The Black Sash: An Anti-Apartheid Movement


This extended essay deals with the South African women’s organisation the ‘Black Sash’, and undertakes a historical investigation which examines the question: To what extent did the Black Sash influence the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970?

In order to determine the organisation’s influence on the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa, both primary and secondary sources were used to examine the Black Sash’s aims, its influence on the South African government and population, its relationship with the media and a comparison between the Black Sash and other anti-apartheid and human rights movements of its time.

The investigation was limited to the time period of 1955 to 1970, in order to incorporate the founding date of the organisation and the years in which the Black Sash dedicated itself to supporting the anti-apartheid movement.

Despite the fact that many different organisations and individuals protested against the South African apartheid system, this essay does not consider ‘in depth’ the other factors which influenced the anti-apartheid movement during the latter half of the twentieth century in South Africa.

After evaluating the available evidence, the investigation undertaken leads to the conclusion that the Black Sash influenced the South African anti-apartheid movement during the years of 1955 to 1970 to a minor extent. Although the organisation was unable to effectuate the amendment of apartheid legislation, and achieved only limited successes in comparison to other more radical anti-apartheid organisations, the Black Sash were able to educate previously politically and socially ignorant white South Africans on the racial issues of the country, and they served as a reminder to the South African politicians that the morality of their actions was under scrutiny.


The research question for examination is: ‘To what extent did the Black Sash influence the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970?’. This issue can be debated through an examination of the organisation’s method of operation, achievements, failures and the effects that other organisations had on the movement. For particular scrutiny will be the extent to which the organisation influenced the apartheid movement as it pertains to the South African government (in terms of legislation and the perceptions and behaviour of politicians), the South African population, and national and international media. The research question is taken to mean an investigation of the extent to which the Black Sash influenced the perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of the instigators of apartheid (namely the South African government) and those that supported it (namely the South African people and the national and international media).

In order to contextualise the research question it is necessary to understand how the South African policy of apartheid led to the formation of the Black Sash. The Afrikaans term ‘apartheid’ is used to describe the “rigid policy of segregation of the nonwhite population” in 20th century South Africa ( Unabridged, n.d.). In 1948, the National Party of South Africa won the South African general election based on the policy of apartheid (Hunt Davis & Johns, 1991, pg. 15). Adopted henceforth, the policy continued until its official renouncement in 1992. Under the terms of apartheid, marriage between whites and non-whites was prohibited, some occupations were reserved for “whites-only”, and health, education and transport were segregated (Adams & Fry, 2004, pg. 340). Despite the government’s justification that through segregation “each race would develop separately but equally”, the white minority of the country held many social, economic and political advantages over the black majority (Adams & Fry, 2004, pg. 340). As of 1978, the South African black population of 19 million people were allocated just 13% of the land, as opposed to the 87% of land area which was owned by the white population of just 4.5 million people. The annual expenditure on education per white pupil ($696) was over fifteen times greater than that spent on a black child ($45), widening the inequity between the white and black populations of the country (Carter, n.d.). Many organisations during the 20th century in South Africa dedicated themselves to fighting to overthrow the apartheid system which created such inequity between the races.

One of these organisations was the ‘Women’s Defence of the Constitution League’ (WDCL), later known as the ‘Black Sash’. The League was formed on 19th May 1955, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and initially consisted of a group of six white women (Michelman, 1975, pg. 24). The Black Sash, which was initially formed to protest the ‘Separate Representation of Voters Act’ (a piece of legislation which sought to remove Coloured voters from the common electoral roll, making it impossible for non-whites to be represented in government), worked to advocate equal voting rights, greater respect for South Africa’s constitution and political accountability for what they believed to be “immoral” laws (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60).

One of the reasons why it is believed that this topic is worthy of investigation is that it is important to examine whether it is possible for an ordinary group of people to influence their government and their people, and consequently the course of history. Furthermore, the Black Sash was an organisation comprised entirely (during the earlier years at least) of white women who were protesting a system which was, in many ways, advantageous to white people, demonstrating a largely selfless ambition to advocate for a more egalitarian society. Of particular interest is the fact that the women of the Black Sash defied their social boundaries by protesting on the streets during a time period when a woman’s primarily role was in the home. This leads the writer to contemplate the ability of humans to defy their social boundaries and act upon personal belief, making this not just an interesting topic, but an important issue which the writer feels morally obliged to examine. Much can be learned from this issue, as there are many human rights issues around the world which remain unresolved. Therefore, the more educated one is about the possibilities of changing the world, the better equipped society will be to form a better world in the future.

Aims of the Black Sash

As previously stated, the initial focus of the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League was the removal of the Separate Representation of Voter’s Act (1956), or Senate Act, on the grounds that the Act would alter the entrenched clauses in the constitution in relation to the voting rights of Coloured voters.

According to a Black Sash propaganda poster posted in Cape Town, 1955, in addition to the specific aim of the removal of the Senate Act, the “general aims of the League” were:

  1. “To exercise pressure for the restoration and encouragement of political morality and the preservation of constitutional government;
  2. To fight the intimidation and fear which is spreading throughout the country; to strive to make South Africa a free country in fact as well as in name;
  3. To keep its members informed on political matters and to help them to recognise their personal responsibilities in a democracy.
  4. To use its influence to draw the two sections of the European population together;
  5. Above all, the aim of the League is the restoration of good faith and good feeling throughout South Africa and, by fighting apathy and ignorance, to bring wisdom and tolerance to our divided nation.”

(Reprinted in Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98)

Evidently, the primary aims of the League in 1955 did not include securing equal voting rights for the black majority in the country. Apparently, their objection to the Senate Act lay more in the fact that it would change laws stipulated in the South African constitution without following the required legislative processes (such as a referendum), than in the fact that the constitutional rights of the Coloured people were not being upheld. Therefore, it would seem that at first, the Black Sash sought for equal rights for non-whites more as a by-product of the “preservation of constitutional government” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98).

However, the Black Sash was forced to change its tactics when they failed to achieve their initial aim. Although the Supreme Court immediately declared the Senate Act invalid on constitutional grounds, it was successfully re-enacted in 1956 due to the skilful political manoeuvring of the National Party (Clark & Worger, 2004, pg. 48). After the Act was passed, “the Sash recognized that its concern must extend to the results as well as the methods of authoritarianism; but it was only after 1959 that the organization came to take an uncompromising stand against the political and legal manifestations of apartheid” (Michelman, 1956, pg. 198). Henceforth, the Black Sash turned its attention to “opposing legislation on its moral substance rather than its procedural validity” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 58).

Influence on Politicians

The South African government was the main target of Black Sash protests, as they were the body that proposed the “immoral legislation” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 43), and were therefore the architects of the apartheid system.  The Black Sash’s main method of protest against the government were their silent vigils, which were conducted outside any building where a politician was set to make a public appearance, with venues including government buildings, town halls and airports. The women dressed in white and wore a black sash draped over their shoulder (The Silent Critics, 1955), extolled with the slogan “eerbiedig ons grondwet” (in Afrikaans), or “Respect our Constitution” (see appendix A for image) (Rogers, 1956, pg. 80). Members would stand silently with heads bowed, to symbolise their ‘mourning’ of the South African constitution, as they believed its integrity had been compromised with the passage of the Senate Act. As a politician walked past, the women would raise their heads and follow the politician’s progress with their eyes, serving as a reminder of their disapproval of the government’s actions (The Silent Critics, 1955, September 26).

The silent vigils were a unique form of protest which captured the attention of the South African population through their peaceful yet highly symbolic nature. The vigils were also highly effective in capturing the attention of the politicians, who, by job definition, relied on the approval of the general public. It was difficult for the politicians to maintain an air of popularity at public events whilst Black Sash members glared at them disapprovingly. Essentially, the Black Sash would act as the “moral conscience” of the occasion by reminding both the politicians and the general public of their disapproval of what they considered to be “immoral legislation”(Michelman, 1975, pg. 60).

As a consequence of these vigils, ministers used “back entrances of public buildings, went the wrong way on one-way streets, jumped fences, and surrounded themselves with bodyguards to avoid Black Sash demonstrators” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 51). Ministers would buy tickets for events under false names and would arrive at events without notifying the public (The Silent Critics, 1955). Despite the best efforts of the ministers to evade the Black Sash vigils, more often than not, ministers were greeted by unavoidable rows of Black Sash women, glaring at them in obvious disapproval. Indeed, one minister who flew to subsequent commitments in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg respectively was met by fifty Black Sash women at each port (The Silent Critics, 1955).

‘Time Magazine’ reported that “the government was goaded into irritable complaint” by the Black Sash tactics, as ministers frequently ridiculed the Black Sash with unsavoury labels such as “Weeping Winnies” and “foolish virgins” (a title bestowed by the then Prime Minister Johannes Strijdom) (The Silent Critics, 1955).  Although these comments were designed to belittle the Black Sash, an article appearing in the ‘Natal Mercury’ suggests that these comments were evidence of the success of these vigils. The article reports that “cabinet ministers…go out of their way to sneer at it [the Black Sash movement], but that is nothing more than a measure of their irritation. When a Prime Minister steals away and hides in an aeroplane for an hour to escape the “Black Sash” ordeal, it is obvious enough that the movement has got completely under the Government skin” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 103).  Therefore, the Black Sash’s silent vigils served as a constant reminder to the politicians that they disapproved of the apartheid system and considered the Senate Act and ensuing apartheid legislation to be immoral.


It was the Black Sash’s hope that through their silent vigils and other methods of protest, the organisation would be able to persuade politicians to change apartheid legislation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 33). However, the Black Sash was completely ineffective in this endeavour, as they were “unable to influence the government to revoke or amend even a single law” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). According to Cherry Michelman, author of ‘The Black Sash of South Africa’, the Black Sash did not possess “any political or moral leverage against the government” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). The value of her opinion as that as an American lecturer, Michelman is less likely to be biased by close emotional connection with the issue, and is therefore able to provide a more objective analysis than if she was a South African citizen. Furthermore, Michelman’s sentiment is confirmed by the fact that, as discussed on page six, despite vigorous protests, petitions and rallies carried out by members of the Black Sash, the organisation was unable to achieve its initial aim, as the ‘Senate Act’ was passed on 2 March 1956.

Although Michelman is dismissive of the Black Sash’s achievements in regards to influencing the government, the organisation was able to draw large crowds (5,000 people were in attendance at a public meeting in 1955) at public protests, rallies and meetings, and garnered thousands of names on early petitions (Rogers, 1956, pg. 111). These events demonstrate a direct attempt to alert the government to the depth of public disapproval of apartheid legislation. However, in the opinion of the government, the Black Sash protests and subsequent public mobilisation did not pose a significant threat to the strength of the ruling administration. The Prime Minister’s secretary wrote a letter to the National President of the Black Sash expressing the government’s stance. The letter stated that “the government… has no confidence in your organization. It cannot… be impressed by any petition sponsored or instigated by it” (Fred Barnard, July 12, 1962). Therefore, this letter demonstrates that while the Black Sash were able to cause individual politicians to feel uncomfortable as the morality of their actions was being scrutinised, the Black Sash were ineffective in influencing government legislation, and therefore only influenced the architects of apartheid to a minor extent.

Influence on South African Population

As stated on page four, the second part to the investigation is an examination of the extent to which the Black Sash influenced the perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of those that directly or indirectly supported apartheid, including the South African population, given that it was their support which kept the government in power. As many white South Africans had little understanding of the racial issues in the country, a primary aim of the Black Sash was to educate the white populace about racial legislation such as the Pass Laws (legislation designed to limit the movements of non-whites). According to a newspaper article in the ‘Natal Mercury’, the actions of the Black Sash had a “remarkable psychological effect on opinion throughout the country… particularly in Afrikaner circles”. In the journalist’s opinion, the education programs were said to be “bringing home shame-faced realisations of what is being done” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 103).  The journalist’s belief in the effectiveness of the Black Sash education campaigns and protests was supported by another writer on the subject, Cherry Michelman. Michelman states that the “Black Sash protests kept them (the racial and legal issues) before the public eye, no matter how unwilling the public eye was to focus on them” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 92).

‘Newly-educated’ South Africans were then encouraged to act on their moral realisations through participation in marches, rallies and public meetings. In 1955 it seemed as if the education programs were taking effect and had “caught the imagination of the public” through spreading a sense of the power of the public to make a change in society (Ackermann, 2000). In that year, on 12 November, the Black Sash gathered 5,000 people on the steps of City Hall to pledge: “In pride and humbleness we declare our devotion to South Africa. We dedicate ourselves to the service of our country. We pledge ourselves to uphold the ideals by which our Union was inspired” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 111). With that event, the Black Sash was able to achieve on a small scale their primary aim of uniting their “divided nation” (Rogers, 1956, pg. 97-98).  The Black Sash were able to inspire thousands of people to pledge their support for the common goal of a more united society, thereby having an indirect effect on the dividedness that apartheid stood for.

Despite these initial successes, as time passed, it became increasingly difficult for the Black Sash women to attract support for their petitions and public gatherings. Mirabel Rogers’ reports of thousands of people gathering to support the Black Sash cause were premature in their declarations of success. Her book was written after the first year of Black Sash operation, and was unable to anticipate the changes in South African society as harsher penalties were imposed for protesting apartheid laws. Due to the passage of the ‘Public Safety Act’ and ‘Criminal Law Amendment Act’ in 1953, the government was able to impose harsh penalties for protesting against or supporting the repeal of a law, with punishments including fines, whipping and imprisonment (Carter, n.d.). Furthermore, white South Africans were “fearful to support anti-government petitions, for fear of reprisal through loss of jobs, loss of government monetary support or potential loss of passports” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 141).

Coupled with the negative consequences and punishments associated with protesting apartheid laws was the fact that it became increasingly difficult for the Black Sash to capture the imagination of the public once the novelty of their dramatic silent vigils had diminished.  Hence, Black Sash membership dwindled as members became disillusioned with the cause and the minimal results the organisation was achieving, especially after the passage of the Senate Act. One observer, quoted in the Johannesburg ‘Sunday Express’ on 11th November 1955, expressed a sentiment which mirrored that of many other South African’s who left the organisation due to their frustration with its ineffectiveness.  The observer labelled the Black Sash women as “crazy or frustrated or something”, and noted that he considered the Black Sash a “waste of time because the Senate Bill has been enacted; it is now the law, so what do they think they are going to achieve?” (Strijdom, 1955), while others dismissed the Black Sash as an “ineffectual joke” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84). Therefore, while the Black Sash was initially able to unite thousands of South African’s to strive for a more united nation, and was able to educate the white populace on matters of racial legislation, thereby increasing awareness of apartheid issues, the organisation was unable to maintain public support for their cause, and thereby only influenced the South African population (the indirect supporters of apartheid) and thus the anti-apartheid movement to a minor extent.

Relationship with the Media

The media plays a key role in influencing public opinion as it has the ability to control (to a certain extent) the information that citizens of a country have access to, and therefore has the ability to influence their perceptions of different people, events and organisations (McCombs, 2004, pg. 2). Therefore, it is vital for organisations (like the Black Sash) whose power relies on the size of their support base that the media is publishing articles, cartoons and editorials which support, or at least publicise, their cause. In South Africa, a strong relationship with certain writers and cartoonists provided increased exposure for the Black Sash and a greater public awareness of their goals. In this way, the media gave the Black Sash an opportunity to influence public opinion and increase public disapproval of the government. Bob Connolly, the cartoonist for the Rand Daily Mail, was a strong supporter of the Black Sash and drew hundreds of political cartoons in favour of the Black Sash cause (Rogers, 1956, pg. 95). The cartoons often depicted the Black Sash’s struggle against the Senate Act and the tactics which politicians employed to evade their silent vigils (see appendix B)(Rogers, 1956, pg. 53). His cartoons served to increase the exposure of the public to the Black Sash cause, and his witty cartoons provided a reminder to the general public of what the Black Sash termed the “immorality” of the South African government (Michelman, 1975, pg. 12). In terms of written media, the Black Sash was also frequently mentioned in South African newspaper articles and editorials when the organisation was gaining momentum in the late 1950s, and they experienced both negative and supportive press. However, as public support dwindled, so too did the media’s coverage of Black Sash events (Michelman, 1975, pg. 129).

