Victorian Diseases and their Impact on Society

Group 3

The Victorian era saw an increased spread of infectious diseases, especially in large cities where the rate of infection increased exponentially. This era also saw the rise of the medical sciences with respect to the development of cures, preventive methods, and vaccinations, such as the one discovered by Edward Jenner that was used to eradicate smallpox. The advent of infectious diseases in populous areas led to a reexamination of the diagnostic methods of diseases, which led to medical professionals being able to pinpoint more accurately the causes and origins of every disease. The issues of poor sanitation and public health were highlighted as being some of the main causes for the spread of infection. Though people were aware that diseases existed in regions where the air was putrid, they did not make the connection that depicted the matter of improper sanitation as being a problematic issue that gave rise to higher numbers of people falling ill.

During this time period, smallpox was in its prime, and was one of the most frightening diseases in terms of infection rate. It was extremely contagious and had a death rate of about thirty percent, which would devastate cities such as London. But what makes it so interesting from a literary standpoint is its aftereffects, primarily how it could leave people scarred, or even blind; the physical damage caused by the disease was far more obvious than in other diseases. As such, smallpox can be used to represent the internal battles of the characters in a simple yet incredibly effective way. Characters can succumb to the disease and therefore lose their internal battle and die, or, like Esther, they can survive it. Those who were affected by the disease were left with disfiguring pockmarks, which act as battle scars to show that they were stronger than whatever tried to defeat them, whether it was smallpox or their own inner demons. The obvious physical scarring brought about by smallpox was most likely the reason that Dickens used this disease in Bleak House rather than any of the other prevalent diseases at the time; physical ‘war wounds’ created more of an impact on both characters and readers. Another disease that was prevalent during this era was typhus, the origins of which extend all the way back to the Spanish siege in 1489. Though not yet termed typhus, the description of the symptoms matches the symptoms of what we would now call typhus today (i.e. rash, sores, delirium etc.). Later on, it became especially common in English prisons where prisoners were forced into tight living quarters with each other, often in disease-ridden conditions. This led to an easy transmission rate of typhus, and supposedly led to the death of 25% of English prisoners.

However, arguably the disease with the most impact during this time period was cholera. Although the sheer numbers of people affected by cholera was lower than that of other epidemics, the social implications of the disease impacted the nineteenth century in ways that could not be debated. An article by Richard J. Evans asserts that “cholera has a good claim to be regarded as the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century”. Cholera spread through poor nineteenth century sanitation, and produced uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, symptoms that Evans describes as “violent affronts to Victorian prudery” (127). Half of all sufferers died from cholera, and it could take as little as twelve hours between the first appearance of symptoms and death. Evans also asserts that the disease clearly affected the poor more than the rich, and therefore acted as a device to reveal areas of great poverty and poor sanitation in the large cities. The cholera epidemic was significant in that while the wealthy could escape relatively unscathed, the poor seemed doomed to perish, and therefore “it’s power to exacerbate existing social tensions would be very considerable” (Evans 131).

The more these diseases infected the general population, the more number of people were attempting to combat them. Medical professionals came to the forefront of the battle against infectious diseases; people such as Florence Nightingale, who acted as a leading figure in medicine during the Crimean War (1853-56), were tasked with finding preventive and curative measures for each disease. Interestingly enough, those who outlined the Poor Laws were also involved with finding the causes and methods for treating diseases such as typhus. A man by the name of Edwin Chadwick was directly involved with this task due to his interest in sanitation and hygiene in England. Ironically, Dickens and Chadwick seemed to have had a fairly friendly relationship that was based on mutual interests like their concerns for the public health of England. Though it seems odd that the two would have gotten along, Dickens probably saw the friendship as an opportunity to further his efforts for the poor in a bigger way.


Works Cited:

Evans, Richard J. “Epidemics And Revolutions: Cholera In Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Past and Present 120.1 (1988): 123-46. Web


Blog post written by: Max Garnaat, Alyssa Knott, McKenna Miller, Hannah Sugarman, and Nivedita Rajan

Discussion Question: What is Dickens implying about society through his representation of disease in Bleak House?

6 thoughts on “Victorian Diseases and their Impact on Society

  1. Erin Duffy

    Group 4: Erin Duffy, Jake Trost, Cassandra Ballini, Heather McFarlane, Angie Carson

    While we agree with Group Three’s analysis of Dickens using smallpox as a metaphor for internal struggle, we would like to add that disease in general, whether it is smallpox, cholera, or typhus, can be used as a means of discussing the corruption of the legal system in Victorian England.

