The poet William Blake refers to 'the mind-forg'd manacles of man' - Poetry Essay Example

The ‘mind forg’d manacles of man’ refer to the psychological restraints placed upon the individual by his or her own mental processes - The poet William Blake refers to 'the mind-forg'd manacles of man' introduction. These may be normal restrictions such as love, that prevent the individual from behaving rationally, or they may be abnormal restrictions such as madness, which prevent the individual from leading a normal life. Society is, by definition, a group of individuals, each with their own psychological values and beliefs, and it is when this ‘body’ of individuals impose their psychological beliefs on individuals within that body that individuals become restrained by society. Society’s class structures and by-products such as poverty and criminality impose on the individual’s views and beliefs, and these impositions form the social restraints that complement those of the mind.

Often psychological and social restrictions coexist. An obvious example of this is the use of religion and superstition within 19th century novels. Novelists often present their characters with a deep spiritual need which can be interpreted as a psychological desire for guidance, a reason for being, a desire for forgiveness, and the comfort derived from the belief that everything has a purpose and we are being looked after: “Kiss the earth which you have defiled, then God will send you life again” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p433) “He knelt down in the middle of the square, bowed down to the earth, and kissed the filthy earth with joy and rapture” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p537). The writer then draws our attention to the insufficiencies of institutionalised religion through satire, irony and humorous juxtapositions:

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When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery. It was to make faith come; but no delights descended from the heavens, and she arose with tired limbs and with a vague feeling of a gigantic dupery.

Madame Bovary, p166

The writer ridicules the Church, and its failure to provide comfort, through a juxtaposition between a spiritual relationship with Jesus and an adulterous relationship with Emma’s secret lover, and a juxtaposition between religious ideals, ‘delights descended from the heavens’, and harsh reality: ‘tired limbs’ ‘a gigantic dupery’. Tied in with this is superstition, another societal restriction resulting from a need of faith: “Three black hens asleep in a tree. He shuddered, horrified at this omen. Then he promised the Holy Virgin three chasubles for the church” (Flaubert, 1995, p262). Again the author ridicules society’s weak attempts at consolation, this time through the paradox, ‘how can hens be the bringers of evil?’ (Humorous concept – the malevolent hen)

Religion and superstition are frequently used in 19th century literature to scorn the religious institutions of the day. Another example of this is in His Natural Life, where institutionalised religion is made a mockery of through the squabbling sects of the same religious faith of Christianity: “Damnable heresies of the Church or Rome” (Clarke, 1992, p 334) “Lest he should pounce down upon him unawares and…convert him by force to his own state of error” (Clarke, 1992, p 334). This coupling of a psychological need with a societal insufficiency to fulfil it is often presented in 19th century literature through religious derision.

A further example of psychological and social restrictions coexisting is in the concepts of love and marriage. 19th century novelists present love as a psychological need within the individual; marriage is portrayed as the restraining force acting upon the lovers, implemented by their society. Love is a central theme in both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In both novels characters are depicted with an intense need for love, a love that is uncontrollable and irrational: “I love you! I love you so that I could not live without you…I am your servant, your concubine! You are my king, my idol!” (Flaubert, 1995, p147) “How could it occur to her to examine the [love] letter, to look at it critically…her whole soul was possessed” (Eliot, 1985, p67)

Love is seen as a psychological restriction in that it restricts our ability to think rationally and forces us to act without considering consequences. Many 19th century novelists condemn their society’s expectation of marriage in these circumstances as reckless; this kind of passionate love is often not everlasting, but a fleeting experience. Marriage is portrayed as a bond that can imprison individuals long after their passion has faded: “Charles had seen in marriage the advent of an easier life, thinking that he would be free…but his wife was master” (Flaubert, 1995, pp7-8)

“Domestic mediocrity drove her to lewd fancies, marriage tendernesses to adulterous desires” (Flaubert, 1995, p83) “Before marriage she had thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken” (Flaubert, 1995, p25) Love is seen as a psychological need, and the cause of the restriction; society and its customs enforce this restriction. An example of an instance where love conquers the individual is found in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, when Lydgate falls in love with Rosamond:

…But as he raised his eyes now he saw a certain helpless quivering which touched him quite newly, and made him look at Rosamond with a questioning flash. At this moment she was as natural as she had ever been when she was five years old: she felt her tears had risen, and it was no use trying to do anything else than let them stay like water on a blue flower or let them fall over her cheeks, even as they would.

