ENG 497 Seminar in English Literature |
Place, Space, and Community in the Novels of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy
The following passage, appearing in The Country and the City by British cultural critic Raymond Williams, suggests the focus of this advanced seminar on place, space, and people in Victorian literature: “‘Country' and ‘city' are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for the experience of human communities. In English ‘country' is both a nation and a part of a ‘land'; the country can be the whole society or its rural area. In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilization.” Such a quote suggests some of the ways in which two particular places—the city and the country—influence different views of human connection, relationships with particular places and spaces, values, and ways of life. Places (buildings) and spaces...(landscapes and streetscapes) can create community as well as social division and individual isolation. They can evoke in literature images, associations, and interpretations of life that provide entry points in understanding social, political, cultural, and artistic concerns of a particular period. Two important spaces and their related buildings in Victorian England were the countryside and the large cities. The former was undergoing continued upheaval with changes in agricultural practices and the ongoing migration of people from the country to urban centers of commerce and industry. The latter—most notably London—was also undergoing upheaval as its spaces and places changed to accommodate the influx of people, continued growth as the commercial and mercantile center of the world, and emerging urban problems. Two Victorian authors are closely associated with these changing physical and social landscapes: Charles Dickens, whose life and writings were shaped by his London experiences, and Thomas Hardy, whose life and writings were shaped by his experiences of growing up and living in rural Dorset in southwest England. Each uses his relationships with space and place to establish settings and themes in his novels-especially an examination of the themes of community along with individual and class isolation. In this advanced seminar, we will examine through relevant novels, essays, art, architecture, historical documents, 19th-century periodicals, and literary/cultural criticism, the roles of rural and urban places and spaces in the novels of Charles Dickens (London in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend) and Thomas Hardy (rural Wessex in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd). Our critical angles of examining these texts will be cultural criticism and new historicism as we focus on major themes of community and isolation within Dickens's and Hardy's novels and within the nation's changing social, political, economic, religious, and intellectual milieus. Supplemental texts will include chapters from Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, Richard Altick's Victorian People and Ideas, Howard Newby's Country Life: A Social History of Rural England, and Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography. Class activities will include discussion, student reports, extensive library research, short writing projects, and a major seminar paper. Thus, the following quote from William J. Palmer’s Dickens and New Historicism establishes a central metaphor for our class: “Part of the uneasiness Dickens felt was with the surface consensus of Victorian life, which one of Dicken’s strenuous night walks through the city — with all its poverty, crime, and confrontation — would immediately dispel. But the uneasiness that Dickens felt was also occasioned by a personal need to understand, from the bottom up, the truth of his times expressed in the voices of the streets.” As a class, we will be taking “strenuous” literal and figurative walks through the city and country. This course is offered in the fall semester.