By Thomas CarlyleOne of the most salient social problems of the Victorian period was the struggleof the working class. In Chartism by Thomas Carlyle, the problem is outlined; inWilliam Dodds narrative, it is recounted from personal experience. ElizabethGaskells North and South is a fictional account of the very real condition ofEngland. Clearly, questions of social and economic injustice were on the frontburner even as the social oppression transpired.
Another very prominent featureof Victorian England was religion, more specifically Christianity. William Doddand Bessy Higgins are individuals who have endured enormous suffering, who havelost any sort of quality of life to the factories, and yet adhere perhaps evenmore strongly to their faith. Thomas Carlyle, with purse oftenest in theflaccid state, bears closely in mind the fact that he has the miraculousbreath of Life in him, breathed into his nostrils by Almighty God(Carlyle, p. 37). Margaret Hale, who is of modest but comfortable means,witnesses a multitude of sufferings during her time in Milton, but she maintainsher lofty notions of God and Christianity, even as her father, a man of thechurch, questions the godliness of the churchs economic practices. How doesit come to pass that humans can endure and/or witness such suffering as wasendured by the working classes of 19th century England and maintain theirreligious convictions all the same? It seems that the coexistence of the twophenomena would, or should cause some cognitive dissidence for a pious person,but here are four examples of people, two fictional (Bessy and Margaret), tworeal (Carlyle and Dodd), who can apparently reconcile religion and suffering.
Perhaps Christianity was so ingrained in the culture and in these individualsthat faith was more of a reflex than a conscious decision. Dodd raises thequestion, but dispels it without ever actually examining it. Near the very endof his narrative he asks, Is it consistent with the character of thisenlightened, Christian countrythat we, worn-out, cast-off cripples of themanufacturers, should be left to die of want at home? Forbid it, Heaven.(Dodd, pp. 318-319). His assertion of inconsistency is correct, but Heaven,despite his appeal, had clearly not forbidden a thing.
The God in whom he hasplaced his faith has allowed for his suffering, and the church that he respectsand to which he submits himself has not acted on his behalf. Either England wasa Christian country in name only, or the Christian church cared little about thewelfare of individuals who hadnt the means to make a donation; either way,the issue of moral impropriety in the church itself is another issue. The factremains that any society that is content to send children to labor in factoriesat an exceedingly young age, as Dodd was, lacks the moral grain that one wouldsuppose is integral to upholding religious fervor.
Carlyle takes a fairlybusinesslike and not religious approach to his condition of England manifesto,but the overwhelming Christian sentiment of the era naturally finds its way intohis writings. He seems to be of the mind that God has given him enough simply bygiving him life, but as a non-Christian, non-religious reader of Chartism, thevery mention of Christianity and the overwhelming injustice of Englandssocial structure at the time is an inherent paradox. There is something of asynapse in reasoning where he contends that society exists for thepreservation of property (Carlyle, p. 36), but maintains that the Englishsocial structure is a Christian one. The fault lies not in Christianity per se;Jewish people, for example, have struggled since the Holocaust to reconciletheir own faith with such an abhorrent occurrence that viciously seized thelives of six million Jews and six million others.
Still, the problem ofintellectual and emotional dissidence remains the same. Perhaps the mostperplexing of all of these characters is Bessy Higgins. She not only maintainsher ardently religious beliefs in the face of utter physical ruin caused byfactory working at too young an age and the loss of her mother, but actuallyseems to draw upon her suffering to amplify her faith. Bessy is resigned todeath, even anticipates and welcomes death, which is not unheard of consideringhow ill she issave for the fact that she is only nineteen years old. It isher faith, her utter devotion to the Bible and to her notions of God and Heaventhat make death seem a welcome reprieve from the suffering that she has endured,albeit suffering at the hands of the same God. In some respects, her faith is anasset in that it helps her to withstand the pain that has come to characterizeher very existence; however miserable Bessy may be, her unhappiness is quelledsomewhat by her expectation of a glorious Heaven. At the same time, thedesperation for something good to cling to cheapens her faith somewhat.