That moment of naturalness was the crystallizing feather touch: it shook flirtation into love…Lydgate, forgetting everything else, completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness at the sudden belief that this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy, actually put his arms around her…In half an hour he left the house an engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman’s to whom he had bound himself.

Middlemarch, pp335-336

Eliot uses poetic language in her description of this moment of love: ‘tears…like water on a blue flower’ and the ‘crystallizing feather touch’ are discussed with reference to the soul. The poet is often seen as subject to forces of creation external to himself, and this idea is sustained with the lovers being subjected to the uncontrollable forces of love. The final sentence reinforces the idea that marriage is an unbreakable bond; Lydgate becomes an ‘engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman’s to whom he had bound himself.’ The narrative style is relaxed and draws the reader into the scene – the love scene is written in free indirect intercourse mode, so the narrator is not actively present and the reader receives the illusion that they can see for themselves what the characters are thinking.

The characters are depicted as highly emotional. The relaxed, romantic writing style was often utilized by 19th century novelists to portray the psychological impact of love upon their characters. Phrases such as ‘helpless’, ‘no use trying to do anything else’, ‘forgetting everything else’ and ‘completely mastered’ support the idea that love is irrepressible. But many novelists see love as ephemeral and often condemn the bond that has the power to enslave individual’s souls: “Marriage drinks up all our power of giving or getting and blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear – but it murders our marriage – and then the marriage stays with us like a murder” (Eliot, 1985, p855)

Society is often criticized by 19th century novelists as being responsible for psychological restrictions such as madness or criminality, which impinge upon an individual’s ability to lead what is considered a “normal” or “natural” life. In For The Term Of His Natural Life, Dawes, whilst undergoing considerable torture, “for the first time understood the full punishment…how the agony of the wretched body can force the soul to quit its last poor refuge of unarmed indifference and confess itself conquered” (Clarke, 1992, p341). This idea of social consequences provoking or inducing psychological illness is frequently presented in 19th century novels. Many novelists propose the idea that negative societal outcomes, including poverty, unemployment, sickness, squalor and urban disintegration, can induce psychological restrictions such as madness or criminality:

“Oh, how strangely must the world have been civilized, that this most lovely corner of it must needs be set apart as a place of banishment for the monsters that civilization has brought forth and bred!” (Clarke, 1992, p310) Although criminal behaviour is seen as a result of a psychological restriction on normal behaviour, that is, “no habitual criminal ever owned a well-balanced brain” (Clarke, 1992, p123), society and its by-products are often seen as the primary cause of the psychological problems that induce such behaviour. Dostoyevsky evolves his character Raskolnikov, in his novel Crime and Punishment, as a product of his environment; a sane man who turns mad and murders people as a result of his physical and mental sickness generated from poverty and ambition that could possibly have been brought on by society’s expectations of him as a scholar:

…He could hardly walk straight. His head swam and his feet went numb. He began going down the stairs, clutching at the wall with his right hand. He was dimly aware…He went down the stairs and out into the yard. There, close to the entrance, stood Sonia, pale as death, and she looked wildly at him. He stopped before her. An agonizing expression of despair appeared on her face. She clasped her hands, too choked to say anything. A forlorn, ghastly smile hovered over Raskolnikov’s lips. He stood still for a moment, grinned, and went back to the police-station.

…Raskolnikov, with pale lips and a motionless stare, advanced slowly…pushed the glass of water away and said softly, pausing after each word:

‘It was I who killed the old woman money-lender and her sister Lisaveta with a hatchet and robbed them.’

