The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Servant-Master Relationships

The Pickwick Papers is set in a time prior to the Industrial Era, specifically, before the infiltration of the railroad into the life of British society. Charles Dickens wrote the novel during the early period of the Victorian Era. This was a time which, in contrast to the later periods, was marked by a considerable amount of social turmoil as the nation came to terms with the transition from an existence as an aristocratic, rural society to a rapidly-changing, confusing, urban-based, in dustrial economy. The Norton Anthology of English Literature characterizes this period (1830 to 1848) as one in which social reform tended to contribute more to the incorporation of the merchant class into the governance of the country than to the improvement of the quality of life of the working class. For example, in 1832, the old electoral system was altered in Britain in such a way that depopulated boroughs were purged from the system, with new, industrial towns taking th eir places. An implication of this was increased power for the merchant class and a recognition of the fact that such a cleansing process of the electoral system was in fact necessary because of the increasing influence of the merchant class. In short, government officially recognized the shift in the British way of life that signs such as the introduction of the railroad had already heralded to the rest of society. However, such early reforms did not help the ever worsening situation of the new ur ban working class, so that until the 1850s many felt that revolution was imminent.

Many groups in society were confused by this change, notably those ones which did not benefit ostensibly from the rewards of the new economy, those who were not what Gaskell called the "masters" of the merchant class. Those among the less inclined t o deal easily with the transition included the working class, who suffered immensely in the factories, and the old aristocratic ruling class. There was, at least in this context, a source of rapport between the old ruling class and the working class, much of the latter group being one generation descended from the farm labor stock of before 1800. This common area became factor in the relationships that would evolve between the old guard and their servants, as both struggled to define their roles while resisting the undermining impulse to cling to each other as familiar comforts of a yearned for era of safety and comprehension of the environment.

The theme suggested by this, that the imposition of one type of society onto another which was perhaps unwilling to trade for it the benefits of an existing one would challenge social relationships at many levels, including that of master and servant , is forwarded in both Gaskell's North and South and Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. This theme is strengthened in both texts by imagery that uses weather to symbolize the "gathering storm of social change" and equate that storm to the te mpests that would transpire between servants and their employers as both groups came to terms with conflicting feelings of fraternity and need for a more formal, traditional relationship based on respect for social position. North and Southis set in the middle part of the Victorian era, when the "Time of Troubles" of the 1840s was still fresh in the minds of many, but when a series of Factory Acts were, among other actions, in the process of improving conditions of the working cla ss and promising a return to stability. The Pickwick Paperswas written before many of these problems had begun to be resolved and when there was less call for optimism. However, it was set in a time before the Industrial Age, when social stab ility still reigned. Clearly, historical context plays a role in the creation of the theme forwarded by both of these examples.

In the following quotation from North and South, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell writes from the perspective of one who has seen the difficulties of a people coming to terms with the social change of the first part of the nineteenth century:

"Dixon," she said, in the low tone she always used when much excited, which had a sound as of some distant turmoil, or threatening storm breaking far away. "Dixon you forget to whom you are speaking." She stood upright and firm on her feet now, confronting the waiting-maid, and fixing her with her steady, discerning eye. "I am Mr. Hale's daughter. Go You have made a strange mistake, and one that I am sure your own good feeling will make you sorry for when you think about it."

Margaret's parents cease to command respect from their servant because they rely on the superficial social significator of status, the mere retention of a servant, so much that they are afraid to do what is necessary to perpetuate the dynamic that mak es this relationship possible, a control over the lower classes. Accustomed to the softer treatment of older employers, who have come to rely on the sense of security that their rapport with Dixon has afforded them, Dixon fails to maintain the tradit ional respect for Margaret. If this were to continue for another generation, the aristocratic structure would be lost, and with it all of the securities of the earlier society.

Margaret represents part of a new generation which has grown up, if not in the presence of the rising merchant class, then at least with the cognizance that it exists. While her parents lived through the transition from aristocratic to industrial so ciety and as part of the initial change are too close to make adjustments, Margaret has been born into the strange blend of the two which is her view of her time. True, her first-hand experience does not come until she moves to the North, but at least superficially she has been raised with an understanding of her society. She has been born into a more concrete world, and is more able to make adjustments to preserve the integrity of some aspects of her parent's way of life. She is equipped to handle the insubordination of her social inferior and able to assert her dominance. Therefore she can preserve the social structure that her ancestors relied upon, and she is able to realize, with Dixon, the comforts of this order. But to do so she does not have to sacrifice the foundation of that order itself, as her parents have, in order to retain an inferior feeling of security which comes from the superficial possession of a servant. Gaskell's conclusion is that while there is much turmoil inherent to the process of switching from one type of society to another, it can and will be done in such a way that both the working class that serves the aristocracy and the aristocracy will be supplicated. Dixon remains with the Hales because she knows that her way of life with them is better than the industrial alternative, the factory. She responds in a positive manner to Margaret's renewal of discipline because he knows that only through this control can her position be maintained.

Gaskell uses the imagery of the "threatening storm" to remind the reader of the unease created by challenges to stability in people's lives, to indicate that the reaffirmation of the employer-servant status will involve both struggle and a washing away of some old habits, and to allude to the dangers which are part of social change. That the storm becomes a part of Margaret's emotions, and correspondingly of her very being, is representative of the incorporation of the change represented by the rise of the merchant class and all of its ramifications for the consciousness of the generation that is born into this period.

Charles Dickens looks, in the following two passages from The Pickwick Papers, at the same theme that is taken up twenty years later by Gaskell:

At these words, Mr Job Trotter inserted an end of the pink handkerchief into the corner of each eye, one after the other, and began to weep copiously.

