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In "The Cry of the Children" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how does the stanza on little Alice use literary techniques to help shape shifts in societal and theoretical attitudes in the Victorian Era?

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In the poem "The Cry of the Children" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the stanza focusing on little Alice employs poignant literary techniques to underscore the grim realities faced by children during the Victorian era, as well as to critique the societal and industrial attitudes of the time.

  1. Imagery and Symbolism: The imagery of Alice's grave "shapen like a snowball, in the rime" evokes a sense of purity and innocence, typical of a child, yet juxtaposed with the coldness and harshness of death. Snow, being transient and delicate, symbolizes the fragile and fleeting lives of children during this period, especially those laboring in oppressive conditions.

  2. Irony: There is a deep irony in the children's statement that "It is good when it happens, that we die before our time!" This line starkly contrasts the natural desire for a long, fulfilling life, highlighting the desperation and hopelessness ingrained in the lives of laboring children. It suggests that death might be a relief from the unbearable suffering of their daily existence, a chilling indictment of societal norms that allowed such conditions.

  3. Metaphor and Personification: The poem personifies death as a kind of merciful escape, where Alice is "lulled and stilled" by the "kirk-chime." This use of metaphor suggests a peaceful rest, contrasting sharply with the probable turmoil and pain of her earthly life. It also reflects the societal disconnect, where the theoretical Christian morality of the time (represented by the church chimes) is starkly at odds with the actual treatment of vulnerable populations.

  4. Tone and Mood: The tone of this stanza is mournful and somber, yet there's a subtle accusatory undertone directed at the societal acceptance of child labor and the resulting premature deaths. The mood helps shift societal and theoretical attitudes by invoking empathy and moral outrage from the reader, challenging them to question the status quo of the Victorian era.

  5. Diction: The choice of words like "shapen," "rime," and "stilled" adds to the solemnity of the stanza. The archaic and formal language enhances the sense of historical context and the seriousness of the issues addressed.

Through these literary techniques, Elizabeth Barrett Browning not only paints a vivid picture of the tragic life and death of little Alice but also uses her as a symbol to critique and provoke a shift in societal attitudes towards child labor and the broader industrial exploitation prevalent in the Victorian era. The poem serves as a powerful call to acknowledge and rectify the injustices inflicted upon children, urging a theoretical and practical reevaluation of existing social norms and policies.

Expert Answers

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The response generated is correct. The poet describes Little Alice’s sad life and uses it to criticize Victorian attitudes towards child labor. Another Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, wrote extensively about child labor and the deplorable conditions many children faced. His novel Oliver Twist was published about five years earlier.

There was no legal framework to protect children and they were often exploited, just as adult workers were. The 1834 Poor Law system placed the impoverished, including children, in workhouses, while rapid industrialization led to a growing need for coal. Coal mining used child laborers such as Alice and conditions were terrible. Using irony, the poet condemns their condition.

“Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers

In our happy Fatherland”

Victorian England is not happy for these children and others who work under such conditions for meager pay. The children welcome death as a means of escaping their horrible lives. Little Alice’s

grave is shapen Like a snowball

The generated answer notes correctly that this image evokes a sense of purity and innocence contrasted against the cold harshness of death and fragility of life. It also conjures the smallness of the child, as a snowball is tiny. It could also reflect the hunger that Little Alice and others faced, which constrained their physical growth. The children

... look up for God, but tears have made us blind."

They look to G-d for help but they do not see G-d through their heavy tears and G-d does not see them either. "G-d" is used seven times in the poem, as if to ask how could G-d allow such conditions to exist. This also points to the hypocrisy the poet sees in Victorian society where a Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, published four years later, could pretend to care for the welfare of children, but force harsh conditions upon them.

The children think "it (dying before one's time) is good when it happens." They picture Little Alice never crying as they cry and with a timeless smile. She has escaped their drudgery and in death has time to be merry:

"For the smile has time for growing in her eyes

And merry go her moments, lulled…

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