Tag Archives: victorian literature

Heathcliff’s Relation to Lower-Class Victorian Children

While reading chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights, a passage describing Heathcliff stood out to me. The narrator states that he had “been a stranger in the house from last Sunday till to-day.  Whether the angels have fed him, or his kin beneath, I cannot tell; but he has not eaten a meal with us for nearly a week.” As soon as I read this passage, I was reminded that Heathcliff was an orphan as a child. During the Victorian Era, many orphans were considered strangers in households since they did not have families or homes of their own. A good example of this can be found in chapter 4 when the orphan was brought into the Earnshaw household. The boy, who was referred to as “it,” was not even offered a comfortable place to sleep because of his social standing. This is how the upper-class treated orphans, including Heathcliff when he was a boy. This is sad given that most lower-class children would slave away all day just to survive. Through the voice of a child in The Cry of the Children, it was stated that “all day, we drive the wheels of iron in the factories, round and round.” These children were probably exhausted after a long day of work, but unfortunately, many of them did not even have a bed to go home to. Many upper class people from the Victorian Era did not understand this. Sadly, this caused them to refuse to help children who had nothing. This is a major reason there was such a significant class divide at the time. Chapter 17 also claimed that Heathcliff had been “praying like a Methodist” in his chamber. As seen in The Cry of Children, it was common for less fortunate children to pray in hopes that God would “bless them another day.” Since they were faced with so many struggles, religion tended to be the only aspect of their life that offered them hope. Religion was probably a large part of Heathcliff’s life as a child and he seemingly never stopped having strong religious values. Even though Heathcliff lived in a nice household as an adult, he began his life as an orphan who had nothing and he never forgot about that.

The Struggles of Poor Victorian Children

While reading Wuthering Heights, my heart ached for the child who was taken in by the Earnshaw’s. He was heavily mistreated by the family because of the way he looked and his position in society. As the evening approached, the family refused to allow the boy in their rooms even though he was alone and looking for a welcoming place to sleep. They referred to the boy as “it” and “put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow.” This shows that their hearts were cold towards the child, even though he was probably feeling vulnerable. In an attempt to find a place of comfort, the boy snuck into “Mr. Earnshaw’s room.” This action led him to get kicked out of their house. After his short stay with the family, he was alone and on the streets once again. The way they treated the boy was inhumane. Sadly, they probably did not see anything wrong with their actions because it was acceptable to treat people from different social classes badl. Unfortunately, this mentality was also apparent in The Chimney Sweeper.

The Chimney Sweeper represents how some lower-class children felt during the Victorian Era. They often had to work strenuous jobs just to survive. Even though they were so young and helpless, other citizens did not help them because they appeared to be happy. Sadly, they were left to fend for themselves, causing them to get clothed “in the clothes of death.” This meant that they were destined for a short lifespan. In a way, it also meant that they would never become successful because of their social standing. Just like the family in Wuthering Heights, the Victorian Era upper-class assumed that they had done the poor children no harm. However, this was far from the truth. The children were forced to fend for themselves and work at a young age. Had the upper class offered a helping hand to these children, they would not have had to face harmful work environments or worry about what the future held. The class divide during the Victorian Era was quite apparent and it cause the lower class to suffer immensely.

Image result for the chimney sweeper

“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.

Equality In Victorian Literature

Equality in society seemed to be a contradicting concept during the time of Victorian literature. Concerning this, I found two passages that related to the idea of freedom during the nineteenth-century. On the one hand, some people believed that everyone in society deserved equality. While on the other hand, some people thought that if everyone was equal and comfortable, life’s pleasures would not be appreciated. Although these concepts were written during the Victorian era, they are still relevant today. 

