The Symbolism of the Victorians

I am just a little bit picky when it comes to literature. There are many excellent books out there, written by authors in all stages of life about many different kinds of people. But when it comes right down to it, I love Victorian authors the most. Not because they are easy to read (they aren’t! Dickens, I am looking at you!) but because Victorian stories generally mean something. Many of them are a social commentary. It’s unusual this would transpire, because there are few eras in literary history where such an attitude was adopted. One has to wonder if the readers or even indeed at times the authors were aware of the messages in their tales. Here are a few examples.

Victorian Morality
The image the Victorians projected was one of idealism, romanticism, and perfection, a society in which women were held to impossible standards and men were honorable. In reality, women were oppressed and men permitted bad behavior as long as no one knew about it.

Oscar Wilde challenged this façade in a series of comedic plays mocking high society and their unreasonable demands on both sexes. His contempt for false morality and his belief that outward appearances can be deceiving is best expressed in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a story of a young man who is entirely virtuous and innocent until he falls into bad company. Encouraged by his “friend” to pursue all the lustful passions of youth, he becomes a philanderer and murder, ultimately trading his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth. But a portrait he had painted captures all the evil that is not expressed on his face, ultimately confronting him with his true hideousness. In one broad stroke, Wilde warns us that our true sin nature cannot be concealed forever, but must inevitably appear.

An Unforgiving Church
Unfortunately, a rigid view of “morality” in the Victorian era led to harsh views on misbehavior, but tended to condemn women more than men. Thomas Hardy addressed the matter in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which shows the descent of a young woman who has born a child out of wedlock. After the death of her child, Tess goes out into the world to begin a new, only to have her later marriage threatened due to an unforgiving husband who learns the truth about her past and cannot forgive her. Hardy is emphasizing that often, it is the one unwilling to forgive who creates the greater sin than one who is repentant, and that the Church should follow a principle of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Advances in Science
The height of the Industrial Revolution changed the way the world viewed science forever, as well as paved the way for the teachings of Charles Darwin. The result was a shift toward atheism and an increased fascination in the possibilities of man-made inventions. Mary Shelly addressed these issues in Frankenstein, a novel about an inventor who in an attempt to play God creates a Creature he cannot control that ultimately hounds him to the grave, leaving despair and death in his wake. Its messages are complex, a combination of questions about the existence and motivations of God, the consequences of sin, and a warning against arrogance in scientific advancement; simply because we can do it doesn’t mean we should!

The Feminist Movement & Atheism
There was the beginnings of a subtle shift in feminism in this era. Abortion was an avoided topic in Victorian society but becoming more common. Bram Stoker responded with Dracula, a story in which a vampire attempts to corrupt two young women. Lucy, the more vulnerable and godless girl, succumbs to him and transforms into a “creature of the night”—beautiful but tainted, who is willing to sacrifice children to pursue her continued, godless existence. (Likewise, his Brides in Transylvania are seductive but without a moral conscience.) Mina, on the other hand, rejects Dracula’s corruption and turns to faith and the wisdom of Van Helsing, a man of religious conviction, to save her. The underlining message is evil cannot be defeated without faith, and a society who rejects belief in the supernatural is in peril from evils it cannot fully understand.

Darwinism brought questions as to man’s sin nature and whether or not evil existed. Robert Louis Stevenson responded with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, in which a man attempts to find an elixir that separates his good and evil natures in the hope of purging evil from mankind for all eternity. But despite his good intentions, he becomes so fascinated with his dark side that he indulges it—and soon, cannot control it, as evil takes over his life and consumes him to the point where he no longer needs the elixir to transform, but is Mr. Hyde all the time. Stevenson is warning his readers that evil does exist and the more we indulge it, the more dangerous and powerful it becomes.

Many other authors colorfully depict the Victorian era and its concepts of morality, faith, judgment, and poverty. Charles Dickens explored the darker side of life through terrible villains and starving orphans, while bringing attention to the sad state of London’s workhouses, debtor’s prisons, schools, and orphanages. Due to his writing bringing awareness of the plight of these unfortunate souls, the Victorians made changes in how these institutions were run. Other writers addressed the rampant concerns of the age, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, which explored both sides of a union argument—the starving workers, and the businessman struggling to make a profit. (Her characters reach a compromise to benefit both.)

We can learn much from these writers and their view of the world. The Victorians faced a similar age of confusion and distraction, of conflicting ideas and a society that ranged from atheism to fascination with the supernatural. The one thing these writers all have in common is their emphasis that Mankind should respect a Higher Power. Our choices and pursuits should be to benefit ourselves and others, and it would be prudent to heed the underlining messages of Stoker and Stevenson: a country or individual that ignores the existence of evil will fall. ♥

Reprinted with permission from Charity’s July 7th editorial in the publication she works for.

One thought on “The Symbolism of the Victorians

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  1. Yes! I love social commentary in literature, I think it adds a fascinating dynamic to it, you get a feel for the environment at the time. What I don't like is when it feels preachy, that annoys me.

    I'm going to have to add some of these books to my reading list. They sound interesting.

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