…People came running from all directions.

Raskolnikov repeated his statement.

Crime and Punishment, p542

Dostoyevsky uses illustrative language with graphic adjectives and simile to increase the immediacy and realism of the scene in which Raskolnikov decides it is better to accept society’s restrictions that to be alienated from society: ‘pale lips and motionless stare’ ‘forlorn, ghastly smile’ ‘pale as death’. Characteristic of Dostoyevsky’s style, empathy with the characters is encouraged through emotive language: ‘agonizing expression of despair’ ‘his head swam’ ‘too choked to say anything’.

The scene becomes dramatic when Raskolnikov ‘advanced slowly’ and ‘pausing after each word’ utters his confession. This deliberate heightening of tension by drawing out the scene reflects the tone of the whole novel, where various other characters repeatedly antagonize Raskolnikov, intensifying his fear of exposure and moral indecision over the crime. Raskolnikov’s character is depicted as one of unstable reasoning that is a direct result of his poverty. His intention in committing the murder was to gain enough money to allow himself to attend university and subsequently atone for his sin by becoming great and serving society:

“What if Napoleon, for instance, had been in my place and…to start his career…there had simply been some ridiculous old woman…who had, in addition, to be murdered to get the money from her box” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p428) This psychological justification of murder to himself is derived from society’s expectations of him as a student, and his poverty and squalor that prevents him from attending the university. Subsequently, Raskolnikov refuses to admit guilt for his crime: “My conscience is clear. No doubt I have committed a criminal offence…it was that alone that he considered his crime: not having been successful in it” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p552). Dostoyevsky presents the idea that society is responsible for the criminal through Raskolnikov’s refusal to accept responsibility for his actions: “Was it the old hag I killed? No, I killed myself, not the old hag. I did away with myself at one blow.

It was the devil that killed the old hag, not I” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p433). The repetitiveness of his response is indicative of his growing mental confusion, which is often reflected in childish or deliberately exaggerated language: “he thought gleefully…gazing stupidly at the corner and the hole which bulged out now more than ever” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p108). Throughout the novel, the internal torment, greed, and possible madness that result in the criminal committing robbery or murder is frequently traced back to the poverty and urban disintegration of the society in which the criminal resides. Although it is a psychological restriction that prevents the individual from leading a normal life, it is often a social restriction that forces the criminal into this psychological restraint.

Many 19th century novelists criticize their society through hyperbole on the social class structure of the time. In Madame Bovary, the upper class is satirized through a humorous juxtaposition between the popular image of the upper class, with their “certain air of breeding…the complexion of wealth…the calm of passions daily sated…[and] the management of thoroughbred horses and loose women” (Flaubert, 1995, p37), and the decrepit remains and reality of dissatisfaction in the form of a lonely old man with gravy dripping down his chin like a child:

But at the upper end of the table, alone amongst all of those women, bent over his full plate, and his napkin tied round his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, letting drops of gravy drip from his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot, and he wore a little queue tied with a black ribbon. He was the marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duke de Laverdi�re, once on a time favourite of the Count…he had lived at Court and slept in the beds of queens!

Madame Bovary, pp35-36

The writer deliberately compares the Duke to a child to exaggerate the irony of this supposed civilized man being unable even to feed himself in a civilized fashion. The juxtaposition between the bent old man with bloodshot eyes and the prestige of the Court and queens ridicules the gentry, implying that the ‘high-life’ of extravagance does not lead to satisfaction but only pitiable ruination and a waste of ability: “Has the human theory of the solar system been advanced by graceful manners and conversational tact?” (Eliot, 1985, p110)

But not only do 19th century novelists criticize the upper class for their extravagance, they also reproach the bourgeois materialism, ennui and self-centredness: “They are a narrow ignorant set, and do more to make their neighbours uncomfortable than to make them better…they really do look on the rest of mankind as a doomed carcase which is to nourish them for heaven” (Eliot, 1985, p206)

