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.
While reading Reuben Sachs, a passage about religion stood out to me. On page 24, it states that Lee-Harrison “joined a set of mystics, and lived for three months on a mountain, somewhere in Asia Minor. Now he has come round to thinking Judaism the one religion, and has been regularly received into the synagogue.” While living in the mountains, he realized that Judaism was the religion that he was always meant to be a part of.
As soon as I read that passage in Reuben Sachs, it reminded me of a passage in Agnosticism and Christianity by T.H. Huxley. The author brings up the point that Jesus “said, “Preach the Gospel to every creature.” These words need have only meant “Bring all men to Christianity through Judaism.” Make them Jews, that they may enjoy Christ’s privileges, which are lodged in Judaism.” (paragraph 54) The passages in both of these readings basically say that Judaism is the true religion that will help people to live a fulfilling life. Although many Victorian Era pieces seemed to bring up Christianity, many of them did not mention Judaism. These two readings prove that Judaism was a large part of many people’s lives during the Victorian Era.
While reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the part in which Oscar Wilde discussed the conditions of prison struck me. He questions how one man could place another man in such an awful setting. His true feelings are evident when he states “that every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame, and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim.” As soon as I read this ballad, I was reminded of the journal titled “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” In Group 4, we read and did a writeup on Charles Dickens’ feelings about the prison system. As soon as he visited Cherry Hill Prison, he remarked “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 of these men were taken aback by prison conditions. They understood that the people in prison were criminals, but they questioned how people could treat other human beings in such a torturous way. Sadly, prison conditions are still pretty horrendous today and it has been almost 200 years since Wilde and Dickens wrote about their experiences with the system. It causes me to wonder if the circumstances will ever improve.
While reading Great Expectations, Pip’s concern with his social standing stood out to me because he decided that he could not love Estella and have a high social ranking. In chapter 43, Pip asks himself “why should I loiter on my road, to compare the state of mind in which I had tried to rid myself of the stain of the prison before meeting her at the coach-office, with the state of mind in which I now reflected on the abyss between Estella in her pride and beauty, and the returned transport whom I harbored?” It seems as though Pip feels like he was a different person when he first met Estella. After his social standing changed, it’s as if he felt like he couldn’t love Estella the way he did when they first met. In my opinion, he felt the need to permanently leave Estella to protect her from the harsh reality of people’s great expectations. The idea of social standing and relationships being unable to coexist instantly reminded me of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship in Wuthering Heights.
In Wuthering Heights, Catherine feels a deep connection to Heathcliff, but her social standing initially causes her to feel like she cannot be with him. She blatantly states that “it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff.” (chapter 9) Her ranking in society was so important to her that she did not want to tarnish it by marrying someone who was not equal to her. The only reason she married Edgar was that they were equals. Even though he was a kind man, Catherine did not love him the way she loved Heathcliff. Although Catherine eventually ended up with Heathcliff, it was hard for her to come to terms with risking her social ranking. It is interesting to see how many people in the Victorian Era valued society’s perception of them more than true love.
While reading Great Expectations, Estella’s description stood out to me. In line 15 of chapter 22, she is described as being “brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex.” Due to heartbreak from Compeyson leaving her, Miss Havisham lived a vengeful life. After adopting Estella, Miss Havisham decided to use her to get revenge on men and raised her to view men negatively. This passage instantly reminded me of Catherine from Wuthering Heights.
In Wuthering Heights, Catherine is described as being a strong woman who did not depend on men. Although her goal was not to wreak revenge on men, she wished to obtain a high role in society which would allow her to have power over men. Even from a young age, Catherine was described as being “the queen of the country-side; she had no peer; and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong creature!” (Wuthering Heights, Chapter 8) Many women who lived during the Victorian Era were described as being dainty and obedient to the men in their lives, but Catherine did not fit this description. Similarly to Miss Havisham and Estella, she was unwilling to live a timid life. This lifestyle led her to become a strong female character that many women from the Victorian Era looked up to.
Upon reading Great Expectations, Pip’s character stood out to me because he reminded me of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Both Pip and Heathcliff were orphaned as young children, which caused them to face more adversity while growing up. Even though their situations were different, both characters demonstrated how common it was for children to be orphans during the Victorian Age.
In chapter one of Great Expectations, Pip mentions that he never got the chance to meet his parents and his “first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.” As a child, it must have been difficult for him to grow up without knowing much of anything about his parents. Luckily, his sister took him under her wing and raised him. However, society likely misconstructed his situation and assumed that his parents abandoned him as a child.
Similarly, Heathcliff was orphaned as a child too. However, his situation was different because he had no family to live with. Therefore, he had to live on the streets of Liverpool all by himself. The master in the novel “picked it up and inquired for its owner.” As soon as he figured out that Heathcliff had no home, the master took him back to his home where he raised him from that day forward. There were many orphaned children in Europe, so Heathcliff was lucky to have been given a home.
