The biggest takeaway I have from this semester is the connexions that I’ve made within the texts we’ve read but also across timelines. Dissecting stories like Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations in a way that was character and theme-centric allowed me to see the way that the human experience transcends the construction of eras, location, and society. Reflecting on the political/historical significance of Society in America and Darwin’s findings grounded me in the time period as well as the progression of thought that was happening at the time (with the industrial revolution and the beginning of a fight for women’s rights, for example). It also exposed me to some of “the classics” that I’ve heard so much about and can now discuss the intricacies of: my opinions on Heathcliff and Catherine’s clandestine affair, the translation of the overarching theme of great expectations from Great Expectations, the political significance of Harriet Martineau’s writings.
When reading Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy for this week, a description that jumped out at me within the first few pages was the physical description of Adelaide and her mother. “She was richly and very fashionably dressed in an unbecoming gown of green shot silk,” Levy writes, “and wore big diamond solitaires in her ears. She and her mother were indeed never seen without such jewels…” Immediately in the book, this shows the keen eye given to women’s physical appearance at the time. This can be seen in other texts that we’ve read, such as with Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Appearing in an old wedding dress throughout the book, Miss Havisham shows the significance both of appearance and its use in fiction to communicate a deeper meaning (in this case, it’s how her life is defined by the tragedy of her wedding day). As Reuben Sachs moves forward, it becomes more evident the importance of Levy’s physical descriptions in painting visions of her characters. From the detailed showcase of the complexion and air of a Jewish man to the unfolding of Aunt Ada’s appearance just before she is introduced.
In reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, I noticed the highly emotive language that is used throughout to describe Wilde’s experiences. Words like “suffering”, “sorrow”, “grey”, and “forgotten” pop out to the reader within the first few paragraphs. This transparency of feeling is juxtaposed by the reluctance in Wuthering Heights. Many times, the reader is left to piece together the pain of many of the main characters–particularly Heathcliff and Catherine–as the characters themselves have a difficult time coming to terms with their suffering.
The namesake of the novel Great Expectations as well as a crux of the story is the idea of having certain beliefs of how the future will unfold and being faced with a disappointing outcome. In the book, Pip and other characters are faced with the harsh realities that life is not always what we expect it to be. For example, throughout the story, Pip has fantasies about gaining power: through social mobility, the accumulation of wealth, and by marrying the woman he considers to be beautiful. This links back to an idea I addressed in a previous blog post about Pip’s desire for self-improvement from the outset of the story. As the story continues, Pip starts to seek advancement as a way to fulfill himself. He believes that if he gains these accolades (money, status, “love”), then he will be satisfied with his life and himself. By constructing this set of values, however, he becomes caught in an endless cycle of wanting more to be happy. His life as a gentleman of the time turns out to be no more fulfilling than his life as a blacksmith’s apprentice and he continues to long for what is beyond his reach. In my interpretation of the theme as its presented in the novel, the question of expectations versus reality is rooted not in a comparison of two polar ideas (what we expect to be vs. what is), rather what we intend to gain from our expectations of reality (what is vs. how we reconcile it).
In the book Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the main character Pip often focuses on his negative qualities and shortcomings more than his positive attributes and actions. This can be shown when he steals food for a suffering man and later reflects on the situation with guilt and unrest instead of realizing that he helped someone. He seems to have a strong moral compass that influences him to self-assess and will hopefully trigger an arc of self-realization and development throughout the novel. This can be contrasted by Heathcliff and compared to Hareton in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is a character who cannot come to terms with his problematic tendencies and doesn’t come to terms with his emotions and moral compass. For example, he perpetuates the violence and neglect he experiences as a child instead of realizing that his resentment for Isabella and Hareton stems from the trauma he endured. Despite Heathcliff’s inability to look inward in the way that Pip begins to demonstrate in the first characters of Great Expectations, Hareton shows similar qualities of self-awareness. “His honest, warm, and intelligent nature shook off rapidly the clouds of ignorance and degradation in which it had been bred,” Bronte writes. Despite his upbringing, Hareton is able to reflect on it enough to not perpetuate it in the way that Heathcliff did.
Between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Huxley’s “Agnosticism and Christianity”, I immediately noticed a difference in tone which contributes to the style of persuasion implemented in the essays. In Darwin’s, the tone is more straightforward and analytical. His statements are supported by statistics and evidence such as when he employs specific numbers of seeds in the section “Geometrical Ratio of Increase”. Most of the information Darwin offers is objective and supported. When he inserts his opinion, he softens it with an opener such as “I believe” or remains firm yet even in his presentation of the information. Huxley on the other hand includes language that is more assertive. He claims that agnostics “have not the courage to declare themselves ‘Infidels'” and that faith is an abomination. The inclusion of this charged language suggests the use of pathos in his argument.
While reading Wuthering Heights, I kept an eye out for connections between the treatment and actions of women in the book as those elements fall into the time period. In my own interpretation of this feminist lens, I kept in mind the Harriet Martineu’s Society in America which breaks down the lack of respect and fundamental rights given to women during this time period both from a governmental and a personal standpoint. For example, in Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s personal arc and decisions are largely based upon the fact that she cannot fully build her own wealth; she is indebted to the society of men around her. In Society in America, the question is raised of where the government gets the power to decide the level of ownership women maintain in a marriage: some women are forced to give all rights to their property to their husbands while others are allowed to keep only a small portion. Catherine decides to not marry Heathcliff despite her affections for him solely based on a strategic move to ensure that she has a comfortable life–which can be given to her by the well-off Edgar. This demonstrates the personal sacrifices women made in order to create any space for themselves within society. Since she cannot secure her own stability due to the condemnation of law and society, she is forced to further surrender her right of choice.
This week’s readings were particularly striking for me as they discussed the role of women in the Victorian era. The “political non-existence of women” is a series of statements outlining the sexism and mistreatment of women present in the early/mid-1800s–much of it blatantly demonstrated by law and government practices. The language in the piece is visceral and jarring. Women are referred to as property and slaves to their husbands or fathers and the entirety United States government. The text does a grand job of establishing problems present in the time period and setting the stage for a slow, eventual awakening of the nation of the great gender inequality. For my personal grounding in the time period, I want to be able to place these isolated pieces in a timeline. I’d like to see how men and women of the time reacted to this publication and what the general consensus of the public was: how did men continue to grip onto authority and did women exposed to these truths come to terms with their own mistreatment? In my mind, the progressive nature of this week’s readings feel well beyond their time; however, I want to know if this holds truth. Where does this time period fall into the fight for women’s rights and how long were and have people been socially aware of said injustices?
Despite leafing through required readings for classes and admiring the banter between students with a thorough understanding of the “classics”, I have had minimal exposure to many famed pieces. For a student rooted by a love for reading and writing, the scope and depth of my knowledge regarding Victorian literature severely lacks–which is, in part, the inspiration to take this course.
I’m looking forward to finally taking the time to immerse myself in often-discussed works like Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations and looking into the interplay between the literature and the surrounding context of the time period. Better orienting myself in the history and how it influences the works we’re reading will help me create connections between the past and present: how literary themes stand the test of time, where the modern human experience mirrors that of the Victorian era, and what we can learn from how others before us have juggled conflict.
Particular themes/ideas that I’d like to engage with throughout the semester include the role of gender and race, the influence of established worldviews about science and religion on the Victorian literary space, and where the institution of education comes into play both for literary characters and the authors that penned them. Also, I would like to better understand what classifies a piece as one of Victorian literature as opposed to one from another era. How can we distinguish chronologically and what are recurring characteristics of a piece from the Victorian era?