Author Archives: David Beyea

“Like a Bed of Oysters:” The Interconnectivity of Victorian Literature

I’ve always viewed Victorian literature as the space of snobbish literary pedants, what with all the focus on nigh-puritanical cultural inhibitions and cloying romantic dialogue. And no, this class has not completely changed this perception of mine, but it has given me some insight at least into the inner minds of those who wrote during the period. If I had read _Wuthering Heights_ without the proper context of Emily Bronte’s upbringing, I most likely would’ve perceived it as just another one of those ubiquitous-romantic-bildungsromans that make my mind swim and my eyes roll back into my skull (let’s just say that the lengthy passages focusing on the angst suffered by Cathy or Heathcliff or Catherine or were not my cup of tea). I would never have considered it was an analogy for Bronte’s angst about inter-English colonization, or the entrapment caused by religious and social roles. It’s not _just_ about the soap opera-esque romance plot.

Continuing that strain of thought, doing background research for my paper and for the presentation on Thomas Malthus were some of my favorite things to do. Having not known a ton about where capitalism actually came from, I was relatively unaware of the omnipresent Adam Smith, and it was fascinating reading about not only how he started the whole economic ideology, but how Malthus’ own policies grew out of them naturally. Come to think of it, a lot of the historical scenarios discussed in class were deeply imbued in the texts (but I guess that’s just the nature of studying literature; everything is a product of its time). I kept bringing in situations and context from my other class just because it was so fun to see how intertwined and centralized the world was becoming in this period. It’s a class that combined one part History with two parts English, and frankly, I think the context really helped flesh things out moreso than other English classes.

P.S. Lockwood was my favorite character in _Wuthering Heights_. Every passage from his perspective is absolutely hilarious. I think Bronte really nailed the haughty Southern London type, and I was disappointed that the majority of the novel was told from Nelly’s more subdued point of view.

How the “Other” Half(?) Lives

I swear, it’s almost as if there is some psychic connection linking the two syllabuses of these classes together, because today in my European Revolutions we talked about Antisemitism in the latter part of the 19th century — fitting considering how deeply entrenched in middle-class Jewish values Reuben Sachs seems to be. There has been much made in the works of the day about the seemingly great threat that Judaism posed to Western values. Meanwhile, the novel itself is disappointingly mundane; what is this intimate introspection on families and relationships of the Jewish community in the heart of Victorian London? As progressive as Dickens was in many aspects, Great Expectations is still rife with racially charged language and stereotypes of the Jewish population. Having done a bit of background research on the author of Reuben Sachs, Amy Levy, it is quite telling to compare the two representations of Jews in England, especially when one of them is an Old White Guy and the other an actual member of the community. While I don’t personally care about the plot of the novel, as I find it banal and quite unexciting compared to some of the other things we’ve read, it isn’t trying to set the world on fire. As a portrayal of a way of life, particularly for a marginalized and much oppressed community, its existence is valuable in and of itself.

The Transformative Power of Torture

On this week of “David connects this class with his other Revolutions of the 19th Century class,” David will once again connect this class with his other Revolutions of the 19th Century class! After my discussion about The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was written about five years before his imprisonment, it’s a bit eerie to read Wilde as being so deeply religious and spiritual in “De Profundis”, as Dorian Gray what was a fairly sardonic and cynical novel. As a gay man, no doubt he frequently contended with the notion of his homosexuality and of how it affected his status in nigh-puritanical Victorian England. I wonder then to what extent Wilde’s newfound spirituality was merely a result of severe emotional and physical repression during his imprisonment. With nothing else to turn to, it’s easy to surmise that he was desperate enough to turn to the same God that allegedly hated those like him in order to perhaps ease the suffering he felt. It makes me a little sad, is all.

