[Edited, formatted, and linked by George P. Landow]
he Victorian era saw a shift away from long-held, traditional approaches to technology, religion, politics, and society. “In ideology, politics, and society, the Victorians created astonishing innovation and change: democracy, feminism, unionization of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements took form” (Landow). Some saw these changes as progress, others as terrifying decay. Many of these changes, both the concrete and the psychological ones, become apparent in Thomas Carlyle’s essay “Signs of the Times,” where he presents his view that mechanism has taken over not only technology and invention but also people’s ways of thinking:
Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.
Although many people embraced the rapid changes, others, like Carlyle, resisted them or at least hesitated to accept them as quickly. People saw their old ways becoming obsolete and dying quickly, which caused them to fear what might replace them. As Carlyle puts it, “Even the horse is stripped of its harness and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead.” This phrase refers to the obsession with railroads and mechanism in general, particularly how people started replacing horses that worked perfectly well for the work they needed to do with the “fire-horse” or train. Some saw this shift as irrational, because many people, especially the poor, preferred to still use low-tech forms of transportation, such as horses, because they better served their purposes. The transformation from horses to trains, and from traditional, manual labor to all things mechanical, happened at such a rapid pace that people could hardly keep up (Khanna). Carlyle critiques, or at least brings to light, society’s new obsession with mechanical science when it means abandoning the great sciences of the past, particularly the more philosophical ones.
“My Young Remembrance,” an article that appeared in the 1861 All the Year Round, notes the changing times, specifically between 1830 and 1860. Like Carlyle, the anonymous author highlights in particular the development of the railroad. As he sees it, “Those years, 1830-31, would seem antediluvian to the smart, young fellows of twenty who have been born and bred in the days of railroads and electric telegraphs. Railroads were just beginning in the north, and the south knew them not” (302). He goes on to observe, “People talked about the rail as a wonder, or depreciated it as a dangerous innovation” (302). This latter statement shows that not everyone welcomed the many sudden changes that had begun to transform British society. Many people thought that these new technologies would be detrimental, not beneficial, to society especially since the new advances meant the disappearance of older methods. As “My Young Remembrance” explains, “Omnibuses were just beginning . . . Of cabs there were not many . . . With the introduction of more convenient cabs, these musty anatomies [hackney coaches] gradually disappeared . . . ” (302-303). However, within thirty years, this new way of life became the norm, and the younger generation thought it perfectly normal. “Does it not seem as if I were writing of the middle ages?” the contributor adds, half in jest (303). In other words, the nineteenth century saw such a metamorphosis that the beginning of it seemed centuries apart from the end of it. More particularly, the contributor speaks to how the earlier part of the century embodied a much more serious and conservative atmosphere. He notes, “When they met at an evening party, they were (I conceive) somewhat sedate and formal. No polka, no schottische, no varsoviana then; and but little waltzing in steady-going families . . . The quadrille was the staple measure, and, being in its nature somewhat stiff and mechanical, appeared to develop in its patrons an air of amazing frigidity” (303). This remark presents a more negative view of the early part of the century, but people missed some of the regimented attributes later on. As the contributor laments, “I believe, however, that the drivers of those days knew their way about London; which is more than can be said of their successors” (303). The liberalism that came with the later half of the century brought freedoms as well as a lessening in adhesion to rules and responsibilities, which left many people feeling as if society was breaking down. Although not everyone would agree with this observation that rigidity and formality characterized the earlier part of the century, Max Beerbohm presents a similar opinion, and most importantly, this contrast demonstrates that a change occurred over the course of the century.
Almost three decades after this article in All the Year Round, Max Beerbohm noted the changes taking place in society in his essay entitled “1880,” which first appeared in an 1895 volume of The Yellow Book. In his piece, he highlights several differences between society before and after 1880. His highly satirical essay highlights many transformations during this later part of the nineteenth century. According to Beerbohm, “The period of 1880 and of the four years immediately succeeding it . . . marks a great change in the constitution of society” (276-277). He describes the pre-1880 upper class as having “a somewhat more frigid tone” and comments that balls, operas, and other forms of entertainment had begun to diminish. As he bluntly puts it, “Society was becoming dull” (277). He notes, however, that around 1880, “ . . . in Society were the primordia of a great change. The aristocracy could not live by good breeding alone. The old delights seemed vapid, waxen. Something new was wanted. And thus came it that the spheres of fashion and of art met, thus began the great social renascence of 1880” (278). Beerbohm then speaks to the dress of the period and how it shifted during this time. Referring to fashion before 1880, he explains, “Dress, therefore, had become simpler, wardrobes smaller, fashions apt to linger. In 1880 arose . . . ‘The Mashers’ . . . Unlike the Dandies of the Georgian era they made no pretence to any qualities of the intellect, and, wholly contemptuous of the aesthetes, recognised no art save the art of dress . . . ” (282). Although plainer fashion characterized the earlier part of the nineteenth century, the later trends reflected a vanity and lack of taste, in Beerbohm’s opinion. This again shows the deterioration, at least in terms of fashion, that took place throughout the 1880s.
