“I assert without exaggeration that no power of language could describe the varieties, and I may say the cruelties, in all the degradations of human form [in the factories]” – Parliamentary debate on Workers’ Conditions April 1879.
To what extent does the language in Hard Times, Major Barbara and Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems, degrade humanity and for what reason?
The motives of Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy for presenting humanity as degraded, through their language, differ significantly. While the texts, which when taken as isolated pieces of literature contain mutual themes of reduction and belittlement, could be viewed as works produced by three similar authors, they are in fact written to very different ends. Dickens and Shaw are paradoxically great believers in ‘humanity’, but find themselves disillusioned with the state they find it in; thus, the physical degradation seen in Hard Times and the moral degradation seen in Major Barbara is designed to highlight and exaggerate what they believe is wrong with society. Hardy, however, as a great lover of the natural world, can be viewed as having a genuine despair for humanity, believing it is beyond repair. While it is important to primarily focus on the extent to which language presents humanity as degraded in these works, this can not be done effectively without an understanding of the authors’ moral pretexts. Indeed, it is equally critical to have an awareness of the time at which these three texts were produced; Shaw was only 14 years old when Dickens died and was writing amid a growing fear of war, a fear which would be realised just seven years after Major Barbara was published. Hardy, meanwhile, went on to write several war poems, thus making it too simplistic to claim he and Shaw had an identical disapproval of the capitalist, industrialised world, regardless of the textual similarities, primarily because they were writing on opposite sides of a World War. In spite of this, there is little doubt that Shaw and Hardy came from a similar school of thought; indeed Stuart Baker’s statement that, “Shaw believed that one of the worse effects of poverty was to maim souls beyond redemption, but nourished bodies do not necessarily produce flourishing souls,” has an uncanny similarity to Joanna Cullen Brown’s assertion that, “Hardy saw everywhere the deterioration of human values and relationships as humanity became increasingly enslaved by its own inventions and its own moral lawlessness.” Brown, however, also claims that, “after the war, Hardy gave up all belief in the gradual ennoblement of man,” thereby demonstrating how the authors’ individual experiences will have moulded the different, albeit similar, ideologies which are imparted in the morally, physically and spiritually degrading language seen in Hard Times, Major Barbara and Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems.
While it would be easy to suggest that Hardy disliked the industrialising world simply because it was not compatible with his love of nature, his poem The Convergence of the Twain demonstrates his disapproval towards certain aspects of humanity and society’s response to mechanisation. Ian Ousby, a former lecturer at Durham University, wrote that Hardy was preoccupied by ideas of fate and destiny, and that, “his natural tendency was to see the world in terms of juxtaposition and contrast, and this led inevitably to a fascination with meetings, with the sudden blind convergence of disparate objects or people.” Therein lies Hardy’s degraded humanity – in his eyes, events are predetermined - or the ‘Immanent Will’ as he describes it - which renders human input worthless. Superficially the poem is about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but the sexual language he uses to describe it clearly indicates an inevitable collision of man and nature. He describes the iceberg as the ship’s ‘mate’ and describes their collision as an ‘intimate welding’. The poem expresses a wider...
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