    Throughout the novel we are presented with three characters of different social classes who are all affected by disease in some way, both literally and metaphorically: Esther (the poor), Richard (the poor-turned-middle class), and Lady Dedlock (the upper crust of society). When Esther falls ill with smallpox, she manages to survive, but recovers with severe physical scarring that effectively robs her of her beauty–the one thing she had going for her in terms of marriageability in Victorian England. Richard, however, falls ill after overworking himself at the law offices, and his absurdly high levels of stress made him susceptible to a fever that would ultimately kill him. Though he did not intend to die, Richard’s death was inadvertently self-inflicted; his overworked mental state indirectly killed him. Similarly, Lady Dedlock committed a passive form of suicide by allowing herself to succumb to the elements while lying at her ex-fiance’s grave- perhaps succumbing to hypothermia or one of those ambiguous ghastly chills that killed so many people in Victorian literature.

    Each one of these figures falls victim to a disease, whether by chance or by their own indirect doing. This serves as a metaphor for the extreme corruption within the legal system during Dickens’s time. The case that this novel is centered on, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, ended because the money being fought over was ultimately depleted to pay for legal fees over the decades– both parties, members of the upper class shot themselves in the foot and allowed the flawed legal system to prolong a case that would end poorly for both parties. Such is the case for Richard and Lady Dedlock, who were at least semi-well-off and fell victim to diseases of their own infliction. Meanwhile, Esther, a poorly orphan, managed to survive the illness but emerged horrifically scarred and with fewer prospects than ever.

    Long story short, disease–regardless of type–is a metaphor for how universally awful the legal system was. The upper classes end up hurting themselves by failing to correct these errors, and the poor end up getting the short end of the stick as always.

  2. Mike Stoianoff

    Group 2: Kevin O’Connor, Hannah Glaser, Colin Peartree, Michael Adams, Mike Stoianoff

    Group Three focuses primarily on Dickens’ representation of disease, as linked to sanitation. They argue that Dickens’ depiction of disease is meant to explicitly call for sanitation reform, in spite of the fact that Dickens never names these prevalent diseases. We assert that although the concern of proper sanitation is clearly present in Bleak House, Dickens is also employing disease in a larger way, as another means of exposing the plight of the poor.

    Dickens constructs disease as a metaphor for poverty; by never explicitly giving names to disease, Dickens leaves the reader open to interpret his language through the lens of poverty. In the following excerpt from Bleak House Dickens describes the unclean manner of Mr. Krook’s shop by personifying poverty in order to show how it has agency over the afflicted. “The air of the room is almost bad enough to have extinguished it if he had not. It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low” (Dickens 124). By capitalizing the initial letter, Dickens posits poverty as a pronoun, presumably a living thing that is capable of exacting a firm grip, something physically manifested, like an organism. Using personification in this way, Dickens creates a metaphor which extinguishes the common sense notion that poverty is a state one enters, but much like disease it is a condition that encroaches upon people. Like an organism, poverty has the ability and need to inflict itself upon any convenient individual; poverty is not a passive, actionless result of ineptitude. This comparison places poverty and disease on equal footing, where each is similarly stigmatized.

  3. Nivedita Rajan Post author

    Group 3

    Dickens clearly saw diseases as equalizers of society. Jo, who belonged to the lower class, and Esther who belonged to the upper class, both contracted what is implied to be smallpox; despite their different social classes, contracting the same disease brings them down to the same level – that of a person who needs care should they wish to survive their illness. Quite possibly, the only difference between them during their periods of illness is that their quality of care would have differed greatly. Esther would have been cared for better owing to the fact that she had access to more resources and contacts than Jo, who would not have been able to garner the same level of medical care that Esther did.

    The attitude of the upper classes to the lower classes contracting diseases such as smallpox and cholera was lukewarm, to say the least. Their mindsets resemble Dickens’ interpretation of Thomas Malthus’ opinion that any loss of life was put down to God’s will, and merely helped decrease the surplus population. Dickens disapproved of reducing the sick to just statistics. However, he did approve of the manner in which reformers like Florence Nightingale and John Snow used statistics and data representations; they used them in order to enlighten the general public to the spread of diseases and bring people’s attention to the fact that it was predominantly the poverty-stricken areas that were being affected the most. This moved certain members of the upper class, like the baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, to invest their considerable resources into the creation and implementation of hospitals and care homes, as well as scientific research into cures and preventive measures that would help curb the spread and contraction of disease. John Snow’s mapping of London’s sewage discharge points into the Thames worked to improve the understanding of the etiology of cholera, and his solution of revamping the sewage system was a simple, and highly effective, one. These reformers embodied Dickens’ opinion that it was not the numbers that mattered, but what one did with them in aid of those who needed help the most.

