Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dickens and Society


Throughout his career, Dickens protested the abuse of children and the corruption of individual feelings. His portrayal of the destructiveness of society's institutions and values becomes more insistent and savage in his later novels. In his early, hopeful novels, the problems of his protagonists, who are often orphaned or abandoned as children, are solved by the benevolence of good men; the charitable nature of the Cheeryble Brothers in Nicholas Nickleby is indicated by their name, and David Copperfield is rescued from the Murdstones' clutches by Aunt Betsey. But Dickens lost faith in the ability of individuals to remedy the unjust treatment of individuals; he perceived that injustice, indifference, and cruelty were pervasive and incorporated into society's institutions.

Because of Dickens's moral outrage and his attacks on society's institutions and values, later critics, who were often Marxists, hailed him variously as subversive, rebellious, and even revolutionary. They did not necessarily claim that Dickens was aware of the subversion or revolutionary thrust of his novels. George Bernard Shaw compared Marx and Dickens thus: "The difference between Marx and Dickens was that Marx knew he was a revolutionist whilst Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling." There was good reason for contrasting the two men; Marx fled to London in 1849, died there in 1883, and was also a writer. Thus, the two men were observing the same society and class structure; both were subject to similar social conditions and pressures. Furthermore, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities both are set in revolutionary times, identify some of the abuses that sparked the outbreaks, and describe the violent, chaotic behavior of the mobs.

George Orwell, in 1946, viewed Dickens's "rebelliousness" from a different perspective: In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have welcomed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.

It is true that Dickens's readership remained loyal to him, despite his savage attacks on society and his forcing his wife of twenty-some years to leave their marriage and their home (remember that Dickens was perceived as the upholder of the sacred domestic hearth and the family). One reason that he retained his popularity may be that Dickens had no agenda or systematic program, as Marx did, to tear down society and replace it with a new structure. Some critics have wondered whether Dickens was really attacking human nature and not society. Granted, Dickens did repeatedly reject the assumptions that class was more important than common humanity or that rank was superior to virtue: I believe that virtue shows quite as well in rags and palaces as she does in purple and fine linen.... I believe that she goes barefoot as well as shod. I believe that she dwells rather oftener in alleys and by-ways than she does in courts and palaces... Nonetheless, Dickens still accepted the existing class structure and distinctions: "Differences of wealth, of rank, of intellect, we know there must be, and we respect them."

His attacks on society were based on traditional moral beliefs and humanism rather than on social or political theories and programs. He urged a secular ideal of human brotherhood. Fraser's Magazine, in its obituary of Dickens, noted this aspect of Dickens's beliefs: "He spent no thought on religious doctrines or religious reforms, but regarded the Sermon on the Mount as good teaching, had a regard for the village church and churchyard, and quarrelled with nothing but intolerance." Writing of Dickens's belief in domestic life as the source of happiness and the alternative to social evil, Angus Wilson added, "Even more vital to Dickens was the idea of pure love as the means of redemption of flawed, weak, or sinful men. Neither of these beliefs can properly take the weight that he imposed on them..." Moreover, his contemporaries saw him as a member of and the spokesman for a particular class; a reviewer for Blackwood's in 1855 noted: We cannot but express our conviction that it is to the fact that he represents a class that he owes his speedy elevation to the top of the wave of popular favour. He is a man of very liberal sentiments–an assailer of constituted wrongs and authorities–one of the advocates in the plea of Poor versus Rich, to the progress of which he has lent no small aid in his day. But he is, notwithstanding, perhaps more distinctly than any other author of his time, a class writer, the historian and representative of one circle in the many ranks in our social scale. Despite their descents into the lowest class, and their occasional flights into the less familiar ground of fashion, it is the air and breath of middle-class respectability which fills the books of Mr. Dickens.

Unlike Thackeray, Dickens was not seen as quite or fully a gentleman. Thackeray's province was, as W.C. Roscoe described it, "the debatableble land between the aristocracy and the middle classes"; Dickens showed the efforts of the lower strata of the middle class to rise from being tradesmen and upper servants into the respectable middle classes. Thackeray wrote that "an English gentleman knows as much about the people of Lapland or California as he does of the aborigines of the Seven Dials or the natives of Wapping." Dickens, of course, knew, and wrote with sympathy and understanding, about the classes who lived in such neighborhoods as Seven Dials and Wapping. Furthermore, Dickens was accused of being unable to describe a gentleman. G. K. Chesterton explained that this accusation really meant: that Dickens could not describe a gentleman as gentlemen feel a gentleman. They mean that he could not take that atmosphere easily, accept it as the normal atmosphere, or describe that world from the inside... Dickens did not describe gentleman in the way that gentlemen describe gentlemen... He described them... from the outside, as he described any other oddity or special trade.

Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist"

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

“Oliver Twist”, one of Dickens’ great social novels, depicts poverty and crime in the slums, as well as the wretched conditions in English workhouse. The workhouse scenes in the early chapters, and the later exploitation of Oliver by a gang of pickpockets, were bound up with current controversies over the Poor Laws and the care of abandoned children. Dickens’ recollections of his months as a child laborer gave authenticity to what might otherwise have been sentimental propaganda. Similarly, in dealing with the London under-world “Oliver Twist” had affinities with the crime stories of Bulwer and Ainsworth; but Dickens’ first-hand observation as court stenographer and reporter resulted in something quite different. There is no glorifying of criminals in the sinister Fagin or the brutal Sikes, though even they acquire a degree of human appeal when Dickens finally enters their minds to reveal how hallucinations and external impressions are mingled under stress of guilty terror.

For his plot, Dickens relied on the overworked theme of the missing heir; but he handled it with effective suspense and foreshadowing that disguised the implausible coincidences. He conferred literary validity upon grisly episodes of violence such as he had absorbed from “The Terrific Register”, a penny paper that he had devoured every week as a schoolboy. The conversations are unnatural because of a pretentious style of speech borrowed from the cheap theater, and Oliver’s inviolable saintliness is hard to credit; nevertheless, in spite of inflated rhetoric, the later scenes, culminating the deaths of Nancy, Sikes, and Fagin, generate compelling power. Dickens had discovered that the effect of terror did not have to depend on remote times and places, as existing in the reader’s own environment. “Oliver Twist” survives its handicaps of sentimentality and melodrama because it objectivizes a profound emotional state—the solitude felt by an individual who has no place within the framework of society. The dark cellars and garrets, the tottering tenements and hungry river currents, the moments of mob violence, all lend weird vividness to the theme of the social outcast.

The plot of the novel can be summarized thus. Oliver is born in an English paupers’ home. Starving and beaten when he asks for more gruel, the poor lad is finally bound out to works. Escaping this slavery, he goes to London where he comes under the eyes of Fagin the Jew, master teacher of pickpockets. He is caught by the police and placed in the home of Mrs. Brownlow. But Oliver is found by the gang and forced to accompany Sykes, the housebreaker. On his first assignment, Oliver enters te house to be burglarized to warn the inhabitants. He is shot as the other burglars are caught. Mrs. Maylie and her adopted daughter, Rose, care for Oliver. Eventually Mr. Brownlow again takes Oliver in. Fagin, Monks, Sykes, the street girl Nancy and others of the gang again try to get Oliver in their power but are foiled. Eventually all the gang come to bad ands and Oliver is freed of this years of hardship.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Victorian Novel as a Social Force in the Later Nineteenth (2)

Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell

The social problems of England found a passionate exponent in Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian Clergy in Manchester. Her life brought her into contact with the industrial and social difficulties growing out of the struggle between master and workman. Her novels entitled “Mary Barton” and “North and South” give a realistic view of the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution as seen from the workers’ point of view. The hardships of the working class are poignantly presented in “Mary Baton”. Praising this novel, Arnold Kettle writes, “As an accurate and humane picture of working class life in a large industrial town in the forties, Mary Barton is without rival among the novels of the time.”

Charles Dickens

Dickens was a great social reformer and his novels belong to the humanitarian movement of the Victorian era. He was from first to last a novelist with a purpose. In nearly all his books he set out to attack some specific abuse in the existing system of things, and throughout he constituted himself the champion of the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed. In nearly all the novels there is an attack upon some legal or social evil. He satirized boarding schools in “Nicholas Nickelby”, the court Chancery in “Bleak House”, the new manufacturing system in “Hard Times”, the workhouse in “Oliver Twist”, the pettifogging lawyers in “Great Expectations”.

W. M. Thackeray

Thackeray was essentially a realist. He knew nothing of Dickens’ humanitarianism and tremendous zeal for reform, but his persistent and telling effects upon snobbery, affectation, and humbug may be regarded as the parallel, though on a different plain, of Charlyle’s terrific denunciations of quackery, shams and insincerity. His success as a novelist is inseparable from his exploration of certain effects of England’s expanding economy in the early and middle nineteenth century. His world is the world of London society, and he sinks bull-dog teeth into every single abuse of rank and privilege; self-defeating miserliness in “Sir Pitt Crawley”; unearned privilege stupidly and criminally abused in “Sir Francis Clavering”; in “Rawdon Crawley” the prodigality of the bloods and dandies; the mediocrity of mind and talents that governed a great nation with a growing empire, exemplified in “Mr. Pitt Crawley”; extreme brutality in “Lord Steyne”, trading on its prerogatives.