During the Victorian period, comments about supposed decay emerged as a particularly common motif in response to the new: a breaking down of traditional thought and a preference for forward-thinking ideas and more liberal tendencies. Thus, many authors of the period incorporated death and decay as central ideas into their works, including some of the most famous authors such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, and Algernon Swinburne. Each author represents decay in a slightly different fashion, but ultimately they all come to recognize it as a perpetual circumstance of dying with a generally negative significance.
Dickens’s Great Expectations presents several facets of decay, including those of people, nature, and society. When considering the many instances in which Dickens represents decay, it quickly becomes apparent that he uses the word “yellow” in one way or another in the majority of his descriptions of decay. He primarily uses this color to describe Satis House and Miss Havisham, but he also uses it in his descriptions of Sarah Pocket, Mrs. Brandley’s daughter, and a certain mug. Each of these people, places, or objects to which Dickens attributes the color yellow exhibits some feature of decay and decrepitude. This motif of yellow helps to tie the elements of decay together and create a coherent pattern of decay throughout the story.
When Pip first arrives at Satis House, the sense of decay and aging he notices upon stepping inside overwhelms him. Most of the house has remained untouched for years and kept in darkness, subsequently causing everything to lose its vibrancy. As Pip describes to the reader, “ . . . I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.” Additionally, Pip notes that Miss Havisham’s shoes and stockings are also yellow. This imagery of yellowed clothing and objects gives the reader a conception of the house slowly deteriorating. The comparison to withered flowers and the idea of lacking brightness also evokes the idea of nature and the way in which plants, when lacking sunlight, will whither, turn yellow, and die. By locking herself inside and blocking out all sunlight (and more metaphorically, society), Miss Havisham decays like a sun-deprived flower. As Pip observes later on, “So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped Time in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything else outside it grew older, it stood still.” Pip’s reference to Miss Havisham as a “spectre” or ghost depicts her as extremely frail and also as, in a sense, already dead. Her decision to stop all of the clocks after her tragic wedding day, lock herself inside, and even prevent the sunlight from penetrating the house represents her death, more or less, in terms of when she stopped living a social and interactive life with the rest of the world. Pip reinforces this idea by remarking that time had stood still inside the house since the day Miss Havisham stopped the clocks. Everything related to Satis House remains removed from society, awaiting its eventual death.
Dickens also uses yellow to describe Miss Havisham when Pip thinks he sees her figure hanging from a beam in the brewery. He tells the reader, “ . . . I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white, with but one shoe to the feet; and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the face was Miss Havisham's, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me.” Although greater complexity shrouds the significance of this imagined encounter, the reader clearly notices the symbol of Miss Havisham as already dead and the image of her dress beginning to decay, as indicated by its “earthy” quality, much like an object on the ground that decomposes.
Furthermore, Miss Havisham herself admits that she is letting herself deteriorate and, in a sense, waiting to die. As she refers to herself, “‘I am yellow skin and bone.’” She has already planned her funeral and, although she does not actively pursue her own death, she takes a sort of perverse enjoyment in preparing for it. At one point she declares to her company:
“Matthew will come and see me at last,” said Miss Havisham, sternly, “when I am laid on that table. That will be his place, — there,” striking the table with her stick, “at my head! And yours will be there! And your husband's there! And Sarah Pocket's there! And Georgiana's there! Now you all know where to take your stations when you come to feast upon me. And now go!”
This passage illustrates her obsession with surrounding her future corpse with the few people that remain in life, which indicates her desire to make people care about her, even if they do not genuinely. Surrounding herself with people at her funeral convinces her that she had some worth in this world and mattered in one way or another. Nonetheless, she remains eager to escape this life and even goes so far as to claim she would happily die today. Pip describes this moment in the following way:
She held the head of her stick against her heart as she stood looking at the table; she in her once white dress, all yellow and withered; the once white cloth all yellow and withered; everything around in a state to crumble under a touch.
