Fear of Working-Class Agency in the Victorian Industrial Novel

Open Access
Bivens, Adam Eric
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Elizabeth C Womack, Thesis Supervisor
  • Paul James Degategno, Honors Advisor
  • Working-Class
  • Victorian
  • Industrial
  • Novel
  • Dickens
  • Gaskell
  • Middle-class
  • Riot
  • Revolution
  • Combination
  • Trade unions
  • Unionism
This work examines the Victorian Industrial novel as a genre of literature that reflects the middle-class biases of influential authors like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, who cater to middle-class readers by simultaneously sympathizing with the poor and admonishing any efforts of the working class to express political agency that challenge the social order. As such, the Victorian Industrial novel routinely depicts trade unionism in a negative light as an ineffective means to secure socioeconomic gains that is often led by charismatic demagogues who manipulate naïve working people to engage in violent practices with the purpose of intimidating workers. The Victorian Industrial novel also acts as an agent of reactionary politics, reinforcing fears of mob violence and the looming threat of revolutionary uprising in England as had occurred throughout Europe in 1848. The novels display a stubborn refusal to link social ills to their material causes, opting instead to endorse temporary and idealist solutions like paternalism, liberal reformism, and marriage between class members as panaceæ for class antagonisms, thereby decontextualizing the root of the problem through the implication that all poor relations between the worker and employer, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, can be attributed to a breakdown in communication and understanding. These texts propose that proper communication between classes is sufficient to mitigate the damage engendered by free trade and competition to such an extent as to deescalate and dismiss revolution as a viable means of change. Authors like Dickens and Gaskell propose superficial changes that are beyond the control of the working class.