George Eliot

George Eliot’s role was to be that of recorder and reflective observer of man in society. F. R. Leavis remarks, “Of George Eliot it can be said that her best work has a Tolstoyan depth and reality”. In many of her novels she depicts the old-fashioned provincial life with which she had been familiar in her girlhood. In “Felix Holt”, a didactic political novel, she has tried to depict the turmoil and dislocation that arise even in the backwater of a small rural settlement in the days following the passing of the first Reform Bill. The society of “Adam Bede” harks back to a preceding age. It is paternalistic and feudalistic, with the squire at the top of the hierarchy, and with tenant farmers, independent artisans and agricultural laborers arranged carefully in descending order. There is nothing harsh and oppressive about this society. Indeed, on a casual social level, a spirit of camaraderie prevails. But what enables the camaraderie between classes to flourish is not, of course, any spirit of egalitarian democracy, but simply in unquestioning acceptance of the need and of the justice of rigid class distinctions.

Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley, who was an enthusiastic disciple of Carlyle and an ardent social reformer, was one of the most vigorous of the numanitarian novelists of the mid-Victorian Age. His “Alton Locke, Yeast” and “Two Years Ago” are full of the unrest of their time and of the writer’s passionate earnestness in the cause of the masses. “Alton Locke” is noteworthy for its vivid pictures of the wretched life of the laboring class in the middle of the nineteenth century. In his remarkable novel “Yeast” he shows his interest in the oppressed laboring class and in the “Tractarian Movement”. But it is one of the numerous ironies of literary history that Kingslye, who strove nobly for social righteousness, should survive as the author of a novel of religious history, as the author of a story for school boys, but chiefly as the author of tales for children.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Victorian Novel as a Social Force in the Later Nineteenth (1)

The Golden Age of the English Novel

The reign of Queen Victoria was the golden age of the English novel. It was used as a popular medium for expressing its rapid progress in commerce, democracy and science. The material and scientific progress had its influence upon the Victorian life and it was inevitable that it should be expressed through its prose, poetry and fiction. The novel, being a popular medium of expression, sought to do for society in the age precisely what Sir Charles Lyell and Darwin sought to do for science, that is, to find the truth, and to show how it might be used to uplift humanity. Absorbing in itself a very large part of the creative energy of the time, the novel thus became a vehicle of ideas as well as a means of amusement. Writers of different schools of thought employed it to embody their general criticism of life, while it was found to lend itself equally well to the purposes of those who, having some special thesis to expound, desired to reach the largest possible body of readers. It was inevitable that it should thus come to reflect all the forces which were shaping the complex modern world. The spread of science made it realistic and analytical; the spread of democracy made it social and humanitarian; the spirit of religious and moral unrest, of inquiry and criticism, was often uppermost on it, often it revealed the powerful influences of the romantic revival. In its very variety of matter and treatment, the Victorian novel is the index of the many-sided interests and conflicting elements of the Victorian Age.

Material Advancement

The Victorian Age was an age of intense activities in commerce, industry and finance. There was a revolution in commercial enterprise due to the great increase of available markets, and, as a result of this, an immense advance in the use of mechanical devise. On the other side of this picture of commercial expansion we see the appalling social conditions of the new industrial cities, the squalid and unsanitary slums inhabited by discontented operatives, the exploitation of cheap labour, often of women and children. Until the steam engine made its appearance, the new factories were established on the hillsides where water-power could be obtained. Labour in those outlaying places was not easy to obtain, and masters made arrangements to take pauper children from seven years of age as apprentices. They kept them in hostels, and provided them food and clothing. But the children had to work twelve hours a day, the food often lacked nourishment, the clothing was insufficient, and the houses in which they lived were comfortless and even filthy. In the cotton-textile industry the handloom weavers suffered terribly because the power-loom could be operated by girls and women. The weavers, however, were not the only dissatisfied workmen. In a system in which manufacturing was done on a large scale, there were frequent disputes about wages and conditions of labour. The condition in the countryside was no better than that of the town. The great estates of titled and historic landlords were being bought up by the new commercial magnates, who had yet to learn that property means duty and not merely opportunity. These evils of the Industrial Revolution were vividly painted by such writers as Disraeli, Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell, and they called forth the missionary efforts of men like Kingsley.

