In the Victorian Era, there was a defined bridge between the different races and cultures across America. Throughout literature, images of darkness were used metaphorically in relation to the different social patterns and races. This metaphor can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where the setting of his story literally begins in darkness, and the theme consistently reappears throughout the text. The novel itself also touches on imperialism and the cruel powers of the Europeans. They claim they are on a civilized mission, but go on to steal resources and take African land. The rise of imperialism by Great Britain led to a great portion of the Earth being under British rule. The thought process was that a trade between different countries would help expand British business and maintain their powerful position in the world. In an article on the British Empire, the author writes, “In the 17th and 18th centuries, the crown exercised control over its colonies chiefly in the areas of trade and shipping. In accordance with the mercantilist philosophy of the time, the colonies were regarded as a source of necessary raw materials for England and were granted monopolies for their products, such as tobacco and sugar, in the British market. In return, they were expected to conduct all their trade by means of English ships and to serve as markets for British manufactured goods” (British Empire). However, imperialism is often referred to as the “white man’s burden” because Britain’s strategy was beyond civilized.
In the Victorian era, women were seen as belonging in the domestic sphere, meaning, their roles included stereotypical womanly duties. They were expected to take care of their husbands, cook them dinner, clean the house, and tend to their children amongst other things. During this era, women had very limited rights, and once a Victorian man and women were married, the woman became property to her man. He would have control over their money and property, and the women would be there for domestic labor and birthing children. Ultimately, women had no role in society outside of the household. This led to a Feminist movement which would become the first feminist wave in history. The feminist movement was seen throughout literature, and other art forms. Mary Elizabeth Coleridge would even go as far as using a male pen name to publish her works which would touch on how women were viewed in society. In one of her poems, she even compares a women to a witch, which is viewed as a taboo and negative thing. Women struggled in society and wanted to make a difference, but this would present itself to be a challenge because their rights were so limited. In an article about feminism in the Victorian era, the author writes, “Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first brought the idea of women’s suffrage up in the platform he presented to British electors in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause” (Feminism during Victorian Era). This would lead to women earning the right to vote in Britain.
Parvez, a taxi driver, worries about his son Ali, whose behavior is increasingly changing for the worst in his father’s eyes. He has developed a sharp tongue, and throwing his possessions away over time, leaving a bare room. After years of boasting of his son to friends, Parvez is now ashamed and embarrassed to talk about his son’s new behavior for fear of being blamed. When he finally did crack and tell his friends, the men came to the conclusion that Ali was on drugs. Bettina, a loyal customer and friend of Parvez, did not blame either man, but instead gave him genuine advice. After seeing Ali praying, Parvez decided that drugs were not to blame. Over time, Parvez grew angrier and angrier and turned to drinking to cope over the confusion of his son. After finally getting to sit down with Ali, Parvez claimed he felt as if he was losing his son, who is embracing the lifestyle of his peers. One night, while Ali was praying in his room, his father came in belligerent and beat him until he was bloody in the face. Ali showed no fear, or any real emotion. Instead he retaliated with, “So who’s the fanatic now?”
Parvez ate pork and drank alcohol, which is forbidden by the Quran. He claims he wants to enjoy the material goods of life, while Ali claims the “Western materialists” hate them. This culture clash is the main theme in the story. Both Parvez and Ali talk, but their communication is not strong enough to break through to one another. They simply talk past each other because they do not understand one another. The father and son talk past each other, not to each other, although the father does try to reach the son. This leads to violence in the end. The author, Kureishi is trying to rely the message that we need to listen to one another, and attempt to understand the differences we all have in this shared life.
“The Day They Burned the Books” by Jean Rhys touches on the subject of cultural identity. In his article, Riederer writes, “Rhys’ cultural background seeps into her stories and beckons forth depictions of her early childhood cultural values, methods of creating identity or autonomy, and unique social constructs of otherness” (Owlcation). In the story, both the narrator and her friend Eddie are children who question their true cultural identity, as Eddie has a white father and a colored mother, and the narrator is an English girl. The two children are conflicted over their identities because they are growing up in the Caribbean.
