The Importance of Form in Relation to the Historical Content in Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and Middlemarch
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Great Expectations by Charles Dicken’s and Middlemarch by George Eliot simultaneously display the notion that the form is one of the ways it can be understood in relation to the specific historical context from which it emerges. Additionally, they similarly have been shaped by the material conditions of production and reception set in the Victorian Era through social class and conditions. Although Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel, it relates to Great Expectations in its love major conflicts with love, the imperivness of social class and the role of women. Middlemarch by George Eliot also represents the desperation for majority of women to wed into wealth and financial and social security due to the material conditions of the 18th century. In this essay, I will be discussing the debate as to whether the form of the novel can only ever be fully understood from its historical context and how material conditions have shaped Great Expectations, Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights to highlight social class as they have. With all three novels based in the Victorian Era, they also all come head on with the Industrial Revolution which additionally shapes the novel, as there was an increase in the production of better working conditions, higher wages and shorter working days. It overall bought substantial social changes which then shaped Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Middlemarch to have the high themes of society and class.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 and primarily lived in poverty for the majority of his childhood. His father, incompetent and reckless with his finances, was sent to debtors’ prison when Dickens was only twelve years old. It is argued that Dicken’s life is reflected on his protagonist Pip in Great Expectations as they had a similar upbringing and found financial success in London at a relatively young age. Historically, the 19th century bought about substantial change for Britain. Great Expectations was set towards the end of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which was a time period that provided substantial technological improvements. It is clear throughout the duration of the novel that social class is a prime theme in Dicken’s Great Expectations. In addition to this, Dicken’s makes it clear to readers his own person distain towards the Upper-Class, most likely due to his similar past experiences being raised in a working-class family. He showcases a wide variety of characters to showcase the historical context behind Victorian England whilst simultaneously portraying the large divide between working class and upper class. As the novel begins, Dicken’s portrays to us Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and his desires of becoming the ultimate gentleman. Being a gentleman during this era ensued of a man being well groomed, well-spoken and well looked upon within society. Pip grows throughout the course of the novel and becoming the ultimate gentleman in this era meant either being born amongst ‘gentlemen’ or being born into the upper-class wealth. As Pip is an orphan and lives with his sister and her husband, Joe, Dicken’s indicates to readers that due to the way society worked at the time the novel was set, it would be most likely and more realistic that Pip would be stuck as working class for the rest of the novel. This makes Pip’s sudden and ironic inheritance by Magwitch becoming his mysterious benefactor a shock to the audience as the beginning of the novel implies that if you are born into a certain class, you were most likely to stay in that class for the rest of your life or in the very best case, become a gentlemen. Estella, as Pip’s love interest, initially looks down on Pip for his social status and looks down towards lower working class as a whole. Estella, being upper-class, made rude and snarky remarks towards Pip when they are initially introduced to each other. Being raised by the heartbroken Mrs Havisham, it comes to no surprise to readers when she calls Pip “common boy” whilst picking at his social class. This upsets Pip as he critiques himself for his “common boots and course hands”, leading him to feel “humiliated, hurt, spurned, upset, and angry”. Due to Pip living within other lower working-class people for the majority of his life, it is clear that it comes as a shock to him to be treated this way by Estella and Mrs Havisham as he was never in much direct contact with the wealthy beforehand. Pip’s sudden financial inheritance leads him to go through many character changes through the course of the novel. When Pip begins to dress nicer, he becomes embarrassed by his small town and particularly of Joe who is now much lower than him socially. When Joe visits Pip in his London home in Chapter 27, Pip feels ashamed and embarrassed of Joe. Simultaneously, Joe even refers to his old friend as “sir”, showcasing how Dicken’s portrayed the upper class to be even something that ruined long-standing friendships. During his visit, Pip even goes as far to ironically judge the clothes that Joe is wearing as he makes a comedy of Joes “efforts to appear polished”. Pip can be described, “as Pip climbs the social ladder, he sinks lower on the human”, further reinforcing how a sudden change in material conditions has changed Pip’s character completely.