Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Voice of the Child in Victorian Literature

When reading the first few chapters of Great Expectations I began to think further into how children are used in a lot of different ways in Victorian Literature. Due to the fact that I am writing my critical essay on the poems “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Cry of the Children”, I recall the way the writers use the point of view of the child to guide their writing. I enjoyed the first section of the book a lot, where Pip explains to the reader how his name formed into Pip. I believe that this made the reader connect to Pip, the speaker of the novel. This reminded me of the poems because the goal of those poems was to connect the reader to the children and their emotions. This is a connection that we can see expanding across a lot of literature written during the Victorian Era. Since Pip is the main character of Great Expectations, we are being told the story through his eyes and his point of view. This can change a lot about a story, by simply knowing who is telling it. The poem “The Chimney Sweeper” would almost lose its effect if it was not written from the voice of the child. The reader would not be able to connect to the story or grasp the scenario that the writer is trying to portray to them. Remembering this aspect of the poem and how it had an immense impact on the literature brought me to think about the opening section of Great Expectations and how it would have been changed if a different character was delivering the reasoning behind Pip’s nickname. This carried with me throughout the first few chapters of the novel that we read. I was reminding myself of the importance of the voice of the child in Victorian Literature, and how this can connect us more to the story and send the message. In Great Expectations, when the story was being told from Pip’s perspective we could really feel and connect to his emotions as he was afraid of what was happening and afraid of what could possibly happen when he encountered the man with the metal leg. Hearing it from the “I” point of view makes the emotion seem more real to the child itself. This is exactly the same as the strength of the “I” in the poem “The Chimney Sweeper”. As I continue through reading through the novel I will be curious to see how the point of view in which the story is told remains prevalent.

Social Class and Self Improvement in Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights

As I read the first ten chapters of Great Expectations, one of the prominent themes that I noted was social class. Pip is an uneducated, rough looking, working class boy who is sent to the wealthy Miss Havisham’s home to “play.” The emergence of this drastic class difference between the two in the novel sheds light on this theme. Being that this is a common theme in Victorian Era literature, it makes sense that social class is also a prominent theme in Wuthering Heights. Already, Pip’s relationship with Estella reminds me of Hareton and Cathy’s relationship in Wuthering Heights. Firstly, similarly to Hareton, Pip was raised harshly and violently and without much love. Both Pip and Hareton share a coarse appearance; Pip’s appearance from living in a working class family and Hareton’s from his neglect throughout his childhood. Both are also uneducated as a result of their upbringings. When Pip meets Estella at Miss Havisham’s, she treats him very rudely. She makes it clear that she is disgusted by Pip because of his working class characteristics like his, “thick boots” and “rough hands.” We see a similar dynamic between Cathy and Hareton for a large portion of the novel. Cathy is cruel to Hareton; she makes fun of him for being uneducated, rough and foolish. Both Pip and Hareton are deeply affected and offended by Estella and Cathy’s treatment. As a result, they both decide to improve themselves. At the end of these first ten chapters, Pip, who was brought to tears by Estella’s hurtful words and actions, decides that he will change himself for the better; he wishes to not be “common” anymore. Thus, we see the emergence of the theme of self-improvement in the novel. Pip talks to Joe about his wish to be “uncommon” and asks Biddy to teach him what she knows from school. Similarly, in Wuthering Heights, after Cathy embarrasses and insults Hareton, he also sets out on a mission to improve himself. For example, Hareton reads books and acts kindly towards Cathy. Evidently, self-improvement is also a theme in Wuthering Heights. When it comes to Hareton’s pursuit of self-improvement in the novel, he ends up successfully educating himself with books and the help of Cathy and he seemingly becomes a happier and gentler person. By the end of the novel he even ends up happily together with Cathy. Based on these observations from Wuthering Heights, I am curious to see where Pip’s self-improvement efforts will take him. Will Pip and Estella will form a similar relationship as that of Hareton and Cathy? Or perhaps their rivalry will continue to grow. It will be interesting to see what message emerges about social class through Pip’s self-improvement and his relationship with Estella and Miss Havisham.