Partly due to the fact that it was never one of their primary aims, the Black Sash itself did not attract widespread international media attention. The Black Sash was the subject of several news stories in publications such as the ‘London Economist’, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Time Magazine’, but lacked widespread international coverage. However, the tactics of the Black Sash did contribute to the anti-apartheid movement which gained significant international exposure and demonstrated to people around the world that South African citizens were willing to stand up to the apartheid system imposed by their government. Therefore, while the Black Sash did not significantly influence the media (and subsequently public opinion), to a minor extent they were able to use the media as a tool for highlighting their cause and aims.

Comparison between the Black Sash and other anti-apartheid and human rights movements

Many organisations and individuals other than the Black Sash protested against the South African apartheid system during the twentieth century. Unlike other anti-apartheid organisations operating during this time, such as the ‘African National Congress’ (ANC), members of the Black Sash committed to protesting in a way that was entirely legal, as they believed that “open refusal to obey… laws would mean extinction” for their organisation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 153). While the ANC sought a ‘national democratic revolution’ and possessed a military element which was involved in “terrorist” activities, the Black Sash believed revolution would destroy South Africa economically and refused to condone violence, preferring to operate in a manner that was entirely peaceful (Michelman, 1975, pg. 154). Their form of passive resistance has drawn comparisons with Mohandas Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ campaigns, which were characterised by their peaceful protests (London Economist, 1955). By protesting in a peaceful and dignified manner, members of the public were less likely to spurn the protestors, and they were able to attract support from more conservative sectors of society, than if they were protesting in a violent or disrespectful manner.

When the Black Sash are compared to the historical human rights champions of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, it could be said that their actions are timid and their successes negligible. However, when compared to those in their own white community who either championed white domination, or pretended that they had neither the will nor opportunity to act on this moral issue, their courage and determination are “indisputable” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 157). Furthermore, the Black Sash women were defying the social stereotype of women in the 1950s as housewives whose primary duty was to raise children and care for their family. It took a significant amount of courage and conviction to not only defy their social expectations but also to risk persecution, punishment, injury and the government backlash over their antics. As previously mentioned, there were harsh penalties for opposing apartheid, and any action against the apartheid system required great courage.

When evaluating the effectiveness of the Black Sash in comparison to other organisations and individuals, one must also consider the social and political situation in which the Black Sash existed. According to Helen Suzman, a former member of parliament in South Africa from 1953 to 1989, “what constitutes blazing liberalism in South Africa is merely careful conservatism in other countries”, due to the “basic conservatism among [South African] whites” during that era (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60). South African society was highly conservative and most whites were comfortable with the privileges afforded to them by apartheid (Michelman, 1975, pg. 60). Therefore, these widespread and strongly held political and social views made it difficult for the Black Sash to evoke change in social thinking amongst South Africa’s white population.

Therefore while the Black Sash did not influence the anti-apartheid movement to as great an extent as other organisations which fought for complete revolution and consequently the end of apartheid itself, the Black Sash demonstrated courage in opposing the apartheid system and provided an outlet for moderate middle-class activists to peacefully influence the anti-apartheid movement to a minor extent.


Based on the evidence shown above, the Black Sash had a minor influence on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between 1955 and 1970. It can be seen that while the Black Sash succeeded in one of their general aims of “encourag[ing] political morality” and acted as the ‘moral conscience’ of the nation, a “conscience is effective only if heeded” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 92). Although they succeeded in making politicians feel uncomfortable as they passed them on the steps of public buildings, and served as a constant reminder of their disapproval of the government’s “immoral legislation”, the Black Sash was unable to cause the removal or amendment of any apartheid legislation (Michelman, 1975, pg. 43). The government itself “dismissed” them as an “ineffectual joke” (Michelman, 1975, pg. 84), and refused to negotiate or co-operate with them. Furthermore, although the Black Sash was initially able to influence thousands of people to join the anti-apartheid movement, the initial enthusiasm waned after the passage of the Separate Representation of Voter’s Act in 1956. Additionally, the Black Sash was unable to secure significant international support for their cause through the media, although this was not one of their primary aims.

While it may seem that the Black Sash did not achieve a great deal in their years of campaigning, their initial fervour inspired many white South Africans, for the first time, to consider their constitutional rights and those of their fellow citizens. To a certain extent, they increased the sentiment of public discontent with the practices of the government, and educated many on the human rights issues present in South Africa. Although they did little to further the anti-apartheid movement itself, perhaps their greatest achievement is that, as put by Mirabel Rogers, the author of ‘The Black Sash’ and a subsequent member of the organisation, they were “ordinary women” who “proved themselves capable of high courage and a firm stand for the sake of principles they value” (Rogers, 1956, pg. v). Therefore, based on the evidence provided, the Black Sash influenced the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa between the years of 1955 to 1970 to a minor extent.


Reference List

Ackermann, D. (2000). “The Substance of Things Hoped For”: Women’s Imaginative Praxis Outside the Church. Emory International Law Review , 14.

Adams, S., & Fry, P. (2004). History of the Word. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Apartheid. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from website:

Black Sash. (2012). Our History. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from Black Sash – Making Human Rights Real:

Carter, C. (n.d.). The History of Apartheid in South Africa. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Stanford University:

Clark, N., & Worger, W. (2004). South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited.

Hunt Davis, R., Johns, S. (1991). Mandela, Tambo and the African National Congress: The Struggle against Apartheid, 1948-1990. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johannes Strijdom’s Secretary, Fred Barnard. (1962, July 12). [Letter to National President of the Black Sash]. Black Sash Papers’ Archive, Reel 6.

McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Michelman, M. (1975). The Black Sash of South Africa. London: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, M. (1956). The Black Sash: South Africa’s Fight for Democracy. Johannesburg: Rotonews.

Satyagraha in a Black Sash. (1955, November 19). London Economist.

Strijdom, H. (1955, November 11). Editorial Opinion – Haman Strijdom. Sunday Express .

Time Magazine. (1955, September 26). South Africa: The Silent Critics. Retrieved May 23, 2011, from Time Magazine:,9171,807618,00.html

The Women Set the Example. (1955, November 11). Natal Mercury.


“We are but older children”: the representation of the world of adulthood in the Alice books

In their novels, authors often juxtapose two or more sets of characters in order to accentuate their differences and similarities. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the setting of Wonderland can be seen as a metaphor for adulthood itself, and Alice, as the childlike observer of it, is juxtaposed with various adult characters in order to represent the world of adulthood as heavily flawed. Therefore, these characters, as representatives of the world of adulthood, can only be understood when considered in relation to Alice, as the representative of childhood. In this way, Carroll questions the idea that one ‘progresses’ from childhood to adulthood; the term ‘progress’ signifies gradual improvement, growth and development, and would therefore imply that adulthood can be correlated with maturity, capability and a judicious mindset.  However, Carroll’s adult characters, such as the White Queen, the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts, are shown to be immature, hypocritical and pernicious. In making this point, the author first demonstrates the markers which differentiate childhood and adulthood, such as physical growth, the formation of identity, the adherence to rules of social etiquette, legal independence and physical maturity. He then shows that despite these official differences, adulthood is not necessarily an improvement. He portrays adulthood as an inevitable illness which should be dreaded, and represents the world of adulthood as being governed by moral, social and legal laws, which the adult characters both fail to adhere to, and to enforce. Therefore, Carroll’s books represent adulthood as a period of one’s life distinct from childhood in terms of legal and physical factors, but in which one remains as flawed, powerless and illogical as a child.

In the Alice books, adulthood is represented as a state of being which is distinct from childhood in several ways. Firstly, it is represented as a time in which one has formed one’s own identity; both mentally and physically. In Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice frequently changes her physical stature, growing up physically is often paralleled with ‘growing up’ metaphorically. Upon drinking from the bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’, she considers the idea of writing a book about her adventures when she is an adult. However, she continues growing until “there’s no room to grow up any more here” (Carroll 28), and thereby equates this event with having grown up into adulthood, stating that “I’m grown up now” (Carroll 28). Similarly, during her transition to adulthood, Alice is often concerned with her own personal identity, as when she defends herself against the pigeon’s assertion that she is a serpent, and is reminded by the White Queen to “remember who you are” (Carroll 125). Likewise, the concept of the formation of one’s identity is implicitly linked to adulthood when Alice forgets her own name while travelling through the wood; it is only when she continues on her journey across the chessboard, and therefore moves closer to being crowned a queen, that she is able to remember it again. Finally, Carroll equates adulthood with legal responsibility when Alice is exempted from punishment by the King of Hearts. In chapter eight of Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts wants to have Alice beheaded for talking to her impertinently. However, the King attempts to excuse Alice’s rebellious behaviour by appealing to the Queen, saying “Consider, my dear: she is only a child” (Carroll 69). This implies that if Alice were an adult, she would have been held responsible for her comportment and would have been subjected to capital punishment. Therefore, the Alice books highlight the distinction between the world of adulthood and that of childhood, by representing adults as having distinct physical statures, personal identities and legal responsibility.

However, Carroll highlights the inevitability of adulthood in a negative light, causing the reader to associate this natural progression towards adulthood with an atmosphere of sadness. In an extended metaphor, in Through the Looking Glass, Alice continually moves across the chessboard, in her transformation from a pawn to a queen, in a progression which mirrors the growth from childhood to adulthood; she does not choose her role in this game, but rather her status as a pawn is thrust upon her by the Red Queen. Although Alice desires the eventual transformation from pawn to queen (stating “I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn…though of course I should like to be a Queen” (Carroll 123)), and is pleased on receiving her crown, adulthood is seen by other characters as an unavoidable affliction or sickness. The Rose kindly remarks to Alice that “you’re beginning to fade, you know – and then one can’t help one’s petals getting a little untidy”, but adds that “But that’s not YOUR fault” (Carroll 120). Likewise, Humpty Dumpty advises Alice that she should have “left off at seven”, instead of having grown to the age of “seven years and six months”; this more advanced age is labelled as “uncomfortable”, and is therefore seen as negative (Carroll 159). Similarly, in the prefatory poem to Through the Looking Glass, Carroll writes “ere voice of dread…/Shall summon to unwelcome bed/A melancholy maiden! We are but older children, dear,/ Who fret to find our bedtime near” (Carroll 101). In this stanza, adulthood, marriage and death are all interconnected, and therefore growing up is represented both as a dangerous and depressing concept. When considering this quote within the context of Carroll’s fascination with young girls, and his interest in photographing children, it could be hypothesised that Carroll sees childhood as an idealised time, before girls are besmirched by marriage (as suggested by the connotations of the ‘[marital] bed’), or the stifling and highly-regulated world of adulthood (in which youthful girls are transformed into ‘melancholy maidens’). Thus, Carroll represents the world of adulthood as something to be dreaded.

Carroll satirises the highly-regulated nature of the adult world, in order to highlight its failings. Adult characters within the works are governed by a series of moral, social and legal frameworks, which are often shown to be illogical and ineffective. As Carolyn Sigler argues, the world of adulthood is shown to be run by a “autocracy of fools, in which meaningless didacticism is wielded as a weapon, rules of behavior and decorum are hypocritical and contradictory, and the threat of punishment always looms” (58). Adult characters are positioned as the arbiters of justice, responsible for punishing those who fail to adhere to the rules of their world. However, the irony of the situation is that their hypocritical and ineffective natures result in a world ruled by chaos and a lack of consequences, instead of justice. This is best exemplified through the character of the Queen of Hearts, who can be seen as a symbol of “unregulated hostility” (Kincaid 93), whose position of authority allows her to sentence her constituents to be executed for insignificant crimes. Yet, the Gryphon reveals that no one is ever executed. Hence, her position of authority is shown to be undeserved and hollow, as she is clearly incapable of ensuring that the law is carried out justly, and therefore she wields no real power. Likewise, the jury system is shown to be totally ineffective in arbitrating justice. As D’Ambrosio points out, “things of little or no importance are recorded by the jury as important, whereas, the important evidence is neglected” (1075). The illusion of following due legal process is shattered by the fact that the sentence is proclaimed first, and the verdict of the jury afterwards. Thus, despite the veneer of power and judiciousness which these adult characters hold, they are shown to be as powerless as Alice herself.

Likewise, adults’ reliance on moral and social guidelines to direct their behaviour is satirised through the Duchess and the trio at the tea party. The Duchess foolishly insists that “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it” (Carroll 68). However, she arbitrarily connects morals with other concepts which are completely unrelated, such as when she illogically suggests that the moral of the fact that flamingos and mustard both bite is that “Birds of a feather flock together” (Carroll 68). Carroll therefore uses her as an example of the consequences of blindly allowing moral guidelines to dictate one’s thinking. The guests at the tea party, on the other hand, are heavily preoccupied with the rules of social etiquette. They admonish Alice for behaving in a way that defies these social expectations, stating that “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” (Carroll 52), and they appear so fixated on the rules for proper dining that they argue about the March Hare’s choice to include butter as a part of the tea-party spread. However, their hypocrisy is shown when the Hare dips his watch in his tea, and the Hatter rudely tells Alice that “[she] shouldn’t talk” (Carroll 58) if she does not think.  In this way, Carroll symbolically suggests that the highly regulated world which adults create is governed by moral and social frameworks with which they fail to truly understand and adhere to, and therefore implies that their position of authority in creating and enforcing these frameworks is both undeserved and illogical.

Carroll’s belief that this authority is undeserved is shown through his commentary on the idea that adults “are but older children” (Carroll 101); despite their claims to intellectual superiority and a dominant status within the hierarchy of the social structure, they remain as flawed and childlike as Alice herself. In order to make this statement, Carroll first satirises the idea of adult intellectualism, and the assumption that adults are inherently more intelligent than, and therefore superior to, children. Within the books, several characters demonstrate a presumption that superiority in age is equal to greater wisdom, such as the Lory, who tells Alice that “I’m older than you and must know better” (Carroll 20). His attitude is mirrored by the Duchess, who rudely tells Alice that “You don’t know much…and that’s a fact” (Carroll 46). Both characters are unable to substantiate their own viewpoints against the seven-year-old Alice, and therefore resort to reminding her of their own superiority.  Likewise, Humpty Dumpty chooses to belittle Alice by pointedly observing that “Some people…have no more sense than a baby!” (Carroll 157). In this way, Alice’s agency as an observant and curious being is dismissed as insignificant, due to her inferiority in age and stature; it is taken for granted that babies and children are nonsensical, illogical and uniformed beings, and therefore adulthood is a superior state of being. However, Carroll ironically allows the reader to see that these infantile attempts at self-delusion are used as a cover for their own inability to logically win a debate against Alice.  Carroll’s idea is most effectively reinforced through the characterisation of the White Queen, whom Carroll himself described in Alice on the Stage as “helpless as an infant; and with a slow, maundering, bewildered air about her…suggesting imbecility” (Carroll 296). It is ironic that this woman, who is a symbol of authority, and the mother of an infant, is so infantile herself that Alice, who is her pawn and therefore her inferior, is forced to ‘mother’ her every time they meet. She sings the White Queen a “soothing lullaby” (Carroll 195) when she is sleepy, reunites her with her child, and helps her refasten her shawl and tidy her hair, in a role reversal which symbolises that adults can be just as childlike as children. She encapsulates the entirety of this notion when she informs Alice that “I can read words of one letter! Isn’t that grand!” (Carroll 193). Therefore, the White Queen personifies this notion that adults are but older children – an adult who takes pride in the fact they can read words of one letter, is unable to outwit a young girl, or who cannot refasten her own shawl, is deluding themself in thinking they are superior to a child; therefore, their superior position within the hierarchy of Wonderland is unmerited.

