Monthly Archives: November 2014

Progression of Ideas of Consciousness in Victorian England

The mid-1800’s were snarled with varying ideas on neurological science, with the beginnings of what could even be called modern psychology just emerging: Alexander Bain (The Senses and the Intellect, 1855) [a proponent of empiricism], Herbert Spencer (The Principles of Psychology, 1885). Anne Stiles explains the vague and conflicting nature of psychology in the Victorian era:

“Victorian psychology might best be characterized as ‘a point of intersection between various fields of knowledge – philosophy, physiology, aesthetic and social theory’ …[and] was inclusive enough to partially incorporate various fields of knowledge now characterized as ‘pseudosciences’, including phrenology, physiology, mesmerism, and the study of extra-sensory perception.”1

Denizens of the Victorian-era England, and authors like Dickens struggling with questions of identity, consciousness, and psychology, did not have an established monolith to adhere to (Dickens watched lectures on, and believed and practiced, mesmerism). Rather, a few journals were being published, and “authors, philosophers, and ordinary people” held the debate on the changing ideas of the time.

 Retrograde Consciousness in Great Expectations (1861)

Dickens, though perhaps not explicitly alluding to phrenology, begins Great Expectations with Pip’s recollection of memories, narrating from the future– the theme of [self-]consciousness is immediately presented as a major one as the older Pip recalls his younger, immature self’s theory of identity:

“I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly…”

Dickens, through Pip’s narration, reveals a past style of thinking about psychology, class, determinism, etc., and promises us another way of being identified through self-consciousness (“childish”).

…and, immediately after this “phrenological scene”, presents us with the nasty character of THE CONVICT, who…



MAGWITCH IS THE BENEFACTOR. For the times, a lowborn man (and a convict– counterfeiting felony) would have been surprising to be revealed as the great benefactor (even Pip was disappointed), a fact known and taken for granted today– not only as a plot twist, but as a social comment. Even in Dickens’s earlier writings, such as Oliver Twist (1838), the title orphan ended up being of better blood after all. There was no physical crossing of class boundaries, because physically Oliver already belonged/was there. In Great Expectations, with Pip of lowly blood, one must ask must deeper what Dickens was saying about physical causes one’s personality and potential in life (i.e. psychology).

A theme spanning the entire novel, and indeed the title, Magwitch’s rise to wealth (and Pip’s, too) is accompanied by Magwitch’s remembrance and effort to help out Pip, who he remembers as helping him… and also, perhaps, to eliminate Pip’s young and restrictive ideas of class, which he revealed to Magwitch then:


from the Gutenberg online edition of Great  Expectations

“Now look here!” said the man. “Where’s your mother?”

“There, sir!” said I. …

…”Ha!” he muttered then, considering. “Who d’ye live with,–supposing you’re kindly let to live, which I can’t mad up my mind about?”

Restricting on the lower class as much as death 2 (being in a graveyard…), class boundaries and non-fluidity are pressed into Pip’s young mind much like the phrenological interpretation of Pip’s parents. Throughout the novel, Pip experiences many social realms, and he sometimes acts differently in each (his poor village, aristocracy like Miss Havisham, business in the city…).

Phrenology (popular 1810-1840)

Essentially, a take on psychology coming from a physiological origin. Bumps and hollows on one’s skull could be measured, and personality traits determined. Formulated in in the early 1800’s by Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim and popularized through the 1819 publication of Gall’s principle work on the subject, and, indirectly, later by George Combe’s The Constitution of Man, which was one of the best-selling works in the entire nineteenth century. Combe gave lectures and led the phrenological society in England. Shalyn Claggett explains that

“[p]hrenology offered a kind of biological determinism. … Despite the science’s emphasis on physiological distinctiveness and individuality, scholarship has tended to focus on how phrenology was deployed in the service of encompassing social systems, such as its…connection to the rise of the middle class and its intersection with racial typing. Such studies have importantly demonstrated the ways in which a biological theory of identity was used to further professional, economic, and nationalistic agendas.”3

Though its major popularity had died off by the time Great Expectations was published in 1861, it was known and damaging enough for the social critic in Dickens to take an explicit stab at it in Little Dorrit (1857) as well as its implicit mention in the graveyard scene, alluding to Thomas Hood’s text, “Craniology”:

“Patriarchy was the name which many people delighted to give him… So grey, so slow… so very bumpy in the head. …Philanthropists… had asked who he was, and on being informed… had cried in a rapture of disappointment, “Oh! why, with that head, is he not a benefactor of his species!”4

Hume (1711-76)

David Hume outlined his “science of man” in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), arguing that desire, not reason governed human behavior. He did not believe in innate ideas– essentially, humans are a “bundle of sensations” associated with the self (knowledge comes from experience).

“The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.” [A Treatise of Human Nature, I.IV.VI]

Marx (1818-83) & Political Consciousness

Marx believed that man’s consciousness is created from his existence within an external environment, instead of a consciousness existing as an island.

