In “The Garden Party,” by Katherine Mansfield, the morality of class structure and social responsibility is questioned. Is the character of Mrs. Sheridan intended to symbolize the rigid coldness of Victorian Era society while Laura represents the uncertainty of the Modern Age? When Laura informs her mother that their lower-class neighbor has died, it is shocking how indifferent Mrs. Sheridan is to the tragedy−once she is assured that it did not occur in her beautiful garden. Instead of expressing sympathy for the incident, Mrs. Sheridan instead seems annoyed that the family was even made aware of the death, as she reprimands her daughter that “It is only by accident we’ve heard of it.”
In contrast, Laura is frustrated by the “absurd class distinctions” that prevented her from being friends with workman “rather than the silly boys she danced with.” She takes the news of Mr. Scott’s death hard and desires to cancel the party out of respect for his widow and five children. Although the apathetic reactions of her parents and siblings somewhat mitigate Laura’s concerns, it is clear that she is disillusioned with her middle-class society’s alienation from lower class struggles; her later descent into their world furthers her inner discontent. Laura never can quite reconcile her modernistic paradigm with the echos of Victorianism that are struggling to remain relevant, as the story uneasily ends with the vague notion that “isn’t life−” Isn’t life what?
Although Becky’s deplorable actions throughout Vanity Fair are clearly driven by selfish motivations that compel her to ruin others’ lives in order to satisfy greedy desires, does she somewhat redeem herself at the end of the novel? In admitting to Amelia that George “made love to me the week after he married you” and asked Becky to run away with him, Amelia is finally free to love Dobbin guiltlessly and lend the story a happy ending (680).
On one hand, Becky is an adulteress and murderer whose presence caused the temporary separation of George and Amelia (not to mention the downfall of Rawdon, the death of Jos, tensions between Sir Pitt and Lady Jane, etc.). Other than admiring her cunning intellect, the narrator gives us little about Becky’s character that can be admired. While it might be “a novel without a hero,” strong arguments can be made that she serves as the wicked anti-heroine.
However, it cannot be debated that it was her confession to Amelia that allowed the latter peace of mind to finally enjoy contented love. In making her a last-minute, quasi-redemptive figure, is Thackeray suggesting that, despite his cynical view of a vain humanity, even the worst characters have the capacity for good?
In “Song of the Shirt,” by Thomas Hood, what effect does the repetition of the first and last stanzas lend to the meaning of the poem? On one hand, it could be exemplifying the popular viewpoint held by many of the English upper class that the plight of poor laborers was self-perpetuating. Just as the repeated description of the “weary and worn” seamstress affords the poem a cyclical feel, it was common in ninteenth-century England to regard the poverty of the working class as a cycle fueled by laziness and depraved morality−best to be ignored as any economic assistance would only encourage the corrupt mindset.
It is more likely, however, that Hood repeats this stanza to emphasize his frustration that those in power continuously stifled reform that would have brought about greatly needed economic relief for the working classes. Although “Song of the Shirt” is a poem, it exudes journalistic style as it seeks expose and raise awareness of the poverty raging throughout the country. Perhaps the image that resonates with this cause the most comes when the seamstress laments: “But why do I talk of Death? That phantom of grisly bone; I hardly fear his terrible shape, it seems so like my own.” How can the wealthy look upon such horrid conditions and feel no sense of responsibility to foster change? Hood’s repetition of the first and last stanza can be interpreted as a desperate plea for them to discover morality.
Times have progressed since William Blake published The Chimney Sweeper, but has morality not? In “Boy Crossing-Sweepers and Tumblers” by Henry Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor), the pathetic predicament of the urban poor is exemplified through the profile of an “intelligent lad.” The text describes an isolated society formed by these child laborers, complete with “forms of trial…law…and a kind of language.” Although this lowly sphere of humanity regularly comes into contact with that of the upper class, those of good fortune view them with disdain, at best throwing them some change if their antics are deemed amusing. Does the text suggest that the wealthy feel any sympathies for boys forced into begging because of misfortune outside of their control? Unlike Blake’s portrayal of the urban poor, which indicated that upper-class churchgoers tried to use the promise of eventual salvation to satisfy any moral discomfort, Mayhew’s account implies that any such unease has been abandoned in favor of simply ignoring the crossing-sweepers’ squalid conditions. This is solidified in Vanity Fair by Mr. Osborne’s reaction to the sudden misfortune of the Sedleys, to whom he should feel forever indebted. Instead of repaying debts and trying to help the family, or at the very least extending sympathies, he orders his family to cut off all communication with them. Are his actions unique in Victorian society? Unfortunately, the novel suggests they are not; his desire to distance himself from those who have slipped into a lower class accurately mirrors the blatant absence of morals swirling in the society around him. Perhaps even those who do have a sense of decency shove it aside in a desire to echo the values deemed acceptable by the majority.