The characters have trouble relating to their shared English roots. They claim the few English people they have met led to an awkward and uncomfortable encounter, and Eddie does not relate to his father who cherishes his English culture. Eddie claims he does not like strawberries or daffodils, two symbols of the culture. Eddie’s father, Mr. Sawyer, wants him to embrace his cultural roots, as he is an educated English man who has negative feelings towards the Carribean. Meanwhile, his mother, Mrs. Sawyer, is an educated colored woman who grew up in the Caribbean and wanted to strip Eddie of his cultural identity in favor of her own. Mr. Sawyer built a room specifically for holding his cherished books from England. However, Eddie’s mother despised the room because of her general distaste towards books, and after his father died, his mother planned on burning the books. Even though he remained confused, Eddie decided to claim the room as his own because the books reminded him of his father. In an attempt to stop his mother, Eddie and the narrator each grabbed a book to keep safe. To Eddie, the books were all he had left of his father, and they made him feel safe when he read them.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad explores many themes, including imperialism, colonization, and darkness. Marlow feels that negative Imperialism is evil and unnecessary, and instead has good intentions to help the Africans. In an article about imperialism, the author writes “It had more negative effects in the modern world today than positive effects” (Effects of Imperialism). Marlow stays true to his moral values, as he realizes he is an impostor and invading in foreign land. He wants the Africans to advance and progress. However, Marlow has flaws that contradict his moral values. He observes people abusing their power, specifically white people, who are more advanced and have better tools. When he sees a young black boy being abused and treated unfairly, he does nothing to stop it even though he disapproves that it is happening in the first place. He simply accepts that it is happening, and walks away.
The novel also touches on the horrors of colonialism. The point of the travel to Congo is to civilize the native people who reside there. The Europeans want to convert the inhabitants to a European way of life. Kurtz, a white man, views the natives is inhuman, and that they need to be both improved and cultured. They are viewed as being “below” the Europeans, and the Europeans are a higher race. They eventually steal the land and Africa’s resources.
Darkness is a prominent theme in the novel. When Marlow tells his tale, it starts in darkness, and it ends in darkness as well. The darkness symbolizes the unknown, and several times the reader sees characters afraid not of the darkness itself, but what might potentially be found beyond it. The reader also sees darkness in comparison to skin color. The novel touches on white men VS dark skinned men. Nonwhites were treated unfairly, as racism was common during this time period.
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel that reads like a stream of consciousness, and features multiple complex characters who tell their part of the story from their own viewpoint. The entire novel is set in a single day in London, five years after World War 1 ended. In an article about how the war affected the characters in the novel, David Bradshaw writes, “In its opening pages, for example, we read that an aeroplane hovering over London creates unease in those beneath it because, even on such a balmy summer day five years after the conclusion of hostilities, the sound of the plane can still ‘ominously’ bring to mind the German planes that had attacked the capital so terrifyingly during the war” (Bradshaw). The novel consistently touches on how the war has affected London’s society. The novel starts out with the central character, Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa loves life, and feels like she understands people beyond a surface level. She is an upper-class women, who begins her day by going out to buy flowers for a party she is hosting later that evening. Clarissa spends time reflecting on her younger self during her walk, and encounters her old friend Hugh. Clarissa is self-conscious of her hat, and upon seeing Hugh, this triggers another memory of her old friend Peter, who wasn’t very fond of Hugh. Clarissa’s train of thought then shifts to contemplating death, how conscious she is that people do not view her as an individual but rather as her husband’s wife, and her daughter who has different interests than she does. The reader sees many shifts throughout the first part of the novel, which very accurately depicts any humans’ natural thought process. It’s important to note the theme of oppression that Clarissa appears to feel. She tries to maintain a high status and is always concerned about her appearance and how she presents herself to people. She hides her true feelings, and has a fear that marrying her husband Richard was a mistake.