Therefore, despite masquerading as frivolous, chaotic children’s novels, the Alice books deal with complicated themes. They represent the world of adulthood as being governed by arbitrary rules and illogical authorities, and adulthood as an inevitable state of being, in which one is required to form one’s physical and mental identity. Carroll’s perception that “we [adults] are but older children”, underlies the core of the texts, in which adult characters are represented as being as flawed and childlike as Alice herself.



Carroll, Lewis. “Alice” on the stage. London: Carson and Comerford, 1887. Print.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: Norton, 2013.

D’Ambrosio, Michael A.. “”Alice” for Adolescents.” The English Journal 59.8 (1970): 1074-1075+1085. Print.

Kincaid, James. “Alice’s Invasion of Wonderland.” PMLA 88.1 (1973): 92-99. Print. URL:

Knoepflmacher, U. C. . “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.4 (1983): 497-539. Print. URL:

Shelton Hubble, George. “The Sanity of Wonderland.” The Sewanee Review 35.4 (1927): 387-398. Print. URL:

Sigler, Carolyn . “Brave New Alice: Anna Matlack Richard’s Maternal Wonderland.” Children’s Literature 24 (1996): 55-73. Print. URL:

A Psychoanalytic Reading of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Psychoanalytic literary criticism applies the techniques of psychoanalysis, especially those of Sigmund Freud, to the interpretation of literature.  In contrast to liberal humanist criticism, which emphasises the universality of ‘human nature’, psychoanalytic criticism examines the repressed trauma, anxieties and desires of a particular individual, and aims to uncover the unconscious desires which drive the behaviour of literary characters. In chapter four of Frankenstein, Victor animates a creature composed of dead body parts, and critiqued psychoanalytically, he experiences ‘the uncanny’ due to his repressed death-related trauma, reveals oedipal anxieties through a highly-symbolic dream, and demonstrates repressed homosexual desire and the possession of a death drive, through his diction and actions. In reading the passage through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism, the reader understands that Frankenstein’s failure to confront his unresolved issues both influences his behaviour and brings about his ruin, in that the creation of the monster, as an incarnation of his repressed desires, leads to his eventual death.

Victor has a repressed fear of death, which is highlighted by his intense emotional response to the animated monster’s unnatural appearance. Freud describes ‘the Uncanny’ as something familiar (heimlich) which has been made unfamiliar (unheimlich), and therefore produces a sense of terror in the viewer.[1] When Victor first observes his creation he displays such an emotional response, stating that “breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”.[2] The uncanniness of the monster is caused by the unnerving combination of the binaries of life and death within one being, whereby the monster breathes, non-verbally communicates, and expresses emotions – Heimlich characteristics of the living – yet maintains the countenance of death, with his “watery eyes”, “shrivelled complexion” and “black lips”, and is thereby made unheimlich.[3] The collapse of the familiar boundaries between life and death also causes Victor’s repressed distress over the death of his mother to resurface. As Freud states, the frightening element of the uncanny “is something…repressed” which “now returns”,[4] and Victor’s Freudian slip, in which he opines that “A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch,”[5] demonstrates the relationship between his current feelings of the uncanny and his repressed horror at his mother’s death, repressed trauma which will later resurface in form of a dream.

Victor’s dream also reveals his conflicting repressed desires for Elizabeth and his mother. These aforementioned repressed desires involuntarily resurface in Victor’s dream, in which his expression of acceptable passion towards his would-be fiancée – an ‘embrace’ and “kiss of Elizabeth[6] – devolves into an embrace of his dead mother, revealing his repressed Oedipal desire, by which he unconsciously desires emotional and sexual possession of his mother and “thus…regards the father as a rival”.[7] Different symbolic images are condensed within the dream, in which the shroud symbolises his concealed desire to ‘envelope’ or wholly possess her,[8] and the phallic worms aim to penetrate the shroud, or overcome the obstacles which prevent the fulfilment of that desire.

As the dream suggests, however, this oedipal desire was frustrated by his mother’s death, and therefore Frankenstein’s Oedipus complex remains unresolved. The complex, although a normal component of the phallic stage of psychosexual development, was usually resolved during childhood when the male child reconciled and learned to identify with the father.[9] Frankenstein’s continued failure to identify with his father means he is stuck in the phallic stage.[10] This psychosexual immaturity explains Victor’s impotence, by which he fails to take forceful action to contain the monster’s murderous destruction – as a heroic and virile man would have done, and does not consummate his marriage to Elizabeth, embracing her only when she is dead.


Victor’s lack of heterosexual virility and selfish rejection of his creation are a result of his intrinsic narcissism, a characteristic which was seen by Freud as a normal, transitory characteristic of the phallic stage of development, but an unresolved Oedipus complex meant the trait was permanent.[11] Freud posited that an oedipal male’s permanent narcissism caused him to identify with his mother, unconsciously desire his father, and choose a homosexual object of desire which resembled himself.[12] Consequently, Victor demonstrates repressed homosexual desire towards the monster and Henry Clerval, which unconsciously reveals itself through his diction. He describes the creation of the monster with homoerotic vocabulary, stating “I…desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation”,[13] creates a creature which embodies his ideas of masculine perfection, with “lustrous” hair, “beautiful” features and a well-proportioned body,[14] and feels “calm and serene joy” upon ‘grasping’ Clerval’s hand.[15] Furthermore, when Frankenstein awakens after his dream, he is “fixed” in a romantic gaze with a sexually-suggestive monster, who “[holds] up the curtain of the bed” and attempts to touch him.[16] Victor’s repressed homosexual desire resurfaces in a frightening way, and he experiences the uncanny; the monster is simultaneously an object of revulsion and desire, as Victor is subconsciously attracted to him but repulsed by his deathly composition.

Frankenstein’s non-heterosexual creation of the monster has erotic overtones, and thus conflates the issues of death, sex and narcissism. Despite Victor’s reluctance to engage with his creation, Freud would suggest that it is his narcissistic homosexual desire which unconsciously induces him to reproduce himself in humanoid form, as he creates an object of desire who resembles himself, so that he may love it as his mother loved him.[17] The doppelganger is both a manifestation of a narcissistic desire for self-preservation, and an uncanny harbinger of death, as the “notion of doubleness undermines the very logic of identity”.[18] Thus, his creation parallels and is motivated by the relationship between the libidinal drive and the death drive elucidated by Freud, in which sexual desire is both self-protective and self-destructive.[19] Freud argues that the libidinal drive promotes the behaviours which sustain and create life, and the death drive stimulates self-destructive behaviour which is motivated by the unconscious desire to die;[20] correspondingly, Frankenstein creates ‘life’ in response to his emotional and sexual urges to do so, and thus personifies ‘death’ itself in creating a creature which he, rightfully, suspects will kill him.[21]

Hence, a psychoanalytic reading of this passage from Frankenstein, and an examination of Victor’s Oedipal Complex, repressed homosexual desires, ‘uncanny’ feeling in response to viewing his monster, narcissism and death drive allows the reader to understand Victor’s sexual and physical impotence, reveals his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the monster, elucidates his complicated familial relationships, and explains why he creates a being and effectively allows it to ruin him. As such, this psychoanalytic reading exposes many aspects which underlie Victor’s characterization, Shelley’s choice of diction, and the narrative development itself, which ordinarily would have been overlooked in a liberal humanist critique.

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David Mclintock (London: Penguin, 2003), 23-24.

[2] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: the original 1818 text, eds. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005), 85.

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[4] Freud, The Uncanny, 147.

[5] Shelley, Frankenstein, 86. [My emphasis].

[6] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[7] Calvin Thomas, Ten Lessons in Theory (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 54.

[8] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[9] Freud, Sigmund, “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex” In On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 317-319.

[10] Frankenstein neglects his father’s entreaty to write to him, even though he was “uneasy at [Frankenstein’s] long silence” (Shelley, Frankenstein, 90), and is seen to resent his father’s dismissal of his fascination by the works of alchemists, and his father’s entreaties to marry Elizabeth.

[11] Sullivan, L.E, “Oedipus complex”, in The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (London: SAGE, 2009), 357.

[12] Sigmund, Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in Freud’s ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction,’ Joseph Sandler, Ethel Person and Peter Fonagy, eds. (London: Karnac Books, 2012), 20.

[13] Shelley, Frankenstein, 85.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 87.

[16] Ibid., 86

[17] Sigmund Freud, On sexuality: three essays on the theory of sexuality, trans. James Strachey; John Sutherland, ed (London: The Hogarth Press, 1974), 11.

[18] Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle, “The Uncanny,” in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (London: Routledge, 2009), 41.

[19] Thomas, Ten Lessons in Theory, 71.

[20] Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” trans., C. J. M. Hubback, ed. Ernest Jones, in The International Psychoanalytical Library 4 (1922).

[21] The monster indirectly kills Frankenstein by the emotional torment and physical exhaustion which he causes him to experience.

Ideology, Interpellation and Frankenstein

Interpellation: the ongoing process by which subjects are constituted in ideology.

Ideology: the ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a social class, individual or group.

In his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser positioned interpellation as the process by which ideology addresses the individual and gives it an identity. Althusser held that one’s desires, choices, and behaviours are products of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISAs), such as the family, education system and religion, and that through interpellation, the ideologies of these structures are unconsciously accepted by the individual (Barry, 158).

An examination of interpellation in literature:

  • Indicates the social forces at work within the setting of the novel,
  • Draws attention to the social, cultural and political commentary which the author is making,
  • Allows the reader to understand the actions of the characters, who have often been interpellated to act in accordance with a particular ideology.

Althusser states that interpellation is fundamentally an act of hailing, by which the hailer’s ideology is subconsciously accepted. The acts of hailing and interpellation are simultaneous, as individuals are always-already interpellated, due to the pervasive presence of ISAs in society, and unconscious acceptance of ideology. As people are always-already interpellated as ideological subjects, they constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition which, as Althusser puts it, “guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual…and…irreplaceable subjects.” ISAs impose ideology in order to maintain the status quo, and this stable status is reinforced by processes of recognition.

According to Althusser, ideology has a duplicate mirror-structure – meaning it is constituted by acts of mirrored recognition – which ensures simultaneously:

  1. The interpellation of individuals as subjects
  2. Their subjection to the Subject (the wielder of the ideology)
  3. The subjects’ recognition of each other,
    • The subject’s recognition of himself
  4. The guarantee that on the condition “that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right” (Althusser).

These four points of Althusser’s theory of interpellation are evident in Frankenstein.


ALTHUSSER’S POINTS ONE AND TWO: Victor’s interpellation as a subject, and his subjection to his family’s ideology: Victor, talking of his parents, recounts: “I was their…innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven” (Frankenstein, ch.1, p.23). Interpellated from childhood by the ISA of the family unit as an ‘innocent and helpless creature’, he creates his monster but doesn’t take responsibility for the consequences of his creation. Although William is murdered, and Justine is wrongly convicted, Frankenstein states “I was firmly convinced in my own mind that Justine, and indeed every human being, was guiltless of this murder” (Frankenstein, ch.7, p.74). He has the power to save Justine’s life but does not do so, as admitting his guilt would contradict his own ‘innocent’ subjecthood.

POINT THREE, PART A: the subjects recognise each other in an act which reaffirms their own interpellated subjecthood: William Frankenstein and the monster engage in a double interpellation, which consists of a protracted ‘hailing’ of each other (McLane, 122), in which the monster addresses William as ‘child’ and ‘boy’, and William addresses him as ‘monster’, ‘ugly wretch’ and ‘ogre’ (Frankenstein, ch.16, p.143). The monster aims to interpellate himself as William’s master, in the belief that William “was unprejudiced and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity” (Frankenstein, ch.16, p.143). He mistakenly believes that William had not yet been interpellated by the ideology which abhors the uncanny, not realising that subjects are always-already interpellated.

POINTS THREE B and FOUR: the subject’s recognition of his already-interpellated self as being monstrous, and his accordant behaviour: Although the creation is continually treated as a monster, it is only when he sees his reflection that he performs an act of self-recognition, stating “I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (Frankenstein, ch.12, p.112). The monster thereby accepts the societal (mis)recognition of himself as a monster, and when he is again labelled a monster by William, he consciously converts himself into the immoral monster which he had continuously been recognised as, and murders him.

Hence, interpellation is a literary device which is vital to Frankenstein’s plot development and characterisation.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Press Review, 1971. Accessed 8 September 2014.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

McLane, Maureen Noelle. “Literate Species: Populations, “Humanities,” and Frankenstein.” In Harold Bloom, ed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. 95-124.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus. London: Vintage, 2007. 1831 edition.

N.B. All Althusser quotes are taken from the electronic version of “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”

World War One: The German and Russian Home Fronts

(This essay is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray. It may not be copied or repurposed in any way without the express, written permission of its author.)

In modern total war, the war is won or lost on the home front. Such was the case in Germany and Russia in the First World War, in which the industrial, economic, social, political and organisational structures of the nations were geared towards sustaining their war efforts. The home front can be defined as the ‘civilian population and activities of a nation whose armed forces are engaged in war abroad, which acts as an active support system for the military’. The immense breadth of such a definition means that an examination of the home fronts of Germany and Russia must be narrowed down to four key aspects of civilian life during the First World War: the uses of structure of control to mobilise personnel in the civilian war effort, the production and acquisition of food, the rapid expansion of industry, and the role of women in wartime society. In doing so, while it becomes clear that both nations struggled with food shortages, the difficulty of mobilising sufficient labour to expand an economy and industrial system hindered by military conscription and a lack of resources, the changing roles of women, and the need to promulgate laws which enabled the necessary  restructuring of society and its institutions, Germany and Russia experienced these issues to differing extents, and dealt with them in different ways, which produced varying results. Overall, the greater industrial advancement and bureaucratic organisation of Germany allowed it to better cope with the complexities of simultaneously conducting a total war and maintaining relative stability on the home front, enabling the German ruling bodies to maintain authoritative legitimacy and a relatively successful home front for a full year longer than Russia.

The mobilisation of civilians to sustain the war effort and provide for the needs of the home front dominated domestic life and policy in both Germany and Russia during the First World War. Although already autocratic states, whose democratic bodies – the Reichstag and Duma – had negligible political power, in both Germany and Russia the role of the state increased further still, as it came to regulate food, industry and munitions, to different extents and with different methods in each country. The German Auxiliary Service Law legislated the compulsory civil conscription of every German man between the ages of seventeen and sixty, while in Berlin the Central Labour Exchange dedicated itself to finding work for women.[1] In Russia, martial law was declared for the duration of the war, allowing Russian authorities to conscript civilians into forced labour in whichever capacity they saw fit.[2] German institution of martial law, on the other hand, was limited to specific factories; the ruling bodies instead chose to pass emergency legislation which lent greater legitimacy to its significant extension of its own powers, such as the Enabling Act – which allowed the government to pass those laws deemed necessary without parliamentary consent – and the Prussian Law of Siege, which allowed Deputy Commanding Generals to imprison individuals without trial and expel them from their districts.[3] Both countries also utilised the forced labour of refugees, or the inhabitants of occupied countries (in the case of Germany), to increase their industrial and agricultural output. By October 1916 more than 350,000 refugees laboured in Russian agriculture alone, while by 1918, 700,000-800,000 Polish workers had been deported to Germany, in addition to those forced into labour battalions in Poland.[4] Hence, the German and Russia home fronts both witnessed the immense extension of governmental powers into the regulation of everyday life, with the difference being that in Germany, these extended powers were more thoroughly legislated, and used to assert greater influence over German nationals and those of occupied territories.