Working Children

In Great Expectations, Pip is too young to be an apprentice to his sister’s husband, the blacksmith, so he completes random jobs to make money, none of which he ever sees. This money is assumed to be used to help contribute the household. When Pip is told he is expected to go to Miss Havisham’s house to play with her daughter Estella, Pip’s sister sends the boy with hopes that the rich matronly lady will pay Pip for his service, thus extending his fortune for the household. Pip is too young to be an apprentice, yet is expected to work odd jobs to help with the family’s income. This reminded me of the poem The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake where the child is sooty and broken spirited from laboring at such a young age. These young children shouldn’t be forced to work under such circumstances, and although Pip is only expected to play with Miss Havisham’s daughter, he undergoes beratement and humiliation, all for his sister’s hope that he will be paid.

Relationships Between Social Classes

Evidently, the situation of a lower class orphan boy having feelings for an upper class female occurs in both Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Notably, Heathcliff and Catherine develop a certain connection over the course of the novel that was only able to really be possible when they were younger; at a young age, they were unaware of their different social standing and were able to play around together. However, after Catherine comes back from Thrushcross Grange, she becomes aware of their difference, and the possibility of her and Heathcliff ever getting together diminishes greatly. Importantly, she admits this fact when she tells Nelly that she would consider marrying Heathcliff, if Hindley didn’t cast him to be so low. Hence, because of their initial difference in class, they could never make it work. Comparatively, Pip in Great Expectations shows signs of having interest in Estella, with him calling her pretty and saying that even though she was rude to him, he could still see himself wanting to see her again at some point in the future. Heathcliff and Catherine were able to play around together because they were young, innocent, and unaware of their difference in standing. In contrast, Pip and Estella can’t get through a game of cards without Estella’s judgement and insults towards Pip. Specifically she mentions, “He calls the Knaves Jacks, this boy!… and what course hands he has! And what thick boots!” Thus, social class gets in the way of Catherine and Heathcliff’s development of a relationship, and Pip and Estella’s development of even a friendship, as well.

Orphans in Victorian Literature

While reading the first several chapters of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I noticed a handful of connections to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the one I’m most interested in so far is between the characters Pip of Great Expectations and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

The two of them seem similar so far as they were both orphans, although Pip gets to live with his sister and Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw who as far as we are aware, is unrelated to him. We also see how they are both pressed by social class. Heathcliff was constantly ridiculed because of his skin color, hair color and treated as a member of the lower class while Pip and his family are also members of the lower class.

In both novels, the reader sees how aware these characters are of their standing and how they make an effort to change this. In Wuthering Heights after Heathcliff overhears Catherine say that it would degrade her if she married him, he runs away and is gone for three years. During this time he underwent change and returns almost as a different person as Nelly doesn’t even recognize him when he returns. It is never explained where Heathcliff was, what he was doing, how he made money, etc. However with Great Expectations, so far we are seeing the beginning of what seems to be Pip’s efforts toward rising in his social standing. In the later chapters of today’s assigned reading we see Pip’s awareness to his social class after his meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella. When he returns from his time there, he confesses to Joe that he wished he was not common. He also lists things he wished he did not have to face such as “I wish you hadn’t taught me to call Knaves at cards, Jacks; and I wish my boots weren’t thick nor my hands so coarse”. In Chapter 10 we then see Pip begin his efforts toward becoming uncommon by seeking the help of Biddy to teach him things.

I’m interested in seeing how Pip and Heathcliff compare as we continue reading Great Expectations.

Also, I’m beginning to wonder about the usage of orphans in Victorian literature. In high school I remember reading Silas Marner and A Tale of Two Cities and there were orphans in those novels. Although I haven’t read them yet, I believe Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist are also both about orphans? I wonder why this was such a popular thing to write about at the time and what this says about Victorian England historically.

Polyptoton in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”

According to Erik Gray in his essay, “Polyptoton in In Memoriam: Evolution, Speculation, Elegy” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam,” utilizes an interesting and particular scheme of repetition that is known as “polyptoton.” Gray defines polyptoton as the opposite of rhyme. Rather than featuring word endings that are alike to antecedent word endings within a stanza, polyptoton changes the word ending but leaves the beginning of the word intact. An example of polyptoton would be a couplet wherein one line ends with the word “silent” and the preceding line ends with the word “silence.” Gray claims that more than half of In Memoriam contains polyptoton and concludes that Tennyson’s continual use of polyptoton indicates its necessity to In Memoriam, insofar as that the poem would not be able to produce the same effect in readers without the presence of polyptoton. Moreover, Gray argues that the trope of polyptoton plays multiple roles in Tennyson’s elegy, particularly, it presents and supports the poem’s central philosophical claims and brings the elegy’s consolatory strategies to light. In particular, Gray argues Tennyson’s use of polyptoton serves two primary functions in In Memoriam: the first is to symbolically reflect evolution and the second is to give a new insight into the role of elegies.

