Class, Social, and Gender Conditions in the Victorian Era
The Victorian era was period in the history of the United Kingdom, which derived its name from the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Victoria. Her reign, starting from 1837 until 1901, was a time of opulence in British society. The wealth was gathered from the many colonies under the then vast British Empire. In the United Kingdom itself, the Industrial Revolution went into full swing. This resulted into the establishment of more advanced transportation and communication systems. The former was exemplified by the creation of the steam and engine, while the latter by the telegraph and telephone. These developments were made possible by several factors. However, the more significant of these were the longer period of peace that the British Empire experienced then. This allowed the British government to improve the economy and the industrialists and traders to consolidate and advance their business interests.
English literature also achieved a higher degree of development during the Victorian Era. The genre that bloomed and influenced many novelists and poets then was Romanticism. It encouraged writers to apply styles that were elaborate but it was also often used to express criticism to the inequalities that existed in society. Some of the works produced during the era were, in fact, critical of the aristocracy. Such criticisms were subtle and was effectively cloaked by human drama that the social concerns that writers actually tackled with where not obvious. Masterpieces such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens were two of the most prominent novels that epitomize these. Both novels accurately depicted the social conditions, the class divisions and antagonisms, and gender inequality that pervaded during the entire period. However, these were not written in a manner that directly identifies the ills of the Victorian Era society. Instead, the plots revolved around the lives of the main characters and their efforts and struggle to achieve wealth and recognition despite their less fortunate background.
Jane Eyre and Philip Pirrip, the main characters in Bronte’s and Dickens’ novels respectively, are orphans. Having no parents to take care of them depend on their relatives during their childhood. Jane lives with his uncle’s family while Pip with his married sister. The families with which they live with are not wealthy and, as these have to endure the inequalities they experience in society, Jane and Pip also have to experience abuse and discrimination from their guardians. As they grow older, Jane and Pip begins to have different experiences although they both tried to make themselves accepted in the higher rungs of society. The differences are essentially based on their gender. This only showed that not only was their class discrimination during the Victorian Era, gender inequality was also prevalent. However, in the novels, both Bronte and Dickens provide readers of better description of the class and social positions that were extant during the period.
Bronte’s criticism of the social hierarchy in the Victorian Era is best seen in her account of Jane when she became a governess. This position in an aristocratic household actually puts Jane in a quandary. As governess, she is expected to possess the education and elegance of the aristocrats but, at the same time, she is just an employee, one that has a standing just a little higher than the ordinary servant. In times when she forgets her lowly class origin, as in Chapter 31, she has to tell herself that her poor Morton pupils “are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy.” (Bronte 381) At some points of the novel, Jane expresses in words her disgust on class distinctions and biases. In Chapter 23, she reproves Rochester by saying: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.” (Bronte 267) However, Jane never goes to the extent of rebelling against the norms of class hierarchy. By inheriting a fortune from her uncle, she is able to raise her class position and found herself eligible to marry Rochester because she has become her equal in terms of wealth.
One distinct feature in Dickens’s Great Expectations is that the upper social class described is composed not of the nobility often portrayed by Victorian Era authors. Instead, Dickens depicts the wealthy characters in his book as industrialists or men of commerce. Through this manner, he does not define wealth as something merely passed on as inheritance but as a reward for an individual’s ambition, diligence, and hard work. However, in Chapter 27, Dickens writes about the attitude of passivity that people have towards their class position. When Joe, an uncle who expected that Pip would become a blacksmith like him, senses his now wealthy nephew’s uneasiness during their encounter in London, he says that “life is made of ever so many partings welded together… and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.” (Dickens 208) Joe does not blame anyone for his economic standing but rather on what perceives as the natural order of things. His passivity is based on the fact that such order cannot be modified.
Nearing the end of the book, Dickens puts forward a radically different proposition on how class society should be analyzed. The concept can be considered as revolutionary for it essentially explains that the wealth possessed by the upper social classes are created by the labor and loyalty of those in the lower classes. In Chapter 39, when Magwitch meets Pip, who has become rich, he tells him: “When I was a hired-out shepherd in a solitary hut, not seeing no faces but faces of sheep till I half-forgot wot men’s and women’s faces wos like, I see your. . . . I see you there a many times plain as ever I see you on them misty marshes. ‘Lord strike me dead!’ I says each time—and I goes out in the open air to say it under the open heavens—‘but wot, if I gets liberty and money, I’ll make that boy a gentleman!’ And I done it.” (Dickens 299) This only proves that during the Victorian Era, social criticism did not only limit itself to the identification of unjust and unequal class relations. It had also ventured into deeper analysis of the origins and causes of such class distinctions.