The production and acquisition of food was a chief priority of Germany and Russia’s wartime leaders, While both countries recognised the importance of food in the maintenance of civil order, Germany chose to predominantly regulate its consumption, by rationing staple foods such as bread, butter, milk, and meat, while Russia regulated production by fixing prices for products such as sugar, grain, salt and oats, and forcefully requisitioned supplies at 75% of the usual price if farmers refused to sell them.[5] Attempts to maintain constant food supplies for the civilian population were hindered by the Allied blockade of German ports, and the German and Ottoman blockades of the Baltic and Black seas, albeit to different extents. The Allied blockade crippled Germany’s food supply, which had been reliant on foreign imports for one-third of its overall food supply prior to August 1914, as the British confiscated food stuffs as “contraband of war”, and deprived Germany of imported fertilisers which were vital to food production.[6]  Conversely, the blockade of Russian ports principally affected Russia’s grain export market, creating a surplus of food and a lack of income with which to buy other needed supplies.[7] In both nations, fuel shortages, frozen waterways and the precedence given to the transportation of military goods and personnel, increased difficulties in food distribution. In Russia the ability of commanders to arbitrarily requisition goods at their own discretion, and the need to transport food  immense distances from small, country producers to the increasingly urbanised population created disorganisation and frequent food shortages; even in the conveyance of military foodstuffs a 10-15% deficit in the required transport capacity was not uncommon, and as Struve states, “the remaining consignments of [civilian] foodstuffs…had to bear the full weight of the general inadequacy of railway facilities”.[8] Thus, while both Germany and Russia experienced the difficulties of regulating food supplies on the home front, it was Russia who was less successful in coordinating the production of food and satisfactorily distributing it to the civilian population.

This inability to effectively manage food production and distribution in both countries, and the effects of the Allied blockade in Germany, created food shortages which negatively impacted morale  and incited popular demonstrations and unrest. With a German population of 65 million and a Russian population of 167 million in 1914, both nations struggled to feed their populations while simultaneously sustaining a total-war effort. In Germany, rationing was progressively tightened and ersatz foods – such as Kriegsbrot or ‘war bread’ – became commonplace, while by 1917, St Petersburg was receiving just over half its daily requirement of grain, and Moscow only one-third.[9] Although Russia did experience significant food shortages, its problem was ironic, in that abundant food was available, but in the wrong places; this meant, however, that food shortages were usually only temporary.[10] On the other hand, in Germany, which was already much more highly industrialised than Russia, the loss of 60% of its agricultural labour force to military service, and the devastating effects of the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-1917 brought the onset of a genuine food crisis, and generated widespread discontentment.[11] Although recent estimates suggest that food shortages led to only 250,000-424,000 excess civilian deaths during the war, and not the 762,000 traditionally claimed, Ian Beckett argues, “it was the psychological perception of starvation that made the greatest impact”.[12] Such food shortages undermined support for the war and its leaders in both countries, as evidenced by the German women in the August 1916 food riots in Hamburg who shouted “Down with the Kaiser!” while calling for an end to the war, and by the notorious Bolshevik slogan of “Peace, land and bread”.[13] It is significant, however, that while discontentment with food shortages led to civil unrest in both countries, and the food situation was more critical in Germany, it was in Russia that food riots directly led to the overthrow of the imperial ruler.

It can therefore be inferred that the way in which food shortages and the corresponding civil unrest were dealt with determined the continued success of the home front and its leadership. According to Proctor, the food demonstrations in Russia in late 1917 which sparked a popular revolution which forcefully dismantled the Tsarist autocracy “were not…markedly different from those in Berlin”;[14] it was Russia’s use of violent force to suppress the unrest which undermined the regime’s legitimacy on a home front predicated on the cooperation of civilians and the state as a support for the military. Instead of concentrating his efforts on resolving the temporary shortage of flour and fuel in Petrograd which civilians were protesting on 26 February 1917, Tsar Nicholas ordered the Russian army to fire into the crowd, and in doing so sparked a revolution by using the military that the civilians were working to support against them.[15] In Germany, conversely, the Deputy Commanding Generals in Germany had been ordered to act cautiously when repressing civil disturbances, so as not to create martyrs which would fuel a revolutionary cause;[16] in several cases, German authorities yielded to the people’s demands, as in April 1916 when the government promised 220,000 striking workers in Berlin an increase in the meat ration.[17] Furthermore, the German state maintained the legitimacy of the home front for longer than Russia by the institution of food rationing, which constituted an effective contractual agreement between the state and citizen. The Russian Commission for Combating the High Cost of Living rejected the idea of rationing, as too dangerous, as a home-front government would have “the duty to supply, at definite periods and definite places, the commodities in question”, and the population would become “entitled to demand that the supplies that are due to it shall be issued in proper quantity”, which could augment popular unrest if they neglected to deliver the demanded goods.[18] It is therefore this unwillingness of Russia’s behalf to bindingly commit themselves to providing for the basic needs of the civilian in return for the continuance of the war effort on the home front which led to its downfall.

While the war both boosted industrial production and inflicted economic problems such as rising prices, inflation and debt on the German and Russian home fronts, Germany’s greater industrialisation and bureaucratisation allowed it to better coordinate the maximisation of  industrial production. With the creation of the War Raw Materials Division in September 1915, the German government was able to conduct a census of all its existing supplies of raw materials in a period of just three weeks and plan for their replenishment on a large scale, while the passage of the Auxiliary Service Law on 5 December 1916 meant every German male aged seventeen to sixty not in military service was required to contribute to the war effort, often through work in industry and munitions.[19] As a result, the German chemical industry grew by 170% and the engineering and electrical industries by 49% during the war.[20] However, by March 1918, German production levels were only 57% of those achieved in 1913;[21] Hindenburg’s declaration that all Germany’s “natural resources” and “everything that industry and agriculture can produce” should be “utilized exclusively in prosecuting the war” meant that arbitrary production quotas were set with no reference to sustainability or economic impact.[22] Much less industrialised than Germany, the War Industries Committees formed in Russia in May 1915 were voluntary organisations formed by leading industrialists to unite merchants, local industrialists and workers to help coordinate war production;[23] although these Committees were supplemented later in 1915 by a state-sponsored Special Council of Defence, “most of war production went on…as if the Special Council had not existed”, with war-related government ministries ordering goods and overseeing production “more or less in the old way”.[24]  Nevertheless, the war stimulated economic growth in Russia, with the Russian economy having grown by 21.6% over 1913 levels by 1916, and the labour force in heavy industries having quadrupled in the same period.[25] Therefore, while WW1 increased debt and inflation in the German and Russian home fronts and generated significant increases in industrial production in certain sectors, on the whole, Germany’s more highly-developed bureaucracy allowed it to more successfully coordinate production and achieve industrial goals.

The production of munitions on the German and Russian home fronts followed a similar trend, in that Germany’s greater industrial capacity and bureaucracy enabled it to produce more munitions than Russia. As both countries entered the war with insufficient reserves of munitions, in the belief the war would be quickly won, they both had to exert considerable effort on the home front to either acquire or produce the necessary supplies. Russia’s initial unwillingness to build new munitions factories which would be unprofitable during peacetime, and decision to instead rely on imports from other countries, hindered its war effort.[26] Beginning the war with just seven million shells, “which sufficed for six months of war”, Russia managed to produce just 11 million and import 1.3 shells in 1915, and foreign suppliers failed to deliver more than 7.1 million of the 40.5 million shells ordered by November 1916.[27] However, when Russia’s deficiency in military equipment and shell shortage contributed towards Russia’s need to retreat from Poland in 1915, Russian administrative leaders finally “appreciated the need for shell in great quantities” and accordingly expanded Russian shell production; by September 1916 Russia was producing 4.5 million shells per month, in comparison to 0.916 million in 1914.[28] However, German military production on the home front easily surpassed that of Russia, as the 1915 Hindenburg Programme committed Germany to directing millions of men into heavy industries with the intention of doubling its supply of munitions and tripling its supply of artillery; by late 1916, Germany was producing seven million shells per month – the same amount which Russia had started the war with.[29] Yet, although German industrial production started at a higher rate than it did in Russia, and produced more munitions overall, the unrealistic and unsustainable nature of the Hindenburg Programme had a ruinous effect on the German economy and created a fuel shortage which hindered the transport of items vital to the war effort.[30] Therefore, while Russia produced fewer munitions and converted to a war economy more slowly than Germany, Germany’s industrial growth was unsustainable and inflicted a heavy toll on the civilian home front.

Women, being exempt from military conscription, played an important role in the maintenance of the home fronts in the absence of millions of men, although their contributions and experiences differed between the countries. On both the German and Russian home fronts, women came to occupy positions of greater responsibility within the household and society, as for many it became necessary to acquire paid employment and dedicate themselves to supporting their families. The task of procuring enough food for their families by queuing in food lines for hours was a principal part of this heightened responsibility; by 1917 the average working-woman in St Petersburg spent 40 hours a week in queues for food and other requirements, while in Germany women sometimes had to quit their jobs, as it became untenable to work a fifteen-hour shift, care for their family and queue for food.[31] Women’s participation in the industrial workforce grew in Russia from 27% in 1914 to 43.2% in 1917, and in Germany from 22% in 1914 to 35% of the total industrial labour force in 1918,[32] and in both nations, many women served in war-related support operations, such as refugee relief, nursing and war kitchens. While Russian women in provinces close to the Eastern Front were conscripted for construction work, in Germany civil conscription affected only men, although there were concerted, propagandistic efforts to convince women to join the labour force, in order to release able men for the army and combat labour shortages, as in Russia.[33] Women assumed greater responsibility in agriculture as well, especially in Russia, in which peasant women took charge of harvesting crops in the absence of male family members.[34] Thus, while Russian women’s involvement in the industrial workforce grew by a greater extent than that in Germany, and women in Russia were subjected to civil conscription, in both nations similar trends were seen in the changing nature of women’s roles, as they acquired greater responsibility both in the home and in the labour force.

As Horne argues, however, the war entrenched gender norms more deeply into the home fronts, as while women in both nations “gained new prominence in social protest…they combined this with a heightened sense of their traditional role in protecting the family”.[35] Pro-natalistic attitudes were particularly strong on the German home front, with a Berlin university professor claiming in 1915 that bearing children was the “only female contribution to war and military power which equals” that of men.[36] German women were therefore granted six weeks’ maternity leave, illegitimate birth certificates were abolished, and both married and unmarried mothers were given financial support, in an attempt to increase the birth rate.[37] Separation allowances were also granted to military wives in Russia, although such a drive to increase the birth rate was not so evident, given that Russia was already struggling to maintain a population of 167 million on limited resources. Organisations in Germany such as the Women’s Labour Office and the National Women’s Service League aimed to engage with women on both a personal and occupational level,[38] whereas Russian women’s organisations remained centred around traditional feminine pursuits, as was the case with the nursing ‘Sisters of Mercy’, and the Women’s Battalion of Death, a women’s combat unit formed with the intention of shaming men into volunteering;[39] the women were thereby  fulfilling their traditional role of moral guardians of male virility and honour.  Although women did defy the stereotypically meek behaviour expected of them by generating unrest on both home fronts, being responsible for the August 1916 Hamburg food riots, and the International Women’s Day protests on March 8, 1917 which helped spark the Russia revolution, as a contemporary German military commander suggested, women resorted to physical force only because they knew “they [were] supposed to work and cater for their hungry families and [saw] that they [were] powerless to do so”.[40] Thus, while women on both fronts gained a greater autonomy through their participation in service organisations and popular demonstrations, they predominantly accepted their role as carers of both family and society, to a slightly greater extent in Russia than in Germany.

Hence, in this first modernised total war, in which it was just as important to out-produce as to out-fight the enemy, the German and Russian fronts both acted as industrial and agricultural support systems for their militaries, and suffered hardships and deprivations as a result of the significant redirection of supplies to military needs and the ineffectiveness of transport systems due to the naval blockades and fuel shortages. Germany’s more industrialised economy and inherently greater ability to compartmentalise its management of food, industry and munitions allowed it to produce more munitions than Russia and to regulate food distribution more effectively, despite the greater severity of the naval blockade imposed against it. Russia’s lack of central organisation and industrial preparation for the war, on the other hand, meant it produced fewer munitions and regulated food less effectively than Germany; in resorting to violent force to compensate for its failure to value the implicit pact between the state and the civilian which a ‘home front’ implies, Russia weakened the legitimacy of its power structure from a civilian perspective, leading to popular revolution and the end of Russia’s war effort. In both Russia and Germany, while women predominantly perpetuated their traditional roles in caring for their families, nursing the injured and acting as guardians of the social norms of virile masculinity and female fertility, women did gain greater personal autonomy, through their increased involvement in the industrial workforce, particularly in Russia, and achieve greater social influence, through the increased control attained by women’s labour and service organisations, particularly in Germany. In this way, when the respective characteristics of the German and Russian home fronts during World War One are compared and contrasted, Germany’s overall superior management of its war effort on the home front makes it unsurprising that Germany was able to continue hostilities for nearly a year after Lenin declared the Russian war to be over.

[1] John Williams, The Home Fronts: Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1972), 151; The Auxiliary Service Law, “Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst vom 5. Dezember 1916” [“The Auxiliary Service Law of December 5, 1916], Reichs-Gesetzblatt [Reich Law Gazette] (1916): 1333, accessed October 7, 2014,

[2] Jonathon W. Daley, “Police and revolutionaries,” in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume II: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, ed. Dominic Lieven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 653.

[3] Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914-1918 (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 244-245.

[4] Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 1914-1918 (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 59; Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914-1918 (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 260.

[5] Williams, The Home Fronts, 154; P. B. Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), 43. However, it must be noted that in Germany set prices were fixed by some local authorities, to encourage the consumption of particular abundant goods, while in Russia, rationing was also introduced, but it was not widespread, and the holding of a ration card did not guarantee the goods would be delivered.

[6] Neil Heyman, Daily Life during World War I (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 198.

[7] Eric Lohr, “War and revolution,” in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume II: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, ed. Dominic Lieven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 661.

[8] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 63.

[9] Beckett, The Great War, 267; Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[10] Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[11] Williams, The Home Fronts, 223-224.

[12] Beckett, The Great War, 268.

[13] Williams, The Home Fronts, 162.

[14] Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 246.

[15] Lohr, “War and revolution,” 656.

[16] Williams, The Home Fronts, 150.

[17] Ibid., 232.

[18] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 161.

[19] Williams, The Home Fronts, 36-37; The Auxiliary Service Law, “Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst vom 5. Dezember 1916,” Reichs-Gesetzblatt,

[20] Beckett, The Great War, 256.

[21] Ibid., 258.

[22] The Hindenburg Program, “Urkunden der Obersten Herresleitung über ihre Tätigkeit 1916/18” [Records of the Supreme Army Command on its Activities, 1916/18], ed. Erich Ludendorff (Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1920), 83, accessed October 7, 2014,;  Beckett, The Great War, 258.

[23] Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Lewis H, The politics of industrial mobilization in Russia, 1914-1917: A Study of the War Industries Committees (London: Macmillan-St. Antony’s College, 1983).

[24] Norman Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War: The Russian Shell Shortage, 1914-1917,” in War, Economy and the Military Mind, eds. Geoffrey Best and Andrew Wheatcroft (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), 111.

[25] Beckett, The Great War, 367.

[26] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 110.

[27] Beckett, The Great War, 366.

[28] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 111.

[29] Stone, “Organizing an Economy for War,” 112.

[30] T. Hunt Tooley, “The Hindenburg Programme of 1916: a central experiment in wartime planning,” The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 2.2 (1999): 59.

[31] Beckett, The Great War, 372-373; Beckett, The Great War, 222.

[32] Lohr, “War and revolution,” 662; Beckett, The Great War, 236.

[33] Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 58.

[34] Struve, Food Supply in Russia during the First World War, 300.

[35] John Horne, “Public Opinion and Politics,” in A Companion to World War I, ed. John Horne (Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), accessed October 7, 2014:

[36] Heyman, Daily Life during World War I, 226.

[37] Williams, The Home Fronts, 167.

