Discuss the Victorian novel as a great social document.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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With the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the Victorian novel is extensive and varied in its reach as it became an instrument for social progress.

  • Social commentary and criticism

Many works point to the repression of women, the corruption of those in authority, and the plight of the poor. As the primary exemplar of this period, Charles Dickens, a prolific writer, often satirizes a frivolous aristocracy, and a climbing middle class that fauns to the upper class. With great poignancy, his criticism of society as a prison prevails in many of his works such as Great Expectations.  Another novel, Oliver Twist portrays the repression of women and conditions of the poor, especially children, along with other social ills. A contemporary of Dickens, William Makepeace Thakerey's biting satire of English corrupt and relentless social climbing is also a historical novel in its criticism. And, Oscar Wilde's social comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest also criticizes Victorian society.

The devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution are an underlying theme for many a Victorian writer such as Dickens, and later Thomas Hardy, who is viewed by some critics as a transitional writer into the Modern era, perceives the industrialization of the era as a force that diminishes the quality of life in the rural areas. 

  • Pessimism                                               

With the scientific discoveries of the era and the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, an overlying pessimism characterizes some Victorian novels such as those of Dickens and Hardy.  Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles has

an identification of Tess with a hunted animal and a Darwinian vision that takes Tess, much like a developing species, from formation, through adaptation, to ultimate extinction.

  • Questioning of certain religious orthodoxies

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depicts the destructive influence that utilitarian and Evangelical ideologies can have upon the lives of the Victorians. One critic writes,

In his complex characterization of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Edward Hyde, Stevenson presents a critique of middle-class Victorian society and its adoption of the tenets of these two movements.

  • Idealism

Despite its dark themes and satire, the Victorian novel often is idealistic as love, truth, and justice triumphs all. In Oliver Twist, the evil Fagin and brutal Bill Sikes go to their deaths and Oliver is reunited with his family.  Jane Eyre marries Mr. Rochester in the end; even poor Tess reunites with her beloved husband, who does not abandon her even in her crime.

  • A mixture of Romanticism and the Gothic

The novels of the Bronte sisters, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights mix the love story with the supernatural while also addresses the social situations of women.

  •  Colonialism and Imperalism

In the writings of Joseph Conrad, such as Heart of Darkness, there is a damning portrayal of imperialism as exploitation. Rudyard Kipling, whose novel "Kim" is set in India, exposes the insular society of England to the exotic land while yet presenting the reality of colonialism.

  • The education of children

With the education of children in this age, Victorian novels produced children's literature that possessed moralistic tones such as Kipling's Jungle Book and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty was the first work published that advocated for animal rights as she criticized the use of the bearing rein and the inhumane treatment of horses.

 

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