Gender and Class in Victorian Britain

Updated on May 18, 2018
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Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland majoring in English and History.

Victorian Society was one of strict social and gender barriers
Victorian Society was one of strict social and gender barriers | Source

A time of both great change and unwavering tradition, this article will discuss the idea that the norms and values of Victorian society were challenged by some of the major works of the period. The novels that will encompass this discussion are Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. This is with reference to the two themes of class and gender. The social class structures of the middle-class and the working class are key elements of both works. The historical context behind which the idea of Victorian society was born and the societal boundaries that emerged from it are also pivotal here in developing a keener understanding of the literature. The idea of social merit is also significant as markers of contrast between the ways in which certain characters gain wealth. The works differ in the position of their narrative voice, but this range from lower to middle class provides a more detailed backdrop to the issues of gender and class as it pertains to Victorian social ethics. The motif of middle-class masculinity runs throughout Victorian literature and is a key element by which the norms and values are challenged.

Firstly, a discussion on what Victorian society was and the implications this had on literature. Although Dickens and Stevenson had very different childhood experiences, they were both affected and shaped by their surroundings. The Victorian society that these works were published in was one of rigidity. After many years of British Imperial dominance, new theories and ideas were beginning to emerge, that would rock the society, as values and ideas were beginning to be questioned. Particularly with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, these new ideas resulted in attempts to emphasise certain characteristics of society, in the hope that this would return Britain to a ‘better’ society of the past. These two characteristics were a strong masculinity, coupled with a middle-class status. It is these aspects of society that will encompass this argument as the ideas of class status and masculine power are shaken throughout two works as both authors attempt to redefine the ways that Victorian society will view itself. The struggle of new ideas and old values plagued Victorian society, much in the same way it plagued the characters of its literature.

The breaking and questioning of social norms of class that Great Expectations explores are best seen through the character of Pip. Pip is a key component of Dickens attempt to question the strict social hierarchies of class. In the beginning, Pip is unconcerned with class structure, but when presented with the possibility of upward mobility, Pip begins in earnest, forgoing his past. Pip himself becomes a class snob, as when Mr Joe wishes to visit him he says if he “...could have kept him away by paying money, [he] certainly would have paid money”. However, when Pip is reunited with Magwitch, he soon begins to see the absurdities of class structure. “From me too, a veil seemed to be drawn, and I felt strong and well”. The generosity that his one-time convict and now outcast from society has shown him, allows Pip to become morally conscious and see beyond class. Concurrently, Estella can see the abuse suffered because of her class snobbery in choosing Bentley. Eventually, she understands her mistake and reconciles with Pip. The Pip and Estella relationship show the problems of the rigid class structure of the Victorian society and indicates that by adhering to it, only unhappiness can be found. In the end, Pip and Estella, once separated by strict Victorian class barriers, walk together, now transcending the boundaries of class and dismissing it.

Many of the restrictions that are pushed in Great Expectations occur because of wealth and its distribution among society. All the characters are oppressed and suffer from the ideals of class. The contrasts made between the characters of Miss Havisham and Magwitch reveal key insights into the ideas of social margins in the Victorian period. At the beginning of the novel, Magwitch occupies the lowest rank of society; a criminal. However, through his own hard work Magwitch gains wealth, but even so, people are repulsed by it. Pip would rather Miss Havisham, who never had to work for any money she had, be his benefactor, rather than get money through the hard work and genuine care of Magwitch. Despite Magwitch earning his living fairly, he is out-casted from society due to his previous existence, “It’s death to come back”. Magwitch suffers from the fact that Victorian Society does not recognise self-improvement, and that simply gaining wealth is not viewed as the right way to achieve upward mobility. However, when Pip realises the absurdity of class snobbery, he is able to reconcile with Magwitch, eventually informing him that his daughter, Estella is alive and that he intends to marry her. Although Victorian Society may frown upon Magwitch and Pip, these characters can be happy in the knowledge that class no longer defines them as people.

Great Expectations is also a novel in which the societal norms of gender and the role of men and women are questioned. Although some of the female characters in this novel are portrayed in a negative way such as Miss Havisham; through the unkind actions of the male characters, there are some feelings of pity and understanding for these women’s suffering. This idea that a woman who is mad, cruel or unfeminine, is somewhat justified in a domineering and patriarchal society, was quite a radical concept. Often those viewed as mad, particularly women, were shunned, such as is seen in other works of the period like the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Even the brutal treatment that Miss Havisham inflicts upon others, is attempted to be rationalised, and not merely dismissed as the actions of a hysterical woman. "If you knew all my story,’ she pleaded, ‘you would have some compassion for me and a better understanding of me". Miss Havisham is able the recognise her faults, and recognise that she has not achieved anything by her obsession over a man. In the end, it is because Miss Havisham is still wearing her wedding dress that she catches fire. Miss Havisham dies because she could not recognise that she could be an independent woman, which was quite a radical idea for Dickens to put forward in a patriarchal Victorian Society.