“When the ruin is complete,” said she, with a ghastly look, “and when they lay me dead, in my bride's dress on the bride's table, — which shall be done, and which will be the finished curse upon him, — so much the better if it is done on this day!”
Here, Dickens once again uses the word “yellow” and emphasizes Miss Havisham’s acceptance of and readiness for her death.
In addition to describing Miss Havisham and the rooms of Satis House as yellow, Dickens extends his yellow descriptions to the grounds surrounding Satis House. The first instance of this occurs when Pip describes the garden upon first discovering it. He tells the reader,
Behind the furthest end of the brewery, was a rank garden with an old wall; not so high but that I could struggle up and hold on long enough to look over it, and see that the rank garden was the garden of the house, and that it was overgrown with tangled weeds, but that there was a track upon the green and yellow paths.
This imagery not only once again presents the word “yellow,” but further conveys the sense of decay through descriptions of the “old wall” and the “rank garden” that has become “overgrown with tangled weeds.” Dickens reintroduces the idea of nature here and connects it with yellowing. At another scene in the same garden, Pip relates, “We walked round the ruined garden twice or thrice more, and it was all in bloom for me. If the green and yellow growth of weed in the chinks of the old wall had been the most precious flowers that ever blew, it could not have been more cherished in my remembrance.” Pip now speaks of the weeds as yellow and terms them beautiful, but their beauty only exists as a consequence of Estella’s presence. Qualifying their beauty as dependant on Estella’s presence indicates that they are, most likely, actually unsightly weeds, and Dickens, therefore, once again ties nature to decay.
Furthermore, Dickens extends his use of “yellow” to describe decay beyond just the realm of Satis House and Miss Havisham. Pip describes Sarah Pocket as having a yellow and green appearance (similar to the garden’s paths and weeds) on several occasions. Firstly, he relates how “Sarah Pocket came to the gate, and positively reeled back when she saw me so changed; her walnut-shell countenance likewise turned from brown to green and yellow.” Dickens continues this portrayal as Pip later tells that “At the end of the passage, while the bell was still reverberating, I found Sarah Pocket, who appeared to have now become constitutionally green and yellow by reason of me” and refers to her as his “green and yellow friend.” Finally, in a later passage, Pip speaks of Mr. Jaggers and how “Throughout dinner he took a dry delight in making Sarah Pocket greener and yellower, by often referring in conversation with me to my expectations.” This constant reinforcement of the detail that Sarah Pocket’s face turns green and yellow depicts her almost like a sickly plant. Pip’s “expectations” and his relation to Miss Havisham clearly make her uneasy, possibly because she feels threatened by his quick transformation from country boy to gentleman and fears that he may take precedence over her in Miss Havisham’s will, somehow cheating her out of an inheritance. Whether for this reason or another, Dickens uses “yellow” to further enforce the idea that she is in a way decaying as well. Being constantly around Miss Havisham and Satis House would surely affect her own psychology, and as Pip ponders, “What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?” Additionally, the prospect of not receiving some money from Miss Havisham’s will might also put her in a state of dismay.
Another person the novel depicts as yellow is Mrs. Brandley’s daughter, with whom Estella spends a short time while in London. As Pip notes, “The mother looked young, and the daughter looked old; the mother's complexion was pink, and the daughter's was yellow; the mother set up for frivolity, and the daughter for theology.” Interestingly, Dickens chooses to portray the daughter as looking old and yellow, instead of the mother. Although the mother seems to have no real aim in life, he sets up the daughter’s prospect of theology to sound like the less logical choice, which begs the question of how Dickens viewed religion. He does not address religion often in this text, but the few times that he does he associates it, by analogy, with very rigid and uptight characters such as Georgiana and Mrs. Joe. Therefore, the age and yellowing that he associates with Mrs. Brandley’s daughter may indicate his criticism of religion and her choice to devote her life to it.
The final and possibly most curious use of yellow occurs in the second chapter of the book where Pip refers to his “yellow mug of tea on one knee.” He holds this mug while sitting at home with his sister and Joe, trying to sneak out his buttered bread for Magwitch. Although one would not generally observe this use of “yellow” as more than simply a matter of description, in light of the way Dickens uses “yellow” in each of the other nineteen places it appears in the novel, a second reading of this usage begs further analysis. Choosing to label this mug yellow makes the reader consider the oldness it represents, the age of the house, and Pip’s desire to escape what he considers a dull and unsophisticated life without any prospects. It puts a negative slant on this seemingly insignificant mug and, when carefully considered, adds a new dimension to the passage.
