The Savagery of Jerry Cruncher

In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a working-class fellow by the name of Jerry Cruncher is able to save the day through the knowledge he gains during his seedy side job as a “resurrection man.” Robbing graves is something of an unseemly and disreputable business, looked down upon by society, even if you do it to feed your family, as Jerry does.

But if Jerry loves his family enough to take such risks, you wouldn’t know it by the way he treats his wife, constantly accusing her of interceding on behalf of his failure:

“‘Now, I tell you where it is!’ said Mr. Cruncher to his wife, on entering. ‘If, as a honest tradesman, my wenturs goes wrong to-night, I shall make sure that you’ve been praying agin me, and I shall work you for it the same as if I seen you do it.’”

Again:

“‘Well, then; don’t meditate nothing. You might as well flop as meditate. You may as well go agin me one way as another. Drop it altogether.’”

Further:

“He devoted himself during the remainder of the evening to keeping a most vigilant watch on Mrs. Cruncher, and sullenly holding her in conversation that she might be prevented from meditating any petitions to his disadvantage.With this view, he urged his son to hold her in conversation also, and led the unfortunate woman a hard life by dwelling on any causes of complaint he could bring against her, rather than he would leave her for a moment to her own reflections.”

When he returns home empty handed, as he bangs her head against the headboard he says,

“‘I told you I would,’ said Mr. Cruncher, ‘and I did.’

‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!’ his wife implored.

‘You oppose yourself to the profit of the business,’ said Jerry, ‘and me and my partners suffer. You was to honour and obey; why the devil don’t you?’

‘I try to be a good wife, Jerry,’ the poor woman protested, with tears.

‘Is it being a good wife to oppose your husband’s business? Is it honouring your husband to dishonour his business? Is it obeying your husband to disobey him on the wital subject of his business?’”
It’s not hard to conclude that Jerry’s lack of education and sophistication are responsible for confusing faith and superstition. But, as usual, Freud might have something to say about it. In his Totem and Taboo, Freud comments on the superstitions of tribal groups, and one characteristic reminds us of Jerry and the distrust he places in his wife when he is out “fishing.”

“When the men of a savage tribe have gone out to hunt, to catch fish, to wage war, to collect precious plant materials, their wives at home remain subjected to numerous oppressive restrictions, to which the savages themselves attribute a sympathetic effect on the success of the expedition, and one that even remains effective over long distances.” p99

It is unlikely that Jerry practices some old misogynist superstition carried over from tribal days. If we follow Freud a little more we might see that this superstition hides its origin; it’s like a symptom that masks the real disease. Again Freud:

“But one does not have to be terribly astute to guess that the factor which remains effective over long distances is nothing but thinking about home, a longing for the absent men, and that behind those disguises there lurks the sound psychological insight that the men will only do their best if they are entirely at ease concerning the whereabouts of their unsupervised wives.” p100

Jerry Cruncher is certainly distrustful of his unsupervised wife, and if we wanted to jump to a misogynist interpretation, we might interpret Jerry’s suspicion as proof that his wife has cheated on him in the past. However, an extend account of Jerry’s circumstances might produce a more holistic view. Jerry lives in poverty, has no stable job, and likely goes for stretches during which he has no legitimate income. He lives insecurely. Add to that the fact that his illegitimate side job magnifies this insecurity, threatening his entire livelihood and his family.

The fact that he feels insecure when he leaves the house to rob graves shouldn’t make us jump to the conclusion that he suspects his wife of “praying agin” him, or cheating on him. That he projects this insecurity on his poor wife should be treated as a symptom of a larger ailment. In a life of such insecurity, the one secure thing he can have is the luxury of being dominant over his wife, however savagely.

 

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