Author Archives: Kathryn Capone

What I Learned About Women During the Victorian Era

Throughout this semester, I learned a lot of interesting things about Victorian literature. One thing that I found to be the most compelling is the way female authors wrote about women and women’s issues at the time. I really enjoyed reading how women would bring attention to the way they were being treated, as well as, the different approach these female authors would take in their works about how they were treated. Some were more up front with advocating for women’s rights, and others wrote of the idea more subtly in their works. Additionally, I liked learning how some women would go against what was normal in society and bring attention to the way society treats and perceives them; I liked learning about this and connecting it to today’s time, as well.

To begin, in Martineau’s Society in America, she calls into question the government and how they don’t have the consent of women to make unfair laws that they are forced to abide by. After reading what she had to say, I really admire her bravery for speaking her mind during a time where women didn’t have as many rights. Furthermore, I also find it interesting that what she is saying is still applicable today. Now, women have more rights, but there are still issues when it comes to abortion and the government deciding how much of a right women have to deciding what happens to their bodies.

Another female author we looked at this semester is Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the name George Eliot. I found it really interesting after I read her review essay in The Leader that she was a woman and not a man. I thought it was disheartening that she felt she had to change her name in what she wrote to be a male name, so that she would not get judged for her beliefs and be taken more seriously. Looking back at this now in today’s time, I can’t imagine what it must be like living in a society that forces a woman to do this. It is also really strange she had to change her name because either way her ideas are exactly the same. Additionally, I find her differing approach from Martineau to be interesting because she isn’t as obvious of an advocate for women’s rights; her ideas are more subtle in that she wants change to occur in a more incremental way than Martineau, who was calling for change in a more urgent way.

The last female author I’ll discuss is Amy Levy. Some may see her as an author who is reinforcing stereotypes about women. For instance, there is a lot of reference to Judith’s beauty in Reuben Sachs, as well as, numerous descriptions of the lavish clothing women wear. Thus, some may see it as Levy reinforcing the idea of the importance of a woman’s looks. Although, when looking more closely at the text, she may be making more of a commentary on how women are portrayed in society, instead. For instance, she writes “But the life, the position, the atmosphere, though she knew it not, were repressive ones. This woman, with her beauty, her intelligence, her power of feeling, saw herself merely as one of a vast crowd of girls awaiting their promotion by marriage” (35). Hence, marriage isn’t written in the most positive light, but instead is “repressive.” As a result, she is subtly making a commentary on how damaging society’s place for women is to them. She also isn’t writing her ideas in an essay format, but through a cohesive story. So, we get her ideas about women through interpreting the characters and we can make our own claims about what we think she was trying to say and advocate for.

All in all, I enjoyed this class and learned a lot about the Victorian Era through the literature we read and discussed. I liked learning about the female authors we looked at and what they had to say about women’s place in society. The differing approaches from the authors was also interesting to learn, as well.

Similar Situations

The situation of Judith Quixano from Reuben Sachs being raised in a wealthier family is similar to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. As her family gets larger, they grow poorer, so they send their eldest daughter to her rich side of the family to the Leuniger household. Similarly, Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw’s rich family as an orphan. Hence, both of these characters are almost outsiders in their respective families because they have different parents and are poorer than their the children in the house they grow up in. Although, there is a lot more conflict in Heathcliff’s household with feelings of jealousy and hatred becoming apparent. For instance, Hindley shows an obvious disliking to him and tries to make his life miserable. On the other hand, Judith is close with her cousin Rose who she grows up with and there is no evident conflict between them. Evidently, it is important to keep in mind that Heathcliff was brought into a family he didn’t know, but Judith is cousins with Rose. Thus, it was probably easier to have friendlier relations with the people in the Leuniger house because they were family, and when the Earnshaw’s first met Heathcliff he was a stranger to them. Additionally, both Heathcliff and Judith have feelings for someone who they grew up with and it would be scandalous if something romantic actually happened between them. Notably, Judith’s mother was one of the first people, “whom the gossip about Reuben and her daughter had reached.” Hence, the word “gossip” implies that it is talked about by the family and it could be scandalous if something does happen between them. Therefore, Heathcliff’s and Judith’s situations are broadly similar, but the details of the situations vary.

Compassion for the Criminals

In Oscar Wilde’s letter, “De Profundis,” it was disheartening to read of people’s reaction to seeing him handcuffed in his convict’s uniform. Evidently, he recalls the experience and describes, “I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed… When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement… For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob” (97). Hence, people thought the situation was humorous and lacked compassion for someone who was suffering. All in all, just because of his attire and appearance as a criminal, people’s initial reaction was to make fun of him. Notably, no one had any inclination of sympathy or attempt to understand his situation. Similarly, the way that people made instinctual judgements because of his appearance can be compared to Magwitch in Great Expectations. Indeed, Pip’s initial reaction to him is fear, based on his appearance. However, after learning about his character and situation, he grew to be more understanding and tried to help him in an escape plan. Thus, this proves how by getting to know someone, and not making assumptions based on appearances, that can change your whole perspective. If the people who were laughing at Wilde actually tried to get to know him and his situation, they might have more compassion for what he is going through. Not to mention, it is easy to make fun of a stranger because there are seemingly no consequences because there is no personal attachment. Therefore, appearances don’t tell someone’s full story and instead of making assumptions about people who you don’t know, if you get to know them and try to understand their situation, that can change your entire outlook on the situation.