Upon returning home, Clarissa is upset to learn Richard was invited to lunch without her. She continues to reflect on her own mortality, and begins to remember her wild rebellious friend Sally, whom she once shared a kiss with, and describes it as a religious experience even though she doesn't believe in God. Clarissa is concerned about filling sexual stereotypes, and she continues to try to discover her purpose in life, since women in the Victorian Era were not expected to have careers. Due to this, Clarissa feels it is necessary to make feel comfortable and be sociable.
Wilfred Owen writes about reconciliation between two soldiers in his poem Strange Meeting. Immediately from the title, the reader knows the story that follows will be an encounter between two people. However, the dialogue of the two soldiers is both touching and tragic. Owen fought in World War 1 and died just a week before the war ended. Having experienced the brutality and shock from war, Owens was inspired to create works of literature that reflected the true horror of what war is really like, rather than the gentle sentimental viewpoint. In an article about the impact war had on literature, Amanda Onion writes, “At first, idealism persisted as leaders glorified young soldiers marching off for the good of the country” (Onion). Owen would go on to shed light on the harsh reality of what war was really like for the people who fought.
Owen ends his second stanza, “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell,” which gives the setting for this meeting. It is quickly apparent that this soldier has died and ended up in hell after fighting in the war. He then begins to wander around hell, mentioning the other inhabitants are moaning and groaning, obviously pained. He decides to strike up a conversation which quickly takes an unsurprising, dark turn. Lines 22-24 read, “For by my glee might many men have laughed, And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now” (Owen). These lines are particularly depressing, considering the man is speaking on the life he left behind upon entering hell. Not only is he missing out on the rest of his life, other people are missing out on him being alive. He then goes on to talk about how he will never be able to speak the truth about how horrendous war actually is, and how there will never be an end to the madness. He is now left to suffer in hell for eternity. One line that stands out to me in particular is line 40, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” (Owen). This is when the reader learns the man who initiated the conversation actually killed the man he is speaking to during the war, and now they are both suffering. The use of the phrasing “my friend” is striking to me, as I read it almost as an apology, along with the very last line, “Let us sleep now….” (Owen). No matter what happened on Earth, they are both damned in hell for eternity, and considering they both lost out on life, they can find similarity in their faults.
The Victorian Era is notorious for the scientific advancement and social change that occurred during its time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde touches on this movement. In the Victorian Era, there were many new scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. In an article about how science influenced this era, Hasa writes, “These scientific discoveries had a tremendous impact on the lifestyle and beliefs and attitudes of people who lived in this Victorian era. Moreover, the influence of these scientific discoveries was not only limited to Britain, they had an effect on the whole world” (Hasa). One of the main themes in this novella is duality of human nature. Specifically, good versus evil, and the struggle between the double sided personality that exists in every creature. The reader can see this in Dr. Jekyll’s character, a respectable scientist who is devoted to perfecting a potion that would split his personas into two separate entities, the good and evil. By doing so, this creates the character Mr. Hyde, who takes on his “bad” traits. Mr. Hyde is hideous, animalistic, and violently evil. However, Jekyll remains a combination of good and bad, never fully quite mastering his potion. Throughout the novella, Hyde appears more and more, until his persona eventually dominates Jekyll’s. This allows the reader to debate why the purely evil side ended up conquering the better version between the two personas. It could be because the dark side of man is strong enough to overtake anything that crosses his path. Yet, this still doesn’t answer why Jekyll was unable to conjure up an angelic persona rather than an evil one. One theory could be that Hyde was created for Jekyll to act out in an evil manner without ruining his name and feeling remorse about his actions. This could be why Hyde is one letter off from “hide.” Perhaps Jekyll’s intentions were evil in the first place, which is why Hyde ultimately became an evil character, and Jekyll maintained both good and evil.