[38] Beckett, The Great War, 276.

[39] Ibid., 457.

[40] Hew Strachan, World War I: a history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 158.

‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and the fin de siècle

(This essay is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray. No part of the work may be copied or repurposed in any way without the express, written permission of the author.)

In his work Degeneration, Max Nordau captures the mood of the late-nineteenth century, referencing contemporary “qualms” that European society was in the midst of a “Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.”[1] It is in this same era of the fin de siecle which Robert Louis Stevenson published his novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and both encapsulated and activated these same concerns which were causing great anxiety among Britons. While Britain had traditionally identified itself with a culture that exemplified civilisation, piety and morality, during the fin de siecle anxieties arose that Britain was descending into infirmity and barbarity. Although the age of imperialism and Second Industrial Revolution were at their zeniths, and London remained a capital of trade and culture, the prominence of theories of degeneration, scientific naturalism, and Darwinism destabilised British confidence in the religious, biological and moral foundations on which their Empire resided. Thus, Stevenson uses grotesque imagery to demonstrate this pervasive malaise, and evokes contemporary paranoia that English civilisation simply masked a primitive barbarity, by showing the primitive Hyde to be a fundamental part of Jekyll’s identity. Furthermore, he highlights his characters’ self-conscious enactment and careless contravention of Victorian masculine ideals, and thus activates contemporary anxieties over a crisis in masculinity which threatened the Empire’s security. He likewise shows the upper-middle class patriarchy to be threatened by the ascendant working classes, and demonstrates that the pious superiority on which Britain’s moral empire was founded was in danger, as the gentry, whose responsibility it was to protect this moral hegemony, were themselves immoral and degenerate.  Finally, Stevenson highlights the duplicity and duality inherent in Britain and its subjects, and shows that their reputation for civilisation is based on the careful repression of negative, and active projection of positive, elements, which obfuscate the fact that Britain’s “institutions”, “creations” and “m[e]n” are “perishing in the midst of a dying world.”

Stevenson activates the anxiety that the “Dusk of Nations” was nigh by evidencing a degenerate malaise over his characters and setting, which are seen to be tainted from the core.[2]  He employs pathetic fallacy in his description of the weather and physical condition of London, invoking an atmosphere of pessimistic foreboding. Upon Carew’s murder, London is “drowned” in a “great chocolate-coloured pall” of “fog,” by which Stevenson connects the termination of Carew’s life with Britain’s suffocation.[3] Similarly, on the night of Jekyll’s death, the strong winds are said to have “swept the streets…bare of passengers,” thereby foreshadowing upcoming change, which will wipe Jekyll, and his ‘passenger’, from existence.[4] In negatively portraying urban London, therefore, as a site in which electric “lamps [glimmer] like carbuncles,” and in which “street after street” is “lighted up” yet remains as barren and “empty as a church,” Stevenson suggests industrialisation has brought degradation, not progress, equating the lamps with an open, festering wound.[5] The author focalises the effects of this national sickness on an individual level by positioning Hyde as an internal sickness, whose negative effects on Jekyll’s health are contrary to the aims of his progressive scientific experiment; Utterson notes that Jekyll looks “deathly sick” and “feverish,” while Hyde’s “powers” are said to “have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll.”[6] Finally, the novella’s pivotal events take place under the cover of a “gross darkness,” – which is the site of murder, suicide, rape, and “nightmare[s],” – and the morning after Carew’s murder, which leads to Jekyll/Hyde’s eventual demise, is said to be “dark like the back-end of evening.”[7] Thus, Stevenson’s construction of plot and atmosphere suggests that Europe was indeed experiencing the “Dusk of Nations,” in which both nature and mankind are waning, and mankind is dying within a “dying world.”[8]

Steven heightens these anxieties by showing British civility to be a mere veneer which masks the barbarity of ‘Darkest England.’ Drawing upon contemporary imperial literature on the horrors of ‘Darkest Africa,’ fin de siècle writers, such as William Booth in his In Darkest England, drew parallels between the “pygmies,” “savages” and “raiders” of the African continent and the “barbarians” produced by “Civilisation” itself, and pondered whether they might not “discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors” to those found “in the great Equatorial forest.”[9] Contributing to this anxiety were Darwin’s theories on atavistic reversion, which allowed for the possibility of evolutionary regression to ancestral types.[10] Stevenson depicts these cultural anxieties by describing Hyde’s as atavistically “troglodyt[ic]”, with his “dwarfish” stature, “corded and hairy” hands, “savage laugh” and “ape-like” “delight” in physical violence.[11] What is sinister about this description, however, is that Hyde is revealed to be a fragment of Jekyll’s own being, part of the “primitive duality of man”;[12] given that Jekyll is otherwise positioned as the quintessential English gentleman, in his philanthropy, “taste” and learned achievements, Stevenson radically implies that this barbarian resides permanently in every gentleman.[13] Stevenson’s construction of a shocking denouement, therefore, parallels contemporary degenerationist hysteria;[14] Benedicte Morel’s description of degeneration as any “pathological deviation” from normality had become cemented in the national psyche, making Britons especially conscious that any visible deformity might be the first step in widespread biological devolution.[15] Thus, Hyde’s atavistic aspect, which gives a “strong feeling of deformity”, turns ordinary women “as wild as harpies,” makes Sawbones “turn sick and white” with murderous intent, and causes Enfield to contend that blackmail was the “next best” thing to “killing.”[16] Therefore, Stevenson activates contemporary cultural anxieties over the fear that Britain’s civilised appearance was a mere veneer which masked the barbarity and atavism of its subjects.

Furthermore, Stevenson’s homosocial novella both enacts and activates cultural anxieties over a perceived crisis of masculinity, which threatened to weaken an Empire predicated on patriarchal power structures. In Victorian England, authentic manliness was constituted by “rugged individualism,” virile strength, their intrinsic difference to the feminine ‘Other,’ and their work ethic;[17] as William Landels noted in 1859, it was by “constant, never-ceasing work” by which one became a man.[18] Furthermore, the domestic space, which a man owned and a woman improved, was valorised as offering a refuge from the degeneration of urban life.  Thus, in depicting a homosocial circle of professional male bachelors, whose only female contact is with nameless servants, Stevenson portrays domestic interiors which are the antitheses of those belonging to the quintessential ‘man’. The gentlemen’s hearths and “great, dark bed[s]” are sites of horror, around which unnamed servants “huddl[e] together like a flock of sheep,” and in which Utterson “tosse[s] to and fro.”[19] This lack of manly domesticity is compounded by Lankester’s hypothesis that conditions which render  “food,” “safety” and “fortune” easily attainable lead to “parasitism,” “immobility” and atavism.[20] Stevenson therefore juxtaposes Utterson, the “paragon of Victorian masculinity,” with Hyde:[21] Utterson, on the one hand, defines himself professionally, as “Mr. Utterson the lawyer;”[22] adheres to a strict routine of exercise and religious study; demonstrates his physical courage on the night of Jekyll’s death; and avoids the corrupting power of material ease, drinking “gin” to “mortify a taste for vintages,” and abstaining from theatre-going “for twenty years,”[23] while Hyde embodies the antithesis of this ideal, as he “Weep[s] like a woman,” eschews employment and routine, and yet still avails of a “closet…filled with wine,” and “several thousand pounds” in “credit.”[24] By portraying Hyde as ‘parasitically’ financially dependent, and ‘inert’ in his unemployment, Stevenson shows Hyde and his impotent peers to be undergoing a crisis of masculinity.

Stevenson deepens these anxieties over Britain’s degeneration by showing this decline to be the result of shifting power relations between the classes. Darwin’s theories on natural selection in civilised societies caused widespread anxiety during this era, as he theorised that social welfare, medicine and “poor-laws” protected “weak members” who would otherwise have been “eliminated,” and that this process was “highly injurious to the race of man.”[25] Hence, the “residuum” of “Outcast London” were thought to pose a threat to civilisation, as in Cantlie’s Degeneration Amongst Londoners, in which he claims that “foul,” urban London was “raising up a puny and ill-developed race,” and expresses his fears for the Empire’s condition “after they…[take]…charge.”[26] Stevenson evidences these anxieties when he describes how the “square of ancient, handsome houses” on which Jekyll’s residence was located had “decayed from their high estate” and were “let in flats…to all sorts…of men: map-engravers…shady lawyers, and the agents of obscure enterprises.”[27] Given the traditional association of property with heredity and status in English culture, the degradation, subdivision, and renting of these properties to men who, professionally, sought to alter the physical, legal and economic foundations of English society, demonstrates the threat which the rising lower-classes posed to old-moneyed elites like Henry Jekyll. Similarly, the murder Carew, M.P., is figured as a confrontation between “old-world kindness” and authoritative “self-content” of the elected representative of democracy with the “ape-like fury” of a “madman”;[28] whereas the “old gentleman” is “much surprised and a trifle hurt,” by Hyde’s breach of decorum, Hyde “impatien[tly]” disregards the social impetus for a peaceful, discursive solution, and “[hails] down a storm of blows.”[29] Furthermore, the urban poor, and the crime associated with them, are highly visible within the novella, in the form of “ragged children huddled in the doorways,”  “newsboys,” “[b]lack-mail,” “thie[ves],” and “the gallows.”[30] The growing movements in suffrage, socialism and trade unions, which sought to empower the ‘residuum’ caused anxiety among the elites, which Stevenson activates by geographically situating the gentlemen’s West End dwellings in unrealistically-close proximity to those of the poor; they are seen to be literally at the backdoor, threatening to invade polite society.[31] Thus, Stevenson’s depiction of the urban poor, and the clash of the working-class and gentlemanly worlds, activates cultural anxieties over shifting class relations, which threatened to un-civilise the Empire.

Stevenson furthermore demonstrates that the piety and morality upon which British civility and its project were premised was unravelling. Although the Church and gentry had traditionally guarded British morality, the rise of scientific naturalism, which claimed all phenomena were explicable through science, and changing power structures between the English classes as a result of modernisation, were seen to have imperilled their hegemony;[32] contemporary writers spoke of a “population sodden with drink, steeped in vice, eaten up by every social and physical malady,” and thus so immoral that it was a “satire…upon our Christianity and our civilisation.”[33] Stevenson provides evidence of this degeneration in the character of Utterson, whose otherwise “austere” nature is marred by his role as “the last reputable acquaintance and…good influence in the lives of down-going men,” and by his ‘inclination’ to “Cain’s heresy”;[34] Utterson’s piety is artificial, therefore, and restricted to “a volume of some dry-divinity” on Sunday nights.[35] In an 1887 letter, however, Stevenson locates the “harm” of the novel in Jekyll’s “hypocri[sy],” which leads him to displace his own “moral turpitude” into the figure of Hyde, who consists of “malice, and selfishness and cowardice,” and represents the “diabolic in man”;[36] he is figured as an “evil influence,” Utterson fears that he bears “Satan’s signature,” and Jekyll states that he constitutes a “devil…caged” inside of him.[37] In describing, furthermore, Jekyll’s demise into his “second and worse” self, as a result of the fact that his “virtue had slumbered” and he was not “under the empire of generous or pious aspirations” when he “approached” his experiment, Stevenson activates contemporary anxieties over the idea that Britain’s moral empire, which had ostensibly been bathed in rhetoric of Christianisation and civilisation, was corrupted by the moral failings of the mother country.[38] Britain’s moral character was “down-going” and moving “wholly towards the worse,” given the weakening control of the Church and the gentry, and therefore there was the possibility that its “discover[ies],” too, would be degenerate and threatening.[39]

As such, Stevenson thematises the ideas of secrecy, doubleness and the Gothic “unspeakable,” in order to demonstrate that civilisation has devolved into a front which belie the degenerate underworlds which must be repressed. Stevenson places the theme of duality at the core of the narrative, and constructs a series of doubles which are juxtaposed against each other; these include the eponymous Jekyll and Hyde, as ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive, but also Mr. Hyde and “Mr. Seek,” “angel[s]” and “fiend[s],” “good” and “evil,” “reputation” and “disgrace,” “sanity” and “madness.”[40] In each of these binary oppositions, although the ‘negative’ ultimately prevails, it is the ‘positive’ which is presented to society by Stevenson’s characters as a means of preserving their “respectability” before the “public eye”;[41] Jekyll divorces the “extraneous evil” within him, so that he “carry [his] head high, yet this evil prevails.[42] The multiple narrative voices evidence the characters’ attempts to state their “case,” in the form of “statement[s],” “letters” and metaphorical “incident” reports, as the loss of “friends” and “credit” is seen to be akin to a social death within fin de siècle English society.[43] Gothic unspeakability prevails with the novella, therefore, as the spectres of “undignified” “pleasures” and “youth[ful]” “capers” are carefully repressed;[44] Jekyll engages a “silent” housekeeper, Utterson and Enfield say “nothing” on their walks, and Enfield ruminates on the danger of “putting questions.”[45] Jekyll’s “undignified” pleasures are therefore shrouded in ambiguity, and although they may include degenerate pursuits ranging from alcoholism and slumming, to cock fighting and deviant sexuality, their unspeakability demonstrates Victorian cultural anxiety over the “incongruous faggots” of good and evil that “bound together” and “continuously struggling,” but must be repressed at all costs.[46] Thus, Stevenson’s portrayal of the repression of desires and faults that are continuously intimated but never explicitly stated, highlights Victorian cultural anxiety over the necessary, and damning, “duality of man.”[47]

Thus, in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, numerous cultural anxieties are activated, which reflect the fin de siecle belief that the “Dusk of Nations” was nigh, and that Britain’s “institutions,” “creations,” and “m[e]n” were degenerate and waning.[48] Stevenson depicts a suffocating physical environment and positions Hyde as an inner sickness, thereby reflecting the malaise of degeneration with which Britain was thought to be afflicted. He draws upon contemporary literature which contends that a primitive darkness and barbarity within the city, and within the atavistic Hyde, were evidence of the devolution of Britain.  Stevenson juxtaposes Utterson’s conscious fulfilment of his masculine role, with Hyde’s immobility and parasitism, activating anxiety over a crisis in masculinity, by which the prevalence of men like Hyde would cause mankind to devolve. As such, Stevenson’s rendering of the working classes as criminal, “ill-contained” and ever-encroaching, reflects contemporary fears that the rising ‘residuum’ were causing the degeneration of English civilisation.[49]  His portrayal of the waning morality of the gentry, who were supposed to be its bulwarks, alludes to contemporary fears that Britain’s moral empire was imperilled. Finally, Stevenson’s shows that both Jekyll and Britain’s outward civility is the result of a profound duplicity, by which ‘undignified’ elements are repressed to conserve the outward appearance of civility, which belies the decline, death and degeneration of Britain’s “institutions”, “creations” and “m[e]n,” which are “perishing in the midst of a dying world.”[50]

[1] Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 2.

[2] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (e-Art Now: Google Books, 1886), 22, 18.

[4] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 29.

[5] Ibid., 22, 5.

[6] Ibid., 20, 39, 52.

[7] Ibid., 10.Utterson’s horror at the thought of Hyde “stealing like a thief to Harry’s bedside” has connotations of, especially sexual, assault, given that it takes place in Jekyll’s bedroom. Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 14, 18.

[8] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[9] William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, 1890), quoted in: Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45-46.

[10] Marja Harmanmaa and Cristopher Nissen, eds., Decadence, degeneration, and the end: studies in the European fin de siecle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 187.

[11] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 12, 51, 5, 12, 49.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Stevenson makes a point of detailing Jekyll’s extensive resume; these learned achievements are the following: “M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S.”, 9; Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 19.

[14] Max Nordau, Degeneration, 537.

[15] Benedicte Morel, Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives (Paris: Bailliere, 1857), 15, quoted in: Maria Harmanmaa and Cristopher Nissen, eds, Decadence, degeneration, and the end: studies in the European fin de siècle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 188.

[16] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 7, 6, 5, 6.

