Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature Introduction - Essay


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.