Politics, Economics, and Class in Literary Works: The Impact of the Industrial Revolution and Women’s Questioning

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

The Romantic and Victorian period came during the time of the Industrial Revolution, which also caused a shift in how society viewed the roles of genders. With the shift in economic and political development, came a modification in the class infrastructure. Financially and, in the case of gender, societal values were changing.

The Industrial Revolution occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and “was a period during which predominantly agrarian, rural societies in Europe and America became industrial and urban” (History.com Staff). This revolution mainly affected the working class economy, and was a shift in social and economic dynamics. With men going off to work, women remained home to take care of the domestic duties. However, there was a need to be educated in the domestic duties of women, and many women of the upper-class, had servants who tended to the housework.

The idea of education for women, was new. Domestic duties varied depending on the class system, and “rather than attracting a husband through their domestic abilities, middle-class girls were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’” (Hughes). Pride and Prejudice, further emphasizes the skills required to be seen as a marriageable lady through the character of Caroline Bingley:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved (Austen 35).

Caroline represents the role women were now beginning to have after the Industrial Revolution. Yet, Elizabeth Bennet portrays a women questioning these ideals. Elizabeth is headstrong and speaks her mind, which, during these times, makes her undesirable. Mr. Collins speaks against a questioning women:

“Pardon me for interrupting you, madam,” cried Mr. Collins; “but if she is really headstrong and foolish, I know not whether she would altogether be a very desirable wife to a man in my situation, who naturally looks for happiness in the marriage state. If therefore she actually persists in rejecting my suit, perhaps it were better not to force her into accepting me, because if liable to such defects of temper, she could not contribute much to my felicity” (Austen 96).

While Elizabeth represents a small minority of women in society, she is not alone. Most men and women were taught that women were to be dependent upon men and to essentially serve them. Although Elizabeth wants to be accepted for who she is, she is not totally against the idea of getting married. In the end she does marry Mr. Darcy, but forces him to accept the idea of a headstrong woman.

Estella is a character in Great Expectations who, despite her dislikeable attitude, is against the idea of being with a man. Perhaps, not against, but rather cannot quite fathom the thought of loving a man enough to get married. Her mother, in many ways, has tainted her. In a brief conversation with Pip, Estella reveals that she has never loved, and one can possibly conclude that Estella may never love, “‘I have not bestowed my tenderness anywhere. I have never had any such thing’” (Dickens 238). Although love was not a desirable affection for Estella, she didn’t seem to want to become a mother either. During the nineteenth century, “women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction” (Hughes). However, Estella is not the female character of disdain. Charles Dickens seemed to be against the idea of a strong headed female character, for many of the females encountered seem to be ones to dislike. Mean-spirited, unsympathetic, and self-centered are the typical traits of the women whom Pip encounters. Yet, there is hope in Biddy, the only loyal female character to Pip. She is his friend, despite the treatment Pip displays onto her.

With an idea on how women were supposed to act, and the roles they played based on their class ranking in society, perhaps the attitudes of the women mentioned is dependent upon their place in society. With the growing hardships and poor working conditions of working in factories, came unrest in the working class. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two European men who would come together to write the Communist Manifesto, believed that the working class should hold the power in society. The Communist Manifesto, which was written in 1848, spoke about class struggle. Essentially this meant those who control the means and mode of production versus those who labor in that form of economy. To adequately distinguish the difference between these two classes, Marx terms the “bourgeoisie” as the industrial capitalist and the “proletariat” as the industrial worker: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx 80). Marx and Engels, being Communists, believed that the proletariats should gain control and lead the state: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletariat parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, the overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat” (Marx 95). In other words, a Communist economy is a state where the government, or state, functions on behalf of the proletariat; meaning the proletariat class controls the means of productions and the profits from the economic production are distributed, since the current bourgeoisie is incapable of meeting the needs the proletariat class: “[The bourgeoisie] is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society” (Marx 93). The Communist Manifesto essentially outlines this exact need for change in the working class economy, while also acknowledging a clear difference between the classes.

As previously noted, women were to get married to have children. Wealth was viewed through inheritance, and while the working class earned money, they could never truly be part of the upper-class unless they married into such. Similar to the Bennet family, many families tried to marry their daughters up in the economic latter, but found it quite difficult. Mr. Darcy, despite his love for Elizabeth, at first cared more about his class ranking:

He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit (Austen 161).

In a proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy also chides at how by marrying her, he will lose part of his class credibility. Although the economy was strict when it came to class-status based on financial wealth, Jane Austen breaks down this illusion. The Bennet family in some ways, should be held at a higher rank in society than the Bingley family based on how wealth between the two families is distributed. While the working class during this time holds more power in society, they are still clearly seen as inferior. Marrying up was about politics rather than love. Even though the Elizabeth did marry for love, she still married a man of a higher class ranking.

In a contrast, Pip is a young boy desiring to be a part of the upper-class and is intrigued by Miss Havisham and Estella. Due to Pip’s experiences with the lower class – his dealings with criminals like Magwitch, peasants like Joe and Biddy, and people in the middle-class like Pumblechook – he longs to do better. Pip’s experiences as an orphan, may have crippled his respect for those in his own class. It isn’t until after being introduced to the world that Miss Havisham lives that Pip becomes aware of his own physical characteristics, and in some ways feels ashamed, “I took the opportunity of being alone in the court-yard, to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favourable” (Dickens 62). The Industrial Revolution forced the working class to become self-aware. This awareness stems from the roles they play in helping to shape the economy. While the working class may not be bosses, they hold the power in the sense that they control the means and modes of production. Pip has not yet realized what good fortune he has by being able to take control of his own working abilities and how essential these abilities are to society. It is not until the end, that Pip realizes, truly, the value of loyalty, affection, and self-love.

The Industrial Revolution brought about social changes in the dynamics of class and gender. While women were being redefined in their roles to society, class structure was also being questioned. After analyzing the characters and themes of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, one can see how women’s questioning was portrayed in the texts and how women’s questioning impacted the society around them. In assessing the idea of women’s questioning in the novel, the impact of the social structure of class could also be analyzed and considered a possible key element in why women were beginning to question their roles. Women of various class statuses maybe wanted more for themselves on an independent level, while other felt a need to be secured by a man. Nonetheless, it is quite obvious that the Industrial Revolution influenced the infrastructure of society, breaking down the dynamics of gender roles and class ranking.

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