The writers present this criticism through the creation of stereotypes that represent middle-class greed – in Madame Bovary, Homais’s attacks on other doctors so that he might practice medicine illegally, and Lheureux’s deceitful money lending (for example, his addition of items that were not ordered to people who are so sick that they cannot refute the order’s bill) are two good examples of this. Combining this criticism of the upper and middle classes with the lower class’s poverty already examined, it would appear that very few people in society derive any long term benefit by remaining in civilization. But recalling Raskolnikov’s decision to accept the punishment of society, rather than be ostracised from human contact, it becomes clear that individuals seek social contact because of some inbuilt psychological need. Compassion for others is one possible reason for individuals to remain in society.

The need for human interaction is a primary psychological need. It forms the framework of human society and binds it together. Consider Middlemarch, when the character Dorothea “felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men of labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life” (Eliot, 1985, p846). The idea that humans are naturally bound to connect with each other is a theme explored by many 19th century novelists, who usually present both the positive and negative consequences that result from these connections, to create interesting storylines and psychological possibilities for action.

In For The Term Of His Natural Life, Dawes is presented with an opportunity to escape from the imprisonment and torture unjustly inflicted upon him by his society, but his compassion for others prevents him from doing so, and although this is admirable, and allows three others to survive, the novelist makes it clear that Dawes’s compassion is a psychological restriction upon him as an individual which prevents him from attaining his own freedom and happiness:

…Was not the boat he had built below him on the shore? Why not escape in her, and leave to their fate the miserable creatures who had treated him with such ingratitude? …He was within three feet of the boat, when he suddenly checked himself, and stood motionless, staring at the sand with as much horror as though he saw there the writing which had foretold the doom of Belshazzar.

He had come upon the sentence traced by Dora the evening before, and in the grey uncertain light of morning it seemed to him that the letters had shaped themselves at his very feet.

GOOD MR DAWES

…What a world of cowardice, baseness, and cruelty, had not those eleven letters opened to him! …The convict turned away, and two great, glistening tears rolled down his rugged face, and fell upon the sand.

For The Term Of His Natural Life, pp235-6

Clarke uses a religious allusion to represent the incredible feelings of despair within Dawes when he realizes that his compassion has sealed his ‘doom’. Even though he sees them as ‘miserable creatures who had treated him with such ingratitude’, his empathy for them as fellow human beings restricts his ability to act rationally. The contrast between ‘cowardice, baseness, and cruelty’, and the two great tears rolling down Dawes’ rugged face epitomizes the suffering that individuals undergo as a result of their empathy with the rest of humanity.

The psychological restriction of a compulsion for human compassion is best captured in Middlemarch, when Dorothea says of connecting with another that it is “fresh water at her thirsty lips to speak without fear to the one person whom she had found receptive” (Eliot, 1985, p398). The relief that this image stimulates is accompanied by a warning about society – Although human beings crave social interaction and acceptance, the fact that Dorothea was finally able to ‘speak without fear’ indicates that the individual often needs to remain guarded when fulfilling psychological needs such as human interaction; Dorothea’s fears could represent the fear of judgement, or the fear of being taken advantage of, both of which are likely possibilities within society.

There is no question that society has its imperfections. Eliot in Middlemarch sees individuals in modern day society as “helped by no coherent faith and order” (Eliot, 1985, p25) and it is no surprise that many individuals, “struggling against the conditions of an imperfect social state” (Eliot, 1985, p896), turn greedy and self centred in their attempt to avoid losing out in the inequity of society. Eliot depicts many of her characters as being subject to these psychological derivatives of society. Even the admirable Lydgate secretly succumbs to pride: “Lydgate felt triumphant delight in his studies, and something like pity for those less lucky men who were not of his profession” (Eliot, 1985, p194).

This self-importance is echoed in Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov’s exclaims, “‘we’ll try our strength now’ …as if addressing some dark power and challenging it” (Dostoyevsky, 1973, p208). As in the case of faith and religious institutions, it is society’s inability to provide that which its individuals require that is often presented as the cause of the psychological restrictions of its individuals. A prime example of this is in Madame Bovary, where Flaubert humorously portrays the moment when Emma succumbs to her psychological and emotional desires:

…And he seized her hand; she did not withdraw it.