“No less a supporter of the proletariat than Karl Marx affirmed that Dickens ‘issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists, and moralists put together.5

Marx’s political definition, “class consciousness,” requires people [the proletariat] to recognize and become solely aware of one’s place as belonging to a level of a class system [which privileges some, and hinders others]. He wanted people to reject “false consciousness” [Engels’s term], that is, ideologies [religion, patriotism, etc.] that take one away from awareness of one’s place in class, one’s primary identity.

Freud (1856-1939)

The father of psychoanalysis, Freud began his career well after Dickens, but it was a response to the ideas of that previous generation. He had three states of mind, analogous to an iceberg– only the conscious, the tip, can be seen easily. The conscious is an awareness of current events; the preconscious feelings or thoughts that are not currently in one’s conscious mind, but can be remembered easily; the unconscious feelings or memories one has repressed or is otherwise completely unaware of their influence on current decisions and feelings. Freud also had a model of the human psyche: id (‘instincts’), ego (‘reality’), and superego (‘morality’).



Updated Question:

How does Pip’s consciousness change as his circumstances change?


Discussion Question:

How does Dickens use Pip as a self-conscious narrator traveling through different realms of consciousness (poor village, city, aristocracy) as he ages/matures in his character arc to make a social critique of the bad/mis-used “scientific” or ideological views of his day?[:which classes/characters in the novel had differing views of consciousness/themselves, and how does Pip as a traveling, self-reflective character interact/respond?]


Shameless abuse of class blog post. My dog is ready for the “polar plunge.”

Group 5:

Matt Spitzer

Klarisa Loft

Courtney Cavallo

Joseph Fennie

Kristen Druse





1 Anne Stiles, “Victorian Psychology and the Novel“. Stiles suggests these novels for further thought and research, especially for the later half of the century: Dracula (1897), Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), all of which have an obvious psychological focus.

2Pip’s childish thoughts on his role and belonging are similar to Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “We are Seven.”

3Shalyn Claggett’s “Putting Character First: The Narrative Construction of Innate Identity in Phrenological Texts

4Rodney Stenning Edgecombe’s “Hood’s ‘Craniology’ and the Head of Christopher Casby in Little Dorrit

5Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, “Charles Dickens

Clothing as Distinctions of Social Class: Victorian Secrets

In Hammad Raza’s essay “Role of Fashion and Clothing in Construction of Gender Identities,” the author states, “Fashion generates and alters identities based on the gender-based relations in a society.” While we agree that fashion can be used to formulate male-female identities, we postulate that in Great Expectations Dickens utilized fashion to distinguish between social classes and the social expectations within said social classes.

The first few chapters of the novel make a point of emphasizing Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, who wears aprons: “She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself…that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life.” This is meant to demonstrate the womanly gender roles within Victorian society, especially considering that Mrs. Joe is the archetypal female Dickensian villain who goes around cleaning the house and generally complaining about Pip’s existence.

Moreover, we see that Mrs. Joe carries around a cane and an umbrella on separate occasions: “We walked to town, my sister leading the way in a very large beaver bonnet, and carrying a basket like the Great Seal of England in plaited Straw, a pair of pattens, a spare shawl, and an umbrella, though it was a fine bright day. I am not quite clear whether these articles were carried penitentially or ostentatiously; but I rather think they were displayed as articles of property.” In Victorian times, canes were considered to be fashionable accessories, but umbrellas were a sign of low social status because it indicated that you did not own a carriage and had to shield yourself from the rain. Pip expresses a great deal of confusion about his sister’s fashion choices, indicating that her choices are beyond the realm of social acceptance.

Miss Havisham is perpetually depicted in an over-the-top wedding gown with excessive amounts of lace and frills. Especially when one takes the availability of factory-made clothing into account at the time of her would-be marriage (that is to say, the near-nonexistence of factory-made clothing), we can see that Miss Havisham comes from an incredibly wealthy background because she can afford such a luxuriously made gown.

Pip shows extreme discomfort when having to discuss his own Sunday best clothing: “Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.” Moreover, he describes Joe’s Sunday best in a similarly disparaging manner:  “In his working-clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else. Nothing that he wore then fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then grazed him.” These combined instances are a fairly obvious attempt at demonstrating the social gap between Pip and the upper class in that he, and his social peers, look and feel out of place in well-made clothing. It is interesting to note that, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, clothes were still being hand-made, as factory textiles were not yet popular; as such, the lower classes had to make their own clothing, and their outfits were often shabby imitations of the styles worn by the upper class, further demonstrating the extreme gap between the two classes. Pip’s discomfort with his Sunday best–how ill-fitting and poorly made they are–are a representation of this situation.


Sources: (Great Expectations: Gutenberg online edition) (Hammad Raza’s essay, “Fashion and Gender Roles”)


Discussion Question: What can we infer about Dickens’ views on gender or social class based on Pip’s observations about clothing?

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?