In essence, what once looked white and beautiful on Miss Havisham’s wedding day has now faded and yellowed with age, along with her spirit. She has kept the curtains of her house closed not only literally but symbolically, causing the rooms to turn yellow like leaves without sunlight and keeping out everything fresh and new. The land around Satis House reflects the inner decay, as demonstrated by Dickens’s descriptions of the paths as yellow and of the weeds as dying. Even some people, such as Sarah Pocket and Mrs. Brandley’s daughter, reflect decay and, moreover, serve to reflect the decay of society as a whole, particularly in terms of ideologies.
Although Dickens chooses to represent death and decay through his use of the color yellow, Brontë uses other motifs such as fire and burning to portray various types of decay. One of the first instances of this is when Jane encounters decay at Lowood. Brontë describes Lowood’s garden similarly to the one Dickens describes at Satis House. Both are full of dying plants and decay instead of blooming with new life. As Jane depicts the garden:
When full of flowers they would doubtless look pretty; but now, at the latter end of January, all was wintry blight and brown decay. I shuddered as I stood and looked round me: it was an inclement day for outdoor exercise; not positively rainy, but darkened by a drizzling yellow fog; all under foot was still soaking wet with the floods of yesterday./p>
Here Brontë uses words such as “blight and brown” to present an image of dying nature, much like leaves would be in late autumn. She evens comes out and specifically uses the word “decay” to describe the garden. She also, like Dickens, uses the word “yellow” in describing the fog, which evokes the idea of clouding and concealing. The darkness created by this fog is another common attribute of decay in this work, as is coldness, which Jane continues to talk about in the passage directly following:/p>
The stronger among the girls ran about and engaged in active games, but sundry pale and thin ones herded together for shelter and warmth in the verandah; and amongst these, as the dense mist penetrated to their shivering frames, I heard frequently the sound of a hollow cough./p>
This latter information illustrates how the decay of the garden is representative of the decay of the students themselves and the whole school. The lifelessness of the weaker girls who cannot keep warm and who become sick when they stay outdoors so long is one form of decay that may eventually lead to their death. Furthermore, the fact that the powers at be in Lowood make these girls go outside without adequate clothing reinforces the idea of the whole school is deteriorating in principles and values, while one could say that society does the same by not stopping the poor treatment.
Several of these elements of decay are reinforced in the other descriptions of Lowood, particularly those that Jane provides the reader with concerning her first day there. She recalls the “somewhat dreary silence,” “the dim light,” “brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion,” and “a wide, long room, with great deal tables, two at each end, on each of which burnt a pair of candles.” Light (or the lack of it) is another major motif in Brontë’s work; she often represents decay through darkness or obscurity, such as the dark fog of the garden and the low light indoors. The image of so few candles in such a large room also suggests a lack of light and additionally a lack of warmth, and reinforces the description of the girls shivering in the garden. She uses the color brown both in describing the garden and the unsightly frocks of the pupils and continues to use brown as a symbol of decay throughout the book because it is a dull, dark color that lacks joviality and characterizes dead plants. Other instances in which Brontë uses the color brown include descriptions of the brown bread that the children at Lowood are fed (a meager, tasteless meal), the brown beds of the garden before any plants return in spring (i.e. lacking life), and in one particular description of Thornfield on a cold winter day, in which she describes, “Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.” In this passage, Brontë explicitly compares the brown birds to dead leaves. These lifeless birds are the only living animals visible in the area, making the surroundings look barren and desolate. Her description creates the image of a deserted wilderness�one could even say wasteland�that epitomizes decay.
Although Thornfield Hall manifests some elements of decay in its normal condition, it most clearly shows them after Bertha sets it on fire. The burnt remnants are left to nature’s will so that, when Jane returns there in search of Mr. Rochester, she finds a destroyed building, literally decaying and decomposing. She describes it as “a blackened ruin” and, in relating the scene she encounters, explains “And there was the silence of death about it: the solitude of a lonesome wild . . . The grim blackness of the stones told by what fate the Hall had fallen — by conflagration . . . .” Brontë once more paints a dark picture with images of death and blackness. She associates silence, loneliness, and solitude with her depiction of decay, and the motifs of fire and burning are again present. It is also worthy to note how frequently Brontë uses certain words in her text. She uses the word “death” sixty times, “burn” (or some derivative of it) eighty-seven times, and both “dark” and “fire” appear over one hundred times each. These statistics show to what extent these ideas permeate her work and how much Jane Eyre revolves around these motifs.
