Hardy and Dickens. Countryside Verses the City.

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Explore the significance of representations of the city and/or the countryside in two nineteenth-century novels.

During the nineteenth century, many Victorians aspired towards a life in the city where the opportunities were abundant and wealth and success were the dominant prospects, whereas country life was regarded as laborious and limited. ‘In the last twenty years before 1914, opportunities either to expand more rapidly or to give more attention to increasing the comfort and amenity of life’ were becoming progressively more sought after, yet paradoxically city life was not always successful. The countryside however, appears as an environment where although lacking in prosperity and eminence, its inhabitants are overall happier. This concept is particularly prevalent in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd which portray the hardships of working life in the city and the countryside. The predominant message attained from both novels is that although the city is esteemed to be a place where one can enjoy a materially enhanced and prosperous existence; the truth is that there is significantly more fulfilment in pastoral traditions and associations with the familiar, rural way of life.

Dickens’ satirical bildungsroman Great Expectations depicts the changing attitudes of British society during the early nineteenth century, as wealth and prosperity was now not purely associated with familial relations and being born into nobility. ‘Dickens tried so earnestly to give his story a social significance’ and his social commentary accurately portrays the current truths of the Victorian society that he lived in. The possibility of acquiring the noble and dignified status of the gentle folk was becoming achievable through inheritance and progression up the fortune ladder. Although the class system and associated prejudices were still strongly in tact; (Dickens was ‘renowned for his portrayal of the class inequities’) the leeway into the admission of the prestigious upper class was slowly expanding. The increasing ‘growth of great staple industries’ in London throughout the nineteenth century created many job opportunities and as these augmented over the years, so did the rise in personal capital. The ‘migration from the countryside to towns, where the increasing complexity of urban life was creating many possible employments,’ meant the potential increase in personal revenue and thus affluence, resulting in improved social standing although this required consistent hard work over a long period of time. ‘The rise of modern industry’ also included ‘the absolute decline of the rural population,’ but that was not to take full effect until the end of the century. When Estella’s disdain for Pip gives him the realisation that he is ‘in a low-lived, bad way’p54 due to his common appearance and way of life, in comparison to her life of richness and power, he becomes ‘ashamed of home’p60 and desperate ‘to be a gentleman.’p105 The day that Mr Jaggers arrives at Pip’s home to deliver the news that he will ‘be brought up...as a young fellow of great expectations’p114 it suddenly seems that Pip’s wishes are to be fulfilled; opportunities like these were hard to come by during the start of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century the idea that ‘large “numbers” of working-class people were “continually advancing and bettering themselves” was not true, Dickens complained,’ those who had the opportunity to brighten their horizons were a minority. Pip’s sentiments that ‘the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world’p132 reflects the wealth of prospects which his mysterious inheritance has provided him with. However, Pip’s rise to nobility does not supply him with any considerable satisfaction and his ‘great expectations’p114 are in fact left unfulfilled by the end. Upon his arrival in London it becomes clear that this is not the place of...
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