In every society, individuals hold prejudices influential enough to isolate people into different classes, based on various aspects of their lives such as income, profession and even gender. In various situations in The Dress Lodger, author Sheri Holman demonstrates that the inequalities presented in a society create challenging obstacles that need to be overcome in order for strong and stable communities to develop. In the novel, suspicion and abhorrence is displayed as evolving through social hierarchy; most characters do not look at another’s situation from their point of view and automatically lead themselves to think negatively of their peers because they are different. If the people put aside their biased opinions, they could accept one another and live in harmony. Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger suggests that the inequalities between social classes result in mistrust and hatred that ultimately affect characters negatively; it is only when people begin to recognize that such prejudices are based on false realities, that they can finally look past their social class differences and see each other for who they are as a person.
Firstly, uncertainty and detestation are present in Sunderland’s society as a result of many of the characters’ actions, which is the reason for them being affected so harshly. Initially, the citizens of the lower class mistrust doctors out of fear of being killed and used for dissection. Doctor Clanny notices this when he says “they don’t trust us, so they don’t send for us”, further proving that the individuals of the lower class do not seek medical attention, thereby leading to their death because of the mistrust created (117). As long as there is mistrust between doctors and the lower class; requesting medical aid will decrease, deaths will be the result and this cycle will repeat itself. In the novel, people from the upper class, such as Henry Chiver, have been responsible for causing this. Henry Chiver’s past about digging up cadavers and hiring murders to obtain bodies for dissection is well known in Sunderland. Even Doctor Clanny knows they are not innocent by saying “Our behavior is as responsible for the spread of this disease as anything else” (117).
This proves that people have mistrust in others not just because of the way they think, but because it is the way others in society have presented themselves to be perceived. If the people refrain from actions that will cause others to not trust them, these social problems would not even exist. The mistrust developed between the lower class and doctors is so strong, that it has triggered hate. Subsequently, this is revealed when Doctor Clanny goes to see a play, and receives offensive comments and accusations such as “You’d murder the lot of us for your experiments” from the crowd below (100). Although Clanny disregards these comments and continues on with his job, the hate and suspicion circulating around him cannot be ignored. Readers can take away the valuable lesson of learning that in order to gain each other’s trust and maintain good relationships, they need to eradicate the actions which cause mistrust between them. Good relationships based on trust and love will make a positive impact on the community, because by having strong bonds between community members, together they can create positive change.
The people need to recognize that such prejudices are based on false realities, or else they will not understand the situation from another point of view. The Eye’s character is presented as a mysterious, unknown old woman who Gustine believes has cursed her child, and therefore has made a prejudice towards. Gustine claims that the Eye “had intended to draw out from her body its very heart and leave the poor thing dead inside her” (143). Gustine’s prejudice towards the old woman has caused a barrier between the two characters from the beginning. Gustine did not understand the Eye’s intentions or her character until she took the chance to accept her peace offering, symbolizing how the Eye “surrenders the battle without a blow”, and realizing the Eye did not want the worst for her or her baby, but in fact also loved it (268). On another note, Gustine’s character as a dress lodger has caused prejudice and received negative judgment from others.
One of these people, Henry Chivers, does not take into consideration the situation that Gustine is in, and although he is attracted to her, he finds her occupation appalling. Gustine works long hours, and with cholera and quarantine, it hard to make money and she admits to it saying “the only thing worse than grinding sixteen hours a day, is to grind sixteen hours and not be paid…” (69). Henry does not recognize that she is forced to do this in order to support her child, and bases his judgment on the stereotypical expectation of woman. If people cast out of their mind the false realties about others and think of the reason for these actions, they will be successful in seeing the truth about a person. When another character is introduced, Gustine’s first impression of Audrey Place is that she is yet another young, rich girl with her “black velvet mantle and lame gauze turban with ostrich feather” who has no interest in helping anyone (93). Gustine’s initial inklings of jealousy trigger her prejudiced opinion of Audrey, which foreshadows her tragic death. If people in society refrain from making preconceptions of those they meet, their lives would be positively changed because of the lessened misjudgment; creating a solid foundation for strong communities to be built upon.
When people overlook their prejudices to see past their social class differences, they see others for who they truly are and what they are capable of. Audrey allows herself to overlook the different classes people come from, and consequently does not discriminate against them. When Audrey willingly offers Pink to come live with her, asking her “if I become a healthy matron and have a big house of my very own, would you like to come and work for me?”, it shows her desire to ignore what class Pink is from (166). This proves Audrey is not someone who supports the unseen barrier between the rich and the poor. Audrey gladly goes to the town’s lower class, and strives to help people out of the goodness of her heart. If the other characters in The Dress Lodger followed Audrey’s example, they would be successful in seeing each other as equals because then they are not discriminating based on the social hierarchy, making the community of Sunderland a united one.
In another situation, Doctor Clanny does not refuse to help others despite of what they say to him or the prejudices they hold against him. For instance, when a man named Jack Crawford, who had previously hurled insults at the doctor, becomes very ill, Clanny still “smoothes his coattails, straightens his India medal and walks to the door” to help the man. (108).The fact that Doctor Clanny does not allow prejudices to hinder his profession makes him different from some of the other characters in the novel. If all the characters acted as he did, and disregarded the differences between them, eventually these prejudices would stop being repeated, and potentially bridge the gap between rich and poor. Readers also see a different side of Gustine when she does not judge Henry solely on what he does for his work. She could be like the rest of Sunderland in calling the doctor a revolting lunatic for digging up bodies and looking for corpses to dissect, but she does not.
When Henry tells her his story, she understands his condition with his students. She even thinks of a way to help him, when she says “‘Funny, I come across dead bodies all the time. Would you like it if I brought you to them?’ ” (33). By Gustine looking past Henry’s strange obsession with the need for human cadavers, it proves that she has not let herself be affected by the prejudices Sunderland demonstrates towards the doctors. Characters such as Gustine, Audrey, and Doctor Clanny prove that there is hope for interaction between the classes as if inequalities and prejudices do not exist.
With a new outlook on a community’s social hierarchy, an outlook that consists of reality and truthfulness, people will find the means to overlook differences in their social standard. The Dress Lodger connects with the people in today’s society through the similarity between characters in the book and real life. The novel communicates that it takes time to understand a person, who should not be judged by their annual income or family name. This would allow successful growth and development for a stronger community. There is no doubt that this is a difficult task; it takes time and effort to build bridges between differences. But it is not an impossible task. After all, readers must never forget the significant lesson presented by The Dress Lodger: “Nothing without labor” (291).
Courtney from Study Moose
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