Monthly Archives: November 2019

“Like a Bed of Oysters:” The Interconnectivity of Victorian Literature

I’ve always viewed Victorian literature as the space of snobbish literary pedants, what with all the focus on nigh-puritanical cultural inhibitions and cloying romantic dialogue. And no, this class has not completely changed this perception of mine, but it has given me some insight at least into the inner minds of those who wrote during the period. If I had read _Wuthering Heights_ without the proper context of Emily Bronte’s upbringing, I most likely would’ve perceived it as just another one of those ubiquitous-romantic-bildungsromans that make my mind swim and my eyes roll back into my skull (let’s just say that the lengthy passages focusing on the angst suffered by Cathy or Heathcliff or Catherine or were not my cup of tea). I would never have considered it was an analogy for Bronte’s angst about inter-English colonization, or the entrapment caused by religious and social roles. It’s not _just_ about the soap opera-esque romance plot.

Continuing that strain of thought, doing background research for my paper and for the presentation on Thomas Malthus were some of my favorite things to do. Having not known a ton about where capitalism actually came from, I was relatively unaware of the omnipresent Adam Smith, and it was fascinating reading about not only how he started the whole economic ideology, but how Malthus’ own policies grew out of them naturally. Come to think of it, a lot of the historical scenarios discussed in class were deeply imbued in the texts (but I guess that’s just the nature of studying literature; everything is a product of its time). I kept bringing in situations and context from my other class just because it was so fun to see how intertwined and centralized the world was becoming in this period. It’s a class that combined one part History with two parts English, and frankly, I think the context really helped flesh things out moreso than other English classes.

P.S. Lockwood was my favorite character in _Wuthering Heights_. Every passage from his perspective is absolutely hilarious. I think Bronte really nailed the haughty Southern London type, and I was disappointed that the majority of the novel was told from Nelly’s more subdued point of view.

The Finale

I initially came into this semester having no knowledge of Victorian literature- what novels were considered Victorian, defining features, or major authors. I even didn’t know much about the historical context and influences going on during this time. I had read Wuthering Heights in AP Lit senior year of high school, but I hadn’t even been aware of its Victorian roots and classification. So since this scope of literature was so new to me, I found many facets interesting. Particularly, I was especially intrigued by the evolving relationship between class and gender during this time, and how it was presented in literature. In both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations this relationship was presented in such a way that puts class above gender. I found this interesting because I had always assumed that the relationship, especially during this era, was the other way around. In a society so male-dominated, having characters where women have the upper hand due to their status was enjoyable to read, and see a realistic scope into the past. Along with this, the presentation of emotion in genders was also an intriguing part to read about.

In terms of my favorite part of the semester, I really liked reading Great Expectations! I also enjoyed the structure of the course, and how we split into groups and each had different parts to conquer because we got a very full view on the Victorian era, not just the literature. By having historical context to each piece we were reading, and comments to focus our discussions, I felt I got so much more out of this class than if it was just a lecture with all of us completing the same homework every class. Overall, this class was fun and informative to be apart of!

Above and Beyond

Though I began this semester wondering about the gender roles and norms that women were subject to during the Victorian period, I, inevitably and thoroughly, learned about that topic and many, many other topics in my time in this course. However, despite the sheer variety of Victorian concepts and issues that I learned about, I think that it was through learning about and becoming aware of Victorian literature, and the concepts and issues that contextualized, informed, and inspired it, that I was able to learn something that was much greater than just the sum of these parts. Indeed, my experience in this class has taught me to see connections when their presence is not obvious. Despite the fact that all of the Victorian literature I engaged with this past semester dates well over a hundred years old, I felt that I could relate to some of the sentiments and struggles of the characters housed within the literary works I read. I could readily relate to Catherine’s attachment to her home, Wuthering Heights, and to the blustering, heath-filled moors that contained it. Her desire to see Wuthering Heights manifested as her own personal version of heaven reminded me of the love I have for the natural environment of my home in Long Island. Furthermore, I found myself relating to Pip’s growing pains and especially to his complicated feelings regarding leaving home and attempting to find success out there in the world, away from that which is familiar.

This class also taught me that Victorian literature, aside from transgressing the barriers of time through its ability to reach and relate to me and my own life, cannot be readily defined. Despite having taken a class entitled “Victorian Connexions,” I cannot say that I could decisively and concisely define Victorian literature. For example, while there are elements of Victorian literature that are focused predominantly on spiritual manners there are also many aspects of Victorian literature that are intensely preoccupied with the sciences and with the new scientific knowledge that became available during that time period. Moreover, the two are often found to somehow coexist within the very same piece of literature, sometimes without being completely resolved, as is the case in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam. Several pieces of Victorian literature, such as Wuthering Heights and Reuben Sachs, also seemed to simultaneously uphold and combat the gender roles and norms of which I was initially curious. Additionally, the Victorian period saw the employment of at least three distinct sub-genres: Romanticism, Gothicism, and Realism. These three sub-genres are entirely different from one another yet they do appear at work together in certain works of Victorian literature, for example, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It is thus undeniable that the genre of Victorian literature is enigmatic and multi-faceted. However, I think this is only to be expected, as the Victorian period of literature marked merely a collection of years wherein Queen Victoria ruled and not necessarily a particular style, ideology, or philosophy. Therefore, the period is bound to be filled with a vast array of distinct concerns, literary styles, and trends, that all inspired different authors in a variety of ways such that each author created a product that was unique from all else being generated at the time.

