Religion and British Literature Term Paper
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role of religion in the history of European society is a tumultuous one. Christianity, from its obscure beginnings in the classical age, eventually took the reins as the centerpiece of philosophical, literary, and scientific thought. It is true that religion, often, tends to justify actions that might objectively be perceived as incongruous to the established faith. It has historically been the case that when traditional forms of worship become threatened, morally questionable methods are undertaken to strengthen the order. This is certainly the case with Christianity. Since the birth of the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire, Church officials have actively attempted to make their privileged positions in society impervious to assault -- this process has progressed for centuries and, indeed, tens of centuries. For many years this single faith dominated nearly every aspect of European society and was a strong force in maintaining the status quo. However, the many contradictions between the teachings of faith and the practices of the official representatives of that faith emerged through the ages as a blemish upon the Church, and society as a whole. In this sense, religion has the capacity to incite and quell rebellions, help and hinder science, as well as, inspire and destroy literature.
Following Constantine's conversion to Christianity and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, clerics, thinkers, and philosophers sought to arrive at some official agreements regarding specific aspects of faith. Mainly, the variety of faiths that exist today came about through varying interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. Writers, for ages, have sought to justify their faith or the lack thereof through their writings; but it was not until the Romantic period that a substantial number of European authors investigated the humanistic implications of Christianity. Essentially, many authors endeavored to reorganize people's fundamental understanding of faith in the wake of emerging philosophical notions and the oppressive practices of the Church. "This began in Coleridge's and Wordsworth's lifetime, when the works of the British Romantics were turned to for explicitly religious reasons, as the nineteenth century attempted to redefine its spirituality in the face of an increasingly material culture." (Haney 2005). In other words, the literary works of these particular movements can be better understood, with reference to religion, as attempts to resituate Christian faith and ideals into a changing culture and society.
Certainly, the numerous gothic tales of the Romantic period can be interpreted as critical assessments of the Church and the established order; however, Christian faith itself is rarely questioned. One of the most significant pieces of early Gothic literature does just this; Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, written in 1764, captures these themes while encapsulating the conventional Gothic plot. It mirrors the perceived evil and corruption of the Catholic hierarchy by portraying the elemental exploitation of the innocent characters for the purposes of power and diabolical ends. The book also exhibits the sexual concerns of most Gothic stories, as well as the emotional troubles surrounding death. So, the Romantics' take on horror often relied upon the corruption of the Church and religion, but the core values of Christianity remain held in high regard.
The Romantics also recognized the achievements of science and liberal philosophy, but believed that such pursuits of knowledge should be tempered with a reverence for the spiritual and the unknown. In Frankenstein Marry Shelley illustrates this duality through the imagery surrounding fire and ice. Fire represents a number of things, to Shelley, but its most significant association is with knowledge and enlightenment. In his first letter Walton expresses his feelings regarding knowledge which, initially, is identical to the passion felt by Victor: "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" (Shelley, 913). This is the utterly optimistic view of science and discovery that Walton possesses in his search for a northern passage -- or anything unknown. Implicit in this statement is the notion that the pursuit
of ultimate knowledge will result in good; this is what Walton and Victor both believe, at first, about their respective interests. The light, in effect, possesses the capacity to both illuminate -- to make clear -- and to blind.
The monster also finds himself fascinated with fire in his early days, but quickly comes to realize that fire has both good and bad qualities: it can keep you warm and cook you food, but it can also burn and destroy. In this respect, the monster appreciates a metaphorical concept that Victor never seems to fully accept: that a self-serving pursuit of the unknown is inevitably disastrous. In this way, Shelley manages -- like many Romantic authors -- to depict the fantastic achievements of scientific thought as fundamentally dangerous to the human condition. Man, in his natural state, should be in a position of utter freedom: this freedom is ordained by God alone; not by Victor Frankenstein or those like him. This is the core religious premise of the Romantics, despite their many objections to the authoritative position of Christianity.
Victorian authors acted to more directly assault the established religious practices and norms of their day. Many critics contend that "we cannot understand the Victorian writers without reference to their traditions and creeds -- especially the traditions and creeds that they have rejected." (Williams 2005). Oscar Wilde is one of the most noteworthy writers, from this point-of-view, because of his stances regarding social norms and morality in general. In short, Wilde believed, "The sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate." (Wilde 1968, 233). He makes this concept explicit in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital." (Wilde 2000, 1760). To Wilde, it should be anticipated that his novel receives a wide range of interpretations and reactions; however, the most forceful reaction his original publication evoked was that of moral appall. The amorality of Lord Henry, the homoeroticism permeating the characterization of Basil, and Dorian's subsequent hedonism all represent aspects of humanity which late Victorian culture sought to undermine or ignore. Yet Wilde does not avoid these moral pitfalls in his novel; this is for the specific reason that he accepts Immanuel Kant's autonomous picture of art; Wilde believes that he is capable of capturing some aspect of beauty reflective in the human soul, and transposing it upon paper.
Wilde's individualistic stance regarding human morality and spirituality is rather similar to John Stuart Mill's reorganization of Christian morals. Mill argues, "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the Greatest-happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain, and by unhappiness, pain and privation of pleasure." (Mill, 580). This suggests that the exact same actions could be categorized either way depending upon the setting in which they operated. This process, obviously, is inductive because the system of measurement is material and suggestive, rather than abstract and definite. In this way, Mill's foundation for judging human actions is vastly different from a religious perspective. Mill, nevertheless, believed in the Christian God; he sought, through his writing, to educate people as to the true nature of this God, and accordingly, the human condition.
Growing out of the Victorian tradition in literature were the modernists. Religion, to the modernists, took a less central role in their writings and in society. Thomas Hardy's placement in the progression of English literature is a rather ambiguous one; just as his life straddles the Victorian age and the modern era, so too does his writing. Although The Return of the Native, at first glance, appears to…
Sources Used in Documents:
1. Haney, David P. "Christianity and Literature." Malibu, Winter Vol. 54, Iss. 2, 2005.
2. Mill, John Stuart. "Utilitarianism." Reason and Responsibility. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 1999. Pages 571-77.
3. Shelley, Mary. "Frankenstein." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Seventh Edition, Volume 2. New York W.W. Norton and Company, 2000. Pages 905-1033.
4. Wilde, Oscar. Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1968. Page, 233.
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