The Picture of Philip Pirrip

So, like usual, I’m going to be an improper student and connect Great Expectations to an outside-of-the-class text. This time it’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I’m reading for my Europe in the Age of Revolutions class (which offers me a lot of historic/political context to the texts we’re reading). When Pip feels shame over the origin of his fortune stemming from Magwitch, a criminal, I could not help but think of Dorian Gray and his own upswing in “fortune” brought about by the introduction of portrait in his life. The portrait gives Dorian eternal youth, and merely at the cost of his humanity – and the deaths of several men and women who crossed his path. Pip feels the guilt, though none of the transpired events were his fault; Dorian has no such inhibitions, and in fact relishes in the new vitality that his mirror image has given him. In effect, both characters were given a new chance at life, a chance to rebirth themselves and experience life anew. Dorian, however, was tainted from the outset, as he was unable to empathize with anyone other than himself. Coincidentally, he also started as an aristocrat. Pip, on the other hand, began life as part of the disenfranchised working class. Dorian and Pip spend their days performing much of the same activities: absolutely nothing. Pip though commits only benign acts for the most part, simply happy to be flush with so much wealth and just buys material things. Dorian lives as a hedonist, following the advice of his friend Lord Henry. He drinks, whores, and drugs his way through the London underground even as he continues to hold the visage of a perfectly upright gentleman. Fundamentally, I think the reason for their difference in outlook is not because Pip started humble, or because Pip just naturally had a more developed sense of morality; humility and kindness can be taught. Rather, it is Dorian’s inability to accept the natural way of things: he will get older, he may get poorer, and he will be unable to accomplish everything life has to offer before he dies. Pip just seems to be happy to be along for the ride, and has not yet terribly exploited those around him (though his treatment of Joe I find frequently heartbreaking). I could see Pip becoming much like Dorian if he is unable to control his urges, and finds his new status on top of the hill somehow too sweet to lose. Perhaps his metaphorical portrait is his desire for Estella, something that can push him into forgoing his humanity in the pursuit of something unattainable.

Let’s just hope he won’t become a aristocratic vampire-lich; that role belongs to Miss Havisham.

Havisham and Heathcliff – The Spurned Lovers

After reading of Miss Havisham’s woeful backstory, I cannot help but be reminded of the other major relationship we’ve seen in a Victorian novel: that of Heathcliff and Cathy’s in Wuthering Heights. Havisham I find to be some sort of odd combination of mostly Heathcliff and Cathy as a character. As I noted in my blog post comment for Tuesday’s readings, Herbert notes that Havisham is like a Tartar – a racial minority. Similarly, Lockwood refers to Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned gipsy” in Chapter 1 of Wuthering Heights, and at several other points by others. Perhaps Havisham appears to be a normal, white English woman in appearance, but to the members of well-to-do English society, they are perceived in a similar light: as social others. Like Heathcliff, Havisham was spurned by a prospective lover, and left to simmer and fester in her own hate and apprehension. Both decided to concoct an elaborate plan to have their revenge (Heathcliff by taking ownership of both the estates, thereby wresting control of the entities used to harm him; Havisham by targeting men in general through plucking them out and deliberately trying to break their hearts like her’s was). Both are wealthy, with Heathcliff having acquired his wealth through manipulating Hindley and Havisham presumably having been born rich. Also, to bring in a comparison to Cathy, Havisham fell in love with a man of a lower social class — though unlike Cathy, seemingly she was unconcerned with how she was perceived by the populace as a whole.

To what purpose do I bring up these comparisons, however? Sure it’s neat that there are parallels between the characters, but how does this tie into any further motifs established by either novel? Well, from Wuthering Heights we can read intense class critiques from Bronte. None of the unfortunate happenings of the novel would have happened if not for social pressures influencing the characters into acting against their own self interest. Heathcliff essentially becomes the very sort of person he despised in his path to destroy them. Perhaps we will see a more gendered commentary from Dickens regarding Havisham’s position, and of how women were more susceptible to the whims of men. Is Havisham perhaps a proto-feminist character? I’m interested to see how Havisham and Heathcliff’s paths diverge or remain the same as we continue reading.

