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Literary Elements of Victorian Literature


The Victorian era was a time in British history that spanned from 1837 to 1901, the period during which Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire. Boasting such canonical authors as Charles Dickens, the Brontes and Rudyard Kipling, Victorian literature features an array of literary elements that were cultivated through shifting social norms.

Major Characteristics of the Era

The Victorian era was characterized by change and upheaval. As manufacturing and industrialization skyrocketed, the chasm between the rich and the poor widened. Social turbulence was feverish, prompting writers and thinkers to speak out against the injustices in the world. As the economy abandoned agriculture for industry, rural farmers were forced to move to the city in search of factory work, straining the urban infrastructure. Charles Darwin publicized his theory of evolution, and many began to question the relevance of traditional institutions like organized religion. During this time, authors sought to capture the era's social turmoil through the development of new elements in their literature.

The Influence of Social Change

During the Victorian era, women began to fight for the changes they wanted to see in their lives. Many Victorian writers started to explore the philosophy of female empowerment and emancipation. Female writers like the Brontes and Mary Ann Evans (who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot) worked to empower women in the realm of literature, gaining recognition and expressing a female consciousness.

Another element of Victorian literature, realism, was strongly inspired by the state of the era's society. Realism focused on the accurate portrayal of life's details. It emphasized the middle class and rejected the heroic in favor of the ordinary, focusing on common people and common situations. Dickens, for example, used realism in his works through his gritty portrayals of the pedestrian.

The Influence of Inner Turmoil

The upheavals in society spawned inner turmoil as well. In response, Victorian era critic John Ruskin developed the concept of pathetic fallacy, which asserts that characters view reality through the distorted lens of their passionate emotions. Thus the described reality conveys the narrator's interior state, which might be either negative or positive. An example lies in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," in which cheerful scenery parallels the eponymous protagonist's sense of hope: "The chamber looked such a bright little place to me as the sun shone in between the gay blue chintz window curtains, showing papered walls and a carpeted floor, so unlike the bare planks and stained plaster of Lowood. ... "

The Influence of Inner Change

The tumultuous times fostered individual growth and transformation, too, prompting individuals to alter their previously established expectations and understanding of life. Victorian authors bolstered the power of personal experience and emotion by altering the pre-existing concept of word-painting from a mere description of scenery to a dramatic narration of landscape. Victorian word-painting dramatized the visual by incorporating thematic elements into the description. It provided a sense of progress from one scenic element to the next, thereby suggesting a metaphorical journey of self-discovery.

About the Author

Jackie Ngo is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and English. She also serves as a copy editor for the university's "Caliber Magazine," an award-winning entertainment and lifestyle publication.

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