[17] Josh Tosh, “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002): 455.

[18] Tosh, “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England,” 466.

[19] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 10, 30, 10.

[20] Ray Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (London: Macmillan and Company, 1880), 52.

[21] Benjamin D. O’Dell, “Character Crisis: Hegemonic Negotiations in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Victorian Literature and Culture 40.2 (2012): 519.

[22] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 4.

[23] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 4.

[24] Ibid., 34, 19.

[25] Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray, 1871.

[26] James Cantlie, Degeneration Among Londoners (London: Fiefld & Tuer, 1885), 35, quoted in: Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), xv.

[27] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 12-13

[28] Ibid., 17.

[29] Ibid., 17.

[30] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 18, 21, 6, 14, 51.

[31] Just as Hyde acted like the owner of Jekyll’s house, despite his inferior status. Ibid., 16.

[32] Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 221.

[33] ibid., 49.

[34] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 4.

[35] Ibid., `Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 9.

[36] Katherine Bailey Linehan, ““Closer Than a Wife”: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll’s Significant Other,” in Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered: New Critical Perspective, ed. William B. Jones, Jr., (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003), 91-92.

[37] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 24, 12, 49.

[38] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 50, 46, 45.

[39] Ibid., 4, 46, 45.

[40] Ibid., 11, 46, 44, 46, 9, 39, 9.

[41] Ibid., 46.

[42] Ibid., 44.

[43] Ibid., 16, 43, 51, 20, 6.

[44] Ibid., 46, 46, 6.

[45]Enfield states his rule is that “the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask,” demonstrating the fundamental ‘unspeakability’ of this society. Ibid., 46, 4, 7.

[46] Ibid., 46, 44.Please note that as I conducted a ‘queer theory’ reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a previous course, I have omitted commentary on the homosexual undertones of the novella, which, although significant, would cause me to readdress the same material.

[47] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 50.

[48] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[49] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 17.

[50] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

The Epigraph of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

(This essay is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray, and may not be copied or repurposed in any way without the author’s express, written permission)

Writers use epigraphs for their intertextual capacity to shape the meaning of the work in question, by establishing mood and themes, or by inviting comparison between the two texts.[1] In writing The Waste Land (1922), T. S. Eliot originally selected an extract from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) as his epigraph.[2] Although Ezra Pound ultimately convinced him to exchange this selection for a quotation from the “weight[ier]” Satyricon, Eliot defended his choice of epigraph as “the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative”.[3] In his poetry, Eliot uses structural allusion to create a sense of historical continuity, and to add moral, historical and literary weight to his writing;[4] it was his belief that “mature poets st[ole]” from other works in order to create something entirely unique.[5] In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot claimed that “[n]o poet…has his complete meaning alone. His significance…is the appreciation of his relation to the dead…artists”.[6] In drawing upon HOD, therefore, which, set in the Congo Free State during the Scramble for Africa, deals with the “horrors” of imperialism, including atavism, moral bankruptcy and illicit sexuality, Eliot demarcates the thematic and atmospheric basis of his poem.[7]  Conrad uses Kurtz’s demise to create a sense of personal crisis within larger structures of societal collapse, which Eliot mirrors in his depiction of post-war disillusionment. Kurtz’s degenerate behaviour embodies Eliot’s belief in the depravity, and imminent ‘Dusk’, of modern society, while his moment of “complete knowledge” before his death is suggestive of Eliot’s concern with the spiritual barrenness of modern Europe, and his search for salvation.[8] Finally, Conrad’s juxtaposition of Kurtz’s illicit relationship with his African mistress and pure engagement to his Belgian “Intended” elucidates Eliot’s preoccupation with the rampant sexuality of the working-, and the sterile impotence of the upper-, classes.[9] Thus, given Eliot and Conrad’s shared concern with degeneration, sexuality, religion and empire, Kurtz’s epigraphical cry would have resonated these ideas throughout the poem.

Although Eliot changed his epigraph, his remaining allusions to HOD demonstrate his continued belief that Kurtz’s exclamation captures the poem’s essence. Eliot believed that by “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity” and the past, the artist could “shape… the immense…futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”, and thus uses references to Conrad’s work to shape his own.[10] In “The Fire Sermon”, for instance, Eliot states that “The barges drift/With the turning tide/Red sails/Wide/”, echoing Conrad’s description of “red clusters of canvas” and “barges drifting up the tide” of the Thames.[11]  By placing his reader on the Nellie’s deck, Eliot alludes to the conversation which took place there, in which Marlow debunks the myth of British exceptionalism, stating that “this also…has been one of the [Earth’s] dark places”, thereby linking ancient Britain’s “marshes, forests,…[and]…savages” with the Congo.[12] Furthermore, just as Conrad employs images of “darkness”, describing the Thames as leading “into the heart of an immense darkness”, Eliot maintains an antithetical imagery of “bright[ness]”, and Eliot’s speaker is said to be “Looking into the heart of light”.[13] Both authors show that these are false binaries, as Kurtz spreads barbaric darkness, not white-European values, to the dark-skinned Congolese whom the colonial project is attempting to “civilize”, while in TWL, “sunlight” is unwelcome, as TWL’s inhabitants have become accustomed to living in a “Waste Land”, and light is associated with “silence” and “leer”.[14] Finally, both texts commentate on their society’s relationship to Empire. Conrad, writing at the zenith of British imperialism, expresses disillusionment after witnessing the barbaric treatment of Africans in the name of ‘civilisation’, while Eliot depicts post-war disillusionment with the results of militant European imperialism, mentioning the battle at “Mylae” and the trenches in which “dead men lost their bones”.[15] Thus, as HOD and TWL share similar concerns over imperial crisis, and Eliot alludes to Conrad’s text within his poem, his original epigraphical choice would have been highly appropriate.

As Conrad positions Kurtz as a symbol of Europe’s imperial project, his implication in his own “horr[ific]” death supports Eliot’s argument that Western European civilisation was on the brink of collapse.[16] In 1924, Eliot wrote that “I am all for empires, especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire”, advocating the post-war generation’s belief that “Western civilization was in a state which was the realization of historic doom”, as the bulwarks of Western power, including empire and faith in the teleological progress of humanity, had been destroyed in the carnage of the Great War.[17] In HOD, Conrad states that “[a]ll Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”, and that they were living “in the flicker” of light between the dawn and dusk of civilisation;[18] the novella’s ominous ending, in which the Nellie’s “offing” is “barred by a black bank of clouds”, is used by Conrad to communicate his pessimistic opinion of the outlook of imperial Europe, given his observation of its moral failings and capacity for self-colonisation.[19] In TWL, Kurtz’s cry of “horror” is seen to reflect Eliot’s own prognosis, as he, too, fears the end is nigh.[20] Eliot writes that “hooded hordes” – connoting Asian nomads, such as the Golden Horde which formed part of the Mongol Empire – are “swarming” towards imperial capitals, such as “Athens Alexandria/Vienna…[and]…London”, whose “towers” will consequently “[fall]”.[21] Just as Conrad induces a sense of Gothic horror through his mention of Kurtz’s “phantom” and his “craven terror” at “some vision” of “horror”, Eliot ominously foretells Western Europe’s approaching demise by referencing Dracula.[22] In that novel of Gothic imperial fiction, vampires appear when an empire’s fall is imminent, and when Eliot’s speaker notes “bats” crawling “head downward down a blackened wall”, just as Jonathan Harker realised Dracula’s identity upon witnessing him crawl headfirst down his castle wall, he understands them as a harbinger of imperial doom.[23] Thus, Eliot’s intended epigraphical reference to Kurtz’s “horror”-filled death, symbolically signalling the fall of imperial Europe, would have elucidated the sense of Gothic doom which Eliot fosters, as he foresees the collapse of the British Empire.[24]

According to Pericles Lewis, the “capacity to judge a civilization…[teetering]…on the edge of chaos was highly prized by the modernists”, and both Conrad and Eliot, writing in modernist genres, attempt to capture the growing popular discontentment with European imperialism and post-war Europe, respectively, by illustrating the individual’s sense of ‘horror’ at the phenomena which they perceive.[25] Although published in the conservative Blackwood’s Magazine, HOD challenges British exceptionalism and racial superiority.[26] Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, praises Kurtz for having “glimpsed” the “truth” and “embrace[d] the whole universe”, whereas the other Europeans’ “knowledge of life” was a mere “irritating pretense”;[27] while after he attained “complete knowledge” Kurtz had “stepped over the edge”, Marlow “had been permitted to draw back…[his]….hesitating foot”.[28] In stating this, Marlow thus claims to have been privy to a “complete knowledge” of life; while Kurtz had “teeter[ed] on the edge” and fallen, Marlow had lived to narrate this story.[29] He is alienated from the other men on the Nellie, who tell him that empathising with the Congolese is “[un]civil”, and he compares the modern British empire to the long-fallen Romans;[30] he perceives the falsity of European superiority, and relates his personal anguish, by which he is haunted by the “phantom” and “Shade” of Kurtz and his Intended, to a larger imperial crisis.[31] In Eliot’s poem, likewise, his speakers are “neither/Living nor dead”, plagued by “nerves” and able to “connect/Nothing with nothing”.[32] With the multiplicity of voices and locations, Eliot demonstrates that the speakers’ personal “horror” is universal, and that as the teetering civilisation is on the point of “falling down”, only those with “complete knowledge” of all the “fragments” of this experience will be able to “shor[e]” them “against [their] ruins”.[33] Thus, an epigraph depicting Kurtz’s moment of “complete knowledge” would reflect that both Eliot and Conrad’s speakers, alone of their civilisation, truly perceive the “horror” of modern civilisation.[34]

Furthermore, emanating from a man who perpetrated brutality under the guise of a civilising mission, Kurtz’s “horr[ified]” cry  at the degeneracy of his own behaviour reflects Eliot’s condemnation of “[t]he horror”, “cruel[ty]” and “broken” nature of modern civilisation.[35] With the popularisation of theories of atavistic degeneration by Ray Lankester and Max Nordau during the fin de siécle, a pervasive fear that a “Dusk of the Nations” was imminent was embedded in the Western-European psyche.[36]  Fin de siécle writers drew parallels between the “savages” of ‘Darkest Africa’ and the “barbarous” individuals produced by European ‘civilisation’;[37] thus, in HOD, Kurtz’s horror is that he pens pamphlets for the “Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”, yet performs “unspeakable rites”, beheads “rebels” and uses “unsound method[s]”, namely genocide and the incitement of tribal warfare, to procure ivory.[38] Kurtz is thus shown to have regressed to the barbaric state normally associated with the “primitive” Africans;[39] he has “gone native”.[40] In TWL, therefore, the poet uses his allusive method to refer both to Conrad’s tale of European degeneracy, and Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In TWL, the “brown fog” covering the London “crowd” is highly reminiscent of the “chocolate-coloured pall” in Stevenson’s novella, in which the “troglodyt[ic]” Hyde activated contemporary fears that atavistic barbarism belied the veneer of civilisation projected by the English gentleman.[41] Like Nordau, Eliot shows that the British empire, “with all its institutions…is perishing in the midst of a dying world”, depicting it as a “dead land” of “Dull roots” and “stony rubbish”.[42] Despite its mighty veneer, the heart of the British Empire, London, is degenerate; the “interminable” Thames, polluted by “empty bottles” and “cigarette ends”, is a site of fornication, the “Bridge” is “falling down” amid degenerate fog, and the “throne”, surrounded by oriental luxuries, is occupied by a neurotic woman.[43] Thus, Eliot’s allusions to texts which comment on Europe’s degeneracy, especially when strengthened by the intertextuality of an epigraph of a man realising his own degeneracy, would have provided his reader with a “complete knowledge” of the source of contemporary London’s “horror”.[44]

As Conrad intrinsically ties Kurtz’s exclamation of “horror” to his relationship with his Intended in the novella’s final scene, as an epigraph it would have aided Eliot’s examination of the sexual depravity and “steril[ity]” of modern civilisation.[45] Despite his engagement to a pious Belgian woman, in HOD Kurtz engages in taboo interracial sex with a “savage and…wild-eyed” African woman, who is directly contrasted with his pallid, “guileless” and overly-adulatory Intended.[46] Marlow tells the Intended that Kurtz’s final words were her name, despite believing that on his deathbed he relived “every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender”, thinking of his miscegenistic, but sexually-gratifying relationship with his African mistress, rather than his affection for his chaste fiancée.[47] In “A Game of Chess”, Eliot manipulates this same juxtaposition by depicting the sterility of an aristocratic couple alongside the rampant sexuality of the working-classes; Lil resorts to chemical abortions to “bring…off” unwanted pregnancies, while her friend justifies a man’s right to “[want] a good time”, even in the form of extramarital sex.[48] The relationships he depicts are characterised by either apathy or lust, and reflect either the barrenness or sordidness of the civilisation in which they take place: his typist is “glad” when sex with her “carbuncular” lover is “over”, the Fisher King’s impotence reduces his kingdom to a barren, “stony” wasteland, while Mr. Eugenides proposes the male speaker accompany him to the seedy “Metropole” hotel.[49] Therefore, Kurtz’s death scene, with its implications of illicit sexual desire and negation of his required devotion to his Intended, would have been a highly appropriate epigraph to TWL, as Eliot was concerned by how the two extremes of sexual lust and sterile chastity were contributing to the downfall of Western Europe.

As death is symbolically linked to morality and salvation, Kurtz’s horrified cry upon his deathbed echoes Eliot’s belief that the Western world was in dire need of salvation from a religious crisis, before it perished due to false idolatry, faithlessness and immorality. Eliot saw religion as integral to the functioning of society, stating that “no culture has appeared or developed except together with religion”, and draws upon Conrad’s text to highlight the consequences of abandoning religious faith.[50] In HOD, despite his depravity Kurtz fears “neither God nor devil” and becomes a false deity to his “wild crowd of obedient worshippers”.[51] It is only upon his death that he experiences a “supreme moment of complete knowledge”, and realises the “horror” of his sins.[52] Furthermore, Marlow describes the white colonisers as “faithless pilgrims”, as when they spoke, the “word ‘ivory’ rang in the air” as if “they were praying to it”.[53] He thus opines that despite the fact that European rhetoric stated they had a “heavenly mission to civilise” and “carr[y]” the] “lighted torch” of Christian civilization to the “darkness” of Africa, the colonisers worship material wealth, rather than Christianity.[54] Likewise, Eliot thematises the need for spiritual rebirth on both a personal and societal level, as the speaker in “What the Thunder Said” considers various religions in their search for salvation.[55] He draws upon imagery from Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu sacred texts, and uses the Fisher King, whose impotence signals society’s spiritual death, as an “analogue of the archetypal myth of the eternal return”.[56]  By positioning Madame Sosostris, “famous clairvoyante” and “the wisest woman in Europe” as a subject of ridicule, TWL’s inhabitants are seen to rely on false idols in their fruitless search for meaningfulness.[57] Like Kurtz, Sosostris represents a debasement of religion and a parodic distortion of genuine prophets, who rely on commune with God, rather than Tarot cards, for their spiritual knowledge.[58] Thus, Kurtz’s demotion from deity to a deranged “man…lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines”, would have elucidated Eliot’s belief that false idols were doomed to fall, and that spiritual rebirth was necessary before Western society died a “horr[ific]” death.[59]

Thus, given Eliot’s allusive method, and the thematic similarity between the two texts, the poet’s original choice of epigraph would have been highly appropriate, as it captures the anxieties at the heart of the poem. The writers share a mutual concern with the current state of civilisation, and use their texts to highlight its ‘horrific’ degeneracy, barren sexuality, and religious crises. Eliot’s poem and Conrad’s novella are concerned with depicting a sense of individual crisis, within a civilization which is itself at the brink of collapse. Conrad’s ominous depiction of Kurtz’s demise forebodingly foreshadows Eliot’s depiction of the impending imperial collapse of post-war Europe. Both authors attribute this downfall to Europeans’ degeneracy, which undercuts their supposed mission to civilise their racial ‘inferiors’, and signals the impending ‘Dusk of Nations’. Eliot and Conrad depict societies devoid of genuine piety and plagued by false idolatry, and thus Eliot’s search for religious salvation is given added symbolic impetus when compared alongside Kurtz’s deathbed scene, as Eliot’s forewarns the reader of the consequences of abandoning moral and religious restrictions. As such, Eliot’s original selection of an extract from Conrad’s HOD would have been highly appropriate. Its intertextual capacity allows it to elucidate Eliot’s concern with the imperial tensions, religious crises, sexual depravity, and moral horrors plaguing Western Europe.