Withoutknowing how pious Bessy was before she became ill (which is, in a way,irrelevant, because she would have been very young), the fact that she has foundreligion and it is a comfort to her is very nice, but indicates that she isreligious out of necessity; that is, religion is the only thing that keeps hergoing. Perhaps this is as good a reason as any to be religious. Still, religionis her escape, her way of coping. On that level, it does follow that Bessy is sovery strong in her Christianity; as a coping mechanism, it works very well.However, upon examination by a more critical mind, it is hard to understand howan individual who has been so wronged by society and has been dealt such adifficult hand in life can contend that there is indeed a benevolent God, onewho is just saving up all the good that is Bessys due for the afterlife.Margaret Hale is steadfast in her Christianity. The daughter of a parish priestand a young woman with the benefit of education, this makes a great deal ofsense.
Margaret is also a character who questions many things, and questionsprobingly and critically, especially for a woman her age in that era. Thecondition of the working class in Milton, the moral rightness of Mr.Thorntons actions, the validity and the intelligence of the labor strike, andmany other things come under Margarets quite critical lens. It is almost outof character, then, for her not to raise more questions about the congruence ofthe suffering and the injustice that she witnesses, and a supposedly Christiansociety. Even Mr.
Hale is able to distance himself enough to raise questionsabout the churchs practices, and perhaps it is his maturity and totally purefaith that allows him to do this. Margaret is young, very idealistic, and forall her quickness, all the books she has read, she adheres to religion notignorantly, but blindly. When Bessy enumerates her sufferings on pages 101-102,and becomes nearly violent I her anguish (so much as she can muster from hersick-bed, anyway), Margarets response is to calmly inform her, Bessywehave a father in Heaven, to which Bessy replies, I know it! I know it.(Gaskell, p.102) It seems as though somehow both of them missed Bessysentirely valid tirade.
The existence of God may be a comforting and reassuringthing in which to have faith, but if he doesnt care about the working classwhile they are in the world, why do the people of the working class invest thatfaith? There are examples of individuals who rejected Christianity in light ofthe horrendous quality of life to which the working classes were condemned.Nicholas Higgins is of that school; he not only rejects religion for himself,but discourages the ailing Bessy from finding comfort in scripture. Although hecomes off as somewhat hard-nosed, particularly in the way he speaks to Bessyabout her greatest source of comfort. Still, assertions like when I seethe world going all wrong.
..leaving undone all the things that lie in disorderclose at its handwhy, I say, leave a this talk about religion alone, andset to work on what yo see and know, (Gaskell, p.92) make Mr. Higgins morecredible than his socioeconomic position and consequent lack of formal educationwould suggest.
He cannot, in his mind, reconcile piety with the hardships towhich he and his fellow men of the working class are condemned. He has beeneducated in the school of hard knocks, as they say, and there is no courserequirement in blind faith at that school. The condition of England was apreoccupation in Victorian literature. Although the very same questions of how abenevolent God can condone suffering exist even in our contemporary society,wherein social injustice continues to be a fact of life, we live in aconsiderably more secular culture. The dichotomy of a Christian society thatsuffered such high levels of poverty, suffering, and inequity is hard to digest.
William Dodd and Bessy Higgins clung to their faith perhaps out of need, as asurvival mechanism. Thomas Carlyle and Margaret Hale were maybe conditioned tobe so pious, had it so deeply ingrained in them from their culture that theyknew no other way to take in the world. It is easier to be critical of faith andreligious belief in the face of widespread suffering from the vantage point of avastly different culture. Still, such accounts of the Victorian period make itapparent that it was necessary to reconcile Christianity and the reality of thesocial condition of England in order to make sense of that society, or at leasta semblance of sense.English Essays