A final scene that demonstrates several aspects of decay is when, shortly before the day scheduled for her wedding, Jane returns to the chestnut tree where she and Mr. Rochester had once sat and where he had proposed to her. Since lightning had struck it later on the same night as when they sat there together, she finds it quite mangled and describes how:
Descending the laurel walk, I faced the wreck of the chestnut-tree; it stood up black and riven: the trunk, split down the centre, gasped ghastly. The cloven halves were not broken from each other, for the firm base and strong roots kept them unsundered below; though community of vitality was destroyed — the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead, and next winter’s tempests would be sure to fell one or both to earth: as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree — a ruin, but an entire ruin.
In this passage, Brontë returns to her recurring motifs of blackness, death, and coldness. She terms the split tree, like Thornfield, “ruined,” although still holding together. The decay of this tree also represents her relationship with Mr. Rochester, which is about to deteriorate when she learns he is still married to Bertha, but which does not entirely dissolve, for she will later return to him and they will stay together despite the “storm” that splits them apart. Furthermore, using the chestnut tree as a symbol of decay relates decay back to nature, as Brontë did when describing the Lowood garden and the area around Thornfield, and as Dickens did when describing Miss Havisham’s garden.
The motif of prevailing, pervading decay appears not only in prose but also in poetry. Wilde, in particular, often focuses on specific elements of decay and makes them a central theme in his poetry. His three-stanza poem “Symphony In Yellow” looks at decay more in the sense that it causes things to disappear. Wilde focuses on the fleeting and ephemeral characteristics of things such as omnibuses, butterflies, and leaves. The butterflies and leaves, both being parts of nature, reinforce the ideas that Dickens and Brontë presented that nature is constantly alive but in a state of perpetual decay. One can connect the omnibuses back to the concepts of mechanization that Carlyle discussed, since this new phenomenon of omnibuses and other forms of more advanced transportation will, at least according to Wilde, ultimately fade away just as, say, horse-drawn carriages did. Interestingly, Wilde describes the omnibus, butterfly, and leaves all as yellow. Here he creates a pattern similar to Dickens in using yellow as a descriptor associated with decay. If one follows this pattern, he also refers to the hay as yellow as well as the fog that “hangs along the quay.” One might take from this that the barges and the quay are temporary as well, and especially with the advances in transportation that are occurring at this time, Wilde suggests that more modern technology will soon replace boats of this sort (as one could say did happen, to some extent, by airplanes).
Wilde’s poem “Impression du Matin” incorporates many of the same elements as “Symphony in Yellow.” He once again speaks of yellow fog over water that in this case surrounds bridges. This fog darkens the area it permeates “till the houses’ walls / Seemed changed to shadows.” Wilde refers again to “barges with ochre-coloured hay” along the quay and adds the phrase “chill and cold” in describing the wharf, a phrase he also uses in his double villanelle, “Pan.” The shadows, along with the “chill and cold” in “Impression du Matin,” are reminiscent of Brontë’s descriptions of coldness and darkness at Lowood and elsewhere throughout Jane Eyre. In addition to using the word yellow to symbolize decay in “Impression du Matin,” Wilde depicts the Thames when the morning arrives as gray, a color representing an absence of color and a sort of darkness or shadow, similar to brown. In “Pan,” he writes, “This modern world is grey and old” and “For Faun and nymph are old and grey.” His association of gray with age construes gray as symbolic of death, which puts a strange slant on the gray Thames of the morning. By association, the Thames would then take on an image of oldness and decay, which is contrary to the common conception of morning as a time of renewal.
Furthermore, an interesting distinction exists between gold and yellow. Although the color yellow tends to represent deterioration, gold has a more positive implication. For example, in “Impression du Matin,” Wilde refers to the Thames during the night as blue and gold before it turns to gray at dawn. In “Pan,” he writes,
Nor through the laurels can one see
Thy soft brown limbs, thy beard of gold
And what remains to us of thee?
These verses imply that one used to see the brown limbs and gold beard but can no longer, and thus they represent a beauty existing before decay. Gold is the more refined, more lustrous cousin of yellow that embodies richness not found in plain yellow, and thus represents greater beauty and worth.