The character that best encapsulates this idea of the unnatural nature of gender boundaries is that of Mrs Joe Gargarey. She represents the antithesis of what Victorian England thought a woman should be and how they should act. She is the enforcer of the family, seemingly taking no instruction from her husband and overseeing all daily occurrences in the household, which was very uncommon at the time. She beats her brother Pip and uses violence against her husband. The roles of Mr and Mrs Joe Gargery are a complete reverse of the expected norms of society at the time. Mrs Joe is fierce and violent, and very perceptive, while Mr Joe is described as "...mild, good-natured...foolish". Even their courtship is unnatural for the time. Pip even suspects Mrs Joe as having physically forced Mr Joe to marry her. This goes against Victorian values that a woman should not display open desire or act upon them, as it was thought that this act of courtship should be initiated by the man. Mrs Joe also is not described as being particularly good-looking, though this has not hindered her life in a Victorian Society that treasured female beauty and femininity. Mrs Joe sticks out in Victorian Society, but she succeeds because she ignores Victorian male power structures.

Dickens' work dealt with all aspects of Victorian Society
Dickens' work dealt with all aspects of Victorian Society | Source

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores the perceptions of masculinity in Victorian times. Jekyll and Hyde provides one of the greatest insights into masculine identity in the late Victorian era. The novel consists almost entirely of male voices and characters, with very few female characters mentioned. However, it is through the over-exposure of the male characters that Stevenson provides a critique, as the male characters are exceedingly scrutinised due to featuring so regularly. Even Dr Lanyon and his contemporaries who are defined as civilised and possessing a strong a sense of decorum, in the end, fall from grace. Their attempt to showcase a strong middle-class masculinity ultimately fails. “…you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine”, Dr Lanyon is rooted in old beliefs and values that will no longer suffice in society, and his early death in the novel is a showcase of the death of a rigid male power structure.

The character of Mr Utterson in Jekyll and Hyde is the most prominent example by which Stevenson attempts to question standardised male knowledge narratives. Mr Utterson in the novel represents the traditional rational scientific profession, which at the time of the novel was a male-controlled field. “…a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile…”, Mr Utterson is the embodiment of the Victorian idea of a strong sensible middle-class male figure, seen as the way to ameliorate society. As Mr Utterson speaks to the butler Poole about the strange behaviour in Jekyll’s study, he is of supreme confidence and clarity, but after the reveal of Dr Jekyll’s ailment, all the beliefs and values that Utterson has based his life on have been destroyed. At the end of the novel this male rational viewpoint is entirely overthrown upon the reveal of the Jekyll and Hyde duality, and Utterson retreats from the novel into obscurity. Traditional male power and knowledge are destroyed at the end as both Lanyon and Utterson are ruined due to their inability to accept their mistakes, while Jekyll is somewhat redeemed as he admits his imperfections as a man and a human being.

The class society that is represented in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a middle-class society. The different narrative voices used throughout the book show a tapestry of Victorian society and provides a running commentary on the norms and values that were prevalent at the time. Dr Lanyon sees the work of Dr Jekyll as the antithesis of middle-class society, which in Lanyon’s view is meant to be one of productivity and discipline. To Lanyon, Dr Jekyll’s experiments are unnatural and unproductive. The idea of class in the novel is interwoven with the ideals of masculinity, and as discussed earlier, this male, middle-class power structure fails at the end of the story. Dr Jekyll’s letter reveals that he was destined to be a successful and honourable member of society. However, Dr Jekyll cannot nor does not want to be the model of bourgeois society. “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end”. Jekyll is unable to be happy in a Victorian society that demands a rigid middle-class identity. In the end of the novel both Lanyon and Jekyll are dead, but it is only Jekyll who has enjoyed some contentment in his life as through Hyde he was able to briefly escape the prison of Victorian middle-class boundaries.

In summation, both novels are prime examples of how through the use of literature, real-life social norms, values and ideas once thought to be concrete and immovable, can be questioned and challenged. The rehabilitation that the character of Magwitch goes through in Great Expectations, is at odds with the perceptions at the time in a society of the rigidity of social place. This is like how the middle-class world of Jekyll and Hyde, highlights the failures of class structures. The duality of the Jekyll and Hyde characters show Stevenson’s dismissal of the Victorian masculine narrative. This is echoed in Great Expectations as the female characters can succeed and be independent of masculine power, or are consequently damaged due to their adherence to it. Literature can at times supersede its artistic value, which is the case here, as both Stevenson and Dickens have been able to evoke a rebellious feeling through their work into non-acceptance and non-conformity to class and gender ideologies of the Victorian period.

Jekyll and Hyde shows the darker aspects of Victorian Britain
Jekyll and Hyde shows the darker aspects of Victorian Britain | Source

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