Victorian Social Stratification Essay, Research Paper
In England during the Victorian era, social divisions of class were a major part of people s daily lives. Victorian views on class and of that time s social division in general, are described in great detail by Charles Dickens in many of his novels published during the Victorian period. Dickens Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are two examples of works that tell of the classification between the poor and the wealthy. Through his vivid descriptions, symbolic characters, and dialog spoken, Dickens shows the stratification of people from his time. This essay will describe this stratification, and how Dickens believed that the poor might have been less fortunate, but how most were given a happy ending if their heart was good, and for those who committed evil, would eventually get what they deserved.
Many poor, unlucky children during the Victorian period were born in or sent to workhouses, and noted for its opposition to the New Poor Law of 1837, Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, gives detailed accounts of the horrible fates that many young, unfortunate paupers had to face in these places. To refer to this kind of care the workhouse officials gave to the pauper infants, Dickens uses the term farmed to convey how these children were raised. He explains the term further by indicating that the children not only must survive on minimal nourishment, but also be lucky enough to elude additional dangers. Horrid accounts of children being smothered or sickened from neglect or cold, some even burned in fires, are described by Dickens to further emphasize the abuse the poor had to endure simply because it would allow more available food for the officers (Dickens 4).
The terms inadvertently and accidentally are strewn throughout this passage to show the reader sarcasm of the accounts, and to hint that often times these incidents were purposely crafted. Dickens then portrays the child s passing as a summoning …into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this (Dickens 4). Despite the dismal face that death brings to many, in this statement Dickens expresses how the children would have their happiness after death in a heaven-like place, nothing like the world they were born into at the workhouse. Perhaps Dickens chooses this quote to emphasize death as a passage to a better heavenly place for the paupers, and a more dismal, evil fate for the officers. Another implication of the quote could be in terms of Dickens distaste to the whole system, and how he abhors the ill treatment of the innocent paupers from the god-like officers. Whatever the case, the evil doer was punished by not receiving this heaven-like place after death.
In addition to these horrid descriptions of the lives of the poor, Dickens further emphasis stratification by creating his characters symbolically and giving them names that describe their class and or demeanor. This way of creating an artificial name is a typical device of Dickens in many of his novels including David Copperfield, where he further demonstrates the opposing classes of the Victorian era. Edward Murdstone is an example of a more wealthy character in this novel, who by no chance of Dickens, is portrayed as cruel and evil. His name itself is compounded of murder and stone, which are two words depicting his ill disposition. As it turns out in the novel, Murdstone holds true to his name. Not only does he cruelly beat David, but also slowly drives his beloved mother, Clara, to an early grave.
Another name that contains hidden meanings that is representative of his class is James Steerforth, a cunning character also found in the novel David Copperfield. However, the fact that David feels goodness toward him for most of the novel, this does not predict the true heart of the crafty Steerforth. In chapter six Steerforth, who is similar in class to David, enters the novel. As implied by his name, Steerforth s leadership overpowers David in such a suave manner that David gives away his money in order to feed the entire bedroom. After taking hold of his money, Steerforth, emphasizing his power over David explains how …we must make it stretch as far as we can…. Despite the fact that it is David s money, Steerforth has already imposed possession of it. He then further shows his leadership by claiming, I ll do the best in my power for you, because I can go out when I like…. David is then assured that Steerforth would take care of him and everything …should be all right (Dickens 81). To further prove how Steerforth is controlling David, simply replace for with over in the statement Steerforth makes about doing the best with his power. This is Dickens way of disguising the real truth of Steerforth s intentions: he will make the best of his power over David.
Although Steerforth belongs to the same class comparatively as David, he is more evil. It is true in many of his novels that Dickens sometimes portrays the poor as more good natured than the rich. However, in cases where the poor perform evil doings, through the course of the novel they often get what they deserve and are disposed of. In Chapter 56, Steerforth dies, not as a direct result of his ill habits, but as if Nature had given a final punishment for all the harm he had done. Steerforth, in David Copperfield, is a character example of how Dickens believes that one can be of any class, of any demeanor and still get what they deserve.
Also in the book David Copperfield, Dickens writes of his heroin, David, visiting a close friend named Peggotty. Despite the fact that the Pegotty s are of a lower class, the stay at their home is one of the most idyllic experiences in David s life. Described in deep contrast to his own home with the higher classed Mr. Murdstone and company, the family is very warm and kind to him. David expresses his merriment at the houseboat and its inhabitants by describing the ship s features as delightful, wonderful and captivating, even though the living space is limited. David, summing up the feelings he had toward the family, states how …it became the perfect abode (Dickens 28). Through the character of David, Dickens demonstrates how sometimes the rich and wealthy can be cruel and unpleasant to live with, while on the other end of the spectrum, the poor have a more healthy and favorable way of living. This is Dickens happy portrayal of the lower class.
To take a further look at this Peggotty home, Dickens tells of David s first night stay as delicious to give the reader a taste of what it was like for him. Obviously no one can taste night, but the word acts as a helpful descriptor by giving a human quality to a non-human object. Further non-human-like characteristics of the night were also given to the wind and fog. Dickens describes the wind as …getting up out at sea… and the fog as …creeping over the desolate flat outside…. All of these occurrences contribute to David s experience on the boat as an enchantment (Dickens 30). It is clear that none of David s nights at the Murdstone home was quite like this one.
Throughout these two Dickens novels, there are heavy contrasts of characters that range from the innocent, poor paupers such as Oliver Twist and the Pegotty s, to the wealthier, more evil characters like Murdstone and Steerforth. These creations all suggest Dickens underlying meaning of stratification: the good class and the evil class. Those who do good receive good and in most cases have more pleasant fates, however the evil doers, many times receive the opposite. Though not every creation and storyline of Dickens fit this role, it is clear that the Victorian era was a time of stratification, and in Dickens belief, those evil at heart better be prepared for what is in store for them.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York. 1997: 28, 30, 81.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York. 1999: 4.