• The social background
It began when in 1837 Queen Victoria came to throne. She wasn’t only the queen of England, but also the Empress of the enormous British Empire. She had a huge political and economical power too. UK had problems due industrialization: housing, sanitary conditions, London was overcrowded, crime. Women and children worked full-time in coal mines. Children couldn’t go to school: lack of education.
Many people wanted reforms, so it began the “Age of Reforms”. Workhouses were established: here the poor had to give up their family life in return for basic support. But the idea was that these workhouses were deliberately unpleasant: poor would so try to do better and not relying upon welfare. Self-help was considered very important: to be a “self-made-man” was a matter of pride. The working class tried to improve their status: the Chartist movement wanted the vote for all adult males, more political and economical rights, regulation of work. During the reign of Victoria everybody was very optimistic. A new spirit: what a beautiful country is England, we British people can do whatever we want.
The Victorians were great moralizers. The appearance (“decorum”) become more important than substance. The values of society reflected not the world as it was, but as the people would have liked it to be. This idea produced the “Victorian compromise”, the attitude to consider only the positive aspects of life, and leave the bad things underneath. The family became the fundamental cell of society. You had to belong to a perfect family. If you didn’t, you had to fake it. But only the appearance had to be perfect, a formal perfection. The family was a patriarchal unit. The position of the husband was dominant. The woman had a key role in child-rearing and educating.
In an age which believed in progress, was natural to believe that material progress would emerge from hard work. Sense of duty was more important than personal inclination. The idea of respectability distinguished the middle from the lower class. It was a mixture of morality and hypocrisy, severity and conformity to social standards. Good manners, the ownership of a comfortable house with servants, etc. Sexuality was repressed in its public and privates forms.
Frequent were the expressions of civic pride. Patriotism was influenced by the idea of racial superiority. Some races were destined to lead the others. British had to export their way of life, their institutions, law and politics throughout the world. There was a sense of the “white man’s burden”: the British felt the responsibility to spread their superior way of life to the “uncivilized” (ethnocentrism), but at the same time they were concerned that this was unwelcome.
In 1861 died Prince Albert. Queen Victoria withdrew from society. The later years of the Victorian Age (until 1901) were characterized by a sense of decline and decadence, disillusionment, conflicts between religious faith and scientific discoveries.
In this age feelings were just appearance. Reason was fundamental. The best way of writing became prose. We find enormous personalities in literature. They aimed at reflecting the social changes due to the Industrial Revolution, the struggle for democracy, the growth of towns. They depicted society as they saw it. Common features were the voice of the narrator that erected a barrier between “right” and “wrong”. The city, was the favorite setting: the main symbol of the industrial civilization and also the expression of anonymous lives and lost identities.
Writers could be classified into three categories (not base on a chronological order, but according to their ideas):
1. The Early-Victorian Writers: they dealt with social and humanitarian themes. They participated to the spirit of the times, i.e. optimism, the belief that bad things could be solved and changed, with the help of reason. (Charles Dickens)
2. The Mid-Victorian Writers: the spirit of the age wasn’t much considered. They didn’t care about reality, nor politics. They were focused upon feelings, emotional troubles, interior conditions. Most of them were in fact women (the Bronte sisters, Robert L. Stevenson)
3. The Late-Victorian Writers: They shared a sense of disillusion. All the hopes hadn’t come true. Reason, reforms, can’t solve anything. They were pessimist Reason is a failure. They were near to the European “naturalism” and had an almost “scientific” look at human behavior (the narrator had no longer the power to comment, nor to judge. Some of them even tried to find an escape from reality in art and in drugs. They artificially created their own better reality. (Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy).
• Charles Dickens
The “social writer”. He had an unhappy childhood: his father went to prison for debt, he had to work in a factory at the age of 12. These period of suffering inspired much of the content of his novels. He exposes the exploited lives of children in the factories. The novels are set against the background of social issues, highlighting the conditions of the poor and the working class. He was optimistic that the problems could be solved thanks to the reforms. So he shows us what didn’t work. He criticizes the idea of workhouses: at the end all the things destined to poor people were taken by someone else. They had nothing to eat, almost died of starvation.
