Author Archives: Kristopher Bangsil

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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Romance vs Victorian Society

In Reuban Sachs, one of the elements of the plot I immediately noticed was the prevalence of romance and courtship. Much of the plot surrounds Reuben and Judith, and their relationship within both the conservative and insular Jewish community, and the wider London Victorian society. The use of courtship is something reoccurring in Victorian texts. In Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff and Catherine, and Great Expectations with Pip and Estella. Romance and love seem to be natural tools used to explore the limits of Victorian society, both in a general sense and more specifically within the texts (the Jewish community in Reuban Sachs, or class/money in Great Expectations).

What is specifically included in each of these texts is the concept of true love against societal expectations. When Reuban and Judith see each other again in Chapter 3, they immediately feel drawn to each other, “he heard and saw nothing but the sound of Leo’s violin, and the face of Judith Quixano” (pg 31). This is immediately followed in Chapter 4 by descriptions of societal expectations, how insular and difficult marriage was within the Jewish community and the talk of the pragmatic and financial portion of marriage and courtship.

Pip’s desire to improve his social standing to court Estella, and Heathcliff’s status at Wuthering Heights all force Victorian societal boundaries in relationships. Why use romantic relationships specifically to tackle these themes? Maybe they are areas specifically targeted towards younger members of Victorian society, and romance is one of the few driving things that could be influential enough to shake up these social rules for characters. I am curious to see how the rest of Reuban Sachs plays out and to see if the relationships within this novel play out the same way as Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations.

Violent Themes in Victorian Literature

In both of Wilde’s works, there are many dark themes surrounding loved ones. In much of the literature we have read, there has been many examples of inflicting violence acts against family members or those close. The descriptions of cutting and killing with a knifeBallad of Reading Gaol” reminded me of the early imagery of Catherine’s ghost in Wuthering Heights from a visual point of view, but also the later examples of violence between many family members throughout the novel. For example, when Hareton and Linton come into conflict, and Linton ends up bleeding from the nose. Blood is often used to show that a character has been visually injured, and is reoccurring. Through most of the Victorian Literature we have read, there has been a level violence and physical conflict, and it is rarely ever directed at an outsider. Most of the violence occurs within preexisting relationships.

Rising in Status

Once again, strong parallels can be formed between the central characters of Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations. In the content of this week’s chapters, this is most notable in Pip and Heathcliff’s rise in social class. Both have similar lowly backgrounds and rise through Victorian societies to positions of greater respect and value. Additionally, both seem to be motivated by both their upbringing, but also an external love, Catherine and Estella. The repetition of this plot device across both novels may give us insights into Victorian class and society.

One of the most crucial parallels between Heathcliff and Pip’s rise is in their purpose. Once again, both looked to better themselves in the eyes of Catherine or Estella. Both made a triumphant return to their hometown, after spending considerable time away to reinvent themselves. And both were disappointed when they returned, as all of their work to better their social standing did not completely award them with everything they looked to gain, much to their surprise.

This last parallel is of great interest to me. Both Bront and Dickens seem to suggest that Victorian society in the eyes of a commoner is a ladder. They believe that by climbing and raising themselves up, they will earn everything they look for, in this case, Catherine or Estella. However, while wealth and position are acquired by both Heathcliff and Pip, neither is able to completely win over their love. They are hyper-focused on rising through Victorian society, believing status alone is how they prove themselves. Still, Estelia and Catherine are not perfect parallels as characters, but the relationships they share with a young Pip and Heathcliff have strong similarities.

A Child’s Perspective

Pip is raised by his sister, who seems to be the dominant force in the household. This is humorously mentioned, whom Pip says that his sister perhaps married Joe “by hand”. I find it interesting that in the early chapters, Mrs. Joe Gargery seems to be the strongest character in Pips domestic life, rather than Joe. This contrasts greatly with Wuthering Heights, where the gender roles of the characters often times put the father figure as the stronger power. Pip seems to fear his sister, and even believes that Joe fears her too.

I wonder whether this is a quirk of Pip’s perceptions of his surrounding world, or a general result of having a narrative delivered from the first person of a younger character. Similar things can be seen with his interactions with the “young man”, who in the first two chapters Pip believes is a genuine force that could harm him if he does not follow the orders to retrieve the file. Even the early parts of Wuthering Heights where the characters are much younger are filtered to us from a separate adults perspective, where Great Expectations seems to be a more candid view of the character’s perspective.

Science, Religion, and Ambiguity

Of course, the most obvious and clear connection between all of the works is the progress of science, and how it conflicts with previously revered religious thought. Father and Son describe the resistance to this form of thought, even among the educated. In many ways, science and religion conflict directly, and one must be the “universal truth”. Perhaps the greatest and most groundbreaking example of this conflict comes in the form of Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species, where core tenets of religion were burned in favor of the new doctrine of scientific progress. The influences of science and religion often do cross, as described in Father and Son. The geography of the Earth conflicts with biblical writings in a concrete and quantifiable sense.

Yet, the existence of science and religion within the same realm is very possible. This is through the rise of another school of thought from this era, agnosticism. While agnosticism denies the concept of faith, it relies upon a strong principle that God cannot be proven or disproven. Areas of science reign supreme when they overlap with areas of faith, yet these discrepancies do not totally write off religion as a whole. The existence of science and religion within the Victorian Era opened up a culture of ambiguity.

Another connection that could be made here is back to many of the supernatural themes within Victorian Literature. Wuthering Heights leaves the supernatural nature of Catherine and Heathcliff to be ambiguous, up to the reader to decide if they truly are supernatural in nature. The reader is given no definitive proof if Catherine’s spirit truly does return, or if it is simply in the mind of the narrator.

