Part 7 of The Family Dynamics of Victorian Fiction. [These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, "The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]

Decorative Initial When we look beyond the Brontës to the rest of Victorian fiction, we find other novels in which alcoholism is prominent and many others in which the dependencies are more subtle. The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example, revolves around chemical dependence. Like Arthur, Helen, and little Arthur, the main characters of this novel — Henchard, his wife Susan, and daughter Elizabeth — display almost all the features associated with the classic alcoholic family. Henchard, the alcoholic, suffers from many of the accompanying afflictions: "self-will run riot," low self-esteem, shame, guilt, self-castigation, self-punishment, loneliness, a death wish, and a tendency to depression. In his interactions with people he is often impulsive, unprincipled, quarrelsome, blaming, controlling, and verbally and emotionally abusive. Susan, like Helen, emerges as a classic coalcoholic or codependent, but with more severe pathology and less hope. She agrees to drink with him, resigns herself to her fate, tunes out his verbal abuse at first and later makes only mild protests and timid threats. She accepts being auctioned off in order to escape from him, but returns and puts herself entirely in his hands for the sake of her daughter. A family systems critic can explore the psychosomatic reactions she experiences when she sees her husband, her irresolution when he challenges her, and her repression of her emotions. A student of coalcoholism is not surprised to discover that instead of rejoicing when she finds that he has sobered up, she is "overpowered," "down," and wants to die, because the only life she knows is blaming and being the victim. She feels better when he admits his shame, but still refuses to forgive him. She has an even stronger death wish than Henchard does, and, like him, she suffers from low self esteem, loneliness, humorlessness, and sadness. Some readers identify more with Elizabeth Jane, a classic child of an alcoholic, who also suffers from low self-esteem. A family systems critic can reveal why she too is "sober " and humorless, and why her desire to see, to hear, and to understand is "repressed."

When this family first appears it is characterized by loneliness and silence. Both parents are obsessed with secrecy, the standard rule of many if not most family systems. Their meeting site is secret and they agree that secrecy is necessary to protect their shame. Henchard insists on keeping the secret of her parentage from Elizabeth even though his friend Farfrae recommends that he tell the truth. Also unable to tell her daughter the truth, Susan lies to Henchard and constantly worries about being discovered. At first Elizabeth is unsuspicious but eventually becomes aware (as many readers did) of the presence of secrets in the system and becomes troubled by them.

What is most remarkable about this novel from the point of view of the family systems approach to chemical dependency is that when Henchard sobers up some of his actions foreshadow those to be recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and many other twelve-step groups in the next century. What is most surprising in a Hardy novel, the protagonist briefly experiences faith in a higher power, the equivalent of steps two and three: "Elizabeth-Jane heard him say, 'Who is such a reprobate as I! And yet it seems that even I be in Somebody's hand!'" When Henchard tells all to Farfrae it is very much like a fifth step . He then proceeds to what would be the eighth and ninth steps: making amends. He feels genuine remorse, is kind to Elizabeth-Jane and Susan, apologizes to Susan, and determines to make amends to her.

Like many A. A. members to come after him, Henchard renounces secrets and adopts a stance of rigorous honesty. He scrupulously reveals his debts and admits to the whole town that he auctioned off his wife. He even gives up some measure of control. For example, he initially attempts to control the choice of a last name for Elizabeth but he catches himself, backs off, and tells her not to agree with his choice just to please him. Even when Elizabeth chooses Farfrae as her lover (whom he almost killed) "Henchard vowed that he would leave them to their own devices, put nothing in the way of their courses, whatever they might mean." However, Henchard remains isolated in the novel, conspicuously without ready access to a higher power and the support of a group such as A. A. Hence his efforts alone are not enough to save the family, and he returns to drinking and starves himself to death. Nevertheless, as in Wuthering Heights, the second generation, Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae, seems more functional.


Victorian Overview Thomas Hardy Science and Technology

Last modified 31 January 2001