The Victorian Era and The Loss of Morality


The Victorian era marks the period of Queen Victorians reign over England from 1837, until her death in January 1901. It was an age of new prosperity brought about by thriving industrialization, new scientific discoveries and technology, which encouraged the rise of an educated middle class. This new age also brought about a shift from agriculture to manufacturing, causing mass immigration into cities.

City life provided Victorians with freedom and anonymity from the social values of smaller rural communities, and resulted in the loss of social and spiritual morality with lenience, poverty and carnality becoming routine occurrences.

New cultural ideals and scientific findings, such as evolution, clashed with the religious philosophies of the time. The early Victorian age also had an influence upon literature and poetry and produced many excellent writers, such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and Matthew Arnold.

The subject matter of most Victorian works by these authors was usually socially oriented and focused upon the practical problems of daily life and contained moral messages for their readers.

Robert Browning focused his poetry on the scandals of everyday Victorian urban fife. He used sex, violence and moral hypocrisy as themes in many of his poems. Browning, like Charles Dickens, filled his literary works with people from all levels of society and he also included characters that were immoral and evil.

According to The Literature Network, “Robert Borrowing dramatic monologues covered a wide array of subjects, from lucid dreams to the nature of art and even the meaning of existence. ” His poems “Porphyry’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” are similar in that they both include murderers who coldly describe their evil deeds without any remorse.

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Porphyry’s Lover”, begins with a lover describing the arrival of Porphyry, and then it quickly descends into a description of her murder at his hands. He describes how he strangled his lover with her own hair to preserve the moment forever.

The poem “My Last Duchess” also echoes this theme of depravity. The Duke describes his last wife, whose painting is hidden behind a curtain on the wall, and cheerfully mentions that his wife seemed to smile at everyone, so he “… Gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 503). Robert Browning, like Matthew Arnold, included religious figures in his momentary of the loss of social values in society. His poem, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” demonstrates that religious men were not immune to immoral behavior either.

In the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the speaker spews out his intense hatred for his colleague, Brother Lawrence. The reader quickly discovers that Brother Lawrence is a sincere and devout Christian; however, the narrator is in fact morally, spiritually and socially bankrupt. Scott and John, suggests that Borrowing’s botanical references throughout the poem not only demonstrate the narrator’s petty attitudes ND disturbed mind, but also suggests that homosexuality and buggery were common place.

He points out that the word “scrofulous” in stanza 8, (Browning IPPP) could also refer to the Latin name of a plant commonly used to cure piles, which was poetry shares a common thread with Matthew Arnold’s poetry, in that they both use variety and inventiveness to draw attention to a narrator’s thoughts and concerns. Arnold is more thoughtful about what true spiritual belief should be; yet, Browning tackles the same topics in a more flamboyant manner by illustrating what true Puritanism is not. The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Parade’s Church,” is one of Borrowing most famous poems and demonstrates his view that base, immoral tendencies could be found anywhere in Victorian society. This poem also portrays a man of high religious standing, who lacks the morals and values of Christianity. In the bishop’s final hours, he is not interested in seeking God or what the afterlife has in store for him, but rather he focuses on the material goods he is leaving behind on earth. He does not look at the afterlife as a chance of being closer to God, or coming whole, but rather sees it as his chance to leave a legacy on earth.

In his final moments he is concerned over the type of gems and stone that his tomb will be made of, and is mostly concerned about outdoing Gondolas tomb. Rather than honoring the Christian idea that in dying on earth, one will thereby become alive to God, the Bishop focuses on honoring himself and his life. The bishop clings onto life, so that he can ensure that his tomb will reflect his greatness, and be an earthly monument that shows how much better he is than Gondola. When Browning addresses morality, his themes tend to revolve around the separation of people and morality from the church.

Both the Bishop in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” and the monk in the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” are concerned with earthly matters as opposed to the Christian message that one needs to focus on the things in Heaven. Browning uses art as a symbol of the loss of morality. The art mentioned in Borrowing poems sound like beautiful works; however, the beauty is merely an illusion that highlights a narrator who is immoral, at best, or a cold-blooded murderer at worst. The portrait of the Duchess was only painted because of the corruption and evil of the Duke.

Just as the Bishop’s beautiful tomb was only to be constructed in order for the Bishop to praise himself, and his worldly possessions. Matthew Arnold’s poems, “Stanzas from the Grandee Chartreuse” and “Dover Beach”, show his distrust of the past and the philosophies, theologies and ideals that were popular in their time. Arnold is living in an era of change, and while he determines that faith and religion no longer provide answers or meaning to his life, he has nothing to replace it with.

In “Stanzas from the Grandee Chartreuse” he finds that he is “wandering between two worlds” (Arnold 85); the world of religion which he has deemed as “dead” (Arnold 85) and the new scientific knowledge and beliefs that are unable to fill the void left by the loss of faith, and are too “powerless to be born. “(Arnold 86) Arnold laments that if the time for faith and spiritual fulfillment has passed, then why can’t science “take away, At least, the restlessness, (and) the pain” (Arnold 103). He is cynical about his own time period and questions the ability of society to make spiritual or moral sense of the new modern era.