 In order to support his claims, Gray first provides background on the trope of polyptoton in the literary canon. Gray argues that it is Virgil’s fifth eclogue that primarily influenced Tennyson’s In Memoriam, as it too depends upon the fundamental belief that death is not an end but merely a change. Gray supposes that this focus on death is echoed by the fact that the words Tennyson typically uses in his polyptotons are “life” and “death.” This focus also serves to bring about Gray’s first proposed role of polyptoton which is to bring about the motif of evolution. Polyptoton, by definition, means a change. Therefore, it can be said that Tennyson’s extensive use of polyptoton causes his work to mirror evolution itself. Gray further argues that In Memoriam presents many images that demonstrate both decline and gradual improvement and that it lends more focus to the latter, as is exemplified by Tennyson’s persistent polyptotons that transform “high” to “higher,” which at first serves to represent decline, then later represents gradual improvement and the celebration of such improvement. In the sections that feature both positive and negative forms of evolution, Gray states that polyptoton is used to demonstrate the transformations occurring within the elegy. 

Additionally, Gray postulates that polyptoton serves a second purpose: speculation. When using the term “speculation,” Gray means to say that Tennyson uses  polyptoton to show “varying ideas about a single theme.” Gray cites poems 30, 78, and 105 in explaining this; he notes that, although all three begin with the identical theme of Christmas, each poem progresses differently because the speaker’s outlook on Christmas changes within each poem. Gray then brings in Peter M. Sack’s theory that “one of the fundamental conventions of elegy is to divide the lament among multiple speakers, fragmenting and multiplying the mourner’s voice.” From this, he concludes that the repetition of Christmas serves as a sort of polyptoton that allows Tennyson to reimagine grief and transfigure it by dispersing it among many speculations of grief that are each supposed in separate reiterations of successive Christmasses. Thus, Gray’s argument overall serves to demonstrate Tennyson’s use of polyptoton towards the end of creating a successful elegy that aims to alleviate the effects of grief by exemplifying a gradual and positive evolution out of grief, as well as a speculative endeavor to fragment grief and thereby reimagine it such that the burden of loss can be leavened. 

The Life and Ideologies of Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus was an influential English economist who began his career as a demographer, studying the ebbs and flows of the English population. Eventually, Malthus entered the field of economics in opposition to Adam Smith, another economist who developed the idea of the “invisible hand” and hugely supported the free market system. Smith is commonly considered the “Father of Capitalism”, and his views were incredibly popular, most likely due to their portrayal of economics in a predominantly optimistic light. The reactionary ideas of Malthus and other more pessimistic economists were not nearly as well received by the Victorian public. Indeed, Malthus’ views on economics and the world’s population, as expressed in “The Principles of Population,” were extremely dismal. Malthus claimed that population growth was not an “unmitigated blessing” that would lead to further prosperity for all, as many utopian utilitarians believed. Instead, he argued that the population was growing too rapidly, at a geometric rate that far exceeded the arithmetic production rate of the food supply. In order to counteract the issue of overpopulation and lack of food supply, Malthus posited two ways to “check” populations: “primary checks”, which decreased birth rates, and “positive checks”, which increased death rates. Examples of primary checks include moral restraint, late marriages, birth control, and population caps. Positive checks include certain forces, such as famine, war, and disease, and would be encouraged when primary checks proved ineffective. 

Notably, Malthus had a lack of faith that primary checks could work on the impoverished population of Victorian England as they were morally inept and therefore impenetrable to the idea of moral restraints. Here, Malthus’ views begin to align with those of Herbert Spencer’s idea of “survival of the fittest”. Malthus believed that withholding resources like medicine, food, and education from the poor would eliminate them, thereby solving the resources crises. Malthus held that to redistribute money from the cultural elite to the poor, i.e. the socio-economic group that Malthus viewed as “less fit”, would thereby deprive the world of culture. Malthus believed that this would be best for all members of society, even the poor themselves, as he believed that their existence under the poverty line caused both themselves and the members of the upper-class misery. Additionally, many writers have commented upon the manner in which Malthus’ ideas impacted those of Charles Darwin. The author of “Henry George on Thomas Robert Malthus: Abundance vs. Scarcity,” Jim Horner, claims that Darwin “applied the Malthusian struggle between population and subsistence to the entire plant and animal kingdom.” (600)

Malthus did not hesitate to apply his own theories to events that occurred in England during his lifetime. For example, Malthus engaged in an intense debate with another British economist, David Ricardo, over the Corn Laws that increased the grain tariff in England. Malthus, in his Observations on the Corn Laws, considered the pros and cons of the tariff and ultimately decided that they protected the health of England’s agriculture. However, these Corn Laws produced a great deal of unrest in England for many working-class individuals since the Corn Laws primarily supported the landed gentry of England and effectively increased their otherwise dwindling political powers.

