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The industrial revolution has widened the gap between the rich and the poor like never before in the Victorian era (1830-1900). The literature of the time reflected the growing disparity in the society. Novelists like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell took up this theme of social disparity to portray the society of the time.
Wilde’s short story "The Model Millionaire" represents the social strata of Victorian society in a lighter tone. There’s Baron Hausberg, a millionaire, clearly a product of industrialization, who has got so much of money that if he's pleased by somebody, he wouldn't mind gifting him 10,000 pounds.
Then there’s this beggar who is at the center of the story. Although he turns out to be the millionaire Baron Hausberg himself, his pitiable state doesn't fail to elicit readers’ pathos. He is a grim reminder of the appalling social condition of those who failed to reap the benefits of commercial expansion in this period.
Our happy-go-lucky protagonist, Hughie Erskine, and his artist friend, Alan Trevor, are representatives of the middle class that grew to constitute the largest section of the society. The duo’s happiness is directly dependent upon the mercy of their patron Hausberg.
Thus the theme of class consciousness, a chief characteristic of Victorian literature, runs through Wilde’s story.
Another important feature of the Victorian literature was its growing concern for morality. Virtuous characters often coming from humble backgrounds emerge triumphant in the end. In this way, the Victorian writers would often show human values overpowering the strength of material wealth.
Hughie Erskine is an unemployed youth who was “nothing” but “a delightful, ineffectual young man with a perfect profile and no profession.” He “lived on two hundred a year that an old aunt allowed him.”
Hughie may not be rich, but he is compassionate. His heart goes out to the “forlorn and wretched” looking "wizened old" beggar and he searches his pocket to give him something. He finds a sovereign and few copper coins. If he parts with the sovereign he has to travel on foot for a fortnight. He thinks "he wants it more than I do,” and gives him the only sovereign he’s got.
At the end, his good deed is rewarded when the beggar, who is none other Hausberg, gifts him a hefty sum of 10,000 pounds. This is the sum that he needs to marry his love Laura.
The Victorian era was also marked by rapid colonization of underdeveloped countries. Laura’s father is a retired colonel who was once posted in the British colony of India. There’s a passing reference to India when Laura is introduced as “the daughter of a retired Colonel who had lost his temper and his digestion in India, and had never found either of them again.”
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