Capital Punishment in the Victorian Era and Dickens’ View on Public Executions and Solitary Confinement

According to “Common Misperceptions: The Press and Victorian Views of Crime” by Christopher Casey, Britain’s criminal law had been the subject of intense criticism for its inequities. It underwent a reform throughout the 1820s and 1830s that was meant to make punishment less harsh and more certain, therefore more equitable. These reforms started with the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1929 followed by similar police forces, then the repeal the death penalty for crimes that did not seem to warrant it. The police forces were supposed to raise the expectation that criminals would be caught, and that reasonable punishments would increase conviction rates, thus the justice system would be more efficient. According to every measure of the time, much of it being published the press, crime was on the decline in Britain after 1850— and even possibly before 1830. Nonetheless, the entire population, even those people who were supposed to know better, believed that crime was on the rise. This was the result of the media manipulating public perception causing a Victorian preoccupation with crime. The nineteenth-century media created a culture more well-informed about violent crime than any society of the previous century. People read about crime and violence and heard about it from family and friends almost every day. In January 1863, The Times noted, “The dangerous classes seem to be getting the better of society. . . .Under the influence of philanthropic sentiments and a hopeful policy, we have deprived the law of its terrors and justice of its arms.” According to media scholars, crime news has always been known to increase the fear of crime because newspapers inevitably present a skewed version of reality even under the best of circumstances. Therefore, despite governmental reforms that actually decreased the threat of violent crime at the time, the sensationalism of this journalism fostered terror in Victorian England.

Dickens believed that public executions were inhumane and an outrage. In many of his works Dicken’s discusses the vileness of public executions. He was most appalled by the reactions of the crowd, or lack thereof. He believed that by watching an execution people were failing to recognize the humanity of the person being executed, and therefore denying their own humanity. In the 1840’s, Dickens witnessed several executions by which he was disturbed and distressed. In his writing, he uses public execution to attempt to move people, and he uses his own repulsion for public punishment into some of his most iconic works, including Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. He writes “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.” Dickens’s views on capital punishment are first seen in a series of letters to the Daily News in 1846, and in letters to the Times in 1849. In the beginning, he argued to completely get rid of public executions, but later voiced his desire that any executions deemed necessary be carried out privately in front of only a few legally appointed witnesses. He argues too, that the threat of capital punishment questions the law by glamorizing the criminal, and creating sympathy for them, rather than the victim. His question was, which was the greater wrong of society, the spectators or the criminal?

Isolation became a very popular method many prisons constructed after the Auburn Prison in New York and the Cherry Hill Prison in Philadelphia. Several hundred European jails followed the model of solitary confinement and hundreds of thousands of inmates were forced to be inflicted with isolation. Charles Dickens visited Cherry Hill Prison, which was reported to have high numbers of cases with people with mental illnesses. Moreover, prisoners were strictly enforced to be isolated and spend all their time in their cells where they did their work. It was believed that by being isolated, the prisoners could spend their time turning their thoughts to God to atone for their crimes; many thought this would be beneficial because when they came back to society, people thought they would return as a “cleaned Christian citizen.” People who defended the prison argued that their mental illnesses was not because of their solitary confinement. It was widely believed at the time that this was caused by the belief that many people had that masturbation caused insanity. A physician of Cherry Hill noted, “the cases of mental disorder occurring in this Penitentiary are, with a few exceptions, caused by masturbation, and are mostly among the colored prisoners.” Thus, defenders of the prison didn’t believe isolation could be the cause of their mental illnesses and this demonstrates the racism that was prevalent too. Furthermore, death rates were reported to be high here and a high number of cases with insanity occurred as a result. Dickens was disturbed by this, as well. He recalls, “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.” Hence, Dickens condemned the practice of this isolation and thought it to be inhumane.

Revenge Is Not so Sweet

Both Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights conspire their own plans for revenge on certain people in their lives because of their past traumas. Heathcliff plans to take revenge on numerous characters; he takes revenge on Catherine for causing him pain with choosing Edgar over him and decides to marry Isabella to cause her pain. Additionally, he uses Hareton for revenge by treating him just as badly as Hindley treated him. In comparison, Miss. Havisham plans for revenge on all men because of her being stood up at the alter by a man was never planning to marry her and broke her heart. Instead of carrying out her means of revenge herself, she does it through Estella by conditioning her to be heartless and cold in order to break men’s hearts like Pip. Both these tales of revenge don’t end with justice for the characters who are using revenge as a means to cope with their traumas; simply, the revenge plans they have just end in more heartache and disappointment with no real winners in the end. Eventually, Heathcliff gives up with his plan and decides to stop eating to end up slowly killing himself. Conversely, Miss Havisham thought she would feel more satisfied with breaking Pip’s heart and taunting him with Estella, but eventually just feels pity for him and repeats, “what have I done!” over and over agin. Thus, she doesn’t feel as accomplished with her plan as she thought. Henceforth, revenge doesn’t work out well in the end for these characters and reflects the idea that while revenge may seem like a just method to deal with bad experiences, it just ends with more disappointment, heartache, and regret.

