All that I Learned from ENGL 5580: The Victorian Age

This week, I am finishing up a four week, very intensive course on the Victorian era and Victorian literature. Let me just say that this is perhaps the most fascinating era to learn about–due to the Industrial Revolution, there were many anxieties and changes taking place in human society–and I was on the edge of my seat almost the entire class.

Did you know that most novels, such as Oliver Twist, were serialized, which meant that, because the middle class could not afford the book in it’s entirety, publishers would publish one section at a time (thus why we get chapter headings)? Dickens is famous for creating characters with a distinctive clothing item in order to help his readers remember who is whom.

Did you know that during the Great Exhibition, Britain brought in living exhibits, which were a collection of real people to mimic a tribe in Somali? (I can just imagine what that looked like–a village of people trying to act naturally, while a bunch of white people stood around and gawked at them).

Did you know that if a gentlemen passed an acquaintance on the street, he was not allowed to acknowledge her until she acknowledged him? And, a true gentlemen knows how to dance, always escorts a women across the street, and if the lady forgets to shut a door, he is supposed to get out of his seat and shut it for her. Oh, and it is socially unacceptable to leave food in his whiskers.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Victorian era was learning about critiques on society and the ways in which it was changing. People began moving into the city, which meant a new kind of society–one that never existed previously–began to emerge, along with tensions and anxieties associated with change. So, the Victorian’s science-tized everything; they created rules to govern every social sphere a Victorian may enter, they found an interest in building circumstantial evidence, and they began looking at the world as a way to made order and structure out of chaos.

Philosophers comments on how, “society has loose morals and values and we must educate our youth to bring propriety back” and “those silly adventure stories have no literary merit and include too much blood and guts for young boys to be reading”, “the divorce rate is at an all time high because people are becoming too lazy and too selfish to work out their problems”, “people are getting married later and later in life and we might have a population crisis if they don’t start having kids soon”.

Do these comments sound familiar?

Perhaps the most important take away message that I gained from my four-week, five novel, forty-hour crash course in the Victorian era is that, while the time periods may change, humans still suffer from the same problems, they still complain about the same “moral decline in society”, and they still try to scapegoat, lie, and put down other people to make themselves feel more superior.

Take, for example, the Victorian novel genre of adventure fiction. This included fantastical stories, geared towards young boys, such as King Solomon’s Mines, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island. They were stories to entertain, to take young boys on manly adventures, to educate on the imperialistic view. Critics of these stories said the stories were “too violent”, “had too much gore”, “too much sexual exploitation of women” and “would be the ruin of society”. Sound familiar?

Or, we have sensational fiction. Stories, such as Lady Audley’s Secret, display triangle relationships, unrequited love, dark secrets, attempted murders, people lying to each other, women falling on the floor in conjectural, uncontrollable sobs, boys who don’t know who their fathers are, bigamy, people who seek revenge by trying to set someone on fire. When I read it, it surely reminded me of a Victorian version of a soap opera.

What was also exposed to me is a little window into what it means to be human, the age old question that English-y people, like myself, have been trying to answer. We can see this in Shakespearean plays, Victorian novels, Modernists text; the same themes apply. What it means to be human is to constantly be in a state of suffering; whether we are suffering from physical needs, such as starvation or dehydration, or suffering from belonging needs, such as loving someone who doesn’t love you back, or suffering from societal constraints, such as wanting to be animalistic and pound your chest like a monkey, but having to sit in your petticoat and corset instead. We are constantly living between the tension of individual desires and societal expectations. We are controlled by fear of being ostracized. The institution of marriage is corrupt, and love is not quite what we idealize it to be. Humans are curious creatures and crave mystery, secrecy. As Westerners, we are motivated by competition and are inherently selfish by nature. Chaos is unnatural, so we subconsciously (or consciously, depending on the philosopher you ask) try to create order and structure, rules and laws. Homosocial and homosexual relationships have always been around and for some reason, in society, we try to suppress those tendencies. Art is an expression of the artist. If we suppress too many things, we end up going crazy (but, of course, ‘crazy’ is also a socially constructed term). Really, the ‘meaning of life’ is to find ways to suffer less.

While we may be extremely critical of the seemingly oppressive Victorian lifestyle, it is important to note how influential they were, even to our lifestyles today, and that perhaps we are not any different than they were…

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