Eighteenth Century English Literature

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Chapter III: Eighteenth Century English Literature
LITERATURE OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT

(18th century)

The 17th century was one of the most stormy periods of English history. The growing contradictions between the new class, the bourgeoisie, and the old forces of feudalism brought about the English Bourgeois Revolution in the 1640s. As a result of the revolution the king was dethroned and beheaded and England was proclaimed a republic. Though very soon monarchy was restored, the position of the bourgeoisie had changed.

The 18th century saw Great Britain rapidly growing into a capitalist country. It was an age of intensive industrial development. New mills and manufactures appeared one after another. Small towns grew into large cities. The industrial revolution began: new machinery was invented that turned Britain into the first capitalist power of the world. While in France the bourgeoisie was just beginning its struggle against feudalism, the English bourgeoisie had already become one of the ruling classes.

The 18th century was also remarkable for the development of science and culture. Isaac Newton's discoveries in the field of physics, Adam Smith’s economic theories, the philosophical ideas of Hobbes, Locke and others enriched the materialistic thought and implanted in people's minds belief in great powers of man's intellect. It was in this period that English painting began to develop too: portraiture reached its peak in the works of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds as well as Thomas Gainsborough, who was equally good at landscape and portrait painting.

In spite of the progress of industry and culture in England, the majority of the English people were still very ignorant. That is why one of the most important problems that faced the country was the problem of education.

The 17th and 18th centuries are known in the history of European culture as the period of Enlightenment. The Enlighteners defended the interests of the common people - craftsmen, tradesmen, peasants. Their criticism was directed against social inequality, religious hypocrisy as well as the immorality of the aristocracy. The central problem of the Enlightenment ideology was that of man and his nature. The Enlighteners believed in reason as well as in man's inborn goodness. They rejected the religious idea of the sinful nature of man. Vice in people, they thought, was due to the miserable life conditions which could be changed by force of reason. They considered it their duty to enlighten people. to help them see the roots of evil and the ways of social reformation. The Enlighteners also believed in the powerful educational value of art.

In England the period of Enlightenment followed the bourgeois revolution. While in other countries it came before the revolution (the French Bourgeois Revolution took place at the end of the 18th century); therefore, the aims of the English Enlighteners were not so revolutionary as those of French Enlightenment.

The English Enlighteners were not unanimous in their views. Some of them spoke in defence of the existing order, considering that a few reforms were enough to improve it. They were the moderates, represented in literature by Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Samuel Richardson. Others, the radicals, wanted more democracy in the ruling of the country. They defended the interests of the exploited masses. The most outstanding representatives of the radicals were Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith. Richard B. Sheridan.

In the epoch of Enlightenment the poetic forms of the Renaissance were replaced by prose. The moralizing novel was born and became the leading genre of the period. Ordinary people, mostly representatives of the middle-class, became the main characters of these novels. These characters, either virtuous or vicious, were accordingly, either rewarded or punished at the end of the novel. By these means the...
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