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British Literature: Past And Present

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British literature continues to be read and analyzed because the themes, motifs and controversies that people struggled with in the past are still being debated today. The strongest themes that were presented in this course related to changing governments, the debate about equity between blacks and whites, men and women and rich and poor, and the concern about maintaining one's cultural identity.

The evolution of governments was a constant theme throughout the course, beginning with the lesson on the Introduction to Romanticism, where Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin debated the equity between rich and poor that was tearing France apart. The theme continued through the lesson about the Impact of Industry.

Burke was too close to his political sources to acknowledge the atrocities that were happening to France's poor. He argued in favor of keeping the current political system, fearing that corruption would fill the vacuum of power if the monarchy was dissolved. This fear is still prevalent today after the United States ousted Iraq's Sadaam Hussain. In both situations, people are concerned with the vacuum of power, fearing that someone more corrupt than the current administration would fill the void.

Wollstonecraft countered Burke's debate and trumpeted the plight of the poor. She argued that to turn a deaf ear to the cruelty was a vote for tyranny.

"The rich and the weak, a numerous train, will certainly applaud your system, and loudly celebrate your pious reverence for authority and establishments - they find it pleasanter to enjoy than to think; to justify oppression than correct abuses (The Longman Anthology of British Literature, The Rights of Man, p. 82)."

She added that, "They (the poor) have a right to more comfort than they at present enjoy; and more comfort might be afforded them, without encroaching on the pleasures of the rich; not now waiting to enquire whether the rich have any right to exclusive pleasures (The Longman Anthology of British Literature, The Rights of Man and the Revolution Controversy, p. 83)."

Thomas Paine's argument also still reverberates today as even the United States government continues to be reshaped based on what its citizens desire. Paine's theory, that people who are living have more rights to construct their own rules than people who have died, is still a guiding principle outlined in the United States Constitution.

"I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living (The Longman Anthology of British Literature, The Rights of Man and the Revolution Controversy, p. 85)."

The theme of change in government and equality between the rich and the poor continued into the lesson on the Impact of Industry, where writers were arguing for the outlawing of child labor and how the poor impacted the rich. In many ways, this lesson mirrored the debate that was presented before the French Revolution.

Thomas Carlyle first used the mythological story of Midas to show readers how British industrialism was producing misery for the poor. Although everything the rich touched turned to gold, the industry was expanding the gap between the rich and the poor. This expanding gap also is evident today in the United States where the monetary gap widens between the rich and the poor. Carlyle illustrated this in The Irish Widow.

High society had turned its back on the Irish widow, leaving her to scrounge for herself. And in doing so, the Irish woman's Typhus fever infected and killed 17 rich people. If society had helped her, even a little, she may not have contracted the disease and impacted the rich. This same debate is being played out today in hospitals across the country where people are debating how, or if, they should treat the uninsured. Those who are uninsured and are treated, however, thrust the responsibility for payment onto the rich. Still, the plights of the poor eventually wind their way back and impact the rich.

Writers Friedrich Engels and Henry Mayhew also argued for the poor, giving voice to their cause by writing detailed accounts of their squalor.

Engels wrote, "The workers have been caged in dwellings which are so wretched that no one else will live in them, and they actually pay good money for the privilege of seeing these dilapidated hovels fall to pieces about their ears. Industry alone has been responsible for all this and yet this same industry could not flourish except by degrading and exploiting the workers (The Longman Anthology of British Literature, p. 1,068)."

Engles' story and Mayhew's account of children laboring in the streets were identical to today's debates about child labor laws in China and the destruction of low income housing projects in Chicago. Same debate, different era.

Carlyle calls upon workers to fight to change their situations. He specifically cites the French Revolution as a prime example of what happens if society ignores the poor. Again, the theme of changing governments and the equity between rich and poor is played out on the world stage. A song written by Bob Dylan in 1964, but performed by Billy Joel in 1987 called, The Times They Are A Changin', highlights the turmoil that is ongoing change. Joel performed Dylan's song live during his Kohuept concert in Russia in 1987. Joel's intro to the song states that Russia's inner turmoil was similar to the turmoil that was prevalent in the United States in the 1960s.

"Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won't come again

And don't speak too soon

For the wheel's still in spin

And there's no tellin' who

That it's namin'.

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changing' (The Times They Are A Changin', Kohuept, 1987)."

Two years



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