Benjamin Disraeli

The Social novel was most assiduously cultivated by Benjamin Disraeli. His famous novel “Sybil” is a powerful exposure of abuses connected with the relations of capital and labour, and presents a terrible picture of the lives of the contemporary working class as the background for the love affairs of a young aristocrat, Charles Egremont, and Sybil, the daughter of one of the leaders of the Chartist Movement.
(To be continued....)

Victorian Age (3)

Intellectual and Scientific Advancement

There was an unprecedented intellectual and scientific advancement during the Victorian age. It was a period of intellectual ferment, and scientific thinking. Science was democratized, and more and more scientific enthusiasts dedicated themselves to the popularization of scientific works like Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. The man of science was regarded no more an academic recluse, but as a social figure exercising a deep and profound influence on the social and educational life of the age.


In spite of the advance of science and the various scientific discoveries, the general tenor of life was still governed by religious and moral consideration. The Victorians were moralists at heart, and religion was the sheet anchor of their lives. There was a marked conflict between religion and science, between moralists and scientists, each outdoing the other, but the current of religious thought was not chilled. It was an age in which Prime Ministers raised echoes of a submerged religious vocabulary in their speeches and novels. “The Oxford Movement” represents the revival of the Roman Catholic religion and the authority of the church at a time when science was challenging the religious thought of the age.

Domestic Life

In domestic life, the Victorian upheld the authority of parents over children. In “The Barrets of Wimpole Street”, we have a vivid picture of parental authority and the subjugation of children to the will of the head of the family. Emphasis was laid on authority and reverence for the elders. Women were relegated to a lower place. They were expected to cultivate domestic virtues, rear up children and look after home and the hearth. Women were regarded as inferior to men. Education was a closed book for most of the women and the idea of establishing women’s colleges was ridiculed by Tennyson in “The Princess”.

Order, Decorum and Decency

The Victorians laid emphasis on order, decorum and decency. To talks of duty, honour, the obligation of being a gentleman, the responsibilities of matrimony, and the sacredness of religious, belief was to be Victorians. “The Victorians”, were a poor, blind complacent people”, yet they were torn by doubt, spiritually bewildered, lost in a troubled universe. They were cross materialists, wholly absorbed in the present, quite unconcerned with abstract varieties and eternal values but they were also excessively religious, lamentably idealistic, nostalgic for the past, and ready to forego present delights for a vision of a world beyond. Despite their slavish “conformity”, their purblind respect of convention, they were “ragged individualists”, given to “doing as one likes”, needless of culture, careless of a great tradition: they were iconoclast who worshiped the idols of authority. They were besides at once sentimental humanitarians and hard-boiled exponents of free enterprise. Politically, they were governed by narrow insular prejudice, but swayed by dark imperialistic designs. Intellectually and emotionally, they believed in progress, denied original sin, and affirmed the death of the Devil; yet by temperament they were patently Manichaeans to whom living was a desperate struggle between the force of good and the power of darkness. While they professed “manliness”, they yielded to feminine standards; if they emancipated woman from age old bondage, they also robbed her of a vital place in society. Though they were sexually inhibited and even failed to consider the existence of physical love, they begot incredibly large families and flaunted in their verse a morbidly over-developed erotic sensibility. Their art constitutes a shameless record of both hypocrisy and ingeniousness, and their literature remains too purposeful propagandistic, didactive, aesthetic, with too palpable a design upon the reader; yet it is clearly so romantic, aesthetic, ‘escapist’ that it carries to posterity but a tale of little meaning. Some ages are marked as sentimental, others stand conspicuous as rational. The Victorian age was happier than most in the flow of both these currents into common stream of vigorous effective talent. New truths were welcomed in free minds and free minds make brave men

Monday, November 13, 2006

Victorian Age (2)

Social Unrest

Industrial advancement created social unrest and economic distress among the masses. The Industrial Revolution while creating the privileged class of capitalists and mill-owners, rolling in wealth and riches, also brought in its wake the semi-starved and ill-clad class of laborers and factory workers who were thoroughly dissatisfied with their miserable lot. National wealth was increased but it was not equitably distributed. A new class of landed aristocracy and mill-owners sprang up. They looked with eyes of disdain and withering contempt on the lot of the ragged and miserable factory hands, conditions of life held no charm for laborers and workers in the field; for they were required to dwell in slum areas with no amenities of life attending them at any stage of their miserable existence. There were scenes of horrid despair witnessed in the lives of the poor. With ulcers of this apparently opulent society were brought to the surface by the debtor’s prison, the Fleet and Marshalsea, the dismal abysses of oppression of little children, the prevalence of religious hypocrisy—these and may other dark corners in the life of England were illuminated by the search-light of Dickens’ genius.