The Jingoism of Ideology

Something I noticed when reading Darwin’s and particularly Gosse’s piece is just how violently they frame the ideological “war” of the Victorian period. Gosse claims that in the academic landscape of the era, “It was becoming necessary to stand emphatically in one *army* or the other,” ( ¶ 2). He labels Lyell as a “great mover of men” and searching for a “bodyguard of sound and experienced naturalists”, and the reactionaries are described almost as rivals searching for an ideological bullet to fire back ( ¶ 3¶ 4 ). Could this just be creatively constructed language used to make the debate between ideologies sound more dynamic? Perhaps, but it reminds me greatly of what Carlyle’s clothes arguments in Sartor Resartus warned about. To Carlyle, ideology is like a suit; it must repeatedly be changed in order for the society to remain clean and orderly. People cannot just patch up old suits because that would lead to a stagnant society, nor can they forgo suits altogether, as that would lead to the destruction of social order. Informed by the French Revolution, I do not doubt that Carlyle was very afraid that the same type of bloody ideological warfare that broke out in France was capable of repeating itself in Britain. I wonder then how he would react to the type of of scientific debates that Gosse describes. Would he have seen the lively debate as the process of merely replacing the suit, or would he have seen it as possible evidence of the same type of anarchy he worried so strongly about?

“I have to remind myself to breathe — almost to remind my heart to beat!”: The Lovable Drama of the Romantic Revolution

So I’m going to use this opportunity in my blog post to perhaps make a connection to some outside of class research I’ve done (but don’t worry, it’s not completely tangential). Recently in my History of European Revolutions class, we’ve been discussing the Romantic Revolution and I’ve found it very useful in understanding the literary context of Wuthering Heights. When people express frustration at the lack of rational decision making and extremely dramatic, emotional characters, it’s important to realize that European art as a whole was undergoing deep structural change. The Romantic Revolution is more like a counter-revolution (at least in my eyes), where many artists expressed growing disillusionment with the purely rational ideas of the Enlightenment. The new scientific and mathematical discoveries may have “illuminated” the people of the world, but to many of those with more romantic dreams, these cold truths were not very comforting. As the author of The Romantic Revolution claims, “A universe in which God had been demoted to the role of primal clock maker seemed to be a chilly place,” (Blanning 170). Artists wanted some catharsis, they wanted mystery, they wanted romance, they wanted to feel. Heathcliff is the perfect example of a Romantic hero, not because he actually performs heroic deeds, but because his actions were deeply founded on whatever emotions he felt at the time. He feels anger, and decides to completely ruin Hindley’s life; he feels love, and is obsessed with Catherine for the rest of his life. The Romantic-era authors idealized characters like Heathcliff because they were “true” to themselves, and the whole tragic end/doomed romance of his character serves as the ultimate cherry on top of his moody sundae. I can go further into discussing how the Romantic Revolution relates to Wuthering Heights but I’ll refrain from doing so. This was mostly me testing the waters with a brief exploration of Emily Bronte’s literary contemporaries. Dr. Schacht can feel free to slap my wrist for going a bit against our goals

Princes, the dregs of their dull race…

Poor Linton. And Hareton. And Catherine, for that matter. All have fallen victim to the vacuous pit of Wuthering Heights. But can they really be blamed for their frequently petty actions, especially given the toxic environments they have grown up in? Linton and Hareton both should be fine and educated gentlemen, the cream of the crop of the landed gentry — yet Heathcliff, due to his own notions of insecurity and vengeance, refuses to allow them to thrive. They, such as the princes of Shelley’s “England in 1819”, have became “the dregs of their dull race who flow through public scorn”. Linton and Hareton both attempt to impress the young Catherine, as she is quite literally the only “public” they have to show off to, and yet their attempts to do so are met with scorn. When coming upon an inscription of his name at Wuthering Heights, Hareton exclaims pathetically “Miss Catherine! I can read yon, now,”, though when pressed by Nelly to give the date listed next to his name, he is unable to. During Nelly’s cruel mirth afterwards, she notes that a “grin hover[ed] about his lips, and a scowl gather[ed] over his eyes, as if uncertain whether he might not join in my mirth… it really was contempt… He imagined himself to be as accomplished as Linton… because he could spell his own name,” (Chapter 24). Nelly is being a bit obtuse here, as she is not noticing the structural inability for Hareton to actually learn anything because of Heathcliff’s interference.

