In both Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, realism is frequently used as a stylistic technique. Realism assumes that what is important about reality can be found in the physical and social details. The use of realism is especially prominent in the scenes where the protagonist of these novels is most physically challenged- for Jane, the Lowood School; for Pickwick, the debtor's prison. The depiction of these scenes in such detail functions to bring to mind assumptions that a reader already has by using certain markers as indicators of deeper social messages and beliefs. Jane's description of her "ravenous" hunger and of the burnt porridge that is "almost as bad as rotten potatoes" inform the reader of the poverty at this supposedly esteemed school for girls. When contrasted with the frequent descriptions of indulgent gorging in The Pickwick Papers, a marker to a reader from the nineteenth century that Pickwick and his friends belong to the prosperous classes, the indication of poverty in both the Lowood School and in the debtor's prison is especially pronounced.
Near the very beginning of The Pickwick Papers, for example, Pickwick and his friends arrive at a "travellers' waiting-room" where their new friend orders "glasses round, — brandy and water, hot and strong, and sweet, and plenty, — eye damaged, sir? Waiter raw beef-steak for the gentleman's eye" (Chapter 2). Soon after they arrive at dinner:
"What's that?" he inquired, as the waiter removed one of the covers.
"Soles --ah-- capital fish — all come from London — stage-coach proprieters get up political dinners — carriage of soles — dozens of baskets — cunning fellows. Glass of wine, sir." (Chapter 2)
The excess of food in these passages is in sharp contrast to Jane's descriptions of eating at Lowood. She describes feeling "very faint" from the lack of nourishment and then subsequently "devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess. The spoons were moved slowly: I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it; but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was soon over, and none had breakfasted" (Brontë, 56). A little later in the novel, when Jane is called to the room of the head teacher, Ms. Temple, she gets fed tea, toast and a bit of seed-cake, which she describes as "nectar and ambrosia" (Brontë, 81). To Pickwick and his companions, toast and seed-cake would hardly constitute "nectar and ambrosia." Again the details are what signify to the reader poverty or excess. Dickens does not have to explicitly say "Pickwick and his friends had plenty of money," he simply has to create details that allow the reader to infer the truth in such a statement.
Implicit in these realistic depictions of Jane and Pickwick's challenging times are larger social criticisms. The sanitary and hygienic conditions in England during Victoria's reign were less than ideal by today's standards. The lack of hygiene in places like a debtor's prison and Lowood created a space where diseases could flourish, especially when combined with the poor quality of food that was eaten at such places. Brontë was especially aware of the conditions in schools like Lowood because her sisters dies in such a school. Beth Newman says of the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School that Maria and Elizabeth Brontë attended, "the school was run on principles hostile to physical comfort and ignorant of hygiene. The two eldest girls...barely recovered from childhood illnesses when they entered, again fell sick. Their illnesses were neglected by school officials until they were very severe. Both were brought home but died shortly thereafter" (Newman in Jane Eyre, 5). Her depiction of Lowood was therefore a grounded critique of the Cowan Bridge school and other schools like it.
Dickens also leveled strong charges against an institution, although his critiques were not entirely related to hygiene and health, but rather to the general living conditions in the prisons. Like Brontë, his critique derives from personal experience with such an institution, for Dickens lived in a debtor's prison as a child. His father went into debt, placing the whole family in prison. He worked at a shoe polish factory six days a week for twelve hours a day, living by himself in a rooming house. The experience was so traumatic for him that he was unable to speak of it to anyone. The following description of the prison uses realism as a means to criticize the conditions in the debtor's prison. Pickwick wanders over to "the poor side" of the prison and recognizes an old acquaintance,
Yes, in tattered garments, and without a coat; his common calico shirt, yellow and in rags; his hair hanging over his face; his features changed with suffering, and pinched with famine...On the opposite side of the room an old man was seated on a small wooden box, with his eyes rivetted on the floor, and his face settled into an expression of the deepest and most hopeless despair... His limbs were shaking with disease, and the palsy had fastened on his mind. (The Pickwick Papers, Chapter 42)
The details of Jingle's clothing and the expression on the face of the old man send a message to the reader that such conditions are horrendous, no matter what the debt.
Both Brontë and Dickens use realism as a technique to support a larger theme that underlies their writing. They are criticizing the institutionalized corruption that existed and that, by and large, went unexamined. Both are part of a larger group that was criticizing the English government and the Anglican church for being so concerned with their conquests in other countries and so unconcerned with the critical situation in their own nation. This theme, then, is part of a larger context, a larger critique of the institutions that were running the country during the nineteenth century.
Last modified 1996