[1] Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 157-158.

[2] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, and The Secret Sharer (New York: Signet Books, 1950 [1899]), 133. Please see the appendix for the aforementioned epigraph. From here onwards, ‘Heart of Darkness’ will be referred to as ‘HOD’, while “The Waste Land” will be referred to as ‘TWL’.

[3] Harriet Davidson, “Improper desire: reading The Waste Land,” in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, ed. A. David Moody (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1994]), 121.

[4] James Longenbach, ““Mature poets steal”: Eliot’s allusive practice,” in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by A. David Moody (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1994]), 176.

[5] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 182.

[6] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Perspecta 19 (1982) [1919]: 37.

[7] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 120.

[8] Ibid., 133.

[9] Ibid., 108.

[10] T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order and Myth,” in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005 [1923]), 167.

[11] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (New York: Horace Liveright, 1922), 35; Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 57.

[12] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 59, 60.

[13] Ibid., 142; Eliot, The Waste Land, 29, 12.

[14] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 62; Eliot, The Waste Land, 9, 8, 12, 13; Brian W. Shaffer, “Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness,” in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, eds. David Bradshaw and Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631204350.2005.00036.x.  “Leer” is the German word for emptiness.

[15] David Chinitz, “T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land,” in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, eds. David Bradshaw and Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631204350.2005.00037.x. Eliot, The Waste Land, 15, 20. It is of note, too, that the Great War elicited the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Romanov and Ottoman Empires.

[16] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 133.

[17] Harold Bloom, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007), 37-38.

[18] Ibid., 110, 60.

[19] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 142.

[20] Ibid., 134.

[21] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 44.

[22] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 141, 133.

[23] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 45.

[24] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134.

[25] Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 147.

[26] Cedric Watts, “Heart of Darkness,” in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, ed. J. H. Stape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1996]), 45.

[27] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134, 135.

[28] Ibid., 133, 134.

[29] Ibid., 133; Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 147.

[30] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 92.

[31] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 141; Jewel Spears Brooker and Joseph Bentley, Reading “The Waste Land”: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 44.

[32] Eliot, The Waste Land, 12, 20, 37.

[33] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 48; Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134; Eliot, The Waste Land, 49.

[34] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134.

[35] Ibid., 134.

[36] Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 2.

[37] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 90; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 19.

[38] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 110, 120, 124.

[39] Ibid., “primitive”, 101.

[40] Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), 193.

[41] Eliot, The Waste Land, 14, 15. Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (e-Art Now: Google Books, 1886), 18, 12.

[42] Max Nordau, Degeneration, 2; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 9, 10.

[43] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 57; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 27, 15, 48, 17.

[44] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134.

[45] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 134; Eliot, The Waste Land, 42.

[46] Ibid., 23, 138, 137.

[47] Ibid., 133.

[48] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 17, 25, 23.

[49] Ibid., 34, 32, 34, 10, 31.

[50] T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), xv.

[51] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 86, 137.

[52] Ibid., 134.

[53] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 79.

[54] Ibid., 62, 82, 142.

[55] Eliot, The Waste Land, 40.

[56] Audrey T. Rodgers, ““He Do the Police in Different Voices”: The Design of “The Waste Land,” College Literature 1.1 (1974): 49. Rodgers points out that such a myth is traceable in nearly all religions and mythologies.

[57] Eliot, The Waste Land, 13.

[58] Luke J. Rapa, ““Out of This Stony Rubbish: Echoes of Ezekiel in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Masters Theses 692 (2010): 29.

[59] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 132, 134.

Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain

(Please note that this work is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray. No part of this work may be copied or repurposed without the express, written consent of its author.)

In eighteenth-century Britain, ‘politeness,’ or the “art of pleasing in company” through a “dextrous management of…Words…and Actions,” was accepted into mainstream philosophical thought and social practice.[1] This indicated a popular rejection of antiquated codes of decorum in favour of modes of social behaviour that aligned more closely, ideologically, with Britain’s democratisation, urbanisation, and ascendant middle classes. Politeness provided a way to “conceptualise…[the]…complex and erratic…social phenomena” of the eighteenth century, thereby “giving them normative shape and direction.”[2] The self-conscious incorporation of politeness into the British identity allowed Britons to define themselves within a unique, and superior, tradition of civilised refinement. Politeness mattered, especially, to those who sought social ascendancy, constituting a mode of deportment which privileged social ingratiation, and was less dependent on rank, education and breeding for social distinction. During the consumer revolution politeness provided a framework for mutually-beneficial transactions, and in the emergent public sphere of social interaction and discourse, it offered behavioural guidelines for negotiating the coexistence of diverse peoples in a discursive, urban society. Politeness was valued for its codification of pacific behaviour which would purportedly restabilise Britain following the religious conflicts and factionalism of the previous century. Therefore, politeness mattered to eighteenth-century Britons because it provided a “blueprint for social and cultural creation” which was adapted to, and reflected, the contemporary ideals of freedom, refinement and discursiveness, by which they positioned themselves and their Empire as superiorly modern.[3]

Britons therefore valued politeness because it allowed them to consciously adopt an identity of civilised refinement which they believed would reinvigorate Britain and enhance its international standing. As a rhetorical term it was used to demarcate the boundaries between the “Polite World,” “polite Conversation,” and “polite Education,” from those deemed impolite, and therefore unfashionable and outdated.[4] British philosophers such as Shaftesbury identified ancient Greece as the classical locus of politeness and the “most civiliz’d…accomplish’d Nation,” celebrating a particular cultural condition which, supposedly enabling their intellectual, artistic and social achievements, they hoped to emulate.[5] Although foreign visitors had long noted a “[t]aciturnity verging on the brusque” in Londoners, in adopting politeness as a national credo, eighteenth-century thinkers attempted to position Britain within a tradition of refined civilisation that was symptomatic of modernity and symbolically opposed to the artificial courtly culture of Papist France, whose universal monarchy was, like that of imperial Rome, “the agent of brutality and superstition.”[6] The original, Shaftesburian school of politeness considered virtue the basis of true nobility and the natural result of internal “Civility, as per the classical tradition, believing, therefore, that the cultivation of inner virtue and polite culture would lead to the flourishing of the arts, sciences, and empire as a whole, as men became committed to conscious self-improvement along the lines of polite behaviour and deportment.[7] This new, polite identity mattered to people in eighteenth-century Britain, therefore, because it provided Britons with a sense of national optimism and pride.

On a personal level, however, to many Britons, the importance of politeness lay in its ability to enable social ascendancy, by allowing those lacking “inherited rank, formal education and… political” power, traditional markers of social status, to compensate for that lack by adopting an apparently natural mode of dress, manners, and behaviour which communicated inner virtue and outward refinement.[8] The proliferation of conduct books during the eighteenth century, such as Chesterfield’s The Accomplished Gentleman, which provided a guide to ‘polite’ “knowledge,” “Genteel carriage,” and “Elegance of Expression,” demonstrates a popular desire to use politeness for this purpose, as according to Chesterfield, an “inferior” man, “with the behaviour of a gentleman,” was better-received than a gentleman “with the…manners of a clown.”[9] These guides predominantly targeted the “upper levels of the middling sort” and the new “men of commerce,” whose economic capital and proximity to the gentry made social improvement both viable and desirable.[10] Although Shaftesbury condemned the use of politeness for social ingratiation as mere “Embroidery, Guilding, Colouring, Daubing,” the alternate school, championed by Mandeville and Gordon, recognised that men would “rather misspend their time with a complaisant ape, than improve it with a surly…philosopher,” and thus men’s inherent “Self-liking” rendered polite “flattery” and “ingratiation” expedient for social advancement.[11] Thus politeness mattered, particularly, to the upper-middle classes and men of commerce,  who had the necessary capital, leisure and personal desire to adopt polite manners, and thus insinuate themselves into the upper ranks of a polite society now less-fixated on traditional markers of gentility.

Politeness mattered, too, in the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, as product selection, the sales process, and the credit network relied heavily on notions of politeness. McKendrick and de Vries argue that in this era an unprecedented proportion of the population engaged in the consumption of non-necessary, consumer goods, foregoing other consumables to purchase those associated with the ‘polite World.’[12] These fashionable products of the industrial revolution and Empire, including tea, chinaware and “plated buckles,” conveyed “modernity, refinement and pleasure,” and in buying them Britons were able to purchase tangible markers of these values.[13] The proliferation of these goods impelled those who served the polite to exude the quality themselves, in order to maximise their market share;[14] shopkeepers thus stocked ‘polite’ goods, designed their shops to facilitate sociability, and used outward civility to turn agreeable conversation into a sale.[15] Mandeville’s Fable demonstrates how a draper and his customer utilise the code of politeness to further their respective aims; the customer “render[s] her…self…Amiable” in order to demonstrate her creditworthiness and flatter the proprietor into allowing her to “buy cheaper…the Things she wants,”  while the draper, aiming to “sell as much Silk as he can” styles himself as a “Fashionable…Gentleman-like Man,” treats  her with “Good-humour,” and never “directly contradict[s]” her.[16] Thus, politeness mattered to people in eighteenth-century Britain due to Britons’ increasing engagement with the commercial sphere, by which consumers and vendors alike capitalised on the fashion, mutual benefit and credibility of polite goods, transactions and commercial spaces for economic advantage and social distinction.

Politeness mattered, furthermore, because it served to mediate the social interactions of an urban public sphere based on freer social intercourse and discursive cultural activity. Urbanisation, immense population growth and the popularisation of the London season promulgated the creation of a civil ‘public sphere,’ predicated on Enlightenment belief in the use of rational discussion to promote the exchange of ideas and foster conviviality.[17] As the commercialisation of leisure rendered sites of sociability accessible to all who could afford them, this close proximity of diverse individuals rendered necessary the creation of behavioural codes that would ease the day-to-day transactions which the newly-urban society necessitated.[18] Polite sociability therefore enacted the ideals of post-Revolution, democratised freedom: the impetus to converse with one’s “superiors” “open[ly]…and respectual[ly],” with one’s equals “warm[ly],” and with one’s “inferiors” “free[ly],” meant that while rank was not forgotten, its visibility was diminished, allowing for ‘freer’ discussion.[19] Polite conversation assumed the equality of participants and insisted on a reciprocal exchange of alternate listening and communicating, by which the “amicable Collision” of diverse individuals “polish[ed]” one’s “Civility, Good Breeding, and…Charity,” while ‘polite’ periodicals such as the Tatler and Spectator aimed to bring “philosophy out of Closets and Libraries” and into “Clubs…Assemblies…Tea-Tables, and…Coffee-houses,” thereby creating a discursive community which interpellated its readers as polite individuals, who would accordingly check their own behaviour in cross-strata discussions of contemporary issues.[20] Thus, politeness mattered to eighteenth-century Britons because it served as a blueprint for harmonious social interaction, which the newly-urbanised society and newly-enlarged public sphere necessitated.

Politeness’ emphasis on moderation and order, furthermore, was seen to represent a codification of social practices which were defined against, and would protect Britain from, corruption, extremism and factionalism.  The religious and political conflicts of the 1600s provided an impetus for the adoption of a behavioural code which operated outside the confines of the Church and Court and would stabilise British society.[21] The rejection of the Court as the site of artifice, tyranny, and corruption, the repudiation of the “aweful” Church, which nurtured “Imposture” and inequality, and the shift from a monarchy- to government-centric political order following the overthrow of James II in 1688, signal a popular identification with the ideals of liberty, democracy and peace which the perpetrators of the Revolution purported to defend. [22]As the Whigs – advocates of parliamentary supremacy and the preservation of liberty – assumed power following the Revolution, politeness became central to their politics, as it facilitated the public debate, universal rights and social harmony on which Whiggish democracy was based.[23]  Politeness’ emphasis on restraint, moderation and good manners was considered “antidote to the vagaries of opinion…the fury of faction,” and the divisive effects of religious zeal, as it required the “Avoid[ance] of disputes as much as possible” and recommended the ‘sacrifice’ of “private inclinations and Opinions to the Practice of the Publick.”[24] Thus, British subscription to a program which privileged democratic social harmony demonstrates that politeness fulfilled a popular desire to elide the religious and social tensions which caused social upheaval.

Hence, politeness, as a philosophical concept and a behavioural code, mattered to people in eighteenth-century Britain because it provided them with a framework, based on the modern values of freedom, refinement and discursiveness, through which to order their world. The ideals of liberty, self-conscious improvement and complaisance which lay at the heart of politeness allowed Briton’s, therefore, to distinguish themselves as uniquely refined and civilised. It mattered, especially, to those with social aspirations, as a mimicable model of dress and manners which extended to them the possibility of social distinction and allowed for skilful social ingratiation. Politeness was used by consumers and vendors during the commercial revolution to secure mutually-beneficial economic transactions and to choose goods, premises and behaviours which symbolised their refinement. As Enlightenment ideals and demographic shifts effectuated the emergence of the public sphere, politeness was valued as a blueprint for harmonious social intercourse between diverse peoples, and was thus championed as a remedy to factionalism which undermined Britain’s stability, and a framework  by which Briton’s could successfully navigate the modern world.


[1] Abel Boyer, The English Theophrastus (1702), 106, 108, quoted in: Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: moral discourse and cultural politics in early eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3-4.

[2] Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 9.

[3] Given the brevity of this essay, I have focused on the reasons as to why politeness mattered to people in eighteenth-century Britain. However, it must be conceded that politeness did not matter to all Britons to the same extent, given its fundamental exclusivity of those lacking education and capital, and that there were those who deliberately flaunted codes of polite behaviour, engaging in riots, libertinism, and blatant depravity, and those who used the easiness and liberty of philosophies of politeness to justify behaviours which disturbed the peace. For further discussion of these ideas, please consult the following works: Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: sex and satire in eighteenth-century London (New York: Walker & Co., 2007); Peter Cryle and Lisa O’Connell, Libertine enlightenment: sex, liberty and licence in the eighteenth century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 2004; Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth, Markets, market-culture and popular protest in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996).

[4] Joseph Addison, The Spectator: A New Edition – Reproducing the Original Text Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors, ed. Henry Morley, (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891). Volume 2, December 6, 1711; May 6, 1712; October 30, 1711; accessed at:

[5] Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 199.

[6] John Tosh, “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002):461; Lawrence Klein, “Liberty, Manners, and Politeness in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 32.3 (1989): 601.

[7] Lawrence Klein, “Liberty, Manners, and Politeness in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 32.3 (1989): 596.

[8] Paul Langford, “The Uses of Eighteenth-Century Politeness,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002): 312.

[9] Philip Stanhope (Earl of Chesterfield), The Accomplished Gentleman: or, Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World (Dublin: Wogan, Bean and Pike, 1782), index, 2.

[10] R. H. Sweet, “Topographies of Politeness,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002): 372; Lawrence Klein, “Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal 45.4 (2002): 872.

