The Rejection of Structured Spirituality through Romanticism

One of the earliest discussions I can recall from this class is that which was ruled by our attempts to find a definition for Romanticism, the literary movement that dominated the first half of the Victorian period. The need for a definition of this literary movement arose from our conversations surrounding Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and its apparent rejection of traditional Christian spirituality. Indeed, while Carlyle’s text featured a fair amount of language typically associated with Christianity, what with his frequent allusions to the devil, his work ultimately argues that the only remedy to the tremendous sense of doubt that Teufelsdröckh feels is to access the spirituality that resides inside oneself and one’s natural environment. Teufelsdröckh ceases to view the universe as one great, big dead machine and begins to locate the divinity within himself, as is witnessed in the “Everlasting Yea” section of Sartor Resartus and further observes the divinity of nature in “Natural Supernaturalism.” Thus, Carlyle’s work embodies a Romantic conversion as opposed to a Christian conversion, due to Sartor Resartus’ structural path from a negative ideological pole, to a neutral center, and finally to a positive ideological pole. According to Walter L. Reed, this form correlates with the structure of a so-called Romantic conversion. Additionally, the work aligns with our class’ definition of Romanticism and can arguably be categorized as such. Indeed, Carlyle’s commitment to aiding his readers in their search for spirituality within themselves and within nature identifies Sartor Resartus as an excellent example of Romanticism, or at least, as an undeniable precedent to the genre.

Similarly, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, even in its earliest pages, rejects and critiques traditional Christian spirituality in favor of Romantic spirituality, that is, one that is found and fortified by the self and by nature. Firstly, Brontë, in her characterization of Joseph, Heathcliff’s servant, creates a deft critique of Christianity. She does so through her authorial decision to embed Joseph’s dialogue with long-winded references to scripture and with hypocritical moral lessons grounded in Christian thought. Indeed, Catherine Heathcliff even refers to Joseph as a hypocrite in chapter two, an idea founded upon Joseph’s lack of care or concern for others and that cements the hypocrisy within much of his discourse and behavior. Furthermore, Brontë’s passionate, free-spirited heroine, Catherine Earnshaw, embodies the Romanticism that pervades Brontë’s novel. While confiding to Nelly, Catherine claims that “heaven did not seem to be [her] home and [she] broke [her] heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung [her] out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where [she] woke sobbing for joy.” (Brontë, 25) This quote from Catherine shows that Brontë’s novel rejects Christian tenets of spirituality, as is shown through Catherine’s unhappiness with the Christian idea of heaven and through her love and reverence for Wuthering Heights, the environment in which she was raised and to which she was so attached. Therefore, it can be argued that Brontë’s novel and Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus each strongly adhere to the Romantic theme of locating spirituality within the individual and within nature, as opposed to gleaning spirituality from rigid Christian concepts.

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