Journal of Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
Updated: Mar 6
Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook is a novel about the small town of Deerbrook. Through this novel Martineau paints a picture for her readers of what it would be like to live in a small town during the 1830s. The importance of duty is conveyed throughout the novel through the character, Margaret. By the end of this novel I feel as though Martineau came alive as a writer with her foreshadowing of the epidemic in Deerbrook, along with some of her images she would paint for the readers during the time of sickness.
Martineau gives many characters in Deerbrook a sense of duty that they need to stand by. Because of this characteristic the characters in this novel who abide by their duty appear to the reader as strong and morally just people. A character whose sense of duty stood out to me was Margaret. An example of her sense of duty is when Margaret tells Phillip that she will not marry him, Martineau writes the scene thusly, “‘I have a plan of life, too,’ said Margaret. ‘It is to do the duty that lies nearest at hand’” (168). Margaret’s reasoning for not marrying Phillip is only because she feels she has another duty that is more important, that duty being, to be with Hester and Hope during their time of struggle. Although this quotation is her refusing to marry Phillip, it is also Margaret saying that her main goal in life is to fulfill whatever duty is at hand in the moment.
Deerbrook appears to be in a decline as the novel progresses. This decline includes the amount of gossip that is being told, the poverty that spreads, along with the amount of thievery what begins to take place. Margaret describes Deerbrook in its lowest point before the epidemic, when most people are in poverty, resulting in a lot of thievery, “The very air feels too heavy to breathe. The cottages, and even the better houses, appear to my eyes damp and weather-stained on the outside, and silent within. The children sit shivering on the thresholds—do not they? —instead of shouting at their play as they did” (205). This description of Deerbrook paints an amazing image in the reader’s head. I love this particular quotation because of the foreshadowing aspect of it. This quotation is foreshadowing the epidemic in a few different ways; one way is simply the dark images, along with Margaret saying the air felt too heavy to breath. The air being too heavy to breath paints a picture for the reader of a dark fog over the town, which can give the reader the sense that something terrible is coming; in this case, the epidemic. Another way this quotation can foreshadow the epidemic is when Margaret mentions the children shivering in their houses instead of playing. This image can lead the readers to think of the health factors of living in this environment, which appears to be cold and damp, which can eventually lead to sickness.
Once the epidemic arrives in Deerbrook, Martineau creates multiple incredible images for the reader to see. An example of one of these images is when the narrator is describing the funeral trains in the cemetery, “The path by the turnstile was indeed grown over with grass: but the great gate was almost always open, and the ground near it was trodden bare by the feet of many mourners. Funeral trains—trains which daily grew shorter, till each coffin was now followed only by two or by three” (229). After reading this quotation, I had to stop and read it over because I found it so amazing. Martineau through this quotation gives the reader this troublesome image of the funeral trains following the coffins slowly getting shorter because of the families dying. The choice to describe the dying families in this way instead of simply telling the reader that families were dying off was completely magnificent. Another amazing moment is when Hester is telling Margaret that Margaret will someday come visit Deerbrook again and that they will be grown up and telling their kids about the hardships that Deerbrook went through, in which Margaret replied, “And tell how there was an aged man, who told us of his seeing the deer come down through the forest to drink at the brook. I should like to behold those future days” (141). I read this quotation and was in awe of how Martineau was able to have the last few paragraphs of this novel so beautifully put. This conversation between Hester and Margaret took all of the tragic things that took place and put them into the past and instead painted an image of the future in which all will be well.
Deerbrook is a novel that grew for me and turned into an amazing image of a small town full of beauty and hardship. Harriet Martineau created deep characters with strong senses of duty, especially with Margaret. However, my favorite aspect of this novel was the stunning images that Martineau painting for the reader towards the end.
Martineau, Harriet. Deerbrook. 1839. Project Gutenberg EBook. 2008.