As seen in many of the pieces we have read this semester, religion was a large part of the Victorian Era. The father in Father and Son based many of his beliefs on science and realized that “there had been experienced an ever-increasing discord between the facts which geology brings to light and the direct statements of the early chapters of ‘Genesis’.” He believed that life started because of evolution. Therefore, he wanted to justify geology to godly readers of ‘Genesis’. This was a concept that was just beginning to arise during the Victorian Era. A majority of people believed that God was the sole creator of the Earth and the people who inhabited it. Many people during this era put all of their trust in their religious beliefs. For example, in Wuthering Heights, Joseph was an avid believer in God and based his life around religion. When a portion of a chimney stack fell, “Joseph swung on to his knees, beseeching the Lord to remember the patriarchs Noah and Lot.” This action revealed how much he depended on religion. Although Joseph could be considered an extreme believer, his beliefs represent how much of an influence religion had on people’s lives. Even though the Father and Joseph had different feelings about God and creation, their actions showed that the concept of religion was constantly on people’s minds, regardless of if they believed in it or not.
As I was reading the remaining chapters of Wuthering Heights, the term “master” kept reappearing. In Chapter 30, the master tells Zillah to “walk out of the room” and “let [him] never hear a word more about him!” This statement proves how heartless Heathcliff could be since he did not care about the wellbeing of Linton. After recognizing this, I was reminded of The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. In this text, the master mistreats his slaves through verbal and physical abuse. This is visible when the narrator mentions “the master’s look, that used to fall on my soul like his lash… or worse.” Both of these texts mention masters quite a bit, which causes me to assume that their presence was widely accepted during the time of Victorian Literature. Even though the meaning of the term slightly differs in each text, both of the masters dictate what other people are allowed to do. In many of the texts we have looked at, there always seems to be one person who controls everyone else. In my opinion, the obvious difference in power caused a great deal of inequality within society that still exists today.
While reading chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights, a passage describing Heathcliff stood out to me. The narrator states that he had “been a stranger in the house from last Sunday till to-day. Whether the angels have fed him, or his kin beneath, I cannot tell; but he has not eaten a meal with us for nearly a week.” As soon as I read this passage, I was reminded that Heathcliff was an orphan as a child. During the Victorian Era, many orphans were considered strangers in households since they did not have families or homes of their own. A good example of this can be found in chapter 4 when the orphan was brought into the Earnshaw household. The boy, who was referred to as “it,” was not even offered a comfortable place to sleep because of his social standing. This is how the upper-class treated orphans, including Heathcliff when he was a boy. This is sad given that most lower-class children would slave away all day just to survive. Through the voice of a child in The Cry of the Children, it was stated that “all day, we drive the wheels of iron in the factories, round and round.” These children were probably exhausted after a long day of work, but unfortunately, many of them did not even have a bed to go home to. Many upper class people from the Victorian Era did not understand this. Sadly, this caused them to refuse to help children who had nothing. This is a major reason there was such a significant class divide at the time. Chapter 17 also claimed that Heathcliff had been “praying like a Methodist” in his chamber. As seen in The Cry of Children, it was common for less fortunate children to pray in hopes that God would “bless them another day.” Since they were faced with so many struggles, religion tended to be the only aspect of their life that offered them hope. Religion was probably a large part of Heathcliff’s life as a child and he seemingly never stopped having strong religious values. Even though Heathcliff lived in a nice household as an adult, he began his life as an orphan who had nothing and he never forgot about that.
While reading Wuthering Heights, my heart ached for the child who was taken in by the Earnshaw’s. He was heavily mistreated by the family because of the way he looked and his position in society. As the evening approached, the family refused to allow the boy in their rooms even though he was alone and looking for a welcoming place to sleep. They referred to the boy as “it” and “put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow.” This shows that their hearts were cold towards the child, even though he was probably feeling vulnerable. In an attempt to find a place of comfort, the boy snuck into “Mr. Earnshaw’s room.” This action led him to get kicked out of their house. After his short stay with the family, he was alone and on the streets once again. The way they treated the boy was inhumane. Sadly, they probably did not see anything wrong with their actions because it was acceptable to treat people from different social classes badl. Unfortunately, this mentality was also apparent in The Chimney Sweeper.
The Chimney Sweeper represents how some lower-class children felt during the Victorian Era. They often had to work strenuous jobs just to survive. Even though they were so young and helpless, other citizens did not help them because they appeared to be happy. Sadly, they were left to fend for themselves, causing them to get clothed “in the clothes of death.” This meant that they were destined for a short lifespan. In a way, it also meant that they would never become successful because of their social standing. Just like the family in Wuthering Heights, the Victorian Era upper-class assumed that they had done the poor children no harm. However, this was far from the truth. The children were forced to fend for themselves and work at a young age. Had the upper class offered a helping hand to these children, they would not have had to face harmful work environments or worry about what the future held. The class divide during the Victorian Era was quite apparent and it cause the lower class to suffer immensely.