[11] Anthony Ashley-Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury), “The Shaftesbury Papers in the Public Record Office,” (P.R.O.: 30/24/27/10, 1698-1704), 67, quoted in: Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 78; Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, 1714, 138, quoted in: Markku Peltonen, “Politeness and Whiggism, 1688-1732,” The Historical Journal 48.2 (2005): 405. However, it must be conceded that large proportions of English society would not have availed of the necessary capital, leisure time and education to actively participate in polite society. Despite the highly-constructed nature of politeness, and the possibility of non-elites learning the “principles of politeness,” its supposed symbolism of inner virtue and true gentility meant its success rested upon the appearance of naturalness, and was predicated upon prerequisite education in “the principles of religion” and the “necessity of moral virtues”; Chesterfield, The Accomplished Gentleman, 1.

[12] Neil McKendrick, “The consumer revolution of eighteenth-century England,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, ed. John Brewer, Neil McKendrick and John Harold Plumb (London: Europa, 1982), 9; Maxine Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 11.

[13] Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-century Britain, 4, 41.

[14] Langford, “The Uses of Eighteenth-Century Politeness,” 318-319. Those who served the polite came from a wide range of occupations, including merchants, inn-keepers, lawyers and physicians.

[15] Helen Berry, “Polite Consumption: Shopping in Eighteenth-Century England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002): 379. The installation of elaborate shop-fittings and the intentionally civilised behaviour of the proprietor meant shops became polite spaces in which sociability was practiced, as women, especially, would shop with friends and relations in a process by which they enacted their politeness and showed themselves to be conversant in fashionable culture. Thus, politeness was used by shopkeepers to attract customers into their shops, often by personally greeting carriages, providing refreshments, and creating separates perusal spaces for ‘polite’ customers.

[16] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (5th Edition) (London: J. Tonson, 1728), 403-404.

[17] Sweet, “Topographies of Politeness,” 356; Jeremy Black, A Subject for Taste: Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), xvii. The population of England and Wales rose from 5.18 million in 1695 to 8.66 million in 1801, while the popularisation of the London ‘season’ from around 1710, which saw the influx of gentry and landowning aristocracy to London to participate in social engagements, fulfil political duties and engage in polite culture, meant more Britons congregated in urban spaces than ever before. Thomas Woodman, Politeness and Poetry in the Age of Pope (London: Associated University Presses, 1989), 27.

[18] Sweet, “Topographies of Politeness,” 356. Such sites of sociability included coffeehouses, pleasure gardens and periodicals, which were accessible to all, regardless of class.

[19] Chesterfield, The Accomplished Gentleman, 18. Further examples of the way politeness enacted liberty can be found in the increased production of print culture following the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, which contributed to the democratisation of literature, and the way in which Englishmen adopted sartorial egalitarianism, wearing a “universal” blue or black coat, unpowered hair, and boots that can be worn both in- and outside. Langford, “The Uses of Eighteenth-Century Politeness,” 330; Black, A Subject for Taste: Culture in Eighteenth-Century, 147.

[20] Anthony Ashley-Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury), “Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (1711), Lii, I, 64-65, quoted in: Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 197; Spectator, No. 10, March 12, 1711, quoted in: Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 36; Woodman, Politeness and Poetry in the Age of Pope, 27; Mary Poovey, “The Liberal Civil Subject and the Social in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Philosophy,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 136. Under the rules of traditional decorum, different behaviours and manners were stipulated to be appropriate for specific ranks, ages and genders, and this system therefore encouraging people to view their social superiors with deference, and their inferiors with disdain.

[21] Such conflicts included the English Civil Wars, the Catholic-Protestant tensions under James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

[22] Anthony Ashley-Cooper (Earl of Shaftesbury), “A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm,” 9, quoted in: Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 154.

[23] Peltonen, “Politeness and Whiggism, 1688-1732,” 405.

[24]  Nicholas T. Phillipson, David Hume: The Philosopher as Historian (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2011), 24; Eustace Budgell, Spectator No. 197, Richard Steele, Spectator No. 567, quoted in: Woodman, Politeness and Poetry in the Age of Pope, 23.

It is telling, too, that it became less common for gentlemen to wear swords as a symbol of their martial honour; modern honour and commitment to the Empire was now constituted in ‘politeness,’ which was representative of the ideals on which eighteenth-century Britain was founded. Langford, “The Uses of Eighteenth-Century Politeness,” 330.


Modernist Consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”

(Please note that this work is the intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray, and may not be copied or repurposed without the author’s express, written permission).

In the wake of the upheaval caused by the Great War, and the popularisation of new understandings of the unconscious mind, modernist literary narratives took an “inward turn,” rejecting supposedly outdated techniques of literary realism and omniscient narration, which were incongruent with the unstable fragmentation of the post-war era. In this shift, which privileged the portrayal of characters’ inner lives, modernist writers engaged in radical stylistic experimentation, which popularised techniques such as stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse in the pursuit of this aim. As such, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” (1918), the writers utilise their respective theories of “myriad impressions” and the “long look” to portray their characters’ mental experiences. In this extract from “The Lighthouse,” Woolf relies on a stream-of-consciousness portrayal of Lily Briscoe’s interior consciousness, upon returning to the Ramsay’s summer home after ten years, thereby providing a sense of temporal and physical immediacy which conveys the development of thoughts and emotions in real time. In these opening scenes of “Bliss,” conversely, in which Bertha Young prepares for a dinner party while considering the experience and communication of intense emotion in modern “civilisation,” Mansfield focalises Bertha’s mental experience through the use of free indirect discourse, which, in highlighting the discrepancy between the narratorial voice and the subject’s point-of-view, bathes Bertha in dramatic irony. In doing so, Woolf and Mansfield draw upon Schopenhauer and Freud’s theories of consciousness, and thereby thematise the need for modernist expression in the experience and depiction of life in the early twentieth century.

Woolf and Mansfield developed explicit theories in their published and private works for the representation of authentic interiority, given that the “tools of [the Victorian] generation” had become “useless for the next.” In Woolf’s “Modern Fiction,” she claimed the novelist’s task was to convey the “myriad impressions,” which fell like an “incessant shower of falling atoms,” on an “ordinary mind on an ordinary day,” which, combined, would show life to be a “semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” As such, Woolf uses SOC, in which thoughts and “impressions” are presented in a flowing, pre-logical and pre-syntactical form, to demonstrate the associative process by which Lily understands her life. Woolf presents no external action, but rather shows Lily’s internal response to external stimuli; upon “com[ing] to the surface” of conscious thought, she observes Mr Carmichael “basking like a creature gorged with existence,” and thus considers her own existence; in viewing the “empt[y]” “drawing-room steps” she is reminded of Mrs. Ramsay’s death, which induces painful “physical sensations” and existential turmoil. It is therefore by seeing Mr. Carmichael that she understands the transience of life. For Mansfield, conversely, the writer should take “a long look at life” and “express” only its essence, by relating their characters to larger social patterns, and evoking the unconscious drives which problematize the notion of a stable subject. In “Bliss,” Mansfield predominantly uses FID, as a condensed, non-associative “ordering” of speech and thought, to empower the narrator to amalgamate their voice with Bertha’s by deciding that which is ‘essence’ or “rest” in Bertha’s experience. Thus, Mansfield provides snippets of interiority which are synecdochic for Bertha’s wider social and personal role; in stating, for instance, she feels like “the poor little girl in front of the rich girl with the doll,” the author communicates her emotional alienation, jealousy, infantility, her lack of power in a bourgeois value-system which constrains her, and suggests that these are issues with which Bertha is preoccupied. Therefore, Woolf and Mansfield apply their theories on the representation of interiority to their texts, with different results in terms of temporality, distance and character agency.

In each passage the authors use the immediacy of SOC, and its juxtaposition with other narrative modes, to construct and reflect the intensity of emotion which their characters experience. In TTL, Woolf employs a shift between FID to SOC to portray Lily’s descent into grief. While FID is used to state that her “physical sensations” had “become…extremely unpleasant,” in the following line Woolf evokes the experience of this pain by using SOC to state that to “want and not to have…a hardness, a hollowness, a strain.” In utilising a technique which depicts thought in its nascent state, Woolf can thus alliteratively repeat words with harsh consonants such as “want,” “wrung,” “have,” and “hardness,” which reinforce the intensity of Lily’s desire and pain. In “Bliss,” Mansfield thematises the text’s title by using SOC to convey the titular emotion; this technique, which often translates a character’s jumbled and half-finished thoughts into prose, allows Mansfield to construct short clauses, by which Bertha wants to “take dancing steps…bowl a hoop…throw something up in the air” simultaneously, creating a heightened pace which mirrors her elevated emotional state. Likewise, SOC’s disregard for syntactic conventions, such as Bertha wanting to “stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply,” allows Mansfield to demonstrate that Bertha’s irrational levity has made her appear “drunk and disorderly,” especially in contrast to the regular, reported speech of her servants. Therefore, Woolf and Mansfield manipulate the alternation of different modernist techniques to render the intensity of their character’s emotional states.

Woolf and Mansfield furthermore manipulate the modernist techniques of interiority to demonstrate their characters’ struggle to effectively express their lived experience. Just as Woolf decried the ‘tyranny’ of Victorian novelistic conventions which require the author to provide supposed markers of reality, such as “plot,” “probability” and “character-sketches,” which are ineffectual in communicating life and lived experience accurately, Lily expresses her frustration with rules of social etiquette, and the inadequacies of verbal communication, which prevent one from expressing the totality of one’s impressions. As such, although Lily cannot awaken Mr. Carmichael, because “one only woke people if one knew what one wanted to say to them,” Woolf’s use of SOC allows her to express complex thoughts on “life,” “death” and “Mrs. Ramsay,” which, being intangible and incomplete, are better-suited to this style than formal expression, which “dismembered” thought and thereby said “nothing”. In Bliss, Mansfield similarly thematises self-expression to highlight Bertha’s social alienation; although SOC is used to evoke Bertha’s feelings of bliss, she “didn’t know…what to do with it” in order to translate it into her outer world by verbally expressing it. Just as she desires to “get in touch” with Harry by communicating a rare emotion in their otherwise “cold” relationship, but is impeded by the “absurd[ity]” of verbalising her rapturous feelings, although she “loved Little B so much,” the necessity to verbalise this emotion means this original essence is highly diluted. Thus, Woolf and Mansfield evidence the need for modernist techniques of interior expression, in a world in which outward, lived experience is fragmentary, restrictive and alienating.

Finally, Woolf and Mansfield explore the link between the unconscious mind and consciousness, and demonstrate their characters’ inability to obtain authentic self-knowledge by highlighting the discrepancies between conscious and latent information. Freud’s theories fundamentally changed European understandings of reality and consciousness, popularising the notion of the primacy of the unconscious dimension, which revealed one’s true, unmediated self. Modernist techniques allow access to characters’ inner thoughts, and in TTL, Woolf shows Lily to experience emotions which are consciously unknown to her; although her “eyes were full of…hot liquid” she claims to be “[un]aware of any unhappiness,” and in “perfect control.” Woolf therefore illustrates a return of repressed emotions, noting how things could “grip one” without warning, given that life was fundamentally “startling, unexpected, unknown.” In using SOC to demonstrate Lily’s reaction to the “unexpected” return of unconscious “unhappiness,” Woolf highlights the lack of agency humans have to determine their lives. Conversely, just as Schopenhauer contended that humans were driven by forces, or ‘Will,’ which actively distort consciousness by subordinating the “intellect” to prevent negative “trains of thought from arising,” Bertha engages in acts of self-delusion. Although Bertha overtly delights, in FID, over her “adorable baby,” “thrilling friends” and friendly relationship with her husband, the giddy tone of the narratorial voice is clearly inauthentic; her baby is an empty, visual symbol of her female bourgeois role, while her friends are insincere fashion accessories, and her friendliness with Harry belies a deeper lack of connection. This speech act therefore subordinates logic and brings forth consciousness which serves to aid Bertha’s unconscious, self-deluding goal; while all of these claims are true, when read against the grain, none of them genuinely signify a wealth of happiness. Therefore, Mansfield skilfully uses the doubleness of FID to reveal the unconscious truth about Bertha’s mental experience, while Woolf utilises SOC to reject the possibility of genuine self-knowledge which is distinct from the “myriad impressions” which ‘fall’ upon the “ordinary mind.”

Thus, in To the Lighthouse and “Bliss,” Woolf and Mansfield utilise, and demonstrate the need for, modernist techniques to experimentally portray the inner lives of Lily Briscoe and Bertha Young. Woolf, drawing upon her theory that artists should render characters’ consciousness as the amalgamation of “myriad impressions” into a “semi-transparent envelope,” favours the use of stream of consciousness, which lends a sense of temporal immediacy, allows her to track Lily’s developing thought processes and enables her to express Lily’s abstract and incoherent thoughts on complex subjects which she struggles to express through traditional, ‘tyrannical’ conventions. While Woolf attempts to render consciousness contemporaneously, Mansfield’s narrative, in seeking to capture a “long look” at Bertha’s world, which distils its very essence, uses alternating snippets of stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, and direct, reported speech to slightly distance the reader from Bertha’s mental experience in such a way that the dramatic irony inherent in this amalgamation of narratorial and subjective voice is made apparent, thereby destabilising the unity of her character and making it more authentically complex. Both writers finally draw upon contemporary theories of consciousness and the unconscious mind, to evince the impossibility of authentic self-knowledge, and thus thematise the entire “inward turn” of the modernist project.

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Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Ebook: Penguin Books Ltd., 2000 [1927].

A Sun Shower at 4pm

We walk up the path to your house that has been worn smooth with miners boots, running shoes, soft paws of beloved golden retrievers, stray cats, bare feet of grandchildren, ladies work shoes, and now my own worn out joggers . I run my fingers along the white weatherboards, as sand and seashells blown onto the path from a bygone era crunch under my feet. Knocking on the door, I wait patiently for you to shuffle up the hallway, over the sheepskin rugs and brown carpet, to meet me joyfully. You open the door for us and I kiss you on your soft, powdery cheek, your loving smile not quite hiding the wrinkles of sickness and age. My brothers bound excitedly around you, bombarding you with stories of their ten year old lives, while I make you a cup of tea at the very same sink where you’d humour me as a toddler, letting me ‘help’ you wash the dishes, with more water ending up on us and the floor than the dishes.

The precious moments I spend with you that weekend seem to go in slow motion, savouring each grain of sand as it slips through the hourglass. But all too soon it’s time to leave you. We awaken early to catch a plane, daylight not yet whispering at the edges of the darkness. It’s time to say goodbye to you, but how can I put into words everything you ever meant to me? Looking into your wise blue eyes I realise that this will probably be the last time I say goodbye to you, the tears rolling down your cheek, as they mingle with my own. My heart breaks to see you like that, the pain, so vulnerable, yet somewhere inside of you is the 30 year old woman that taught my Dad to walk, that tucked him into bed at night and gently kissed him on the forehead. Walking down the picture frame lined hallway for the last time, I wonder how one small beating lump of muscle and blood could ache so much.

The days dance by in a myriad of running, cleaning, learning, skiing, laughing, sleeping and wood chopping, and all the time my head filled with thoughts of you, and sometimes my dreams as well. I worry that the candle of your life will go out while I’m away, and I won’t even know. Before long I find out that it has. I miss you so much and my love for you consumes me. I realise there will be no more making pancakes in your little white kitchen, no more sitting on the deck with your arm around me and storybook in hand, no more family Christmases, with you making us apple pie as we sit around the lounge room in our summer pyjamas, singing along to the carols on TV. I can’t understand why it’s supposed to be this way, why it has to be this way, but maybe it is better this way.

Now as I’m curled up on the wooden floor, resting my head against the white window frame, I watch the softly falling rain, sparkling gently with rays of heavenly golden light, raindrops glistening on each shiny leaf. The peaceful and serene sight lets me realise that all things come to an end. The last pages of your life were filled, and the book gently closed, pages floating to meet each other like a feather coming to rest on the dew drop covered flowerbed. But I feel that you’re always there watching over me, like a book placed away on a high shelf, out of sight but always there to occupy that space in your heart and to be cherished eternally. The immense beauty of life, the reason it is so special, is simply because it ends.