Representations of Change and Decay in Victorian Literature



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Representations of Change and Decay in Victorian Literature

The Victorian era saw a shift away from long-held, traditional approaches to technology, religion, politics, and society. Some saw these changes as progress, others as terrifying decay. Although many people embraced the rapid changes, others, resisted them or at least hesitated to accept them as quickly. People saw their old ways becoming obsolete and dying quickly, which caused them to fear what might replace them. The transformation from horses to trains, and from traditional, manual labour to all things mechanical, happened at such a rapid pace that people could hardly keep up. Many people thought that these new technologies would be detrimental, not beneficial, to society especially since the new advances, such as the railroad, meant the disappearance of older methods. The nineteenth century saw such a metamorphosis that the beginning of it seemed centuries apart from the end of it. The liberalism that came with the later half of the century brought freedoms as well as a lessening in adhesion to rules and responsibilities, which left many people feeling as if society was breaking down. Although not everyone would agree with this observation that rigidity and formality characterized the earlier part of the century, Max Beerbohm presents a similar opinion, and most importantly, this contrast demonstrates that a change occurred over the course of the century.

During the Victorian period, comments about supposed decay emerged as a particularly common motif in response to the new: a breaking down of traditional thought and a preference for forward-thinking ideas and more liberal tendencies. Thus, many authors of the period incorporated death and decay as central ideas into their works, including Charles Dickens. Each author represented decay in a slightly different fashion, but ultimately they all come to recognize it as a perpetual circumstance of dying with a generally negative significance.

Dickens’s Great Expectations presents several facets of decay, including those of people, nature, and society. When considering the many instances in which Dickens represents decay, it quickly becomes apparent that he uses the word “yellow” in one way or another in the majority of his descriptions of decay. He primarily uses this colour to describe Satis House and Miss Havisham, but he also uses it in his descriptions of Sarah Pocket and Mrs. Brandley’s daughter and Pip’s mug. Each of the people, places, or objects to which Dickens attributes the coluor yellow exhibits some feature of decay and decrepitude. This motif of yellow helps to tie the elements of decay together and create a coherent pattern of decay throughout the story.

When Pip first arrives at Satis House, the sense of decay and aging he notices upon stepping inside overwhelms him. Most of the house has remained untouched for years and kept in darkness, subsequently causing everything to lose its vibrancy. As Pip describes to the reader, “ . . . I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.” Additionally, Pip notes that Miss Havisham’s shoes and stockings are also yellow. This imagery of yellowed clothing and objects gives the reader a conception of the house slowly deteriorating. The comparison to withered flowers and the idea of lacking brightness also evokes the idea of nature and the way in which plants, when lacking sunlight, will wither, turn yellow, and die. By locking herself inside and blocking out all sunlight (and more metaphorically, society), Miss Havisham decays like a sun-deprived flower. As Pip observes later on, “So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped Time in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything else outside it grew older, it stood still.” Pip’s reference to Miss Havisham as a “spectre” or ghost depicts her as extremely frail and also as, in a sense, already dead. Her decision to stop all of the clocks after her tragic wedding day, lock herself inside, and even prevent the sunlight from penetrating the house represents her death, more or less, in terms of when she stopped living a social and interactive life with the rest of the world. Pip reinforces this idea by remarking that time had stood still inside the house since the day Miss Havisham stopped the clocks. Everything related to Satis House remains removed from society, awaiting its eventual death.

Dickens also uses yellow to describe Miss Havisham when Pip thinks he sees her figure hanging from a beam in the brewery. He tells the reader, “ . . . I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white, with but one shoe to the feet; and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the face was Miss Havisham's, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me.” Although greater complexity shrouds the significance of this imagined encounter, the reader clearly notices the symbol of Miss Havisham as already dead and the image of her dress beginning to decay, as indicated by its “earthy” quality, much like an object on the ground that decomposes.

