«DEMOCRATIC AND POPULAR REPUBLIC OF ALGERIA MINISTRY OF HIGHER EDUCATION AND SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH MENTOURI UNIVERSITY OF CONSTANTINE FACULTY OF LETTERS ...»
Agnosticism is a term coined by T. H. Huxley in 1869, to mean that the existence of God and the metaphysical world are unknown to human beings, due to the limitation of their knowledge (Lightman 326). The term Agnosticism used also to refer to the pessimistic mood that characterised the Victorian society after the spread of the ideas of evolution. Unlike atheists, agnostics did not declare their unbelief in God, and preferred to put themselves in a position of “not-knowing” (Gilmour) or not caring to know, in order not to waste time in the metaphysical labyrinths. The rise of Agnosticism contributed to the shift of emphasis from Victorian optimism to a feeling of pessimism, stoicism, resignation, and passiveness in front of an indifferent and passionless universe. Conclusively, the castle of the Victorian ethics, which had taken the „Victorian moralists‟ so long to build, was reduced to dust by the Darwinian earthquake, and the shining optimism of Victorian society was swallowed by the darkening clods of Agnosticism.
D. Class Division in the Victorian Age
During the Victorian period, the upper class or landed aristocracy were the first to reap the fruits of the industrial revolution. The development of industrialisation did not affect their status except for the better (Hobsbawm). In addition, the growth of the cities and the coming of railways reinforced their social and political predominance. The upper class monopolised parliament and created a „lobby groups‟ within the British government. This position, in turn, paved them the way to hold absolute and “exclusive political sway” (Marx 3).As a result, they exerted a tremendous influence on institutions, through which they sought to direct law according to their vested interests. The upper class held conservative and orthodox traditions, that is to say, they were against reforms, be it political or social, and were for the existing government with “monopolised and unreformed parliament” (Lerner 95).The only way for the upper class to secure the status quo, was to control not only parliament, but also the composition of the church, the civil service, the army, the two greatest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, principle public schools, local administration and justice.
This class owed their position to “landed hereditaments” (Harris 100) and to the government which gave them privileges and legitimised their coercive policies. Therefore, property played a crucial role in Victorian Britain, and it was the reason why the upper class enjoyed too much respectability and enshrined status.
[Property played a central role in shaping] ideas, values, politics, class relationships, and [in determining] public and private life.... A shared sense of proprietorship was an important element in a shared sense of social class;... [and] the reformulation of class identity.... The laws relating to property had an important bearing on personal and family ties, and upon an individual‟s relationship to the community and the state. (ibid 116) Thus, the possession of lands opened the upper class the way to exercise an absolute authority in many domains of life during the Victorian period and, especially before the rise of the middle class. With the emergence of the middle class as a new and successful economic, social and political rival, the upper class realised that it was impossible to resist stubbornly the class antagonism. Therefore, they accepted the compromise, and “became more aloof and withdrew from sympathetic contact with the masses” (Hudson 203).
The emergence of the middle class, as an economically influential and a well-educated class; brought with it the reforming spirit of the age and turned the position of the upper class on its head, claiming that the landed aristocracy‟s creed was not suitable to the needs of the new industrial society. In so doing, the middle class favoured competition and, following the Reform Act of 1832, championed “meritocratic political and economic system”,[and hold the slogan] “carrière ouverte aux talents”,[they denounced]... “old corruption and family connection”[of the upper class].(Claeys 235). The middle class occupied business, professional and administrative sectors. Additionally, their preoccupation with education helped them to acquire skills and influence, and the huge investments in commercial and manufacturing sectors enabled them to earn colossal profits. Unlike the upper class, the middle class flowered as a result of the growth of industrialisation, the spread of education, the expansion of investments and trade.
The middle class were heavily indebted to the philosophical teachings of the age, which stressed “moral sternness” (Ford 60) and “the habits of thrift and prudence” (Lerner 93). The middle class held two ideologies that served them to accumulate wealth and reinforce their influence. These ideologies can be identified with Utilitarianism or Benthamism and Evangelicalism. The Utilitarians argued that the best government is the one which secured “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (Hobsbawm 57). The middle class embraced this theory and through business, they sought to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. As a result, they left their business life to the guidance of “pleasure-pain psychology and the test of utility” (Webb124). In addition, evangelicalism helped them to silence and submit their employees under the assumption that “poverty was ordained” (Ford 30).
Unlike the middle class, the working class did not have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of business that had consumed their sweat and their health. Despite material progress and the improvement of social conditions during the Victorian era, the working class grew stoic in their behaviour and built their world far from the acquisitiveness and the optimism of the age. It is worth mentioning that, there was a big difference between the two classes within the working class, that is to say, between skilled and unskilled workers. If the first were given the opportunity to acquire power through trade unions, the latter remained crippled and then harshly exploited. Before the reforms that improved their lot, workers in industry laboured for six day per week and fourteen or sixteen hours a day. In addition, factory workers were harshly treated by their employers and were asphyxiated by the rigid discipline at work characterised by “regularity, routine and monotony” (Hobsbawm 63). The working class in general did not have other sources of income other than a “callous cash payment” (Marx 3) they received as a reward of long hours of work and submission. The expansion of mechanization had made machines more valuable for employers than their human subjects and reduced the status of workers to an “appendage of machine” (ibid 7).Moreover, the life of workers was one of the most astonishing paradoxes of „The Gilded Age‟ of Victorianism. The overwhelming majority of working class were “living [inside the house] in a cramped backto-back terrace (Liddington 30), outside it was a „Waste Land‟ with decaying slums, and overcrowded cities. The spread of smoke, filth, pollution and bad sanitary conditions led to the widespread of epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and respiratory and intestinal diseases (Hobsbawm 64).