"'Wot's the matter vith the man,' said Sam, indignantly. 'Chelsea waterworks is nothin' to you. What are you melting vith now? The consciousness of willainy?' (403)

And:

As the coach rolls swiftly past the fields and orchards which skirt the road, groups of women and children, piling the fruit in sieves, or gathering the scattered ears of corn, pause for an instant from their labour, and shading the sun-burnt face with a still browner hand, gaze upon the passengers with curious eyes, while some stout urchin, too small to work, but too mischievous to be left at home, scrambles over the side of the basket in which he has been deposited for security, and kicks and screams with delight. The reaper stops in his work, and stands with folded arms, looking at the vehicle as it whirls past; and the rough cart horses bestow a sleepy glance upon the smart coach team, which says, as plainly as a horse's glance can, 'It's all very fine to look at, but slow going, over a heavy field, is better than warm work like that, upon a dusty road, after all.' (289)

Job Trotter, although acting in accordance with his own master's wishes, is essentially plotting disobedience towards Pickwick. The Pickwick Papers is set prior to the time of conflict discussed by Gaskell, but it is written in a time when this conflict is approaching an early peak. While Dickens cannot explicitly describe his own society because it would not be in keeping with the setting of his novel, he can comment on the 1830s by creating situations in his fiction representative of th ose which exist in his life. Trotter's employer, Mr. Jingle, is suggestive of the men who rise to power in the merchant class of the nineteenth century. Like the capitalist merchant class he survives not on established, ancestral authority, but on his wit and ability to scrape by. Also like that class, his education is limited but his cunning is not. He feeds of the social accouterments of the aristocracy while undermining it. His very name, Jingle, calls to mind the sound of mon ey, the acquisition of which is his primary interest and his only hold on his status. This recalls the fissure between the merchant classes and the aristocracy, the latter of which could not afford the merchant class equal status even when many of its members had accumulated more wealth. Therefore Pickwick's struggle with Jingle reflects the struggle between the aristocracy and the merchant class.

The class struggle as represented by Jingle and Pickwick, which reflects the fight between the aristocracy and merchant class for status during Britain's transition to an urban economy, allows for a comparison between their servants. The theme is that the integrity and sense of social place of the servant class has been weakened by the Industrial Revolution. Sam Weller, in a novel set before the nineteenth-century, represents the integrity of the servant unspoiled by the social change. Job Tr otter represents the reflection of that change in the merchant class servant. He is cunning and disrespectful towards the aristocracy, demonstrated by his willingness to take advantage of Pickwick's good nature. Sam Weller's rejection of Job Trotter and his adherence to Pickwick is similar in motivation to Dixon's ability to overcome the weakening influence of the industrial revolution and retain loyalty to the Hales. Both servants realize that loyalty to the aristocracy offers security. Dickens, like Gaskell, supports the view that the two approaches to life, that of the landowning class and that of the merchant class, must undergo a process of becoming accustomed to the new urban economy in which the master-servant relationship is redefined. Like Gaskell, Dickens takes a standpoint which favors the aristocratic system. Jingle fails ultimately, having to be saved from debtor's prison by Pickwick. This suggests that unless the merchant class heeds the cries of the aristocracy, and observes the success of its employer-employee relationships, the revolution that many fear might actually occur. Pickwick himself finds his way into prison, but his good character, his favor of moral integrity and charitibility, that is, his aristocratic traits, over pursuit of money and success allow him a more comfortable experience in prison and an ability to leave at will.

The imagery employed by Dickens in the two quotations above is similar to that offered by Gaskell also. Dickens uses the image of tears, in the same way that Gaskell uses the storm, as a signifier of the struggle between the old system and the new. As rain marks the cleansing process in Gaskell's image, false tears allow Sam Weller to identify the falsehood of Job Trotter, thus allowing Sam to identify himself with Pickwick and the social order which provides him with a sense of security.

Similarly, Dickens uses the image of good weather to denote life in the country, associated with the aristocracy, and respect of the working class for the ruling class. The farm worker waves as the carriage, which denotes an authority figure, passes. The plow horse recognizes that he, like the farm laborer, is happy with his lot, which is depicted as a clean and fulfilling one. There is no conflict with the plow horse and the carriage horse, there is no concern about revolution, as each is hap py with his position. This is pitted against the image of the dehumanized urban worker that the reader of The Pickwick Papers would have possessed in 1830. In the context of the fear of working class revolution that many held in the 1800s, Dickens suggests that it is not only desirable that the good aspects of the worker-employer relationship of the traditional landowning class be accommodated, but necessary for the survival of the society. In the country before the advent of in dustrialization, there are no storms brewing, there is tranquillity. The only storms suggested are the tears of Job Trotter, who, in his association with the disorder of the merchant class, represents a threat to stability.

It is, of course, apparent that Pickwick was a business man before his retirement and not an aristocrat, just as it is apparent that Margaret and the Hales are not members of the real aristocracy. What both authors suggest by placing their protagonists in a level just below that of the culture that they admire and perpetuate, is that the process of incorporation of the better points of the old and new societies into one coherent whole is possible for everyone who desires stability. Dickens places his work in a past time, for which people were already feeling nostalgia, and in so doing he frees himself from the confusion of his own era, while permitting himself to use this escape as a means for a more successful suggestion of what will and what must occur for social stability. Gaskell has the benefit of writing twenty years later, so that she can describe a change which has already occurred.


Victorian Overview

Last modified 1996