Linton is similarly maligned, though in a different fashion. He is petulant, bratty, and entitled, most likely due to his higher-class education and adolescence in London. I suppose the question then is, who is to blame for the childrens’ shortcomings? The easy answer is Heathcliff, and yes, he is mostly at fault, the “mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king” to this whole affair. But I don’t think that Bronte was attempting to establish Heathcliff as an outright villain. Earlier in the book, he was the dreglike “prince” under a despised “king” (Hindley). This is not just an issue with individuals, but the pressing weight of systematic exploitation and mistreatment throughout the generations due to jealousy and hatred of the “other”. The conflicts of Wuthering Heights, like those of “England in 1819”, are not meant to be viewed in a person-to-person basis, but as a failure of the society that raised them. And, while I have not yet finished the book, I have the strangest feeling that the ending is not a happy one, and that the cycle of perpetual mistreatment and awful romances born from stymied emotions will yet continue. Perhaps, though, like Shelley’s “glorious Phantom”, the constant death and misery eventually will cause a burst of inspiration within those who remain to learn from their experiences, to abandon the toxic mentalities that lead to all of the suffering to begin with.

But I think not.

Where Have All the Children Gone?

During our class on Thursday when we discussed the plight of English children in the Victorian age (particularly in “The Cry of the Children” and “The Chimney Sweeper”), the overarching concept came up of the younger generation having lost their innocence through the exploitation of their labor. Browning’s series of springlike imagery in “Crycontrasts the bitter weeping of the children, who apparently are not engaging in the practices of youth. Rather, as both poems establish, the children are forced to work in the mines and factories of the new industrial era. Blake establishes in “Sweeper” that the parents are hypocritically praising God as their children are slaving away to the system they mindlessly support.

I find the situation of Heathcliff, Cathy, Nelly, and Hindley in the flashbacks of Wuthering Heights to be somewhat reminiscent of the plight of these Victorian children. In Chapter 6, Nelly describes the master as being “entirely negligent how they behaved”, and as such they preferred to “run away to the moors… and remain there all day”(¶5). The children, specifically Cathy and Heathcliff, are acting their age and living a playful life, as Browning would no doubt promote. Their return to the house and to society causes their reprimanding and regular beating by Joseph and the curate (i.e. the church). Interestingly, Nelly frames this in a somewhat negative light, as they are described as growing “more reckless daily”. So, in effect, the wildness of the children is caused by their alienation by the rules that try and keep them disciplined and contained so that they may be better controlled. This seems to somewhat parallel the themes established in the poems of children’s exploitation by the Victorian society; though, it differs in Nelly’s negative portrayal. It is as if to imply that the Victorian practices of dealing with their children will cause them to be so inundated by toxic ideals they will abandon the proper English society they are meant to. In effect, an English education serves to destroy the English ideals in the younger generation.

“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness”

It is interesting to note that Martineau, much like Carlyle, uses the symbolism of clothes and livery to help establish their points about those with power and those without. Martineau mentions that the “kings of Europe” would have found it amusing to have commoners “without robes, crown, or sceptre, stepping into the throne of a strong nation” (Martineau ¶ 22). She also mentions how “images of women on wool-sacks” are used as if to mock how women express their power and interests. Clearly, while the textile industries were the industrial push that launched Britain into becoming a commercial powerhouse, the idea of them as connected to the actual state of the Empire was somewhat… shameful? It seems as though Carlyle’s clothes metaphor, where social order is like a suit that needs to be refitted every once in a while, extended beyond his own personal thoughts. Martineau’s mentioning of textiles is purely in a have/have not sense, where the royals have the robes crown and sceptre and the women have nothing but woolen sacks. Common clothes were shameful, fine clothes were a blessing.