Finally, Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House” also looks at various forms of decay. The speaker relates how, “The shadows raced across the blind . . . Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.” Wilde once again evokes the image of shadows and blackness and refers to leaves as he did in “Symphony in Yellow.” These elements of darkness and nature connect once again to Brontë’s and Dickens’s portrayals, and each of these attributes that represents decay works with the others to depict the Harlot’s House as a decrepit place. A new element of decay that Wilde introduces in this poem is dust, which appears when the speaker remarks, “‘The dead are dancing with the dead, / The dust is whirling with the dust.’” The speaker directly relates dust to the dead, as makes sense if one envisions how corpses decay and turn to dust in nature. Wilde’s harlot’s house represents a house of people who are essentially already dead.
Wilde’s many poems incorporate similar analogies and look at recurring themes of decay in terms of nature, people, and society. One notes a pattern in his usage of motifs such as yellow, fog, gray, and cold, which are motifs that other authors of the period also chose to use, particularly Dickens and Brontë. Like the works of Dickens and Brontë, his poems reflect the changing society of the Victorian era, as well as the decay that is ever-present in the world. Swinburne, another poet who also portrays decay, uses some of the same motifs as the works of Wilde, Dickens, and Brontë, in “By the North Sea, ” two parts of which in particular recall images later found in Wilde’s poetry. In the fourth stanza of the first section of his poem, the speaker describes
And her waters are haggard and yellow
And crass with the scurf of the beach
And his garments are grey as the hoary
Wan sky where the day lies dim.
These four verses remind the reader of Wilde’s yellow fog over the quay with the hay-filled barges. Additionally, Swinburne uses the words grey and dim, which again evoke an image of darkness, much like Brontë’s Lowood. The second instance that follows closely the depictions in other works is in section five of Swinburne’s poem where in the second stanza the speaker refers to the sea’s fields in his two lines, “Embroiled with encumbrance of earth, / Their skirts are turbid and yellow.” Again, he describes the edges of the water as yellow, and his association here of yellow with turbidity compunds the already bleak interpretation of the color.
All of the authors discussed embody in some manner or another the attitudes (or shifting attitudes) of the Victorian era. The emphasis on decay, death, change, and destruction reflects the political and social atmosphere of the 1800s and society’s attitudes toward the continuous changes. The literature of the period indicates which issues were important to Victorian society and in some ways explains why certain changes did or did not occur. One can also glean from Victorian literature ideas and concepts that are not unique to that era, but which repeat themselves throughout centuries. For example, the hesitation of the older generation at accepting fast developments such as more highly mechanized forms of transportation is not much different from the hesitation felt by later generations at accepting cars, airplanes, computers, and cell phones. Furthermore, as the contributor to All the Year Round stated, “Those years, 1830-31, would seem antediluvian to the smart, young fellows of twenty who have been born and bred in the days of railroads and electric telegraphs” (302).
Similarly, the generations that have grown up with advanced technology find it normal to use these new technologies constantly as fundamental parts of their lives. Although the older generations look on in apprehension that their children will become obsessed with the hyper-efficiency that these machines allow, to the younger generation it does indeed “seem antediluvian” to, for example, look up a word in a hardcopy dictionary when they have a Smartphone in front of them. With all changes come pros and cons, but often those who are used to the previous lifestyle focuses on the cons, while the younger, more flexible people focus on the pros. Whether change benefits or disadvantages the society is sometimes only a matter of perspective, and Victorian literature demonstrates how, for example, trains, a now almost obsolete mode of transportation themselves, once made people nervous just as today’s new technologies can. Modern readers can learn to reconsider their perspectives on today’s changes and see them as part of a constantly growing and changing society, rather than the latest threat to tradition and culture. In this way, Victorian literature reflects not only Victorian society but today’s society as well.
Beerbohm, Max. “1880.” Yellow Book 4 (1895): 275-283.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, An Autobiography. London: Service & Paton, 1897. Project Gutenburg. 29 Apr. 2007. 14 May 2010. <>.
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Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1867. Project Gutenburg. Web. 20 Aug. 2008. 14 May 2010.
Khanna, Kate. “Annotation: Even the Horse is Stripped of his Harness.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 25 Mar. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Landow, George P. “Victorian and Victorianism.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 2 Aug. 2009. 14
MacDonald, George. Phantastes, A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Ed. Greville MacDonald. 1905. Project Gutenburg. 8 July 2008. 14 May 2010.
“My Young Remembrance.” All the Year Round 5 (1861): 300-304.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “By the North Sea.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 10 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Wilde, Oscar. “Impression du Matin.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 28 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Wilde, Oscar. “Pan.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 28 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Wilde, Oscar. “Symphony in Yellow.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 28 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Harlot’s House.” Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. 27 Apr. 2010. 14 May 2010.
Last modified 16 May 2010