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The poet William Blake refers to ‘the mind-forg’d manacles of man’. To what extent do nineteenth century novelists represent individuals as subject to psychological rather than social restrictions?

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Introduction

The poet William Blake refers to 'the mind-forg'd manacles of man'. To what extent do nineteenth century novelists represent individuals as subject to psychological rather than social restrictions? The 'mind forg'd manacles of man' refer to the psychological restraints placed upon the individual by his or her own mental processes. 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: 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. ...read more.

Middle

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 ...read more.

Conclusion

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). ...read more.

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