Subtle, Two-faced Violence

One theme that’s been reoccurring in the readings we’ve been assigned is the presence of violence. What’s interesting is that, although violence is often presented explicitly (Heathcliff beating Hindley half to death in Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights, for example), there are instances in the texts where violence is present but hidden within something positive.

One of these moments is in Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights. Isabella, recalling Joseph’s opinion on Hindley’s personality shift, states to Nelly: “(Hindley) is quieter now than he used to be, if no one provokes him: more sullen and depressed, and less furious. Joseph affirms he’s sure he’s an altered man: that the Lord has touched his heart, and he is saved ‘so as by fire.'” (para. 18). Although Joseph characterizes Hindley’s shift in personality as him being “saved,” which holds positive connotations, the presence of “‘by fire'” indicates that Hindley (if he was “saved”) was only “saved” through something violent: burning. This moment made me recall the poem “England in 1819.” In class, we spoke about how the poem’s title and words reference the events of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester; on that day in 1819, individuals who gathered to hear speeches about parliamentary reform in St. Peter’s field were shot at by the cavalry. In our class discussion, my group discussed the last two lines of Shelley’s poem and our interpretation of it: ” Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.” We were responding to a comment that interpreted these last two lines as hopeful and questioned whether the implications are as positive as they seem. We discussed how “Phantom” doesn’t usually have positive connotations, being associated more with the supernatural and the unknown. The word “burst” in particular stood out to me because it’s a word that describes a violent explosion; it might be a subtle reference to gunfire and how the cavalry shot at the crowd in 1819. We concluded that, while the last two lines of “England in 1819” do indicate desire for change from the negative status quo Shelley depicted earlier in the poem, the usage of “Phantom” and “burst” indicate that the means of this change, of the revolution, would likely be violent.

Interestingly enough, in addition to being present in its literature, the theme of hidden violence is present in the Victorian era itself, too. While Queen Victoria’s rule is often associated with prosperity and the glory of the English Empire, all that was possible due to (what often was violent) imperialism at the expense of the English colonies

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