Author Archives: John Serbalik

A “Wilde” Author

Oscar Wilde made many contributions to the Victorian literature movement. His sexuality was a double-edged sword in his success as a. We learned in class that his intimate relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was detrimental to his reputation as an author. During the late 19th century in Britain, the Criminal Law Act (1885) stated that intimate relationships between same-sex couples were illegal. Thus, Wilde’s fiction was used as evidence by Douglas’s father to tarnish the reputation of Oscar Wilde. This was just the beginning of an effort to delegitimize Wilde’s value as an author and human being. In the following trials, he was found guilty of the original offenses and spent two years in prison. Shortly thereafter, he died from natural illnesses. His worth as an author was constantly undermined by a sexual identity he couldn’t change.

 Possibly the most disturbing effect of these trials was its effect on the greater society. It only grew fear of same-sex couples, a fear not necessarily focused on prior to these trials. I think what is most interesting about Wilde’s sexuality is that it seems to have transformed its meaning, as evidenced by a shift in the focus of his literature. For example, The Picture of  Dorian Gray appears to have celebrated homosexuality. There is a noticeable change in Wilde’s attitude when he wrote De Profundis during his prison sentence. While examining this article in class, it seemed to suggest that Wilde was discovered a newfound appreciation for Christianity. The life of Wilde is celebrated for his literary achievements, yet plagued by stigmas on sexuality that I’d say prevented his greatest potential. The life of Oscar Wilde changed my view on sexuality because I recognized the impact that a homophobic society can have on a single person’s ability to succeed.

Pip and Magwitch’s False Sense of Class Mobility

Charles Dicken’s Great Expectation is well-known for its commentary on class differences. This novel focuses on socioeconomic injustices in Victorian England that still remain relevant to this day. It may appear that the experiences of lower-income people as completely remote from modern society. However, Pip’s attempt to raise himself out of his social position into a “gentleman” is simply a game in which he is the pawn. This becomes evident to the reader by the unclear status that Pip has in society.

By this point in the novel, Pip could be considered a gentleman based on how his character aligns with Victorian ideals. Pip’s attitude toward Magwitch showcases a superiority complex towards people who don’t live up to the Victorian standards of proper behavior. Magwitch’s manners during eating are quite disagreeable to Pip:

He ate in a ravenous way that was very disagreeable, and all his actions were uncouth, noisy, and greedy. Some of his teeth had failed him since I saw him eat on the marshes, and as he turned his food in his mouth, and turned his head sideways to bring his strongest fangs to bear upon it, he looked terribly like a hungry old dog. If I had begun with any appetite, he would have taken it away, and I should have sat much as I did,—repelled from him by an insurmountable aversion, and gloomily looking at the cloth. (Ch 40, Paragraph 46)

Pip’s comparison of Magwitch to a dog is dehumanizing, but that is exactly what marks a classist society. He has assumed the attitudes of a “gentleman,” which inspires the labeling of people as inferior.  These attitudes take a complete turn around when Pip realizes that Magwitch was, in fact, the benefactor this entire time. Pip’s identity as a “gentleman” is put into question by Magwitch’s story that so closely parallels to Pip’s own story.

When Magwitch was a young man, he grew up a poor orphan and was constantly in trouble. Upon meeting Compeyson, Magwitch recalls how they became business partners in swindling. Compeyson is characterized by Magwitch as, “He’d no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil afore mentioned.” (Ch 42, Paragraph 17) This is similar to the sentiment expressed by Pip earlier when he assumes Magwitch as an “other.” Pip and Magwitch have gone through similar experiences of blindly following others in hopes of gaining social status. 

The partnership between Magwitch and Compeyson took a turn for the worst when both were accused of a felony by using stolen banknotes into circulation. Magwitch recalls how his treatment in the legal system was unfair compared to Compeyson, simply due to the “gentleman” status that Compeyson appeared to hold. Magwitch notes how Compeyson receives less prosecution due to his education, speech and “good character.” Compeyson is able to represent himself in the light of a Victorian gentleman, whereas Magwitch depends on his false sense of security. 

Magwitch had a perceived view of his own class that was greatly influenced by Victorian society assuring its lower-class members that social mobility is entirely possible. In the case of Magwitch, and now Pip, Dickens proves otherwise. Pip’s changing attitude throughout the novel corresponds to a transforming identity. It should not, however, be assumed that upward mobility will continue indefinitely for him. The idealized “gentleman” that Pip aspires to be is simply a construct by Victorian society. 