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is another novel that demonstrates that has been shaped by the material conditions of its production and reception. Wuthering Heights’s form is not the only literary device that can only ever be fully understood in relation to its historical content as its characters and language do also. Heathcliff, one of the novels protagonists, represents how social class is an important factor within this novel. Similarly, to Pip in Dicken’s Great Expectations, Heathcliff is also born an orphan, which threw him into the worst social class societally possible. Having a lower social class meant similarly to Pip, he was not able to interest the woman of his dreams, Catherine, due to his social class not being adequate enough for her and not rich like the Linton’s were. In chapter of the novel, social power is clearly highlighted when Nelly Dean narrates Heathcliff’s story of the time himself and Catherine were caught trespassing the Linton’s property. She describes how Linton swiftly dismissed Heathcliff due to his social class and the way he was dressed ‘unfit’. Mrs Linton even dramatically “raises her hands in horror” as she shouts at him saying “A wicked boy, at all events” and “you frightful thing! Put him in the cellar, papa” and that Heathcliff was “quite unfit for a decent house” whilst additionally making comment of his language. Whereas Catherine was immediately welcomed as they familiarised themselves with their fellow upper-class neighbour. It was widely known that working class people in the Victorian era typically spoke much differently in comparison to upper class people, examples include the lack of pronunciations of the letter ‘G’ and lacking the posh accent that the upper class were known for. English author Nancy Mitford started an uproar within working class society when she released an essay named Noblesse Obliged. Her essay contained a glossary of terms of ‘U and Non-U English’ – an abbreviation for Upper Class and Non-Upper-Class English. Examples from Mitford’s essay included the difference between saying a person had a nice home. She explained in her glossary that an Upper Class would use the language “They’ve a very nice house” in comparison to a non-upper-class person likely saying “they have (got) a lovely home”. The differences in these languages explain why the Linton’s immediately dismissed Heathcliff and recognised his social economic status not just by what he was wearing, but the language he used as well. Terry Eagleton further argues that Heathcliff could possibly be a “purely atomised individual outside of the family and society of an opposing realm”. This passage portrays that the novel was predominantly shaped by the material conditions as social class is a theme repeated throughout. Not allowing Heathcliff to come into their home showcases that Dicken’s wants readers to believe the wealthy looked down upon those that were lower class, particularly as they mock the way he is dressed by calling him “frightening” – the use of hyperbole shows how far the upper-class went to mock those below them socially. Overall, Heathcliff’s treatments for a large portion of the novel showcases how Wuthering Heights is shaped by the material conditions of the Victorian period, as they look down on him for the appearance of his clothes and even the language he uses.
Mrs Havisham is a prime example of a bitter Upper-Class woman in the late 18th century. Charles Dicken’s has an interesting representation of her character as it leaves readers strongly disliking her whilst simultaneously feeling quite sorry for her due to the fact, she mourns her husband leaving her just as they were to get married. It is said that Mrs Havisham was wearing her wedding dress and putting on her second shoe when she heard of her future husband Compeyson, leaving her. Heartbroken, she returns home, still in her wedding dress, still wearing the one shoe, and dramatically setting all of the clocks in her house to be twenty minutes to nine, as that was the exact time, she learned of the heart breaking news. When Pip arrives at Mrs Havisham’s home in chapter 8, he describes it to be of “old brick, and dismal, and a great many iron bars to it”. When Pip introduces himself to Mrs Havisham for the first time, he describes her to be dressed in “rich materials” and described the bouquet of flowers to have had “no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes”. Similarly, to Wuthering Heights, Satis House has a gothic feel to it as it is described by Pip to be “old brick, and dismal” and that some of the windows had even been “walled up” giving it an eerie feeling of the unknown. However, one of the very first introductions of Mrs Havisham in the novel comes from Pip, where he says in Chapter 7: “I had heard Mrs Havisham up town”. Dickens portrays the stark knowing differences between Pip and a woman who is upper-class as he describes her to be “up town”, far away from the working-class village he was living in. He further goes on to describe her as the “immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house, who led a life of seclusion”. This portrays Dicken’s true representation of the upper class to him as he contrastingly describes her house to be “large” but still dismal” and “rich” but “grim” suggesting that although Mrs Havisham does have a large house and is financially thriving, her house is still considered to be dismal and although she is rich she is still a “grim” character. Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem that helped readers at that time understand where Mrs Havisham was coming from in her mean-spirited character. Duffy is known for taking on a first-person narrative to better understand where the character is coming from and helps them feel less misunderstood. In this case, Duffy writes a poem about Mrs Havisham named “Havisham”, a very angry and bitter, resentful tone is used throughout the majority of the poem, perhaps to imply how Mrs Havisham felt being left by her fiancé. The 4th line in the second stanza says “the slewed mirror, full-length, her, me, who did this” insinuating that she is trying to find someone to put the blame on her fiancé leaving her. Overall, Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is an interesting and sympathetic way to perceive why Dicken’s wrote her character to be as bitter as she is.