The plight of women during the Victorian Era is given accurate description in Bronte’s Jane Eyre. All throughout the book, Jane is shown struggling to gain the respect befitting an individual regardless of gender. She is not only opposing the class structures existing in her time but also male domination, that was prevailing in society and transcending among the different classes. There are three principal male characters in the novel that represented the different types of machismo. Mr. Brocklehurst portrays the traditional and patriarchal dominant male. St. John Rivers is described as the insensitive man who considers Jane as a prospective wife for convenience. Even Rochester’s character is that of the domineering male. Jane successfully overcomes and frees herself from the clutches of these men. As for Rochester, Jane only marries him when he becomes blind and weak. In Chapter 37, Rochester becomes dependent on her, making Jane an equal, if not even more powerful than her husband. Jane turns to be Rochester’s “prop and guide.” (Bronte 478) It is in Chapter 12 though that Bronte writes of her perspective regarding the role of women in Victorian Era society. Here, Jane comes to a realization that “women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” (Bronte 114) This one sentence is a precise description of how women were relegated to insignificant roles in society during the era.
The issue of gender inequality is not much tackled in Dickens’ Great Expectations. However, as the story develops, the writer’s view on women in the Victorian Era becomes clear. Most of the central women characters in the book were antagonistic to Pip in one way or another. A number of them, including Estella, are portrayed as women who are very dependent on their husbands or on men, in general. As in the case of Estella, Dickens describes her as one whose effort in getting rich is not through her own labor but by simply marrying a wealthy man. It is clear that Dickens and Bronte have different points of view when it comes to the role of gender in Victorian society. This can be explained by the fact that both represent their own gender. Bronte is quite sharp in her analysis of the conditions of women but she fails to present a solution. Dickens, on the other hand, provides and in-depth analysis of the class hierarchy but he could not rid himself of the machismo that also influenced him, which is another ill of the society he is critical of.
Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte obviously did not write Great Expectations and Jane Eyre respectively for the purpose of entertaining people with stories of two individuals who tried to rise from lower rungs of society and become a part of the opulent few. In narrating the tales, both writers were able to express their criticisms of the injustices and economic and political disparities of the Victorian Era society. Aside from the inequalities in the spheres of economics and politics, they also raised concerns regarding the dominant culture of the time. Jane’s character in Bronte’s novel, for instance, is always in search of balance between what is considered moral and her own personal happiness. The Victorian Era culture and traditions was basically hinged on purist Christian teachings. However, it was also a time when concepts regarding individual happiness and freedom, largely inspired by the French revolution, began to influence people. Bronte’s attitude towards this condition is aptly explained when she wrote in the preface of the second edition of Jane Eyre that “conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of a Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.” In the book, Jane is portrayed as someone who defies the extremes of both moralist and liberal tendencies.
Although Dickens’ description and criticism of the class hierarchy during the Victorian Era is accurate and acute, the moral of Great Expectations is not for people to rise up in arms against the oppressive structures. Instead, it conveys the message that the basic positive human nature of friendship, affection, and conscience are far more valuable than the superficiality of opulence and class distinction. As with most writers in his time who were influenced by Romanticism, the genre most prominent in the Victorian Era, Dickens was an idealist. His main character in the, Pip, reflects this great sense of idealism. Pip witnesses the weaknesses and errors in his social environment. As he observes these, he also creates his own agenda, which is to individually overcome these weaknesses and avoid the errors. Through Pip and Magwitch, Dickens makes it clear that the solution for poverty lies not in social or collective action but through the efforts of the individual. This is reflective of the contradicting perspectives regarding the origin of wealth during the Victorian Era. There are others who consider wealth as God-given and handed from a generation of rich noble families to another. The rise of the wealthy non-aristocrat families engaged in trade and industry, on the other hand, promoted the concept that affluence need not be inherited. It could be acquired by hard work and diligence.
It is clear that Jane Eyre and Great Expectations provide readers a view on the nature of society during the Victorian Era. These did not only simply describe society though from the perspective of the writers. These are also social commentaries that contain criticisms as well as the desires of the writers for change. There may be differences though as what changes should take place and how it should be done but the common factor is that class and gender inequalities should be addressed. The Victorian Era was truly a time of great prosperity and peace in the United Kingdom however, there were also sufferings and deprivations among the lower classes. These were exposed by Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: Carleton, 1864.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations – Literary Touchstone Edition. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2005.