“Mediating on the Low: A Darwinian Reading of Great Expectations” by Goldie Morgentaler

In “Mediating on the Low: A Darwinian Reading of Great Expectations”, Goldie Morgentaler suggests that while writing Great Expectations (1860-61), Charles Dickens was influenced by Charles Darwins’ The Origin of Species (1859). Morgentaler points out that this is the first novel in which Dickens does not use heredity as a determining factor in the formation of oneself. Pip’s formation of his identity is based more off of his environment than heredity which Morgentaler attributes to Darwin’s influence. For example, his experiences at Miss Havisham’s reflect a “survival” to fit-in a new environment that is very different from his own home. After fighting the “pale, young gentleman,” Pip is fearful that he will be punished by Miss Havisham. Instead, Pip continues to humor Miss Havisham in hopes of becoming a gentleman. Faced with Estella’s prejudice against him as a lower class individual, it is difficult for Pip to evolve because of the environment he belongs to. Morgentaler then further suggests that one can read Great Expectations through a Darwinian lens because it has three concepts with broad evolutionary implications. The first being the idea of the primitive or low and its’ relationship with “civilized society”. She says that the gentleman (Pip) and the convict (Magwitch) in the novel are both interdependent upon one another. The criminal represents the least developed aspects of human nature (the primitive) and civilized society evolves from them. Secondly, she then brings up the idea of adaptation. She says both Miss Havisham and Joe are examples of people not being able to adapt to their environment. One of the examples she gives for this is Joe being unable to cope with the rest of civilization and is only comfortable in his natural element at home which we see in his awkward conversation with Miss Havisham where he wouldn’t talk directly to her. Lastly, she refers to the conception of time as it is only moving toward the future. She says that Pip is never able to go back and correct his mistakes as time is always moving forward. For Pip to go back to where he came from and return to his relationship with Joe would be considered regressive. Pip represents the evolution of the human species away from its’ primitive origins. Although he expresses guilt for treating his family as inferior, he must accept his changing identity in society as part of survival. 

Pip and Catherine Earnshaw

In Great Expectations, Pip’s childhood is structured similarly to that of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. Although they are both free-spirited as young children, Victorian society prefers a specific development for them. In chapter seven of Great Expectations, Pip’s uncle and older sister send him away to Miss Havisham’s home. Pip only knows Miss Havisham as “an immensely rich and grim lady…who led a life of seclusion.” (19) Catherine Earnshaw has a similar experience of an unconsented move as a supposed way to improve her well-being. Growing up alongside the rebellious Heathcliff, Catherine’s family was concerned that she would remain an unruly woman her entire life. This prompted her forced move to Thrushcross Grange. The goal of making her more civilized, in Victorian ideals, was successful upon her return to Wuthering Heights. This seems to be the goal of Mrs. Joe, who forces Pip to transform into an idealized version of himself so that he may make his fortune while at Miss Havisham’s home. Unfortunately, Pip is not treated with dignity at Satis House due to his status as a lower-classed individual. Perhaps he will change his character to mold into society’s ideal man like Catherine did as a Victorian woman. Hopefully, he will stay true to his character and disregard Estella’s condescending manner.

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,

Heathcliff’s Never-Ending Cycle

A theme that is explored by Victorian author, Emily Bronte, is the cyclical nature of abusive relationships. From the moment Heathcliff is first brought to Wuthering Heights, he is mistreated by his older brother, Hindley Earnshaw. Hindley Earnshaw physically and verbally abuses Heathcliff out of pure jealousy. Their father, Mr. Earnhaw, puts Heathcliff on a pedestal much higher than his siblings, a precipitant to Hindley’s jealousy. Since Hindley grows up in a hyper-masculine society, he is compelled to push Heathcliff off the pedestal on which he proudly stands. The rowdy interactions between the brothers were more than a push and shove. Throughout their childhood, Hindley harasses Heathcliff based on a perceived status as an outcast to the family. A memorable quote of Hindley is “And I pray that he may break your neck…only afterwards show him what you are, imp of Satan.” This would explain why Nelly summarizes the young Heathcliff as “a sullen, patient child: hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment.” Heathcliff’s childhood certainly had an impact on the way he later contributes to the cycle of an oppressive society. 

The harassment that Heathcliff receives is damaging to his self-esteem and relationships with others. This trauma becomes a tool in which Heathcliff torments Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son. Hindley’s mother dies when he is very young and his father succumbs to the evils of alcoholism. Hareton’s life becomes dictated by the brute force of Heathcliff’s intolerance towards him. Flashforward to the next generation of the estates’ inhabitants and Nelly provides an account of the brutality faced by Hareton. Heathcliff claims that his parenting of Hareton far exceeds the ability of the drunkard Hindley. To be fair, Hareton gains more attention from Heathcliff as a father, even if it is not tender loving care. However, the ugly side of an oppressed individual (Heathcliff) is demonstrated in his attitudes. Heathcliff boldly claims, “I’ve taught him to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak. Don’t you think Hindley would be proud of his son, if he could see him?” Clearly, Heathcliff feels that revenge must be enacted upon Hindley. The best way to do so is to take advantage of his son and validate it as “helping” him. In reality, Hareton is just stuck in a vicious cycle to which he has no control over. Nelly is distraught by these claims and gives the reader her own two cents. She states, “I began to dislike, more than to compassionate Linton, and to excuse his father, in some measure, for holding him cheap.” She is blaming the cycle of a dysfunctional and oppressive family for the life it provided Hareton. Many of the characters are victims of this cycle, but each one has a slightly different story.