The Ghostly Presence in Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations

The presence of ghosts and the unknown was prominent in Wuthering Heights. Evidently, Heathcliff claimed to have numerous encounters with the ghost of Catherine and believed her to really be haunting him, which is what he requested of her right before she died. In popular culture, ghosts are usually perceived to be scary, and being haunted by one is never something that someone requests. Well, Heathcliff did request this of Catherine because of his attachment to her and his need to feel her presence. Notably, Catherine’s spiritual presence provided Heathcliff immense comfort and during one of his encounters with her he recalled, “a sudden sense of relief flowed from my heart through every limb. I relinquished my labour of agony, and turned consoled at once: unspeakably consoled. Her presence was with me: it remained while I re-filled the grave, and led me home” (59). Similarly, a ghost becomes present and witnessed by Pip in Great Expectations. Conversely, we do not know the name of the ghost and its relation, if any, to any of the characters yet. While Heathcliff was comforted by Catherine’s ghost, Pip was observed to be scared by the ghost because Estella witnessed this and asked him, “are you scared again?” We’ll have to see if this ghostly presence becomes more significant in the upcoming chapters of Great Expectations and if its identity is revealed to be significant to any of the characters.

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.

The Relation of Religion

While reading Gosse’s Father and Son, I noticed that Gosse’s father reminded me of Joseph from Wuthering Heights. Both of these people affiliate themselves with religion and Christianity and express their devotion to it; notably, they both insert their religious beliefs into discussions in order to make sense of an occurrence they are unsure of. For instance, Nelly notices that Mr. Earnshaw has become more quiet and reserved than he used to be. She notes that Joseph explains this occurrence and observes, “Joseph affirms he’s sure he’s an altered man: that the Lord has touched his heart, and he is saved ‘so as by fire.'” Hence, Joseph brings religion into the conversation, even though there is no evidence that it belongs there in the first place. Gosse’s father also brings religion into the conversation in an attempt to come to terms with the new scientific beliefs about the world’s creation. Instead of conforming to the new ideas presented, he creates a new theory of his own that includes the ideas of geology that do not contradict the ideas of Genesis. Moreover, he does this in order to keep his faith and Christianity included in the conversation. Thus, both of these people are defensive of their religious beliefs and will defend them no matter what the apposing views are; furthermore, they bring religion into a conversation in order to justify something they cannot explain, even if there is no evidence of there being any relation between the topic and religion.

The Hypocritical Nature of Nelly

In the poem, “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” the narrator mentions how there are many black things in the world that God created, yet for some reason, the people are seen as lesser or scarier than white people. Moreover, she includes how people say that African Americans “have no stars,” and “our blackness shuts like prison bars.” Furthermore, she illustrates how there are numerous other dark things in the world. She mentions, streams, frogs, and birds in her list of examples. Overall, her argument is that it is ridiculous to justify slavery and inequality by hating on someone’s skin color, when that color isn’t an issue when describing other living things; for some reason, it is an issue when it comes to humans proving how hypocritical that argument is. Consequently in chapter 34 of Wuthering Heights, Nelly is explaining her fear she was feeling of Heathcliff and remembers his “deep black eyes.” Additionally, she speaks of him in the present as an “incarnate demon,” perhaps a ghoul or vampire. She reflects on raising him, while remembering him as a “little dark thing.” If the narrator of the poem were to read these lines, she would perhaps point out the hypocritical nature of Nelly’s description. Notably, she would wonder why Nelly connects the dark physical attributes of a person to something negative and scary, while if the physical attributes were lighter in appearance, they wouldn’t even be mentioned. Hence, both these works of literature deal with the hypocrisy of connecting someone’s physical appearance, to something negative and scary.

Hareton and The Chimney Sweepers

In Wuthering Heights, Hareton’s new position after his father dies is now a worker. To live in his own home, he is now forced to do what is asked of him by Heathcliff. He is now described as a “servant.” Along with this, Heathcliff refers to him as “mine,” indicating he now feels he has ownership over him. His position can now be compared to the child’s position in the poem, “The Chimney Sweeper.” Like the father and mother who are absent in the poem because they are in the church praying, Hareton’s parents are both absent due to their deaths. While it seems the parents in the poem left the child willingly to pray at the church, Hareton’s parents are absent due to their untimely deaths. In comparison, both the children and Hareton have people force their ownership over them by people who aren’t even their parents and are forced to work in an environment they didn’t consent to. They are both treated as objects who are forced to be taken advantage of and aren’t seen as humans with feelings or opinions. They are now expected to do what is asked of them, so they can continue living. Along with this, both of their experiences of growing up are tainted because of what they are forced to endure. For instance, Hareton is uneducated and unable to read what he should be able to and the chimney sweepers’s health is negatively affected because by being a chimney sweeper, the children would damage their lungs and get diseases.