Michael Field is a pseudonym behind the masterminds of Victorian era writers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. This age saw the birth of feminism, and these two women had voices they felt they needed to share with the world. However, women’s rights were still extremely limited, and society was very male dominated. In an article about the role of women in higher education during the Victorian era, Demir claims, “Higher education was seen as unnecessary by their family and the society. They just could find works which didn’t require high qualifications, such as needle work, cleaning, baby sitting. Men even didn’t condescend to talk to them about politics, art, business and science” (Demir). Women were expected to sit nice and look pretty, so for these two women to publish works of literature under a female name would mean their work would immediately be discarded. This is why their published works are so important even in society today.
In “Maids, not to you my mind doth change,” strong verbiage is used consistently throughout the poem to emphasize the authors’ love for women, which was strongly frowned upon during this time. The reader sees this in the first stanza, “Men I defy, allure, estrange, Prostrate, make bond or free” (Field). Society forbids homosexuality, and Bradley and Cooper took this mindset into account when they wrote, in order to speak their own personal viewpoint right back into society. In the line “Soon doth a lover’s patience tire,” (Field) the reader understands that they are tired of hiding a forbidden love. In the final stanza, “And with your soft vitality My weary bosom fill” (Field) is most striking to me because it shows the reader that even though this love between two women is challenging and deemed a “negative” thing in society, they are able to find solace in each other’s love despite it being outlawed. Through powerful language, Bradley and Cooper were able to spread feminist ideas and a strong voice throughout literature, one that continues to speak loudly even in society today.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge speaks of self-reflection and women as witches in her two poems, “The Other Side of a Mirror” and “The Witch”. The former is a more intimate setting, as the reader sees a woman analyzing herself in a mirror. The woman begins to describe how she has changed over time, and how she does not like who she has become. She mentions a loss of beauty, which is replaced with feelings of anger and jealousy. These internal emotions are so dark, it becomes reflected on her physical body, as seen in lines 11 and 12 “It formed the thorny aureole Of hard unsanctified distress” (Coleridge). This line is a metaphor for the speakers hair, and how it could physically be a mess, but it also signifies that the speaker is forced to wear a metaphorical crown of thorns, that poke at her head and mind, which causes her physical and emotional pain. The poem takes a turn in the third stanza, when the woman begins to describe that she has been silenced, and is forced to keep this pain and suffering internalized. She says she can part her lips, but not wide enough to “speak her dread,” and claims her lips are a “hideous wound.” By the fourth stanza, the woman confirms that she has lost all hope because her emotions are too powerful to tire. The woman goes on to ask the mirror to have the image disappear, as she no longer wants to see who she has become. The poem ends with the woman claiming “I am she!” which is the first line in the poem where the reader sees the woman proclaim something out loud to herself. This is a change from the third stanza where the woman felt as if she was forced to silence.
“The Witch” goes on to tell a tale about a witch who has traveled a long journey. This detail remains vague throughout the whole poem, but the witch describes how she has “wandered” “hard and long.” The witch also describes physical ailments such as having wet clothes and sore feet. The last lines in stanzas 1 and 2 are the same, “Oh, life me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!” (Coleridge). The woman is seeking shelter after her journey, although it remains unclear what this journey is and how she managed to do it, and why. In the final stanza, the speaker changes to a man. Once he opens his door to the witch, he claims, “She came—she came—and the quivering flame Sank and died in the fire. It never was lit again on my hearth” (Coleridge). This leaves the reader wondering what happened to the man after he let the witch into his house, but the reader can grasp that his life will remain forever changed. This part of the poem stands out to me the most because in some cultures, being a “witch” is considered to be a derogatory term which could lead the reader to assume the witch did something horrible to the man. However, being a “witch” could simply mean this woman broke free from tradition and lives her life wandering the world instead of living her life to stereotypical standards such as marrying a man and starting a family.
Both of Coleridge’s poems leave a sense of mystery to the reader. The reader is able to sense struggles from both of the women’s perspectives in each poem, but the question “why are they struggling?” is never directly answered. Both poems share a feminist voice and touch on how women in the Victorian era struggle to avoid becoming passive and dutiful, even though that is how they are expected to live. It shows the women being silenced, and perhaps enraged, and the women may not even directly understand why, hence why it is a mystery to the reader as well.