Middlemarch by George Eliot is a novel full of English antiquity. Whilst Middlemarch focuses on particular protagonists through the duration of the novel, it predominantly gives readers insight into how the community was during this time period. The subtitle of the novel is “A Study of Provincial Life”, foreshadowing the book will go into detail about community and social class. Similarly, to Wuthering Heights with the characters Heathcliff and Catherine, Middlemarch has protagonists Dorothea and Casaubon who portray the importance of marriage when it comes to rising in social ranks. Much similarly to the other novels discussed, once you were set into a social class through your upbringing and family, it is incredibly difficult to get out of it and up into steady wealth. As Dicken’s showcase how a sudden inheritance and becoming a gentleman can rise your social rank, George Eliot shows us how marriage was also a means to get women into better social positions. Marrying into wealth was strongly encouraged. The novel showcases how it is shaped by material conditions in Chapter 12 when Rosamond takes a liking to Lydgate as she fantasises over what a future would be like with him as she dreams of “impressing Lydgate’s high-ranking relatives” furthermore proving that she, like many women during this period, married for wealth and social status in majority of situations. Marriage is a substantial theme throughout the novel as it links to social class, many marriages take place throughout the novel. George Eliot portrays marriage in a realistic manner and showcases it exactly how it would have been during the Victorian Era. According to Bennet, “marriage is the only conceivable career”. Women did not have many opportunities during the Industrial Revolution as men subsequently did, meaning they had no other choice but to marry into financial security and live their lives and wives and mothers. Another marriage that failed was the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond, it is clear through the novel that Rosamond strictly marries Lydgate for a higher social ranking as when times became financially tough, Rosamond withdraws herself and becomes more bitter towards Lydgate. This further portrays that although they may have married for love initially, under the surface, Rosamond was only after Lydgates prospects of giving her a higher ranking within society and financial stability. This is due to her cold behaviour once Lydgate starts to become financially unstable. Overall, Middlemarch is shaped by the material conditions of the Victorian period as Eliot showcased the realities behind marriage. Due to the Industrial Revolution providing more steady careers for men and hardly any for women, women then had to turn into marrying for wealth if they were ever going to keep themselves afloat.
To conclude, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Middlemarch by George Eliot both portray the ideology of the importance of form one of the literary devices in relation to the historical content from which it emerges. However, all novels mentioned also use other literary devices to showcase this, such as language, characterisation and structure. Additionally, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Middlemarch are all showcased by their authors to demonstrate the material conditions of production and reception through the hardships of the Victorian Era and the stark differences between lower working class and upper classes. All novels contain a variety of characters from all backgrounds, such as orphaned children, those born into wealth from a young age and those who inherit wealth later on. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations similarly portray the large divide between the working class and the wealthy and also the life changing difference an inheritance can make to a working person’s life. Both Dicken’s and Bronte portray the ‘too good to be true’ notion as neither Pip or Heathcliff end up very happy with their sudden fortunes and it doesn’t end up solving all of their prior issues. Eliot’s Middlemarch is more focused on how form and other literary devices relate to the historical problems about gender and females place in society as opposed to wealth like Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights did. Overall, all 3 novels do showcase that form can be understood in relation to the historical context in which it emerges, but it is not the only factor, as language, structure and characterisation contribute also. All three novels have been clearly shaped by the material conditions of their times as social class play a large factor across them all.
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