jueves, 26 de abril de 2018

Realism in the High Victorian period and the intense psychological character studies from the perspectives of George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

Realism in the High Victorian period and the intense psychological character studies from the perspectives of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. 

The aim of this essay is going to focus on Realism in the High Victorian period and to explain why realist artists were especially known for their psychological character studies. First, the essay will start by introducing the Victorian period. Secondly, it will analyse how Realism influenced English literature. Finally, it will discuss the psychology of the characters from the perspectives of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. In the case of Dickens it will specially focus on the psychology of the main characters using the book of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) and Bleak House (1853) and in the case of Eliot, it will pay attention to women’s characterisation using the book of Middlemarch (1871).

The Victorian period represents the reign of Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1837-1901), some experts anticipate the beginning of the period, characterized by important changes in cultural sensitivities and political concerns, to the enactment of the Reform Act of 1832. It is a period where many changes are produced: from rural villages with couch-and-four (a carriage pulled by four horses and driven by one driver) that circulate on their roads, to large and modern cities with complex railway systems intertwined with each other. This period is also characterised by the overcrowded houses, where larger families live. In other words, significant changes brought challenging problems and multiple ambiguities difficult to solve. (Whitla, 2014).
From the cultural point of view, Victorianism extends from late Romanticism to the Edwardian era of the twentieth century. Moreover, this period is not only found in England, but also in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and later in the century, it extends to India and other parts of the British Empire. The term Victorian was applied to art as a set of styles and fashions represented in the architecture, writing, and way of speaking proper of the period. Although it was not recognized after years later, the year of the Great Exhibition in 1851 (where the inventions of the Industrial Revolution were taking place to show the progress of the growing human industry and its unlimited imagination through machinery, manufactured products, and sculptures), was the apex of the Victorian era. In this exhibition, British people celebrated the success of the national institutions, the wealth of commerce in the British Empire, the progress that steam power was having in their industry, and the success of international trade (Whitla, 2014).
Once presented the Victorian period, I will analyse Realism as a literary movement. Mullan states that realism is often thought to be a tendency of the Victorian fiction, and it is certain that its first use in literature was to express ‘the loyal representation of the real world’. In an essay on the artist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) George Eliot claimed that realism was the doctrine where truth and beauty can be found by doing a humble analysis of nature. Moreover, she believed that it couldn’t be substituted by the imagination of uncertain feelings, that is to say, Naturalism, the other literary movement of this period. Eliot specially insisted on the modesty that this realism must have, she wanted to focus her attention on the ‘ordinary’. In her first novel Adam Bede (1859), she wanted to prove the truthfulness she was aiming, to the quality. To do this, she describes many Dutch paintings that ‘high-minded people’ ignored. She found sympathy in those faithful paintings of a monotonous home activity and she tried to transmit this feeling in her novel.
By using this type of comparisons and descriptions faithful to reality, she gave a special value to the accurate presentation of appearances. However, she thought that characterisation was more than a simple description, it was the key of realism. In 1856, she criticized Charles Dickens in a famous article for being considered the most representative of this style of society’s descriptions. But unable to pass from the humorous and superficial to the emotional and tragic without being as transcendent as he was before in his artistic truthfulness, George Eliot said that Dickens did a ‘frequently false psychology’, and it was more evident when he described lower class people, such as poor children, artisans or melodramatic boatmen. For her, Dickens was not a realist. Henry James, a later American author between literary realism and literary modernism, will later describe him as ‘the greatest of superficial novelists’ (Mullan, 2014).
Moreover, Dicken’s truth to reality troubled seriously the critics of his day as it has troubled readers since he wrote his novels. Dickens himself sometimes asserted the reality of his fiction, as for instance, in the third edition of Oliver Twist (1841), where he had to respond to critics saying that he presented criminals and prostitutes as the faithful reality. In this book in particular, criminals are badly treated and represented, but nevertheless, prostitutes, as Nancy, have a sympathetic representation. Another good example of this appears in Bleak House (1852-3) when Dickens turned to the body of Jo, a crossing poor sweeper, to address wealthy people of his own society.
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day (Dickens, 1853, p. 892).
Despite Eliot’s criticism and the added difficulty involved in analysing the descriptions of Dicken’s characters, T.C. Renzi asserts that characters’ descriptions can be analysed. He says that main characters are the most important characters in Dicken’s descriptions. Therefore, their psychological and physical makeup must contain some degree of depth, in order to make them more interesting. Moreover, since main characters are the most influential during the story, their beginnings may contain prominent features that will later be clarified, developed and exploited in succeeding situations. One of these examples can be seen in Martin Chuzzlewit when Dickens introduces the character of Mr. Pecksniff, a spurious architect.
Mr. Pecksniff was a moral man... Perhaps there never was a more moral man than Mr. Pecksniff.... [H]e had a Fortunatus's purse of good sentiments on his inside... [He] was like the girl in the fairy tale, except that if they were not actual diamonds that fell from his lips, they were the very brightest paste... He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there... His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie, for he fastened it behind), and there it lay... serene and whiskerless before you (Dickens, 1867, p. 354).
In this quote, it can be seen that Dickens uses several literary devices to describe him and make the reader think in a particular perspective about the architect. One of them is the third-person narrator in order to use sarcasm, that is to say, Dickens uses verbal irony that contrasts with what is meant to be. With the purpose of ridiculing Pecksniff 's hypocrisy: what it may sound as a compliment, such as ‘moral man’, ‘sleek’ or ‘oily’ actually implies that he is a phony person, a trait that presages his motivations in later actions (Renzi, 2010).
Besides irony, Dickens uses literary devices to describe his characters through implied comparisons to other authors’ characters. As for instance, when he describes Pecksniff as ‘fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book’ in the quote, faintly alluding to Polonius in the book of Hamlet, who spoke with epithets without coherence. Furthermore, Dickens also makes a public display of what morality had to be while at the same time he is hiding his dark side from the others. The narrator finishes by embodying Pecksniff’s hypocrisy physically, in his way of dressing and in his appearance. After establishing this character’s basic personality, Dickens uses these central traits to recreate new situations in order to expose the psychological portrait of the character (Renzi, 2010). It is for these reasons that the complexity of the main characters’ descriptions had such importance in his works. For instance, he does not simply say that Pecksiff is a completely hypocritical snob, he tries to show the reader (thanks to his actions) how the character really is, showing at the same time one of his best skills.
Another type of characterization that realists carried out was women’s characterization. K. Hughes considers Eliot as one of the best representatives of this type of characterisation. Eliot’s attitude towards women’s rights, education and place in society, and how this attitude is expressed in the psychological portrays of the characters, were her most valuable features. One of these examples can be found in one of her books, Middlemarch. At the end of the story, the author tells us what will later happen to the heroine of the story, Dorothea Brooke. As a young woman at the beginning of the story, Dorothea compares herself to Spanish Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century mystic and social reformer who wanted to make a better world. However, Dorothea was born three centuries later, in a highly materialistic century in which there was no coherent social faith or order that could teach her soul how to improve the world.
By consequence, Dorothea ends her life married and with the despair that nobody will remember her. In spite of this fact, Eliot makes us see that she was such a wonderful person that readers do not have to feel disappointed at her for being condemned to a monotonous life. It is obvious that the heroine didn’t achieve the greatness and importance she wanted to have, but the day-to-day acts she performed, such as her kindness to people, had a profound effect within her domestic style of life. Therefore, the role she played as wife, mother, and friend, was, in some circumstances, her best and most valuable feature (Hughes, 2014).