Throughlines in Wuthering Heights

As the second half of the novel came to a close, I found it interesting how much of the second half mirrored the first. Similar themes such as marriage, complicated relationships, and familial lines all play a role in both the first and second half. Each generation within Wuthering Heights is almost like a mirror of the other, facing similar problems with similar characters (most glaring, of course, would be the two Catherines). Yet, the stories are not exactly alike. However, one through-line between both generations connects the two together, Heathcliff.

Of the initial conflict: Edgar, Catherine, and Heathcliff, Heathcliff lives the longest. As the plot continues, he becomes more sinister and more and more engulfed in his personal revenge, which creates the antagonist needed for the second Catherine. One of the most significant portions of the final chapters and Wuthering Heights as a whole is how he is buried, next to Catherine and Edgar, representing the eternity of this conflict.

Heathcliff is the single thread that persists through the entire novel, and his tale of revenge through both generations seems to be both the driving force of action behind everything that happens. Yet is reveals the changes between the two generations. His influence on those around him, from a position of no power to great power. The stark differences in the Catherines, their personalities and goals. How they react and respond to Heathcliff, as well as the rest of the cast of characters.

Along with Heathcliff comes his themes. The persistence of revenge and hatred, the ghosts of the past (sometimes literal). Fighting against him is love over pragmatism (often surrounding the Catherines), or civility to counteract has savagery.

Heathcliff pins the second part of Wuthering Heights together with the first, revealing the many ways it has persisted, but also showing the areas where it has changed.

Violence within Victorian Institutions

As the story continues, the most interesting character I find within Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff. The combination of Heathcliff’s unique upbringing, contrasted against the upper-class world of wealth within Victorian society makes him into a powerful antagonist. Additionally, at moments his cruelty stands out in a cast full of selfish figures. I found Heathcliff to represent figures of power within both “England in 1819”.

Heathcliff’s roots are not in the upper class, yet he has found himself there, reigning over Wuthering Heights. His weaponization of Victorian societal rules such as marriage and familial connection displays how oppressive this society truly was. In class, we discussed how there was “a large amount of violence” within Wuthering Heights. While there is a large amount of physical violence, particularly surrounding Heathcliff, the actions within the text that do the most lasting damage is his abuses of power within the “rules” of Victorian society. The opening lines of “England in 1819” brings up imagery that makes one think of Heathcliff and Linton.

“An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,

Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow’

Of course, the connection between a king and a prince. Additionally, Linton being sickly paints him to be a much less capable “dreg” than his father. But connecting Heathcliff and his son to positions of nobility highlights more concepts of upper-class society. Heathcliff uses his son as a tool to further his influence, pushing for a marriage that will simply further his means to revenge. Its an action of the political nobility, using his position of power at Wuthering Heights to gain more.

Heathcliff in many ways is a villain of two worlds. His roots contrast with his elevated upbringing later in life, yet he terrorizes those around him utilizing both. He physically fights those around him, but as he learns he realizes that he does lasting damage with the weapons of the upper class. The most damaging blows he did to Edgar were in his actions to marry Isabella, rather than the physical violence he inflicts. His most effective forms of violence against those he felt wronged him he learned within the Victorian world, utilizing methods of revenge that are more subtle and accepted.

I think another interesting element of this is when considering Heathcliff’s trajectory through the novel. His acts of physical violence are often cruel, but they mostly seem to come from situations of high tension or emotion. His slow and calculating plots in the second half of Wuthering Heights come from a Heathcliff immersed in the upper-class society. I suppose a question to consider is whether or not the rawer physical violence that seemed to always be with Heathcliff evolved into his actions later on in the story, or whether it was the culture itself that taught Heathcliff to abuse his power.

Children in the Victorian Social Climate

One of the most prevalent parts of the beginning of Wuthering Heights is in its usage of children. One of the most critical and strange scenes in the opening chapters is when Catherine’s ghost talks with Lockwood and laments over here past “twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!”. The concept of abandonment is a powerful aspect of this scene. Further, descriptions of the abuses within the complex familial history of Wuthering Heights are common. In particular, I found connections back to poems discussed in class such as The Chimney Sweeper. One of the strongest connections is obvious, Heathcliff’s origins as an orphan. The treatment of Catherine and a young Heathcliff by Hindley show a cruel and often unjust upbringing, reminding me of lines from the poem, ‘Who make up a heaven of our misery’. Another strong connection is in Chapter 3, where Catherine is forced to attend sermons. The influence of these sermons on youth brought my mind to the conversations held around religion in The Chimney Sweeper.

What I found to be important was the portrayal of children, especially orphans, from the perspective of Victorian writers. In the elevated social background of the family, the children are required to be educated and shaped. They attend sermons, are made to dress in suitable clothes, and Catherine, in particular, is educated to act “ladylike” in Chapter 7. The strict social conventions of the Victorian era are contrasted especially against young children. This is even more apparent with Heathcliff at his first arrival, an orphan. Early on, he is often described as dirty and is shaped by his environment as he ages.

What I hope to learn about Victorian Literature

I have read very little Victorian Literature, maybe even less so than many other students who are coming into this course with little experience. The only experience I have within this time period is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have touched very little of the works of the more famous Victorian writers. My primary goal of course is to learn as much as I can about this period of writing, and be able to hold my own in an academic discussion.

Beyond that more obvious goal, I wish to learn about the primary issues and problems faced by writers of the time. How were these issues solved or addressed, and are they reflected in modern society. The Victorian period was a period of scientific, social, and political revolution in many ways. How did these changes appear in the literature? Periods of great change always lead to great stories and great literature, usually both entertaining and enlightening.