    The fact that Esther is a narrator in Bleak House meant that we, as readers, could read about her illness through her own experiences. At one point in her description of her illness, Esther says that, “It may be that if we knew more of such strange afflictions we might be the better able to alleviate their intensity” (Norton 432). This idea of knowing more about the illness in order to be able to understand its strengths and weaknesses was one that Dickens, along with people like Nightingale and Snow, held up as the correct method to counteract the spread of illnesses. It is clear that they prized scientific research into the etiology of diseases, and later the cures and preventive measures to eradicate them, and Esther’s words are a definite justification of this sentiment.

  4. Courtney Cavallo

    Group 5

    While some people may argue that Dickens presents disease as an equalizer in Bleak House, we believe that he is actually using the presence of disease to have the opposite effect. Disease is not an equalizer. Instead, possible cures to diseases such as smallpox would truly provide equality. This promotes the need for modernization, which would bring along advancements in science and medicine, including cures for diseases such as smallpox. Through the presence of smallpox, Dickens uses Bleak House to provide a pro-modernization argument.

    While it is true that anyone was capable of contracting smallpox, this does not make it an equalizer in Bleak House. It cannot be considered a tool to make characters equal when the treatment of people who contract the disease varies so differently. Lower class members cannot afford the necessary treatment that they need to fight smallpox. They also cannot afford to take time away from work, which worsens their own condition as well as increasing the chance of spreading the disease. On the other end of the spectrum, members of the upper class can afford proper medical attention. They are able to rest and receive care in the comfort and cleanliness of their homes, leading to a better chance of recovery. Members of the upper classes are also less likely to contract diseases such as smallpox in the first place, as they generally live in cleaner environments and work less strenuously.

    This idea is especially apparent in Bleak House through Esther and Jo the sweeper. While both characters contract smallpox in the novel, the outcome of the disease is very different for both of them. Esther is cared for and receives medical attention. While her experience is not pleasant, she survives. Jo, unfortunately, does not. For him, the smallpox is fatal, and he dies impoverished, dirty, and covered in sores. Smallpox does not make Esther and Joe equal. Equality would have been if both characters had received the same treatment, and both had the same fate. This enforces Dickens’ support of modernization. The different response to smallpox of characters from different economic classes highlights the necessity for equality that modernization would help provide. Modernization would lead to better medical knowledge and cures for diseases such as small pox, and these cures would truly provide equality.

    A similar situation is seen with the modern AIDs epidemic. Certain people are more likely to catch the disease than others. Depending on lifestyle choices, exposure to education about preventing the spread of the disease, and access to medical care, some people are more at risk of contracting AIDs than others. It is not an equalizer. Those who do get AIDs are also unequal in their access to treatment. Those with good insurance or money can afford treatments that will prolong their lives. Other people are not so lucky. Much like with smallpox during Dickens’ time, AIDs has no known cure.

    Dickens uses smallpox in Bleak House not as an equalizer, but to draw attention to how unequal treatment of smallpox actually was. Esther, who has wealthy caretakers, survives while Jo, the poor sweeper with no one to care for him, does not. This attention to unequal circumstances surrounding the smallpox disease makes Bleak House an argument for the pro-modernization movement.

  5. Nikkel Gohel

    Group 6: Nikkel Gohel, Rachel Campbell, John Panus, Kelsey Telgash, Peter Cala

    Disease as a metaphor for bloodlines: how whats in your blood may detrimentally affect your well-being.