Furthermore, Miss Havisham herself admits that she is letting herself deteriorate and, in a sense, waiting to die. As she refers to herself, “‘I am yellow skin and bone.’” She has already planned her funeral and, although she does not actively pursue her own death, she takes a sort of perverse enjoyment in preparing for it. At one point she declares to her company:

“Matthew will come and see me at last,” said Miss Havisham, sternly, “when I am laid on that table. That will be his place, — there,” striking the table with her stick, “at my head! And yours will be there! And your husband's there! And Sarah Pocket's there! And Georgiana's there! Now you all know where to take your stations when you come to feast upon me. And now go!”

This passage illustrates her obsession with surrounding her future corpse with the few people that remain in life, which indicates her desire to make people care about her, even if they do not genuinely. Surrounding herself with people at her funeral convinces her that she had some worth in this world and mattered in one way or another. Nonetheless, she remains eager to escape this life and even goes so far as to claim she would happily die today. Pip describes this moment in the following way:

She held the head of her stick against her heart as she stood looking at the table; she in her once white dress, all yellow and withered; the once white cloth all yellow and withered; everything around in a state to crumble under a touch.

When the ruin is complete, said she, with a ghastly look, and when they lay me dead, in my bride's dress on the bride's table, — which shall be done, and which will be the finished curse upon him, — so much the better if it is done on this day!

Here, Dickens once again uses the word “yellow” and emphasizes Miss Havisham’s acceptance of and readiness for her death.

In addition to describing Miss Havisham and the rooms of Satis House as yellow, Dickens extends his yellow descriptions to the grounds surrounding Satis House. The first instance of this occurs when Pip describes the garden upon first discovering it. He tells the reader,

Behind the furthest end of the brewery, was a rank garden with an old wall; not so high but that I could struggle up and hold on long enough to look over it, and see that the rank garden was the garden of the house, and that it was overgrown with tangled weeds, but that there was a track upon the green and yellow paths.

This imagery not only once again presents the word “yellow,” but further conveys the sense of decay through descriptions of the “old wall” and the “rank garden” that has become “overgrown with tangled weeds.” Dickens reintroduces the idea of nature here and connects it with yellowing. At another scene in the same garden, Pip relates, “We walked round the ruined garden twice or thrice more, and it was all in bloom for me. If the green and yellow growth of weed in the chinks of the old wall had been the most precious flowers that ever blew, it could not have been more cherished in my remembrance.” Pip now speaks of the weeds as yellow and terms them beautiful, but their beauty only exists as a consequence of Estella’s presence. Qualifying their beauty as dependant on Estella’s presence indicates that they are, most likely, actually unsightly weeds, and Dickens, therefore, once again ties nature to decay.

Furthermore, Dickens extends his use of “yellow” to describe decay beyond just the realm of Satis House and Miss Havisham. Pip describes Sarah Pocket as having a yellow and green appearance (similar to the garden’s paths and weeds) on several occasions. Firstly, he relates how “Sarah Pocket came to the gate, and positively reeled back when she saw me so changed; her walnut-shell countenance likewise turned from brown to green and yellow.” Dickens continues this portrayal as Pip later tells that “At the end of the passage, while the bell was still reverberating, I found Sarah Pocket, who appeared to have now become constitutionally green and yellow by reason of me” and refers to her as his “green and yellow friend.” Finally, in a later passage, Pip speaks of Mr. Jaggers and how “Throughout dinner he took a dry delight in making Sarah Pocket greener and yellower, by often referring in conversation with me to my expectations.” This constant reinforcement of the detail that Sarah Pocket’s face turns green and yellow depicts her almost like a sickly plant. Pip’s “expectations” and his relation to Miss Havisham clearly make her uneasy, possibly because she feels threatened by his quick transformation from country boy to gentleman and fears that he may take precedence over her in Miss Havisham’s will, somehow cheating her out of an inheritance. Whether for this reason or another, Dickens uses “yellow” to further enforce the idea that she is in a way decaying as well. Being constantly around Miss Havisham and Satis House would surely affect her own psychology, and as Pip ponders, “What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?” Additionally, the prospect of not receiving some money from Miss Havisham’s will might also put her in a state of dismay.