Malthus’ own life and bias should be addressed in order to fully understand his ideology. Malthus was born into the landed aristocracy of England, though, it is interesting to note that he was the second son in his family, therefore making him unable to inherit his father’s land. Indeed, some scholars argue that this facet of Malthus’ life spawned his attitude towards the poor and that many of Malthus’ theories were designed to preserve the power of the landed gentry that was itself gained from the socio-economic inequalities of the time. 

Darwinism and Bronte

Although Bronte’s Wuthering Heights preceded Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, many comparisons can be made between the texts. Darwin was an English naturalist during the Victorian era who is known for his theories on human evolution. His observations and publications were presented in a scientific lens, as he tried to explain to the public the relationship between humans. Bronte, on the other hand, shows the complex structure of society and its effect on interpersonal relationships.

Darwin understood animal species as having shared traits that distinguish them from other species. All humans have two legs, while all dogs have four legs. However, he claims that any given species can be further divided by, “groups subordinate to groups.” This is where Darwin’s theories become problematic for modern readers. He uses education and science at the time to justify that any species, including humans, can be subject to a hierarchy based on perceived values of superiority. In Wuthering Heights, this hierarchy exists among the families. Characters view each other based on who they associate with. Those who live at Wuthering Heights are presented as unsettling or victimized. Inhabitants at Thrushcross Grange are depicted as civilized and stable. Heathcliff and Joseph are given an unflattering view by the narrator, Nelly, constantly reminding us of their social inferiority. Darwin’s idea of “well-marked varieties” fits the differences that Bronte provides between the social classes in her novel.
Charles Darwin gives his scientific explanation for why humans can be set in a hierarchy. To further his claims, he also provides a hypothesis for the fate of humans as a species. Darwin states, “ it will be the common and widely spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will  prevail and procreate new and dominant species.” This seems to be the attitude that the Linton family takes on. Even though the book goes through generations, there is always the assumption that the offspring will be a part of the dominant people in society.

Desmond, Adrian J. “Charles Darwin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Sept. 2019,

Connexions week of 10/7

One connection that stood out to me when reading this weekends assigned works was the familiar application of reason and scientific process to religion, seen earlier with Carlyle and again with Huxley. The difference is that Huxley uses these devices to come to the conclusion that the teachings of Christianity are in no way an irrefutable certainty, where as Carlyle uses these devices to work in tandem with the teachings of Christianity in order to come up with his own worldview.

Wuthering Heights and the Endurance of Trait

As I was reading the excerpts from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and considering what I already knew about Darwin, my mind kept going back to the second generation featured in Wuthering Heights. Something that initially struck me about young Cathy and Hareton was that they both exemplified the qualities of their parents and/or, in the case of Hareton, those who raised them. However, they were undeniably improved versions of their predecessors. Cathy had the strong will and determination of her mother, but was complemented with the gentleness and refinement of her father. She was not hot-headed and impulsive like Catherine, nor was she weak of will as Edgar sometimes was. This was similarly true for Hareton. Though Heathcliff was not his dad, he was in many ways more of a father to him than Hindley. Hareton exemplified Heathcliff’s strength, and a sort of stoicism that could also sometimes be found in his mentor. And yet, there was also a gentleness to Hareton that could not be found in Heathcliff. Perhaps it came from his mother, or more likely from Nelly, who cared for him while he was still a boy. Both Cathy and Hareton inherited the most favorable traits, and were the best versions of their parents and caregivers. As such, the two succeeded where their forebearers could not. The opposite of Cathy and Hareton, however, would be Linton. Unlike the others, Linton displayed all of the worst qualities of both of his parents. He inherited the unfavorable traits, and therefore, it fits that he was unsuccessful. This does reflect the idea that Darwin discusses: what Herbert Spencer coined “survival of the fittest.” In many ways, Cathy and Hareton were the “fit,” and therefore survived while Linton, on the other hand, was far too weak, and was naturally, to put it harshly, eliminated.