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By Thomas Carlyle
One of the most salient social problems of the Victorian period was the struggle
of the working class. In Chartism by Thomas Carlyle, the problem is outlined; in
William Dodds narrative, it is recounted from personal experience. Elizabeth
Gaskells North and South is a fictional account of the very real condition of
England. Clearly, questions of social and economic injustice were on the front
burner even as the social oppression transpired. Another very prominent feature
of Victorian England was religion, more specifically Christianity. William Dodd
and Bessy Higgins are individuals who have endured enormous suffering, who have
lost any sort of quality of life to the factories, and yet adhere perhaps even
more strongly to their faith. Thomas Carlyle, with purse oftenest in the
flaccid state, bears closely in mind the fact that he has the miraculous
breath of Life in him, breathed into his nostrils by Almighty God
(Carlyle, p. 37). Margaret Hale, who is of modest but comfortable means,
witnesses a multitude of sufferings during her time in Milton, but she maintains
her lofty notions of God and Christianity, even as her father, a man of the
church, questions the godliness of the churchs economic practices. How does
it come to pass that humans can endure and/or witness such suffering as was
endured by the working classes of 19th century England and maintain their
religious convictions all the same? It seems that the coexistence of the two
phenomena would, or should cause some cognitive dissidence for a pious person,
but here are four examples of people, two fictional (Bessy and Margaret), two
real (Carlyle and Dodd), who can apparently reconcile religion and suffering.

Perhaps Christianity was so ingrained in the culture and in these individuals
that faith was more of a reflex than a conscious decision. Dodd raises the
question, but dispels it without ever actually examining it. Near the very end
of his narrative he asks, Is it consistent with the character of this
enlightened, Christian countrythat we, worn-out, cast-off cripples of the
manufacturers, should be left to die of want at home? Forbid it, Heaven.

(Dodd, pp. 318-319). His assertion of inconsistency is correct, but Heaven,
despite his appeal, had clearly not forbidden a thing. The God in whom he has
placed his faith has allowed for his suffering, and the church that he respects
and to which he submits himself has not acted on his behalf. Either England was
a Christian country in name only, or the Christian church cared little about the
welfare of individuals who hadnt the means to make a donation; either way,
the issue of moral impropriety in the church itself is another issue. The fact
remains that any society that is content to send children to labor in factories
at an exceedingly young age, as Dodd was, lacks the moral grain that one would
suppose is integral to upholding religious fervor. Carlyle takes a fairly
businesslike and not religious approach to his condition of England manifesto,
but the overwhelming Christian sentiment of the era naturally finds its way into
his writings. He seems to be of the mind that God has given him enough simply by
giving him life, but as a non-Christian, non-religious reader of Chartism, the
very mention of Christianity and the overwhelming injustice of Englands
social structure at the time is an inherent paradox. There is something of a
synapse in reasoning where he contends that society exists for the
preservation of property (Carlyle, p. 36), but maintains that the English
social structure is a Christian one. The fault lies not in Christianity per se;
Jewish people, for example, have struggled since the Holocaust to reconcile
their own faith with such an abhorrent occurrence that viciously seized the
lives of six million Jews and six million others. Still, the problem of
intellectual and emotional dissidence remains the same. Perhaps the most
perplexing of all of these characters is Bessy Higgins. She not only maintains
her ardently religious beliefs in the face of utter physical ruin caused by
factory working at too young an age and the loss of her mother, but actually
seems to draw upon her suffering to amplify her faith. Bessy is resigned to
death, even anticipates and welcomes death, which is not unheard of considering
how ill she issave for the fact that she is only nineteen years old. It is
her faith, her utter devotion to the Bible and to her notions of God and Heaven
that make death seem a welcome reprieve from the suffering that she has endured,
albeit suffering at the hands of the same God. In some respects, her faith is an
asset in that it helps her to withstand the pain that has come to characterize
her very existence; however miserable Bessy may be, her unhappiness is quelled
somewhat by her expectation of a glorious Heaven. At the same time, the
desperation for something good to cling to cheapens her faith somewhat. Without
knowing how pious Bessy was before she became ill (which is, in a way,
irrelevant, because she would have been very young), the fact that she has found
religion and it is a comfort to her is very nice, but indicates that she is
religious out of necessity; that is, religion is the only thing that keeps her
going. Perhaps this is as good a reason as any to be religious. Still, religion
is her escape, her way of coping. On that level, it does follow that Bessy is so
very strong in her Christianity; as a coping mechanism, it works very well.

However, upon examination by a more critical mind, it is hard to understand how
an individual who has been so wronged by society and has been dealt such a
difficult hand in life can contend that there is indeed a benevolent God, one
who is just saving up all the good that is Bessys due for the afterlife.

Margaret Hale is steadfast in her Christianity. The daughter of a parish priest
and a young woman with the benefit of education, this makes a great deal of
sense. Margaret is also a character who questions many things, and questions
probingly and critically, especially for a woman her age in that era. The
condition of the working class in Milton, the moral rightness of Mr.

Thorntons actions, the validity and the intelligence of the labor strike, and
many other things come under Margarets quite critical lens. It is almost out
of character, then, for her not to raise more questions about the congruence of
the suffering and the injustice that she witnesses, and a supposedly Christian
society. Even Mr. Hale is able to distance himself enough to raise questions
about the churchs practices, and perhaps it is his maturity and totally pure
faith that allows him to do this. Margaret is young, very idealistic, and for
all her quickness, all the books she has read, she adheres to religion not
ignorantly, but blindly. When Bessy enumerates her sufferings on pages 101-102,
and becomes nearly violent I her anguish (so much as she can muster from her
sick-bed, anyway), Margarets response is to calmly inform her, Bessywe
have a father in Heaven, to which Bessy replies, I know it! I know it.

(Gaskell, p.102) It seems as though somehow both of them missed Bessys
entirely valid tirade. The existence of God may be a comforting and reassuring
thing in which to have faith, but if he doesnt care about the working class
while they are in the world, why do the people of the working class invest that
faith? There are examples of individuals who rejected Christianity in light of
the horrendous quality of life to which the working classes were condemned.

Nicholas Higgins is of that school; he not only rejects religion for himself,
but discourages the ailing Bessy from finding comfort in scripture. Although he
comes off as somewhat hard-nosed, particularly in the way he speaks to Bessy
about her greatest source of comfort. Still, assertions like when I see
the world going all wrong…leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder
close at its handwhy, I say, leave a this talk about religion alone, and
set to work on what yo see and know, (Gaskell, p.92) make Mr. Higgins more
credible than his socioeconomic position and consequent lack of formal education
would suggest. He cannot, in his mind, reconcile piety with the hardships to
which he and his fellow men of the working class are condemned. He has been
educated in the school of hard knocks, as they say, and there is no course
requirement in blind faith at that school. The condition of England was a
preoccupation in Victorian literature. Although the very same questions of how a
benevolent God can condone suffering exist even in our contemporary society,
wherein social injustice continues to be a fact of life, we live in a
considerably more secular culture. The dichotomy of a Christian society that
suffered such high levels of poverty, suffering, and inequity is hard to digest.

William Dodd and Bessy Higgins clung to their faith perhaps out of need, as a
survival mechanism. Thomas Carlyle and Margaret Hale were maybe conditioned to
be so pious, had it so deeply ingrained in them from their culture that they
knew no other way to take in the world. It is easier to be critical of faith and
religious belief in the face of widespread suffering from the vantage point of a
vastly different culture. Still, such accounts of the Victorian period make it
apparent that it was necessary to reconcile Christianity and the reality of the
social condition of England in order to make sense of that society, or at least
a semblance of sense.

English Essays