Another person the novel depicts as yellow is Mrs. Brandley’s daughter, with whom Estella spends a short time while in London. As Pip notes, “The mother looked young, and the daughter looked old; the mother's complexion was pink, and the daughter's was yellow; the mother set up for frivolity, and the daughter for theology.” Interestingly, Dickens chooses to portray the daughter as looking old and yellow, instead of the mother. Although the mother seems to have no real aim in life, he sets up the daughter’s prospect of theology to sound like the less logical choice, which begs the question of how Dickens viewed religion. He does not address religion often in this text, but the few times that he does he associates it, by analogy, with very rigid and uptight characters such as Georgiana and Mrs. Joe. Therefore, the age and yellowing that he associates with Mrs. Brandley’s daughter may indicate his criticism of religion and her choice to devote her life to it.

The final and possibly most curious use of yellow occurs in the second chapter of the book where Pip refers to his “yellow mug of tea on one knee.” He holds this mug while sitting at home with his sister and Joe, trying to sneak out his buttered bread for Magwitch. Although one would not generally observe this use of “yellow” as more than simply a matter of description, in light of the way Dickens uses “yellow” in each of the other nineteen places it appears in the novel, a second reading of this usage begs further analysis. Choosing to label this mug yellow makes the reader consider the oldness it represents, the age of the house, and Pip’s desire to escape what he considers a dull and unsophisticated life without any prospects. It puts a negative slant on this seemingly insignificant mug and, when carefully considered, adds a new dimension to the passage.

In essence, what once looked white and beautiful on Miss Havisham’s wedding day has now faded and yellowed with age, along with her spirit. She has kept the curtains of her house closed not only literally but symbolically, causing the rooms to turn yellow like leaves without sunlight and keeping out everything fresh and new. The land around Satis House reflects the inner decay, as demonstrated by Dickens’s descriptions of the paths as yellow and of the weeds as dying. Even some people, such as Sarah Pocket and Mrs. Brandley’s daughter, reflect decay and, moreover, serve to reflect the decay of society as a whole, particularly in terms of ideologies.

The works of Dickens, like others, reflect the changing society of the Victorian era, as well as the decay that is ever-present in the world. The emphasis on decay, death, change, and destruction reflects the political and social atmosphere of the 1800s and society’s attitudes toward the continuous changes. The literature of the period indicates which issues were important to Victorian society and in some ways explains why certain changes did or did not occur. One can also glean from Victorian literature ideas and concepts that are not unique to that era, but which repeat themselves throughout centuries. For example, the hesitation of the older generation at accepting fast developments such as more highly mechanized forms of transportation is not much different from the hesitation felt by later generations at accepting cars, airplanes, computers, and cell phones.

Similarly, the generations that have grown up with advanced technology find it normal to use these new technologies constantly as fundamental parts of their lives. Although the older generations look on in apprehension that their children will become obsessed with the hyper-efficiency that these machines allow, to the younger generation it does indeed “seem antediluvian” to, for example, look up a word in a hardcopy dictionary when they have a Smartphone in front of them. With all changes come pros and cons, but often those who are used to the previous lifestyle focuses on the cons, while the younger, more flexible people focus on the pros. Whether change benefits or disadvantages the society is sometimes only a matter of perspective, and Victorian literature demonstrates how, for example, trains, a now almost obsolete mode of transportation themselves, once made people nervous just as today’s new technologies can. Modern readers can learn to reconsider their perspectives on today’s changes and see them as part of a constantly growing and changing society, rather than the latest threat to tradition and culture. In this way, Victorian literature reflects not only Victorian society but today’s society as well.

Adapted from George P. Landow’s article



(published on www.thevictorianweb.org)

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