On the basis of the works of Beowulf, Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, and Heart of Darkness, what view does English literature offer on the progress of civilization?
English literature reflects the view that civilization has declined in its morality over the centuries, even as it's made progress technologically. In Beowulf (written down around 1000 CE), the noble Hrothgar and his well-kept and cheery hall are the only bright spots of civilization in a world that is menaced by monsters like Grendel and hemmed in by darkness. Only the mead-hall where Hrothgar and his community dwell is pleasant because it is a beacon of civilization; the rest of the world is dark and dismal.
Paradise Lost (published in 1667) explains the fall of man that forever tainted civilization. While Adam and Eve were born perfect in God's image, Satan in the form of a serpent duped Eve into tasting fruit from the tree of knowledge. While her hasty decision gave humans more knowledge and perhaps the means to construct a more advanced civilization, humans were forever corrupted. In this epic, civilization is linked to the downfall of man. Human advancement can only be seen as an extension of their corruption.
Gulliver's Travels, published in 1726, is a critique of civilization and its advancement of science. For example, on the island of Laputa, the people work to advance science but can't figure out how to do so with any effective results. They ridiculously devote themselves to experiments such as turning marble into pillows and other pointless efforts that poke fun at the use of science to better society. No matter where Gulliver travels, or what the society is like in that place, it is inherently foolish. Therefore, there is no form of society that is ideal.
Finally, in Heart of Darkness, civilization is totally corrupted. The ivory company that controls the Congo uses technology, such as steamships and guns, to slaughter the local people and extract ivory to make themselves rich. There is nothing redeeming or noble about their technological superiority over the local people. Conrad, who published this novella in 1899, suggests that civilization is bent on evil.