London is the setting of most of his novels. At first, he created middle class characters, often satirized. Than he developed a more radical social view. He succeeded in drawing popular attention to public abuses. He thought that all the “noble” institution didn’t work as they should have. He said that educational system was a disaster: only number and facts, the children couldn’t have desires, feelings, emotions, nothing not concrete. Educational system was inadequate to make them face other kinds of situations. They were not prepared to face life as adults. Dickens created caricatures: he exaggerated and ridiculed the peculiar social characteristics of the middle, lower and lowest classes. Children are often the most important characters. He reverses the natural order of things: children are the moral teachers, the examples instead of the imitators.
He has never wanted to induce revolution, but to get the common intelligence of the country to alleviate undeniable sufferings.
Takes place in an imaginary industrial town named Coketown. Thomas Gradgrind, an educator who believes in facts and statistics, has founded a school were his theories are taught, and he brings up two children (Louisa and Tom) in the same way, repressing their imagination and feelings. Josiah Bounderby is a rich banker of the city. He marries Gradgrind’s daughter.
The novel focuses on the difference between the rich and the poor, or factory owner and workers. It denounces the gap between the rich and the pour and criticizes the materialism and narrow-mindedness of utilitarianism. England was turning human beings into machines by avoiding the development of their emotions and imaginations. Mr. Gradgrind believes that human nature can be measured and governed entirely by rational rules. He educates the children as emotionless objects that are easily exploited for his own self-interest. Children are containers, empty vases to be filled with facts. Facts are concreteness, something understandable by, something real. Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. The teacher believes that this is the right system to educate children. He thinks he possess the “universal truth”, but he is just a failure as a father. His rigorous personality is described through physical aspects: he is square, his clothes are square, his voice is rigorous and precise.
• Oscar Wilde
He became a disciple of Aestheticism, a way to move away from the reality, a shelter in beauty of art: Art for Art’s Sake. It’s a moral as well an aesthetic imperative. Art exists only for the love of art itself. There is no message, no care in understanding from the audience. He adopted the aesthetic ideal also in his life: “My life is like a work of art”. He lived as rebel, and also as a dandy: a bourgeois artist, whose elegance is a symbol of the superiority of his spirit. He wants to shock, he demand absolute freedom. Life is only meant to pleasure, Wilde’s interest in beauty had no moral stance. Everyone did what he wanted during Victorian Age, but Wilde was the only one who didn’t put his acting underneath. He liked to show himself, to make people gossiping.
-)The picture of Dorian Gray
PREFACE: The artist is only the creator of beautiful things, an alien in a materialistic world. He is not concerned with communicating his theories. He just pursuits beauty, his aim is to reveal art. The work of art is a work of beauty. In his works, the artist must not be seen, as well as his opinion, his thoughts. The reader must not judge. If you find ugly meanings in beautiful things, than you are the corrupt one, this is your fault. There is not a moral nor an immoral book. Books are only well written or badly written. No artist desires to prove anything, has ethical sympathies, nor is ever morbid. The artist express everything.
To him, thought and language are instruments of art, and vice and virtues are materials for art. If a work of art generates diversity of opinion, that shows that that work is new, complex, vital.
All art is actually quite useless.
PLOT: London, 19th century. Dorian Gray owns his portrait: while all Gray’s desires are satisfied, including eternal youth, and he lives every kind of pleasure, all the sings of age and vice appear on the portrait. But when Gray sees how corrupted this image is, he wants to free himself of the portrait: he stabs it, but somehow, doing this, he also kills himself.
The story is told by a third-person narrator. A process of identification between the reader and the character is allowed. It’s a 19th-century version on the myth of Faust.
It’s strange, but in the end of the book is possible to find a moral message: reality cannot be escaped, Gray is unhappy and defeated by life.