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (Eliot, 1997, p.785).

In sum, this essay discussed the different types of characterisation that realist writers realised in their works and showed the importance of the psychological character studies. It also analysed two types of descriptions, in the case of Dickens, it has been the main characters’ descriptions and in the case of Eliot, it has been women’s descriptions. Last, but not least, this essay has exposed the differences between both writers, especially in the critic done by Eliot, where she accused Dickens of doing frequently false psychology.

Dickens, Charles, 2000. Bleak House. London: ElecBook.
Dickens, C. (1867). The life and adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Charles Dickens ed. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Eliot, George, & Carroll, D. 1997, Middlemarch, Oxford: Oxford University Press, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 18 March 2018.
Hughes, Kathryn, 2014. The British Library.
Available at:
[Last access: 16 May 2018].
Mullan, John, 2014. Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. [Enlínea]
Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/realism
[Last access: 15 March 2018].
Pierce, G. A., 2013. The Dickens Dictionary. Massachusets: Courier Corporation.
Renzi, T. C. (2010, January). What a 'character': Dickens was a master at creating memorable individuals and bringing them to life. Why not put some of his techniques to work in your own fiction? The Writer, 123(1), 26. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A213601179/LitRC?u=ed_itw&sid=LitRC&xid=a937d209
Shea, V, &Whitla, W (eds) 2014, Victorian Literature: An Anthology, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, Hoboken. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [16 March 2018].

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