The Victorian realistic novel: The vexations of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens at an era of progress and dominance
The era from the enthrownment of Queen Victoria in 1837 to her death and the end of her reign in 1901, namely the Victorian era, was a time where great changes in society, economy and politics occurred in Britain, which shaped both Britain and the world as we know it today and of course impacted the literature of the time. (Wukovits, 2013, p.8) At a large scale, the literary work developed and published in the Victorian era moved away from the romantic and chivalry genre to the realistic genre, which is a mode of writing, which appears as if it is faithfully representing reality, presenting characters who are ordinary people set in unremarkable circumstances and ordinary environments and are struggling with social complexities in their environment. The Victorian realistic novel functions as a fictional microcosm where through the social struggle of these imaginary characters, the sociopolitical changes of the real Victorian society and their adverse effects are reported, imbued with the hope of the author that eventually the social issues they brought about will be resolved if they are brought to the light. (Moran, 2006, pp.19,20) This paper will present how the financial and industrial progress along with the political dominance of the British Empire inside of Britain and to the British colonies affected Charlotte Brontë in the writing of Jane Eyre and how the social adversities of industrialization affected Charles Dickens in the writing of Great Expectations.
Initially, what set the ground for sociological change in the Victorian Era was the Industrial Revolution, which had occurred beforehand. The natural resources of coal and cotton and the island geography of Britain, combined with the technological development in mainly textile production and transportation led to the industrial revolution in the years from 1780 to 1840. As a result, manual labour was replaced by machinery, providing multiple products at a faster pace and larger quantity. This progress led to greater prosperity and an increase in population and a vast majority of this increased population moved away from the countryside to the cities in search for jobs in the new thriving factories and coal mines. (O’Brien & Quinault,1993,pp54,55) This change altered the economic system of Victorian Britain to capitalistic. In a capitalistic economic system, the individuals who own some sort of means of production and make profits through the sales of goods and services and are free to reinvest these profits in stock, human force and new technologies with the view of making an even greater profit. (Lippit,2007, p.150)
But while the capitalistic economy ushered Britain to an era of prosperity, it allowed the social class which owned the new means of production, namely the bourgeoisie or the middle class to exploit the proletariat or the working class, which was the human force working for the bourgeoisie and producing the profit for them. (Berchaoua, 2014, p.22,23) Charles Dickens was especially concerned with the condition of the proletariat, because the members of this working class, including adults and children of all genders, were working extremely long hours to produce massive amounts of wealth for Britain, but they had enough financial power to survive. Moreover, they usually lived as families crowded in a single room and were working long hours in factories and usually under dangerous and unsanitary conditions, in order for their employers to save money on human force and were regarded as inferiors by the middle class. (Shihada,2017, p.43)
In Great Expectations the two protagonists Pip and Estella, along with the adoptive mother of Estella, Miss Havisham serve as agents for recording the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and its destructive consequences to the proletariat. Pip belongs in the family of a blacksmith and is destined to take on the same occupation, which makes him a proletarian and he is content with his occupation until his first meeting with Estella in the 8th chapter. (Persson,2011, p.9) In the 8th chapter Estella, who is a proletarian, since she has no actual biological connection to a bourgeoisie member and miss Havisham regards her more as tool than an actual family member, follows the advice of Miss Havisham, whose ownership of a brewery makes her a member of the bourgeoisie, to be scornful towards Pip, in order to crack his spirit and satisfy miss Havisham’s need to hurt men and mocks his occupation and his use of the non-standard variety: ‘ “He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!" said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. "And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!" ‘(Dickens, p.59)
After the 8th chapter, Pip wants to become a gentleman of the bourgeoisie to appeal to Estella, wasting the fortune he acquired later on in a lavish lifestyle until he went to debt without actually reaching Estella and Estella on the other hand, by blindly obeying miss Havisham, is raised emotionally deficient and rejects most eligible bachelors who propose to her, which leads her to an unfortunate and abusive marriage with Bentley Drummle. (Hetami,2009, pp.44,45) The two proletarians here act as symbols of the proletariat being used as a tool to satisfy the needs of the bourgeoisie, with adverse effects on the proletariat. (Rajput,2009, para 5)
At this point it is worth to note another factor which led Victorian Britain to this prosperity and this was the fact that Britain had begun claiming multiple territories outside of Europe since the 16th century and both took advantage of the natural resources and human power of these territories and engaged in trade with the natives and other European countries, making the trade and navy of Britain almost the most powerful in the world.(Brendon,2008, pp.xviii) This type of conquest is known as colonialization and involves the claiming and exploitation of territories outside of the national boundaries in order to exploit the geographical position and natural and human resources of the territory. (Gallaher,2009, p.116) Colonialization in Britain began with claiming North America and the West Indies and lasted up to 1997 when Hong Kong returned to the Chinese Sovereignty.(Brendon,2008, pp.xviii,636) One of the most notable conquests of England was Jamaica where the English had enslaved natives to farm and trade extremely profitable products such as sugar, cocoa and coffee and trading slaves which evolved into a lucrative business as well. But the enslaved natives were living and working under even worse conditions than the proletariat in Britain, usually under the threat of corporal punishment, which resulted in frequent revolts. One of the most prominent of the revolts was the Christmas Rebellion, where the slaves in Jamaica revolted in the 25th December in 1831 and destroyed several British properties. The revolt brought the attention of the British Government to the slavery issues and the trade of slaves was abolished in 1833. (Delle,2014, pp.106,144) Additionally, the British regarded the natives in the colonies as inferior, sinful and beastly and felt that as they were a civilized, educated and overall enlightened empire they were assigned by God the burden to civilize their inferior brothers and preach Christianity to them with the view that maybe they will save their souls. This attitude was later on dubbed as the ‘White man’s burden’ and initiated a number of expeditions by clergymen to teach Christianity with a view of ensuring a place in heaven for them too. (Andres, 2005, p.122)