I think these aspects are what is really key to Victorian literature. While Victorian literature cannot be readily defined it certainly lends itself to connection. There is a great deal of connection latent within the tensions that exist between each work of Victorian literature, for each work is different yet simultaneously emblematic of the time period in which it was composed and of the individuals who lived during that time period, at least, in part. Moreover, Victorian literature, despite its age and despite the rigidity of its timespan, can be connected to today, particularly in its ability to communicate certain eternal concepts, particularly, the very concept of connection and how one perceives oneself as connected to others, connected to one’s environment, and connected to history and to the lives that have and are yet to have been lived. Victorian literature, despite its being framed by time, defies this seemingly concrete aspect of its definition in its ability to connect the past with the future in the name of exposing the way in which all, even that which seemingly contrasts, is connected.

Victorian Literature and Emotion

I suppose the most interesting thing I learned about Victorian Literature this semester was just how emotional it can be. I had already read Middlemarch prior, and was touched at the emotion and sentiment risen in that book, but had not assumed it to be typical of Victorian literature. But it turned out to be quite typical. Naturally, my favorite book was Wuthering Heights as it bartered most strongly in this emotion. Emily Bronte was able to write deep and meaningful characters that both spoke to a greater emotional depth, one that retains a certain primitive nature, and to the facade each of us wears to mask or convert our emotions into socially normative behaviors. Charles Dickens too worked in this emotional sphere. Great Expectations fundamentally revolved around the affective power of hope, and he noted both the power of fulfillment and disillusionment in terms of achieving goals (this referring strictly to material goals). I find all this interesting as well, that the Victorian writers played so heavily within emotional works, especially since their age was one of nascent mechanical growth. The streets of London were awash with the poor and the needy, and the air was black with the smog of factories. Yet all of this isn’t to say that the authors we read ignored this, rather they knew the importance of emotional effect in dealing with these issues. Their return to the natural and easily accessible offered the best way to begin to form frameworks for how to understand the change that was sure to come. So then, the most interesting thing I learned about Victorian literature was the power of its powerful emotion and its touchingly refined sentimentality.

Social Darwinism is Bad

The most interesting thing I learned this semester is the widespread effects of Darwin’s theory during the Victorian Era. While, of course I’ve known about Darwin’s theory, I’ve never quite known about the extent of the terrible negative impacts of his theory from people’s incorrect interpretations of his work. We see people take Darwin’s scientific discoveries and twist them to support their own in ways that were really dangerous. For example, Social Darwinism is the theory that individuals, groups, and peoples are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection. In the 20th century, this was used to justify political conservatism, imperialism and racism. While Darwin was very concerned with the environment and how it affects evolution, people concerned with Social Darwinism ignored environment and assumed that poor people and non-white races were born inherently inferior to other humans. People translated darwinism into economic terms with the idea that if the state stays out of the economy, the economy will thrive and humanity as a whole will improve; this was used in support of capitalism. In the 1880-90s, scientists started to discover how evolution worked and the concept of Eugenics emerged. This was used extensively by Hitler because he tried to use knowledge of heredity to create inferior view of Jews so that he could exterminate them. In America Eugenics also led to government forcing sterilization on people. We saw the negative effects of Darwin’s ideas in society in many of the readings throughout the semester. For example, in Reuben Sachs the negative perception of Jews is evident. We also talked about the extreme racism Dickens uses in his novels in his depiction of Jewish characters, like Fagan in Oliver Twist. Great Expectations, on the other hand, can be interpreted as Dickens’ push back against the concept of Social Darwinism. In the novel, we see Darwin deny that inherited genetic traits control a person with Pip’s character, for example. Brought up in a working class family, and related to his terrible sister, Pip is able to overcome his condition and become somebody that is educated,respected and kind. Needless to say, I am happy that Social Darwinism has been largely disproved so that groups of people are not oppressed.

The Importance of Humanity in Victorian Literature

Entering into this course, the only experience I had with Victorian Literature was in gothic horror novels such as Frankenstein. I had little knowledge of general Victorian literature. The stereotypical view of Victorian Literature is high-class rich families speaking in posh accents, contrasted against the chimney sweep Tiny Tim characters.

From our readings in Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Reuban Sachs, and the variety of poetry and shorter readings, I have noticed that they all have a similar feel to them. While thematically the three main readings we discussed had similar subjects about social status in Victorinal society, they are all held together by the human elements underneath. In some cases romance and courtship, in other family and friendship.

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The Prison System: The Most Interesting Topic I Learned About The Semester

When this class first began in August, I knew very little about Victorian literature and I was unsure of what to expect. However, as the class progressed, I learned more than I was anticipating. Some of my favorite topics we discussed included Victorian women, religion, and orphans. However, looking back on the semester, the most interesting thing I learned about was the prison conditions of the time. 

