Evolution of the Attitude toward Child Labor
Henry Mayhew's "Watercress Girl" and William Blake's "The Chimney-Sweeper" both focus on the child labor that was prevalent during the Romantic and Victorian time periods. Throughout both of these time periods, poverty provided the fuel that burned the fire of child exploitation. Due to the differences in the two periods, the attitudes and perceptions concerning child labor had distinctive variations. These works provide a brief look at the evolution and change of the attitudes and perceptions surrounding child labor. Poverty provided the basis for the need of children workers. For instance, the narrator of "The Chimney Sweeper" states that his father sold him before he, "could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!" (3). He establishes that his father subsequently sold his childhood and innocence. He even mentions when his friend, Tom Dacre, lost his innocence along with his childlike curls in the quote, "There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,/ That curl'd like a lamb's back. was shav'd" (5). Poverty also provided the basis of the exploitation of the protagonist of Henry Mayhew's "Watercress Girl." She is described as wearing "a thin cotton gown" (1069) in severe weather. The loss of a childhood because the need to work provides a basis for the outlooks of the youth mentioned. The little boy in "The Chimney Sweeper"describes a dream in which he plays in a field. This is his only method of enjoyment because working as a chimney sweep does not allow for simple pleasures such as playing with his friends. The speaker in "Watercress Girl" shows the young girl's detachment from her childhood by stating, "Her eyes brightened up a little as I spoke; and she asked, half doubtingly, "Would they let such as me go there¯ just to look?" (1068). Her extreme detachment from children her own age presents itself because she does not consider playing with them; she only wants to look. Due to the young boy's bleak knowledge that money was worth more than he was to his father and his continual abuse as a chimney sweep, he develops a defense mechanism to handle daily tribulations. He maintains comfort in the thought of an angel that would come to save all of the workers. The children of "The Chimney Sweeper" have a slight attitude of hope regarding escaping their lifestyles as chimney sweepers, but their hope is ill-based because it is based on the notion that an angel would set them free. The children maintain an overall dismal awareness regarding being a chimney sweep and this is armored by the quote in which the narrator states that, "And by came an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open'd the coffins & set them all free" (13); In their hearts they realize that the only way away from their lifestyle of exploitation is through death. These children in this story prove to be hopeless due to their dreams of death as a relief to their pains of the harsh lifestyle of a chimney sweep. The most compelling change in the Victorian time period is the attitude change among the children workers. The young girl states, "I ain't a child, and I shan't be a woman till I'm twenty, but I'm past eight, I am"(1070). This statement is most changing because in the "The Chimney Sweep" the children dreamed of dying, but she expects to live to twenty. Her attitude maintains that she feels that she will be able to escape her lifestyle with either money or at least in age. The girl describes her job as a seller of water cresses with a mild sense of pride. She boasts that she is the "capital hand at bargaining"(1070). The attitude towards child labor during this period by the children workers also maintains a similar hopelessness to "The Chimney Sweeper" and is exemplified with the line, "No; I never see any children crying¯ it's no use"(1070). By stating that she does not see any children crying, she establishes that she does realize that she is really a child, but because of her circumstances,...
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