In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is rejected by her would-be groom before the novel’s action begins. For many years, she has sequestered herself in her mansion, surrounded by the aging relics of her doomed wedding ceremony. More important, though, is the effect this ancient rejection has had on Miss Havisham. She is bitter, to be sure, but the bitterness goes so far and runs so deep that she is eager to raise her ward, Estella, to exact a kind of revenge for her by hurting others, specifically men. Great Expectations is somewhat of a treatise of the effects of rejection on the human psyche. In addition to Miss Havisham, Pip, Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch all experience this deep pain. Pip is rejected by his sister and Estella, Joe, and Biddy by Pip, and Magwitch by his country. For these and other literary characters, rejection creates a void that is difficult to fill and that is capable of distorting their personalities forever. This theme is powerful because of these far-reaching consequences. Rejection is a powerful force in works from a myriad of time periods and genres, including the Bible, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Richard Wright’s Native Son, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Social scientists have shown time and again that human beings need social connections. According to the psychologist Mark Leary, this need is an adaptation that evolved because it promoted survival and reproduction (3).
In the early days of the human race, we needed each other with an intensity that industrialism and technology have taken away. Humans lived in small groups, far away from other groups. In order for our species to reproduce, we had to choose from the mates who were available. In addition, because we do not have the natural defenses possessed by other animals (such as claws, antlers, and sharp, powerful teeth), we had to work together to defend ourselves. This evolutionary adaptation has stayed with us. Research demonstrates that we still need human contact in order to thrive, with some studies even showing that social isolation can do damage to the immune system, threaten cardiovascular health, and even hasten death (Fiske and Yamamoto 185). Because this contact is a good thing, and because we are drawn to make connections, when a specific connection is refused, as is the case in acts of rejection, the result can devastate us. Those who are rejected feel worthless, have pronounced feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, and move through life never showing their “real selves” (Evoy 54, 57). In other words, rejection, to the human animal, does not make sense, and our bodies and minds do not know how to handle it.
Knowing this about rejection helps to explain why it is such a powerful theme in literature and culture. Several stories in the Bible explore rejection in depth, and because the Bible is a foundational text of Western culture, these stories help to establish the larger context in which the concept of rejection may be considered. The story of Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, is a good example. Abraham and Sarah were, for many years, unable to conceive children. Sarah presented her maid, Hagar, to Abraham in the hope that she could produce a son for him. The plan worked, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. However, God declared to Abraham that he and Sarah, despite their advanced age, would have a son as well. Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham, soon followed. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually sent out into the desert, rejected by Abraham. This story is significant for many reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that Isaac is considered a patriarch of the Jewish religion, and Ishmael is considered the progenitor of Arabic peoples. Certainly the centuries-long conflict between these two groups is not caused by the biblical story, but the story does provide a foundation by which we may understand the lasting power of rejection.
The rejected feel like outcasts, and in many cases they are literally outcasts, driven from others, just as Ishmael and Hagar were. The Bible is not the only early document that deals with rejection. Monica Melancthon explains that the motif, manifesting itself as a rejection by God or other divine beings, is found in other Semitic languages of the time. The lamentation, a vocalizing of the pain of rejection, is a commonly found form in ancient Semitic literature. For instance, in The Curse of Agade, composed around 2000 b.c., a rebellious act by King Naram-Sim kindles the fury of the deity and leads to the destruction of the city. Similarly, in Lamentations 3, the city of Jerusalem, the “nerve center of religious activity” in 587 b.c., lies in ruins. Lamentations 3 reads, in part, “He has driven me away and made me walk / in darkness rather than in light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me / again and again, all day long” (3:2–4). Its people, rejected by their God, are devastated.
As Melancthon notes, this destruction showed their status as God’s chosen people and Jerusalem’s status as God’s chosen city were in question. They associated this perceived rejection with human guilt and disobedience. In other words, they felt they must have done something wrong to deserve God’s wrath. Much like the early citizens of Jerusalem, children who have been rejected by their parents often internalize feelings of guilt and wrongdoing. Parental rejection is so powerful, research shows, that its victims never completely get over it; it remains with them in some form for life. These children, denied the love of one or both parents, carry “feelings of emptiness where that love should have been—often for the rest of their lives. The rejected live with an emotional hole in the center of their being” (Evoy 72). They experience guilt, depression, anger, hostility, and aggression, and they actively seek out, sometimes in dangerous ways, situations in which they are valued (66).
In Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, for instance, June Morrisey is rejected by her mother as a young child. As she grows into a woman, she exhibits many of the signs listed above. She tries to hang herself during a game with her cousins, convinced she has no real worth. She cannot truly accept the genuine love Marie gives her, fearful as she is of yet another rejection. June lives her entire life aggressively and angrily hurting others, and she frequently puts herself in precarious situations, one of which ultimately kills her. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is rejected by his father and then again by the society at large. While he is a resilient, confident child, he believes himself to be, quite naturally, worth less than other children. He seems to be most comfortable when he is alone and acting independently. While this may be part of his perceived charm (and also why he is seen as so incorrigible by the townspeople), Twain’s characterization here highlights Huck’s state of rejection. Children should not seek to be independent; they should not have to. Childhood is naturally a state in which we should seek the help and guidance of our elders. When we are shown, as Huck was, that the help and guidance is either not forthcoming or will lead to more pain, we learn to stop asking for it. For Huck, rejection made him (rightly) suspicious of society at large. He simply did not trust people, even those who claimed to want to help him. A pattern of rejection can force victims into irrational states, where they see and feel rejected from all angles. Mark Leary points out that feelings of rejection can become so pervasive that even “slights or inconsiderate behavior” can be taking as wholesale rejection, further driving the rejected person away from society at large. In Native Son, we see this in Bigger Thomas. Society has rejected him because he is black; that is his reality. However, his mother is angry with him because of what she sees as his laziness and lack of ambition. Bigger simply adds this to the mountain of rejection he already feels. In addition, when Mary and her boyfriend are kind to him, he does not know how to take that behavior. Rejection has inured him to real feelings. He, like many of the rejected, must close his “real self ” off. Of all the varieties of rejection, romantic rejection, such as the type felt by Miss Havisham, provides perhaps the most immediate, crushing blow. Romantic rejections are difficult to weather because if we are hard-wired to create connections, the connections we seek with potential mates are the most important connections of all.
Being rejected on those occasions makes the least sense to us biologically. Indeed, when Marianne is rejected by Willoughby in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, her devastation sends her into a physical illness that almost kills her. Marianne’s whole sense of self and sense of purpose are shaken. Even though Willoughby is revealed to be a cad, Marianne’s grief is not generated by his obvious mistreatment of her, but rather by the loss of what she thought was a perfect love. As much as she later learns about him, she cannot bring herself to truly blame him. Being rejected by others is an experience that can change human beings at their core. It can call into questions what we think we know about our own intelligence, beauty, personality, and overall worth. Rejection can absolutely devastate us, causing us to hide our real selves and operate as mere shells of human beings. Because these experiences are so powerful, it is no wonder literature explores the subject again and again.
See also Kureishi, Hanif: Buddha of Suburbia, The; Shakespeare, William: Twelf th Night.