A Student Response to Gaskell’s Cranford

Can We Truly Perceive Everyone in the Same Way?

“Make sure your room is clean”, “Help me set the table”, “Should we use our fancy china?” “Do you think we need more food”? These phrases have been drilled into my mind ever since I was young because my mother always seemed frantic to make sure everything was perfect for our guests. As a young girl, I never really understood why it was so important to make everything look perfect; it all seemed like a show to me. As I got older, I began to understand why my mother wanted to make everything perfect, but I find it quite amusing because this perception of good etiquette is not an accurate representation of our lives whatsoever.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford subtly criticizes the societal norm to put on “show” whenever company arrives. I found this quite amusing as I never understood the point of going to extreme lengths to please people I hardly know. In some way, every gathering is a chance to show how wealthy you are. In the town of Cranford, it is quite the opposite. It is frowned upon to talk about your financial status. When hosting a party, it “was considered vulgar to give anything expensive” (44); the only thing that should be served is something that everyone could afford such as bread and butter. This prevents people from comparing their financial status to others. I think it would be interesting to apply Gaskell’s critique to our society today. Personally, I think it would reduce the amount of stress a host feels when having guests over. Human nature is driven by a certain anxiety of how our appearance is perceived, but if everyone was perceived the same it would decrease this anxiety.

Perception of others is a common theme throughout Gaskell’s novel. Another way the characters try to even out the playing field is their clothing. Keep in mind that these women are all conventionally middle class and could probably afford nicer clothes, but instead their clothes are “good and plain” (42). The decision to wear simple clothes is so that everyone is perceived the same. There are no flashy brands, no extravagant jewelry, just plain and simple. While reading this, I wondered what it would be like in our society if everyone had that “plain and simple” mentality. Don’t get me wrong, I think clothing is a good way to express yourself, but it could also be perceived as how wealthy you are.

Gaskell’s Cranford critiques many points about societal perception that I find very interesting. In our society, it is almost impossible not to compare yourself to others. We are extremely connected through many forms of social media which means we constantly see what is going on in other people’s lives, which makes it difficult to not compare yourself to others. We are constantly on our toes, making sure we put our best face forward even if it is not authentic. I would be very interested to see how our society would be impacted if we were to put Gaskell’s criticism to the test.

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