent character of Esther. In traditional terms, she is “fallen,” the undeserving poor. Nonetheless, Gaskell has the virtuous Jem regret his paltry efforts at aiding her. Anderson attributes this to the nature of Esther’s character; her presence in the novel represents “the kinds of sympathetic encounters and acts of mutual cooperation that [Gaskell] believes can heal a class-divided social world” (119). On the other hand, the “melodramatic” tropes scripting Esther’s story essentially doom her; no amount of sympathy or individual action can ultimately recall her from her fallenness. She hovers as a sort of specter over the text, complicating the notion that personal encounters are sufficient for reform. Her burial side-by-side with John Barton—the novel’s spokesperson for systemtic and political action—becomes emblematic for the unresolved tension between the two approaches. Gaskell seems neither comfortable with fully endorsing Barton’s Chartist vision nor does she allow Esther to be “saved” (at least in a this-worldly sense). The novel’s conclusion may thus leave the reader questioning just what can be donefor the industrialized poor the author depicts. Anderson points to the “reconciliation” of Mr. Carson and Barton as embodying the problem. Carson recognizes to some extent his sins, and yet there is little suggestion that the fundamental system over which he presides will change. Meanwhile, Barton is still corpse (120).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that Gaskell “answers” the question of charity. Her novel wonderfully narrates its complexities, however. I should also add that I don’t think that “personal” and “corporate” charity must be in competition; a Christian ethic may and should embrace both. But it’s also helpful to recognize that the church has historically struggled with just how to conceptualize that balance. For example, the rise of “liberation” thought in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century and the initially quite negative reactions from some in the hierarchy (including a young Joseph Ratzinger) suggest that the tension remains with us. In our discussion of Mary Barton’s conclusion, I will be eager to explore how the novel presents these questions to us and how the text might serve as a resource for reflection.  It will also be worth asking how “charity” relates to hospitality—they are distinct concepts, and yet I doubt whether they can be wholly disentangled either.

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