Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature
Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature
The subject of death and descriptions of deathbed scenes are nearly ubiquitous in nineteenth century British literature. Authors worked in an environment in which death was practically everywhere. Mortality rates were high among the young. One hundred and fifty out of every thousand births resulted in death for the newborn. Mortality rates were also high in urban areas. Massive migrations from farms to cities (with some cities doubling in population in just a few decades) were caused by the use of the steam engine and by the rise of industrialization in general in the early nineteenth century. And this rapid increase in urban population was attended by poor living conditions. Untreated sewage was dumped into the same water supplies used for drinking; severe overcrowding was the norm; and diseases spread easily in an environment of filthy living quarters, fume-filled workplaces, and graveyards that reeked of decaying flesh. Furthermore, since all but the penniless died at home, there was little separation of the living and the dying. Deathbed scenes and the final actions and words of the dying were commonly witnessed and then reported to fascinated listeners. The funerals that followed were not only a religious but also a social necessity—to maintain respectability, and sometimes even to advance the status of the departed in the society of the living. Indeed, a significant portion of Britain's economy involved funerals and mourning—it has been estimated that a third of the money deposited in banks was saved to pay for funerals. Many workers paid a percentage of their weekly wages in subscription to ensure proper burials eventually for themselves and their loved ones. This preoccupation with and exposure to death impacted the literature of the time.
Authors found death to be an important and versatile device in their works. Frequently death was used to reveal the moral character of the dying. How a person lived was reflected in how that person died: a good person would most likely die peacefully, a bad person painfully (or full of regret for a life not lived in the proper manner). And such deathbed scenes could serve as moral instruction on the right way to live. Charles Dickens, one of the most popular nineteenth century authors, typically used death scenes as representations of the final moral worth of the dying. For example, Quilp, in The Old Curiosity Shop, is seen suffering in his drowning, a just punishment for his wicked deeds. In contrast, Little Nell Trent, also in The Old Curiosity Shop, dies without a complaint, and her passing away is compared to a sunset. The death of Little Nell's grandfather from a broken heart just days after the death of Little Nell shows not only the character of the grandfather but also the worth of Little Nell. In general, children in nineteenth century novels represent innocence, and when they die, they are freed from living a hard life of toil and can be expected to go to a better world. Dickens, in the person of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, also showed how a person can find solace even while laying down his life. As Carton goes to the guillotine in the place of another, he utters these famous words: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." Dickens, among others, also used deathbed scenes as settings for repentance. It was never too late to repent, and those who did, even though they were near death, as in the case of Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son, died peacefully. However, as John R. Reed points out, there were reactions against conventional deathbed scenes. For example, Middlemarch by George Eliot describes a death in an unprettified manner. Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy portrays Giles Winterborne dying realistically without fanfare, and Jude the Obscure, also by Hardy, shows Jude dying bitterly, unobserved by people outside celebrating a festival. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë tells how the death of Mr. Rochester's wife allows two lovers to unite. And finally, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë shows how Heathcliff's obsession with Cathy Earnshaw persists even beyond her death, lasting until Heathcliff's own death.
Some critics consider the emphasis on death in nineteenth century British literature as simply a reflection of the realities of the time, as a warning that conditions must be improved, or as a means of providing moral instruction for the reader. However, Carol Hanbery MacKay suggests that certain descriptions of death illustrate the sublimation of sexual impulses and the influence of Victorian public morals. In addition, feminist scholars have explored other kinds of death including the social death that women can experience while living in a sexist society. For example, Beth Ann Bassein argues that the accidental death of Maggie in a George Eliot novel promotes the negation of the achievements and abilities of women. Elisabeth Bronfen, on the other hand, examines the process of the representation of a woman's death, the return of the woman from death as a revenant, and the detecting of the woman's secret truth, which brings about the second and final death of the woman. Still other scholars have been interested in studying aspects of life beyond death. Benjamin P. Kurtz traces the development in the thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley from a philosophy of materialism to a belief in the immortality of the spirit. And finally, Edward T. Hurley finds in the writings of George Eliot an emphasis on immortality through the family rather than on immortality for the individual through the intervention of God.
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Shirley (novel) 1849
Villette (novel) 1853
Wuthering Heights (novel) 1847
"My Last Duchess" (poem) 1842
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church" (poem) 1845
The Ring and the Book (poem) 1869
The Woman in White (novel) 1859-60
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
Dombey and Son (novel) 1848
David Copperfield (novel) 1850
A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859
Great Expectations (novel) 1860
The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860
Middlemarch (novel) 1871-72
Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876
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John R. Reed (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Deathbeds," in Victorian Conventions, Ohio University Press, 1975, pp. 156-71.
[In the following essay, Reed overviews of Victorian attitudes toward death and describes assorted uses of deathbed scenes in literature, including that of moral instruction for the reader.]
