Coarse and Dirty Hands: Status Through Appearance and the Body

As I was reading Chapter 8 of Great Expectations, I couldn’t help but feel very sad for Pip as he was subjected to Estella’s words. Pip narrates that Estella kept nitpicking at his “coarse hands” and that “(Estella’s) contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.” This scene reminded me a lot of the interaction between Heathcliff and Catherine I once Catherine returns from the Grange.

In Chapter 7 of Wuthering Heights, Catherine returns from her time at the Grange wearing gloves and in very fancy dress. Nelly also notes that “While (Catherine’s) eyes sparkled joyfully when the dogs came bounding up to welcome her, she dared hardly touch them lest they should fawn upon her splendid garments.” This is a clear contrast to Catherine’s behavior before leaving the Heights, for she was depicted to be very close to nature and more willing to let her clothes get dirty playing in the moors. In this same scene, Nelly describes Heathcliff as being unkempt and “dirty,” for he was wearing clothes with “three months’ service in mire and dust.” This is why Catherine, when she sees Heathcliff, states: “‘If you wash your face and brush your hair, it will be all right: but you are so dirty'” (Bronte, Chapter 8). Heathcliff is described by Nelly to show “shame and pride” in his expression and reacts negatively to Catherine’s words (Bronte, Chapter 8). Much like Heathcliff, Pip is made to feel less than Estella during the card game he played with her. Estella, in the text, is described to speak about Pip “disdainfully” and “denounced (Pip) for a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy” (Dickens, Chapter 8). Later, Pip narrates that, his “course hands” “thick boots” had “never troubled (him) before, but they troubled (him) now, as vulgar appendages” (Dickens, Chapter 8). As he was leaving Estella’s home, Pip contemplates the words she said to him, specifically focusing on how she called him “common” and how it made him feel “low-lived” (Chapter 8).

Interestingly enough, both Heathcliff and Pip are picked on for not visually looking as clean or as luxurious as their counterparts. Clothes are used as a means to demean in both texts: Heathcliff is noted to have unwashed clothes and Estella picks on Pip’s boots. This is not strange, for even today clothes reflect aspects of social class. What’s perhaps more interesting is that hands play a factor in both interactions: Estella points out Pip’s “coarse hands” and Catherine is described to “(gaze) concernedly at (Heathcliff’s) dusky fingers.” The condition of one’s hands can reflect social standing because those in the upper class, who generally do less manual labor, would have cleaner and softer hands than those of the working class. This is perhaps scarier, for one can clean and change clothes, but it’s much harder to maintain one’s hands in good condition. As we’ve discussed in class and in our blog posts, a repeating theme of Victorian Literature is the tensions between socioeconomic classes; the fact that this tension is reflected in a human body part (showing closeness to the body and perhaps implying that social class is connected at a very basic level to humans) is perhaps telling of how fundamentally ingrained this tension was in that society.

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