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Humanities LibreTexts

2.1: The Victorian Movement in Literature

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  • Victorian writers reacted against the Romantics by moving away from what may be considered individual subjectivity toward a more objective stance. While the Romantics alluded to Greek and Roman mythology and art, the Victorians added Greek and Roman classics, especially in terms of structure, subject, and character expression. Rather than the Romantic emphasis on the individual, the Victorians embraced social responsibility, engaging with the people, problems, and ideas of their time.


    The objective poet became the standard, as they reproduced the external world in action, struggle, battle, and engagement in manifesting any feelings and ideas. Indeed, Victorian poetry, like Romantic, is weighted with ideas and issues of the age. But the Victorians thought that Romantic poetry put too much emphasis on expression, metaphors, and the means of poetry at the expense of the subject of poetry. Victorian objectivity shaped their emphasis on action over introspection and overelaboration of feeling. Their critical theory produced dramatic poems rather than the Romantic lyric. From these views and approaches, the dramatic monologue developed as a characteristic form in poetry, a form in which the poem’s speaker is not the poet. And realism became the hallmark of prose, particularly in the novel. The extremely popular novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), with their wealth of concrete detail and reflection of specific social conditions, exemplify such realism. Overall, Victorian authors strove for realism in style and subject, strove to reproduce nature as it was, not as it was imagined or idealized.


    Literary movements in the Victorian age paralleled societal changes that occurred. John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote highly influential essays attacking current views supporting laissez-faire, classic economics, and utilitarianism. He believed that labor should be pleasant, that the product of labor should be artistic, and that the whole person should be involved in their work. He expressed the influential view that a society could be judged by the quality of its art and architecture, a view best expressed in his The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). Matthew Arnold’s (1822- 1888) essays similarly looked to art as a measure of morality. Ruskin had a great effect on economics; for example, he influenced John A. Hobson (1858-1940), who criticized balancing production with demand, or Say’s Law. Ruskin’s ideas led to welfare economics, to the realization that society needed to be concerned with the welfare of workers.

    Ruskin’s admiration for medieval unity contributed to the medieval ideal of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement, represented by such writers as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Morris (1834-1896), sought to recover an organic construct in society such as they thought existed when medieval lords were directly responsible for their serfs. They sought a comparable unity within themselves and their art, an art that synthesized word and image, expression and product. William Morris actualized these views not only in his writings, such as Defense of Guenevere (1858), but also in his co-founding a manufacturing company that produced textiles, pottery, and glass intended to be both beautiful and useful.

    Advances in science had an immense impact on society, not only economically but also culturally. It contributed to a new view of nature as indifferent to all species, including humans. In the latter half of the Victorian era, a Crisis in Faith caused society to turn away from faith and duty toward mercantilism and social Darwinism, an idea tying natural selection to living people. The growing sense that God had no plan for this callous world led many to scramble for security and meaning. Some turned to philosophies like Positivism, a theory that privileged fact and natural phenomenon over religious faith, and that influenced secular religion, or a religion of humanity. Some returned to Roman Catholicism, taking comfort in its dogma and ritual. And some turned to art, expressing a belief in art. Aesthetes lived for beauty; aesthetic artists became priests in service to the religion of art as art gave meaning to the fleeting moment that is human life. The Aesthetic Movement, which advocated art for art’s sake, suggested that great art could replace life. Walter Pater (1839-1894) in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), most famously in its Mona Lisa passage, makes no distinction between life and art. And aesthetic writers, like Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in his The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), explored the effects of these views on the individual.

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