Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli is considered a social novel or condition-of-England novel reflective of a period in the mid-nineteenth century where classes were in conflict over industrialization and the difference between the working classes and the upper classes. This novel is hyper-politicized, as can be demonstrated by the long sections of exposition covering party politics that occasionally break up the forward motion of the plot.
The main characters are Charles Egremont, member of parliament, and Sybil, a woman raised by someone from the working class. Much of the book talks about a perceived divide between the classes, often spoken of as a gulf where one side cannot understand or empathize with the other. For example, Sybil believes that she cannot love Charles because of their difference in station and life experience. Charles, however, is more optimistic, such as when he says:
“I was told,” continued Egremont, “that an impassable gulf divided the Rich from the Poor; I was told that the Privileged and the People formed Two Nations, governed by different laws, influenced by different manners, with no thoughts or sympathies in common; with an innate inability of mutual comprehension . . . "
This quote summarizes the commonly-held belief of a divide between classes that Charles is trying to act against. A stranger describes this same belief in similar wording earlier in the novel:
“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
“You speak of—” said Egremont, hesitatingly.
“THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
Another interesting fact about the novel is that it is placed firmly in Queen Victoria's reign, giving it a specific historical moment. The rise of a new monarch to power is also an aspect of change that society has to deal with in an already fast-changing world. The end of the first book describes Victoria becoming queen.
In a palace in a garden—not in a haughty keep, proud with the fame, but dark with the violence of ages; not in a regal pile, bright with the splendour, but soiled with the intrigues, of courts and factions—in a palace in a garden, meet scene for youth, and innocence, and beauty—came the voice that told the maiden she must ascend her throne!
As you can see here, the novel has a lot to say about the gender of the new queen and gender in general.
Additionally, religion has a role here as well. When talking about the poor people in cities, one character remarks the following to Charles:
It is their condition everywhere; but in cities that condition is aggravated. A density of population implies a severer struggle for existence, and a consequent repulsion of elements brought into too close contact. In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbour as ourself; modern society acknowledges no neighbour.
Religion is important in other parts of the novel as well, and Catholicism is occasionally mentioned as another dividing factor. For example, Charles first spots Sybil in ruins of a Catholic abbey:
The divine melody ceased; the elder stranger rose; the words were on the lips of Egremont, that would have asked some explanation of this sweet and holy mystery, when in the vacant and star-lit arch on which his glance was fixed, he beheld a female form. She was apparently in the habit of a Religious, yet scarcely could be a nun, for her veil, if indeed it were a veil, had fallen on her shoulders, and revealed her thick tresses of long fair hair. The blush of deep emotion lingered on a countenance, which though extremely young, was impressed with a character of almost divine majesty; while her dark eyes and long dark lashes, contrasting with the brightness of her complexion and the luxuriance of her radiant locks, combined to produce a beauty as rare as it is choice; and so strange, that Egremont might for a moment have been pardoned for believing her a seraph, that had lighted on this sphere, or the fair phantom of some saint haunting the sacred ruins of her desecrated fane.
Here Sybil is described using religious language and imagery, placing her on a pedestal as an innocent angelic figure.
These five quotes each speak to themes and ideologies that run throughout the novel, including the political divide between classes, the role of women, and the influence of religion.