Miserable Condition of the Lower Section of the Society

The woeful and deplorable conditions of laborers, miners, debtors, and prisoners soon caught the eyes of social reformers and a stage was prepared for ameliorating the lot of the downtrodden and the under-dogs of an affluent society. The Victorian era, therefore, witnessed vigorous social reforms and a line of crusading humanitarian reformers who sought to do away with the festering sores and seething maladies of the Victorian age. The Victorian age is, therefore, an age of humanitarian consideration and social uplift for the masses.

Social Reforms

In the course of the Victorian era, there developed among the increasingly large number of literary men and women and philanthropic social reformers a humanist attitude to life which was not a matter of creed and dogmas, but recognition of the love and loyalty that the better-sensed people had for their unfortunate brethren. In the works of Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Carlyle and Ruskin, we notice the crusading zeal of the literary artist to bring about salutary reforms in the social and economic life of the country.

The growing importance of the masses and the large number of factory hands gave a spurt to the Reform Bills, which heralded the birth of democratic consciousness among the Victorian people. The Victorian age witnessed a conflict between aristocracy and plutocracy on the one hand and democracy and socialism on the other side. The advance in the direction of democracy was well-marked out, and in spite of the protests of Tennyson and Carlyle, its sweeping tide could not be stemmed. The long struggle of the Anglo-Saxons for personal liberty is definitely settled, and democracy becomes the established order of the day. The king and peers are both stripped of their power and left as figure-heads of a past civilization. The last vestige of personal government and the divine right of rulers disappear, the House of Commons becomes the ruling power in England and a series of new reform bills rapidly extend the suffrage until the whole body of English people choose for themselves the men who shall represent them.


England witnessed expansion in the filed of education. The passing of the Education Acts was a landmark in the history of education the country. A large reading public was prepared to welcome the outpourings of novelists, poets and social reformers. The press also came into its own and became a potent force in awakening political consciousness among the people of this age.

Growth in Population

There was a phenomenal growth in population during the Victorian age. The population of Great Britain at the time of the first census in 1801 was about ten and a half millions. By 1901 it had grown to thirty seven millions. More and more of territorial expansion was needed for the habitation of this growing population and England during this age launched on the course of empire-building and establishing its hegemony in countries where the light of civilization had not yet advanced.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Victorian Age (1)

A Brief Account of the Social, Political, Economic and Religious Tendencies of the Victorian Age

The Victorian Age is one of the most remarkable periods in the history of England. It was an era of material affluence, political consciousness, democratic reforms, industrial and mechanical progress, scientific advancement, social unrest, educational expansion, empire building and religious uncertainty. There were a number of thinkers who were well-satisfied with the progress made by the Victorians, while from a whole class of adverse critics could be heard a scathing criticism of the values held dear by the Victorians. While Macaulay trumpeted the progress that the Victorians had achieved, Ruskin and Carlyle, Arnold, Lytton Strachey, and Trollope raised frowns of disfavour against the soul-killing materialism of the age. Carlyle, himself a hostile critic of the age, admired L.H. Myer’s reference to ‘the deep-seated spiritual vulgarity that lies at the heart of our civilization’. Symonds detected in the Victorian Period, whatever may be its buoyancy and promise, elements of ‘world fatigue’, which were quite alien to the Elizabethan age, with which the Victorian era is often compared. Whatever may be the defects of the way of life, it cannot be denied that it was in may ways a glorious epoch in the history of English literature, and the advancement made in the field of poetry, prose and fiction was really commendable.

Peace and Prosperity

The Victorian age was essentially a period of peace and prosperity for England. The few colonial wars that broke out during this period exercised little adverse effects on the national life. The Crimean War, of course, caused a stir in England, but its effects were soon forgotten and the people regained the normal tenor of their lives without feeling the aftermaths of war in their round of daily activities. In the earlier years of the age, the effects of the French Revolution was a comparatively peaceful reign when Englishmen, secure in their island base, could complete the transformation of all aspects of their industrial, commercial and social life without any risks of violent interruptions that gave quite a different quality to the history of other continental nations. It was an era when the ‘war drum throbbed no longer’ and the people felt safe and secure in their island homes.

Industrial Progress

Peace brought material advancement and industrial progress in the country. The industrial Revolution of the age transformed the agrarian economy of England into an industrial economy. Mills and factories were established at important centers, and the whole of England hummed with the rattle of looms and the boom of weaving machines.

(To be continued .... )