Oscar Wilde’s description of prison in The Ballad of Reading Gaol struck me. He claimed that every prison “is built with bricks of shame, and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim.” He wondered how society could accept one man controlling another man, especially in such awful conditions. Charles Dickens offered another description of the Victorian Era prison system in “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” After visiting a prison, he said “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment… inflicts upon the sufferers… I hold this slow and daily tampering… to be worse than any torture of the body.” Both men were taken aback by the conditions they witnessed. This surprised me because most Victorian Era citizens seemed to accept the conditions that criminals were placed in, even though they were inhumane. 

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde writes “and by all forgot, we rot and rot.” This line exemplifies the fact that prisoners lose themselves while in jail because the outside world doesn’t care about them. While I was reading both of these pieces, I was reminded of today’s prison conditions. When Wilde wrote that the prisons are “bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim,” it reminded me of wrongful convictions. There have been many instances where the wrong people get placed in jail for other people’s crimes. Jail cells sometimes hold citizens who suffer the conditions of prison when they are undeserving. This truth existed during the Victorian Era and it still does today. Sadly, the jails haven’t changed much since Wilde and Dickens wrote about their experiences. It causes me to wonder if the conditions will ever change. I understand that people go to jail for committing crimes, but most humans do not deserve to be treated with complete disrespect.

I enjoyed the fact that I felt like I was reading about today’s prison system through pieces of literature that are centuries old. This topic was the most interesting thing I learned because it puts the conditions of prison into perspective and made me realize the injustice that exists within our country.

Women Shaping Content

I find the most interesting and also my favorite thing I learned about Victorian literature was the way women writers used their work to shape the public look on the woman’s roll and the patriarchy. I was not expecting this theme to run through this course. From Elliot to Bronte to Levy strong voices speaking out against the oppression of women not only led to great art but opened the door for women to begin to take a stand and intact tangible social change. Even though Bronte and Levy did this in ways that can be seen as subtle, they still used literature to tell stories from a point of view that readers look back on and site as breaking the mold. I loved the work we read by Elliot that explained feminism in such a clear way and allowed for people to see the absurdity of the current system while also calling out people who want to put women on a pedestal and how harmful that is to our equality. I think this point is important and is one that I hadn’t really thought of, so it shaped my thinking as the semester progressed that part of equality is seeing flawed female characters. This was seen in the personality and actions of several keys characters in the works we read, for example, Catherine Ms .Havisham, and Judith. I enjoyed studying these women’s stories and the way each writer, even Dickens, found a way to insert a compelling female character into the work. My take away from this aspect of Victorian literature is that through the help of writers like Elliot women felt inspired to write realistic female characters which then made their art better and in turn the Victorian era special.

Reshaping my understanding of Victorian lit

Prior to this class, I tended to avoid Victorian Literature like the plague. I’m not totally sure why; maybe I always associated it with intolerable run-on sentences, or maybe it was PTSD from high school English classes? Either way, I never gave Victorian lit a fair shot- something I now regret. Victorian literature is not the dull, frivolous, one-note thing I once thought it was. It is history, it can be exciting, and none of it is quite the same. I read both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations in high school. And I hated both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations in high school. But rereading them, despite my initial dread, I found them infinitely more interesting. I think something that was key to this, particularly to Great Expectations, was understanding how the story fit into the context of the era. I had never thought to consider things like Darwin and evolution, or prison reform, or anything like that when reading these stories. I think perhaps Victorian literature is misunderstood. It is not isolated narratives of the wealthy aristocrats in fancy clothes, it is much more socially conscious and relevant than you would initially think. That is what I found the most interesting about Victorian literature.

Universal Connection

In my first blogpost, I wrote about being excited to learn about the characteristics of Victorian literature–the what that this literature is made up of. Before coming into this class, my idea of Victorian literature was that of only romance and trivial things that didn’t really interest me, things I couldn’t really connect with. After reading works by many different authors during this time period and on an array of topics, my opinion changed drastically. I realized that I had only been exposed to less than a fraction of all Victorian literature and that these works tackled some important and very interesting topics. We read works that dealt with religion, science, the portrayal of women, grief, identity, love, violence, and so much more. It’s honestly funny to me how much I thought I couldn’t connect to the topics in Victorian literature because now I see so many connections in my own life, the lives of those around me, and just humanity in general.

I think my favorite piece we read this semester was In Memoriam by Tennyson. I thoroughly enjoyed not only reading this poem about grief, remembrance, and the value of writing, but also our discussions in class. Seeing grief grappled with by someone else that lived many years before me made me feel less alone. That has been the most interesting and rewarding part of this class–seeing these feelings and topics discussed by people in the past to remind me that these feelings, not just grief, are universal and connecting. Victorian literature doesn’t have to be about silly romance and trivialities, it can be about the connecting feelings every human has. So while I did learn some of the characteristics that makes Victorian literature up like class, race, gender, progress, science vs religion, and identity, the one characteristic I was grateful to see was us–humans and their universal longings and feelings.