The government turned a blind eye on the miserable conditions of workers and especially the conditions of the unemployed and the disabled. The majority of workers who lost their jobs and children without families had to take only one way, which was to go “down to the squalid obscurity of the pauper and criminal” (Huxley 22).These social ills when they first appeared were difficult for the government to diagnose, but easy to cure. When they spread widely in Victorian society they left their symptoms, but became irremediable and were shelved for the duration of the period. In addition, the spokesmen of the laissez-faire capitalism and the defenders of individualism and self-help resisted stubbornly to any attempt by different governments to fight against pauperisation. Samuel Smiles, the author of SelfHelp (1859), had also opposed government intervention to improve the conditions of the poor.
In this respect he writes: “when people live in foul dwellings, let them alone, let wretchedness do its work; do not interfere with death” (Briggs 134).
However, the working class, during this period, developed a number of institutions such as: cooperative societies, friendly societies, saving banks and trade unions (Lerner 92) through which they aimed at gaining their legal right and improving their conditions. Most importantly, through the Chartist movement of 1838-1848, the working class formed an alliance of workers from different professions and called for extended reforms, including universal male suffrage, the secret ballot and annual elections (Damrosch 577).Even though the Chartist movement collapsed in front of government show of force, the movement remained a turning point in the development of working class attitude from stoicism to rebellion. Beginning with The Second Reform Bill of 1867, the working class strengthened their political power by extending the number of votes to all urban male householders. The legislation of trade unions in 1871 opened the doors for one and half million of trade unions to have representatives in parliament by 1890s. Additionally, Education Act of 1870 gave the working class children access to public education, and the Public Health Act of 1875 provided the working class areas with water supplies, food, slum clearance and protection against infectious diseases.
E. Victorian Novel and Victorian Society The Victorian era was seen as the greatest age of the English novel, comprising 40,000 titles produced between 1837-1901.The emergence of a new social, economic and political conditions helped shape the course of the novel and vice versa. The Victorian novel seemed to be closely linked with the conditions of people in an era of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Under such conditions, the novelists were expected to depict “life with fidelity” [and to be careful not to waste a single moment in paying] “particular attention to exact documentation, [and] to getting the facts right” (Cuddon 729-731). As a result, the Victorian novelists broke with the Romantic traditions, and sought through their writings to play the role of social satirists and political reformers. Thus, Victorian novel became “an important source of moral instruction and social criticism.” (Kepos 288). Boris Ford in his
book The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: from Dickens Hardy wrote:
... [The task of the Victorian novelists was very] limited and... [The social conditions obliged them to adopt] a pragmatic approach.... There was an obvious demand for their work,.... There were tasks to be done, causes to be championed.... The age demanded reassuring patriarchs and matriarchs, and writers vied with preachers and statesmen in
From this quotation, we come to realise that the Victorian novelists did not have the opportunity and time to embellish their writings or to choose topics outside their sphere of duty dictated by social and political conditions. It is worth mentioning too, that the Victorian novelists were not only obliged to make their writings useful to society and politics, but they had also to be respectful to religion and morality.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era. He spent an unhappy childhood and was pushed to work at the age of twelve by the bankruptcy and the indebtedness of his father. A self-made-man, Dickens succeeded in becoming a journalist, contributor to periodicals and later on a novelist of international renown. Generally speaking, the novels of Dickens depict and attack workhouses, prisons of debtors, harsh schooling, the corruption of commercial enterprises, social hypocrisy and vice, blackmailing, snobbery and the exploitation of the poor (Blamires 304).
Dickens novels were written with the purpose to press on the authorities to improve bad social conditions. Oliver Twist (1837-1838) was a violent attack of the Poor Law of 1834 and of Workhouse set up by the Whigs in the 1830s. By combining between “physical hunger [with] emotional starvation” (Coote 452), Dickens creates a horrifying picture of workhouse in which the hero Oliver “was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery.” A Christmas Carol (1843) was a satire of Utilitarian and Malthusian attitudes. The first because it “prised usefulness above all else” (Claeys 231), and the second because it claimed, “the poor ought not to be assisted” (ibid 231). In Hard Times (1854) was a bitter criticism of Victorian educational system. Gradgrind‟s children, as a sample, are brought up in an educational system which sought to load their minds with facts and kill their spirit of imagination. The novel is also a depiction of the conditions of workers at Coketown and a condemnation of Utilitarianism which paved the way to heartless businessmen like Bounderby to suck the blood of desperate workers. In The Great Expectations (1861), Dickens shifted from the indictment of societal corruption to the satire of individual corruption. In sum, the novels of Dickens give us a concrete and universal picture of nineteenth-century England and provide us with knowledge about the characteristics of „human nature‟ in general.