‘For good farming generally!’ cried the president.

…’A hundred times I wished to go; and I followed you – I remained.’

‘Manures!’

…’And I shall carry away with me the remembrance of you.’

‘For a merino ram!’

Rodolphe was pressing her hand, and he felt it all warm and quivering like a captive dove that wants to fly away; but, whether she was trying to take it away or whether she was answering his pressure, she made a movement with her fingers. He exclaimed:

‘Oh, I thank you! You do not repulse me! You are good!

Madame Bovary, pp114-5

This passage is full of amusing metaphors and juxtapositions. The cry of ‘Manures!’ after Rodolphe’s false confession can be compared to the cry of “bullshit!” in a modern assembly, when a speaker is talking rubbish. The ideas of the soil as the soul, or the farming and harvesting of crops representing the pursuit of women are also humorous metaphors used in the scene. The juxtapositions of romantic vows with barnyard animals, farmers and prize money ridicule the false romanticism that is a central theme in the novel. Romantic ideals are ridiculed by taking them out of context and placing them side by side: “persecuted sweethearts fainting on lonely pavilions…’gentlemen’, brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains” (Flaubert, 1995, p27).

The sheer impossibility of these ideals makes Emma’s searching for the passion and rapture of fantasy novels quite comic. In her mind Emma had certain preconceived notions that were not possible in her social situation. When she finally figures out that in reality it is nothing but “the smallness of the passions that art exaggerated” (Flaubert, 1995, p174) and her romanticism is just “a plastic fantasy”, (Flaubert, 1995, p174) we are forced to laugh at society for creating such unreal expectations within its youths. Rodolphe’s presumptuous behaviour towards the end of the extract introduces another psychological restriction that can be linked to society – chauvinism.

This theme is particularly prominent in Middlemarch: “women were expected to have weak opinions” (Eliot, 1985, p31) “I like a woman who lays herself out a little more to please us. There should be a little filigree about a woman – something of the coquette” (Eliot, 1985, p 115). Although this could be considered a natural pathological reaction of many male individuals, Eliot again suggests that it is society, in not providing appropriate education and guidance, or providing it through unreliable means such as the casual talk of rowdy men or inaccurate, highly embellished literature, that is the cause of such behaviour: “the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversation of men” (Eliot, 1985, p193).

It is this superficial evaluation of a woman’s worth in terms of ‘blue eyes and blonde hair’ that is a frequently censured in 19th century literature as a psychological restriction that prevents women from being judged on their merits, and perpetuates the emotional abuse of women by men who, like Rodolphe, are insincere in their courting of women, valuing them only for their beauty and the pleasure they can bring.

After exploring the nature of psychological and societal restraints, one conclusion is that all social restrictions are accompanied by corresponding psychological restrictions – love and marriage, physical torture and resentment, a need for faith and institutionalised religion deficiencies – Psychological and societal restraints often coexist. 19th century society was much more ‘driven’ by laws and restraints than the society of today. For this reason, 19th century authors often presented their social criticism by demonstrating the effects of social restrictions on characters and their psyche. Novelists criticised the class structures of their day as furthering psychological restrictions such as greed, criminality, madness, and deception whilst maintaining social restrictions such as poverty, sickness and urban disintegration.

Also, psychological needs were often depicted as bringers of restrictions that were subsequently enforced by society, for example, fleeting love or passion bringing forth the unbreakable bond of marriage. The psychological need of human compassion that is a primary basis for society is contrasted with societal restrictions that abuse the need for human interaction, including falsification, deception and chauvinism. Although 19th century novelists recognize that psychological restrictions form a large portion of any restraint, societal restrictions are seen as the factor which induces negative consequences – as George Eliot notes in Middlemarch: “There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (Eliot, 1985, p896).

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