Racial and Gender Issues in Victorian Society

The way in which Heathcliff and Catherine are treated reflects the discrimination targeted at. Prior to meeting Heathcliff, Cathy lived comfortably with her brother, Hindley. Mr. Earnshaw promises to get the children a gift on his journey, to which they request a violin and horsewhip. These material items show the financial status to which these children inherited by birth. Once Heathcliff arrives, however, there is a shifting dynamic in the family. Heathcliff is treated as inferior based on the difference in his skin color. Arguably, racial biases are a stronger tool for oppression than gender in the Victorian era. 

When Catherine and Heathcliff are discovered by the Linton’s, the treatment of each child shows how women were still treated better than non-white individuals. From his moment of arrival at the Earnshaw home, he is simply identified as a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child.” There isn’t a high chance for him to be accepted into this family due to being “as dark almost as if it came from the devil.” These disparaging remarks are constantly made about Heathcliff, which may reflect his attitude towards humans later in life.  Despite the “proper” lifestyle that women of this time were expected to follow, Catherine breaks these rules in favor of a more adventurous lifestyle with Heathcliff. She is constantly causing trouble with her brother, but Heathcliff suffers far greater consequences. 

Women of this era undoubtedly faced oppression, exhibited in the restriction to domestic and social spheres. Being a woman of the working class, however, was much different than one of a higher rank. The fictional Earnshaw family did well for themselves, as evidenced by Catherine’s upbringing. Another woman of privilege was Ada Lovelace, the real-life daughter of Lord Byron. Like Cathy, she shared greater access to resources than what was afforded to most women at the time. As an upper-middle-class woman, she was still expected to adhere to traditional roles. Gaining an education was just an additional expectation for someone of such rank. Lovelace emphasizes her love for mathematics and the use of geometric models as a learning tool. With guidance from professors at the top universities, Ada became known as the earliest developer of technology used in programming. This success may not have been possible without her social standing, especially given the intensity of the white male-dominated society.

Growing up in a well-known family gives Catherine Earnshaw a special pass that is not given to her own male brother, Heathcliff. In their encounter with the Linton family, the treatment of each Earnshaw child is very different despite the exact same offense. Isabella Linton is absolutely terrified of him, exclaiming, “Frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa. He’s exactly like the son of the fortune-teller that stole my tame pheasant.” Like the comparison made by his own family to the devil, there is racial bias against non-white people as being savages with no morales. The Linton family recognizes Cathy and is shocked that she is around a “gypsy.” They don’t stop to consider that he could be with her for a valid reason. Instead, they are upset that she is around such a “heathen” and ensure that she receives proper care.

The issue of gender roles in Victorian society has been discussed by many writers of then and now. Racial differences were overlooked at the time since White women would still have been considered superior to any individual of a different race. This isn’t to suggest that Catherine Earnshaw and Ada Lovelace went through life without unique difficulties as women. Rather, we see how racial biases were just as, if not more, detrimental to one’s survival. 

Connections in Lit. – Carlyle and Lovelace

In both Carlye’s Sartor Resartus and Ada Lovelace’s biography, they use metaphors to express the emotions evoked by the changing society around them. In Sartor Resartus, he examines the structure of the social caste system that pervades 19th century England. He specifically looks at how the greed of the elite is damaging the overall quality of their society. In order to fix this problem, Carlyle suggests that society “change their clothes” so to speak, by altering the status quo of power in society. He did not want to simply strip away the social order, but rather re-establish a society with improved morales.  By doing this, he is effectively showing how clothes can be an expression of freedom. Carlyle is shedding the old clothes of society in favor of a new perspective. We see a similar sentiment expressed by Ada Lovelace through her love for learning. She takes advantage of her opportunity to be educated as a woman by striving to attain as much knowledge as she can. Similar to Carlyle, she feels the unique ability to express herself in a society with such rigid standards. Lovelace is also changing the clothes of society by proclaiming her love for mathematics. This was a  freedom that was not granted to all women at the time. She proudly exclaims, “I am now happier than ever in my life before. I have never been happy, even in the ordinary earthly sense of that term, until just lately…” This sense of hope is reminiscent of Carlyle’s optimism in a new social order that solves the injustices plaguing society.