Writers and artists in the 19th Century were preoccupied with trying to solve the question “what is the purpose of life on earth?” As an inhabitant of the 21st century how convincing did you find their answers?
Men through the ages have been looking at the question “What is the meaning of Life?”
“The life of the individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful”. – Albert Einstein
“You were made by God, and for God and until you understand that, life will never make sense”… Rick Warren.
“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity”. – Leo Tolstoy
From the Mid 18th century people were no longer content with bowing to the aristocracy. People all over the world were rebelling against authority with violence and destruction.
The writers of the Romantic Period, and later in the Victorian Age were also rebellious. The difference being they took the adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” to heart and wrote what they thought. For the romantics, rebellion took the form of returning to nature. Wordsworth found beauty and nature to be liberating. He implored Samuel Coleridge and others to leave their books and return to nature for the lessons of life. William and Dorothy Wordsworth along with Samuel Coleridge became the first hippies. They sought redemption from a society that was becoming industrialised and a society where capitalism was more important than people’s lives.
The scholar Gypsy by Matthew Arnold was written after a 17th century tale of an Oxford scholar breaking free from the rigors of learning in college, to learn life’s lessons from the gypsies. he gained his redemption, his freedom.
Victorian writers sought more to bring to light the atrocities being committed in the name of industrialisation and the almighty dollar. They wrote to bring the truth to those who would listen. With each of his books, Dickens exposed the truths about child labour, poverty, and the inequality of the classes with the hope that his readers would be as equally appalled as he, and protest to bring about change.
In Silas Marner, Georg Eliott questioned the hypocrisy of the church and hierarchy. She showed that gold was the most important thing in Silas’ life after being betrayed by friends and fellow church goers. But Silas was not beyond redemption from his obsession with gold. When given a girl to raise, he exchanged the metal gold for the gold curls on Eppie’s head. When the aristocracy came to “rescue the girl from poverty”, the girl showed that love and loyalty were more important than money.
Oscar Wilde also wrote about the idiocy of the class system and showed that the relationships and issues important to the elite were not important at all, considering there were poor people rotting in the poor house and children in the workhouse.
Even in children’s literature there was rebellion happening amongst the writers as they sought for a better life for the children they were writing for and about. Popular nursery rhymes and songs are thought to tell the story of the plague
“Ring a ring of roses,
A pocketful of posies,
A tishoo, a tishoo,
We all fall down.”
Waterbabies, written by Reverend Charles Kingsley, was about a boy named Tom who was a chimney-sweep. Tom fell from a chimney into the bedroom of an upper-class girl and realised how dirty (both physically and morally) he was and drowned while trying to wash the filth from his body. He wanted to be worthy of the squeaky clean girl whose bedroom he had fallen into. The story sought to address the problems of the poor, class differences, child labour and Christian redemption.
The rebellion and redemption was not limited by the borders of Britain. On the other side of Europe, Leon Tolstoy wrote that one thing is in common to all men; that is we die. It makes no difference whether poor or rich, our lives must come to an end. Tolstoy pointed out in ‘The death of Ivan Ilyich’, that life is about much more than making money and a position for yourself in society. Ilyich had the opportunity to reflect on his life and discover where he went wrong. It was too late for him to fix it, but he does apologise for his life and the mess he made of it for himself, his children and his wife. In Master and Man, Tolstoy also talks of the class system within Russia. It was the rushing to make money that lead to the death of the dishonest church warden, Vasili Andreevich, while the clear thinking peasant Nikita survived by being patient and accepting his lot. Nikita was redeemed of death and his debt to Andreevich.
The Romantic and Victorian era writers had one common theme, Redemption. Redemption from a society which valued the making of money more than the value of human life. The value of all human life, and equality of social status of all was the meaning of life to the writers of the 19th Century.
As an inhabitant of the 21st Century, I can state that the lessons of life that the writers of the 19th century were trying to tell were indeed important lessons, and still are. Perhaps more so. But I don’t think we have learnt those lessons. We are still discriminating against different people in society. Asylum seekers are treated appallingly here in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Women are not treated equally around the world by not only the Muslims, but are treated as an underclass in the western world as well. As long as there are churches who will not let women preach from their pulpits, and as long as a woman’s pay is not equivalent to a mans in the same position, then we cant say we have got it right. We cant claim to have the answers to all the worlds problems when archaic laws prevent two adults who love each other from getting married. As long as there is one child in slavery, one person going hungry, one person who dies of an illness that is curable elsewhere in the world, we need to work harder.
“I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do claim I can ask the right questions”. Dave McGettigan. (you can quote me).
But we all know the true answer….