Attitude Toward Dying
E. M. Forster observed that the Victorians had a strong affection for deathbeds,1 and Elizabeth Longford in her biography of Victoria explained that "Frank interest in death-bed scenes was quite normal. Partly because Victorians cared passionately about religion, the moment of passing from this world to the next was not one to be hushed up. Only paupers died in hospital so opportunities for study were plentiful." She adds that "The young Victoria collected from Queen Adelaide the 'painfully interesting details of the King's last illness'."2 J. F. Stephen was among those critics of the literature of his time who felt that deathbed scenes were abused, especially by a writer such as Dickens.3 But on the whole deathbed scenes were common in Victorian literature because they were an important practical and moral feature of life. "The fetish of deep family mourning was encouraged by the tradesmen concerned; but it was also one of the most strongly entrenched customs of the age. Mourning the dead is an...
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Responses To Death
Fred Kaplan (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Are You Sentimental?" in Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp.39-70.
[In the excerpt below, Kaplan contends that Charles Dickens' depictions of death were deliberately sentimental so as to arouse and encourage the public's sense of morality.]
.. . In his depiction of the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey, Dickens dramatizes his belief in the innate moral sentiments and in sentimentality as morally instructive. "Yet nothing teacheth like death," one of Dickens' predecessors, whose works he owned, preached. William Dodd's widely read Reflections on Death (1763) is representative of hundreds of similar volumes whose depiction and evaluation of death the Victorians read. Dickens would have agreed with Dodd that
it is too commonly found, that a familiarity with death, and a frequent recurrency of funerals, graces, and church-yards, serve to harden rather than humanize the mind, and deaden rather than excite those becoming reflections which such objects seem calculated to produce. Hence the physician enters, without the least emotion, the gloomy chambers of expiring life; the undertaker handles, without concern, the clay-cold limbs; and the sexton whistles unappalled, while the spade casts forth from the earth the mingled bones and dust of his...
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Elisabeth Bronfen (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Necromancy, or Closing the Crack on the Gravestone," in Over Her Dead Body: Death, Feminity, and the Aesthetic, Manchester University Press, 1992, pp. 291-323.
[In the following excerpt, focusing on Wilkie Collins ' The Woman in White and Emily Brontë 's Wuthering Heights, Bronfen explores how the disrupting presence of the revenant—one who returns from death—poses questions concerning identity and the nature of death.]
If we could be sure of the difference between the determinable and the undeterminable, the undeterminable would be comprehended within the determinable. What is undecidable is whether a thing is decidable or not. Barbara Johnson
Certainly one of the more perturbing Victorian examples of the interstice between feminine speech and death is Robert Browning's poetic rendition of the Roman trial and execution in 1698 of Guido Franchescini, The Ring and the Book (1869). The accused nobleman had stabbed his wife's adoptive mother and father and then inflicted twenty-two dagger wounds on his wife Pompilia herself, five of them deadly. He claimed she had committed adultery with the priest Caponsacchi, who had assisted her in her unsuccessful flight from his house eight months earlier. The Roman court had allowed Pompilia to return to...
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Striving For Immortality
Edward T. Hurley (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Death and Immortality: George Eliot's Solution," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, September, 1969, pp. 222-6.
[In the following essay, Hurley contends that George Eliot's characters seek immortality through the family rather than through religion.]
If the novelist seeks to explain life, one of the things he must also explain is death. The question of life is, how am I to satisfy my desire to live? Given a historical realization of death, the desire to live must somehow accommodate the challenge that apparently ends that life and frustrates the desire. Thus each change in man's explanation of life has been accompanied by a change in his explanation of death, and each literature has its distinctive approach to death as well as to life.1 No literary period since the Elizabethan had its inherited explanation of life challenged so profoundly as the Victorian, and it is natural that its later and more intellectual novelists should reflect the unrest in seeking to face anew the problem of life through the solution to the problem of death. George Eliot furnishes a notable example.
Writing in 1848 Elizabeth Gaskell had ended Mary Barton with a Christian reconciliation between the working class (John Barton) and the capitalist employer (Mr. Carson). In the spirit of Christ Mr. Carson forgives the...
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Bassein, Beth Ann. "Adultery and Death: Clarissa, Emma, Maggie, Anna, Tess, Edna." In Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature, pp. 58-127. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Faults George Eliot's expediency in The Mill on the Floss in having Maggie die an accidental death, an ending deemed damaging to women readers seeking inspiration and hope in characters.
Bewell, Alan. "The History of Death." In his Wordsworth and the Enlightenment: Nature, Man, and Society in the Experimental Poetry, pp. 187-234. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Contrasts William Wordsworth's writings on death with Enlightenment thought on the subject and examines Wordsworth's views on immortality and the origins of burial.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. "Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation." In Death and Representation, pp. 103-29. Edited by Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Explores resurrection in Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia."
Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Detroit: The Partridge Press, 1972, 222 p.
Includes a discussion about Victorian views on death in addition...
(The entire section is 465 words.)