Arnold’s concerns for future generations reflect the turmoil caused by booming industrialization. He suggests that religion should provide moral guidance and a social safety net during chaotic times of change, and although scientific knowledge and advancements appear to make the concept of faith obsolete, there will always be the necessity for of the nineteenth or even the twentieth century captures the isolation of modern humanity as does ‘Dover Beach’, with its use of the Tachycardia night battle. Anderson points out that the poem encompasses Arnold’s theme about the human indention and attempts to capture the sense of confusion and isolation. “Arnold believed that poetry should illuminate the human condition by offering a satisfying sense of reality and reconciling human beings with the universe”(Anderson). Arnold believes the loss of morality is centered upon the loss of religion in society, and he like Dickens, also agrees that new philosophies, science and facts are not substitutes for spiritual wholeness. Both Arnold and Browning address the churches’ role in the loss of morality.

When Arnold refers to the Catholic Church in “Stanzas from the Grandee Chartreuse” he mentions how the church and priests are prideful, and the purpose of their hymns is to honor the march of Rome (Arnold 599 line 50). Arnold uses imagery, specifically the scenery of nature as symbols of lost morality. Arnold’s description of the “long disused trail” to the Saint Laurent Monastery symbolizes the abandonment of religion and religious morality and values in society. Arnold’s description of nature seems to be violent and dark, symbolizing the clash of nature and religion.

Charles Dickens’s novel, Hard Times, was published in 1854 and serves s the author’s commentary on industrialization and the age of machinery, as well as the prevailing philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and fact. F. R. Leaves classifies it as a “moral fable” (Dickens 364), and states that Dickens is “… Possessed by a comprehensive vision, one in which the inhumanities of Victorian civilization are seen as fostered and sanctioned by a hard philosophy, the aggressive formulation of an inhumane spirit” (Dickens 365).

Dickens uses the characters of the Grandkid children to illustrate the emotional and spiritual void that fact-driven philosophy has left them. They are unable to cope with the morally depraved effects of an industrialized civilization and are ill-equipped to make any real decisions about anything important in their lives. One of the novel’s main characters is Louisa Grandkid. She is a woman who appears to be cold, detached and unfeeling due to the education she has received that focused entirely upon cold hard facts.

Her father describes her as: “well-trained” and “not impulsive not romantic … Accustomed to view everything from the strong dispassionate ground of reason and calculation” (Dickens 75). She is neither moral nor amoral. Under the Utilitarian philosophy, Louisa is merely an excellent end product, full of dry, useless facts and void of any imagination (Dickens 79). Louisa brother, Tom, also a product of strict utilitarian schooling and upbringing is described as someone “… Whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle” and is a “hypocrite” and a “monster” (Dickens 102).

Tom turns out to be a self-absorbed thief who prefers money and gambling above all else, even family. His life ends badly after he robs Bounders bank and eventually dies thousands of miles away from Louisa. Dickens communicates the loss of holding innocence due to the changing philosophies and times, and the impact the loss of childhood had on one’s moral character. Dickens’s characterization of Mr.. Grandkid’s good friend, Josiah Bounder, exemplifies the social and moral decline created by industrialization and capitalism.

Bounder appears to be a self-made man who has worked his way up the social of a factory and a bank which he professes to be the result of being a hard worker who possesses self-discipline and boundless determination. Dickens exposes Bounder as a fraud and describes him as a “Bully of humility, who had built his Indy reputation upon lies, and in his boastfulness had put the honest truth as far away from him… ” (Dickens 196). Dickens also exposes the myth that the working poor are lazy and lack the self-discipline and work ethic needed to become wealthy.

Bounder is very much a symbol of the new immoral social class shaped by capitalism, wealth, greed, and self-interest. Dickens symbolizes moral decline in the death and treatment of Stephen Blackball. Stephen Blackball represents all those that are righteous and good. He is caught between the corruption of Bounder and he corruption of the union, and ultimately his death is caused by the immorality of Tom Grandkid. Dickens, like Arnold and Browning, also demonstrates how the immoral tend to be the authority figures in society.

Charles Dickens does not focus on religion as the major influence on morality, but rather sees that the immorality of the age is based upon industrialization and the Utilitarian philosophy. We see this in young Tom Grandkid and his emotionally empty sister. The immoral people in Dickens’s novel and in Borrowing poems tend to be people in high standing, whether in the church, in the community or in business. Browning talks about members within the church being like frauds, as they do not follow the values they preach.

In a sense, Dickens’s character, Bounder, is very similar and also does not uphold the values he preaches. Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and Charles Dickens are different in many respects; however, they share the same concerns about the changes that the industrial age was having on British society. Although their concerns were about different philosophies and ideologies that were popular at the time, their main concern was how the fast paced innovations of industrialization ere changing the moral tone of British society.

These authors used symbols, narrations and memorable characters as vehicles in their works to define and explore possibilities for coping with the moral and social crises facing England. The literary works of Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning are as relevant today as they were in the Victorian era. In our fast-paced and technology driven era, new advances in technology, medicine, and science make the question of morality more important than ever. Work Cited Anderson, Warren. “Arnold and the Classics,” in Writers and their Background:

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The Victorian Era and The Loss of Morality. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

The Victorian Era and The Loss of Morality
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