    While group 3 argues for disease being used as a metaphor for the corruption present in the legal system, Dickens also uses disease as a metaphor for the preoccupation with and overemphasis on bloodlines in Victorian society. Dickens utilizes disease to share his views on the problematic nature of wealth being associated with certain family ties. In Bleak House, the contraction of an unnamed disease, which shares similarities with smallpox, helps to illustrate the burden of bloodlines and lineage and the effects of being close to a wealthy family while not being a part of it.
    A notable connection between the two seemingly unrelated topics is seen throughout Esther’s illness and delirium, when Esther comes very close to admitting her anxiety over her own lineage as an illegitimate orphan. In addition, she worries about Mrs. Woodcourt’s obsession “with her own family and how she constantly goes on about her son’s lineage and legitimacy and how her family would suffer a loss of “genetic endowment” were her to marry Esther” (Burgan 842). In the case of contagious diseases, problems often result from proximity to the poor. Dickens, however, uses disease as a metaphor to illustrate the detrimental and almost “contagious” effects obsessing over one’s bloodline. In some cases this problem manifests itself over the ownership of wealth in a family and its affect on members of a family and those close to them. In other cases, it is seen as paranoia in a person believing that they must not be worthwhile because of their lack of an upper-class lineage, as in the case of Esther.
    In Bleak House, Esther contracts an unnamed smallpox-like disease from Jo. Jo claims to have gotten the disease from the very graveyard where Esther’s father is buried. Esther’s acquisition of smallpox can be seen as the “inheritance” that she never received from her father (Heady 324). While Esther is effectively middle-class because of her social connections, she is actually lower-class by her parentage. Despite Esther lamenting her “illegitimate birth” and poverty, she nonetheless has “no desire to take on the complications of being a Dedlock” (Woodward). In illustrating Esther’s choice of quarantining herself in order to stop the disease from spreading to her upper class friends, we see that her actions are comparable to her desire to not become implicated in the Dedlock family’s wealth and affairs. Dickens likely argues that having to endure “links to a wealthy family without the benefit of inheriting its money” (which is a dilemma seen in the Jarndyce case) is even worse than being “born independently poor.”
    The notion that it would be a burden to be connected to a wealthy family but not truly part of it is well illustrated in a monologue by our sardonic Dickens-esque narrator in Chapter XXVIII, when our narrator says of the wealthy Dedlock family there are some “cousins who are so poor that one might almost dare to think it would have been the happier for them never to have been plated links upon the Dedlock chain of gold, but to have been made of common iron at first and done base service” (Dickens). Dickens talked of how they must pretend to live lavishly because they are “of the Dedlock dignity” but in reality are financially so far into debt that they must ride “in borrowed carriages.” In the end, the fixation these characters have with maintain their name and bloodline ultimately makes many of them poor. Moreover, Dickens claims of individuals tied to the family but not in line to inherit anything : “[t]he rich family sum has been divided by so many figures, and they are the something over that nobody knows what to do with.”
    Dickens shows us that it is through the close ties we make that we get sick. While Dickens knows that the poor are the most prone to diseases (and argues that they are wrongfully susceptible and gone untreated), Dickens may in fact be using disease as a metaphor to illustrate a point. In Bleak House, such like in contracting pathogens, its greatly affected by who you know. ] middle-class Esther serves as a link between the poor Jo and Charley and the rich such as Ada and Jarndyce. Had Esther not barred her house after getting sick, her familiarity with the upper-class could have created an epidemic among the rich. An important plot point is that the unnamed disease, like-smallpox, was known to be contagious, spreading from person to person. Unlike a pythogenic disease, which originates from a specific location, the disease in the story is spread by people to people, regardless of their location. In illustrating that Esther made the correct choice by avoiding her rich friends. Dickens uses disease to illustrate how debilitating it can be being closely tied to people and their wealth.

  6. Jenna Cecchini

    Group 1

    As we have discussed in class at some length, Dickens uses disease primarily as an equalizer, shattering the concept of social class by demonstrating the pervasive nature of illness. However, this is not the only thing that can be said of disease in Bleak House. Our group chose to focus on the characters that come into contact with disease and how their role is demonstrative of Dickens’ nationalist agenda, particularly Allan Woodcourt.

    Allan is only one of many characters who can be explored beyond their surface, but his facade is still worth examining. Mr. Woodcourt is an Englishman of Welsh descent. He is reasonably young and a professional surgeon. It is these parts of his character which thrust him into Bleak House in the first place, and they determine how and why he interacts with the other characters. As a surgeon, Allan is required to be in proximity to disease, but also to defend himself against it. He toes the line between this equality with his profession, but his lineage keeps him humble. The Woodcourts trace their claim back to the old heroes of Wales. It is curious that Dickens would make such a crucial and versatile character of Welsh rather than English descent. We believe that Dickens did this purposefully–it serves as a message to his readers that there is hope for unification. A person does not need to be English to be British, and their contributions may serve more than anticipated.

    The more intimate, hidden parts of Allan’s personality are most often portrayed through the people around him. His dedication to his work is clear, and this is observable primarily through Esther’s narrative: “Allan stood behind [Richard], watching him gravely. His face appeared to me to be quite destitute of color, and now that I saw him without his seeing me I fully saw, for the first time, how worn away he was” (Dickens 761). Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is eating away at poor Richard, and Allan’s grave disposition helps to clue us in to just how serious a matter this is. Dickens, through the knowledgeable Mr. Woodcourt, is showing us how not only disease, but banal political situations can damage a person, as well as a nation.

    Allan’s treatment of Esther may be the most significant display of this nationalism. Esther comes down with smallpox and is ostracised by many of the characters, including her betrothed, Mr. Guppy. Mr. Guppy, a good English gentleman, is in love with Esther, but rescinds this promise of marriage in fear of contracting her illness. Allan Woodcourt, on the other hand, is only brought closer to her as a result of it. Juxtaposing Allan and Esther’s Welsh and English heritage respectively can help us to see more clearly the message that Dickens is trying to send. In addition, both Esther and Allan work to aid the sick and prevent the spread of disease, despite their separate heritages and obligations to society. This is yet another example of Dickens’ demonstration of the importance of working together. For him, it was never about pride in England, but pride in Britain. Just as a family must have all of its parts to be operational, so should Britain recognize the importance of eliminating scrutiny across borders to carry out its national agenda.


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