As made clear in Society in America, Harriet Martineau believed that all people deserved to be treated equally. Her reasoning for this belief is different, yet it makes sense. She stated that “no person’s interests can be, or can be ascertained to be, identical with those of any other person.” Since we are all individuals, there is no way that we can all act or look the same. However, we should not be treated differently because of this. Interestingly, this belief is still shared by many people today. The fact that we’re all human beings should justify the fact that we all deserve equality. Sadly, this is not the case since some people feel as though our differences divide us too much to make equality a reality.

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he makes it clear that his stance on equality was a bit different than Martineau’s. In a way, he seemed to question equality for everyone. Rather than completely disagreeing with the concept, he said that if everyone “were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life” would cease to be pleasures. He believed that if everyone knew what it was like to be equal and comfortable at all times, they would not understand what it would feel like to find pleasure in life after struggling. Although I can understand his point of view, I don’t necessarily agree with it. Are certain comforts worth not knowing what it feels like to be free? In my opinion, they’re not. People should not have to sacrifice equality for comfort. It should be a right, not something that has to be fought for. 

These passages both represent the two viewpoints relating to freedom and equality during the Victorian era. Even though they were both written during the same century, both authors had differing opinions on the matter. While Martineau thought that freedom should be an automatic right, Mill felt like people should have to work towards equality. What I find most interesting is that these two opinions are still a part of our society. It causes me to wonder if equality for all will ever be agreed upon. While everyone has the right to think what they want to about equality, nobody should have the right to take someone’s freedom away. 

What I Hope to Learn This Semester

So I’m going to elaborate upon my earlier-stated desire of what to learn in this class (that being as to whether or not the writers of the Victorian era ever expressed any guilt or apprehension over their exploitation of different cultures and their resources). The reason for my curiosity is the distinct lack of self-awareness in the previous centuries of European existence over the conquering of others and unchecked usage of resources. Of course the vast majority of civilizations over the globe did this as well, but seeing as how the Europeans emerged as the dominant global force after the middle ages, they are held under higher scrutiny. So, at a period when standards of living, inter-connectivity between cultures, education, and availability of resources were all higher than ever, I wonder if Victorians ever really wondered the true price of their elevation. Great Britain controlled a quarter of the world, and most of the resources were stripped away to support maybe 5% at most of the population living in Britain proper. Up to this point, it was seen as normal for populations to be enslaved by the conquerors and their resources taken for the “greater good” of the entity, be that a monarch, a nation-state, or some other powerful force; that’s just how things worked. Was it in the Victorian age that some finally grew a conscience and started to question if their actions were worth it?

Note: (I am aware of the “White Man’s Burden” narrative justifying the actions, which leads me to believe that they had to justify it to someone).

What I Hope to Learn About Victorian Literature

During my time as an English major, I have read several pieces of Victorian Literature, but I have never learned about the characteristics of the subject. While carefully reading different works this semester, I would like to learn more about women and science in relation to Victorian Literature.

I have always been interested in the ways women are depicted during different points in history. When it comes to Victorian Literature, I would like to learn more about the female authors of the time. Were their works respected by members of society? Were there a lot of successful female authors during the period? In the past, I have only learned about the Brontë Sisters, but I am sure that there are plenty of other influential female authors who would be interesting to study. I would also like to learn more about the way female characters were depicted in novels from the time period. It would be interesting to see if they were depicted differently by male and female authors. It would also be worth seeing if they were portrayed any differently in novels from earlier periods. The topic of women in literature has always interested me, so I would love to learn about their relationship with Victorian Literature.

Another thing I am interested in learning about is the relationship between Victorian Literature and science. From 1837-1901, there were plenty of scientific revolutions that occurred. For example, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution which altered the way many people viewed the world around them. People began to recognize that science played a bigger role in our lives than they had previously realized. Also, technologies such as telephones and modern automobiles were invented during the Victorian Era. I think it would be interesting to see if these technologies were incorporated in the pieces we will be studying this semester.

I look forward to taking this class, especially since there are so many pieces of Victorian Literature that I have never studied before. Even though these two topics are what I am most interested in, I am excited to gain a better understanding of other themes from the period as well.