Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Heaven, hell and the Victorians

Dear reader,

As I wrote in one of my previous post, I am supposed to write critical analysis and/or summary's of the books that I read for my tutorial. Since I know that some people who follow this blog are interested in the Victorian Era, I thought it might be a good idea to share my summaries/ analyses with them. Hopefully, they can be of some use to someone out there.

The summary's are very short and therefore incomplete, but it might just provide people with enough information so they knew whether or not they should read the book.

My first summary is on Heaven, Hell and the Victorians by Michael Wheeler.

In his introduction Michael Wheeler states that the goal of his book Heaven, Hell and the Victorians is to reconstruct the views that the Victorians had on eschatology; to show how these views are reflected in the work of Victorian poets and novelists; and to ‘read the ambiguities of Victorian religious terms as features of a shared language of consolation; and to argue that this consolation was grounded in specifically Christian hope, and was not merely a symptom of evasion, repression or wish-fulfilment in the face of death and bereavement’ (3). As such the major theme in his work is the identification and analysis of these ambiguous terms in the Victorian theological debate as well as the literature of that time.

In his chapter on death Wheeler writes about the ambiguous terms which are used in literature and the bible related to death. He, for example, speaks of the ambiguous use of the word ‘sleep’. By referring to the bible passage of the resurrection of Lazarus (John II), Wheeler shows how confusion arose between Jesus and his apostles when Jesus referred to Lazarus as being asleep. Jesus, of course, meant that Lazarus was dead, whereas the apostles misinterpreted this word and thought Lazarus as literally being asleep. He compares this biblical passage to Thomas Wood’s ‘The Death-Bed’, in which the bedside attendants believe the woman that they are watching over to be asleep when she is waking and to be waking when she is asleep. Later in this chapter Wheeler uses this euphemism of sleep which is used to describe someone who has died, to illustrate the problem of figurative language. For if we refer to someone as being asleep in the grave, this can be perceived as ‘comforting in the context of former pain and illness’. However, ‘the thought of a long, dreary sleep in the grave is disturbing’ (61). Thus the problem with figurative language is that although it can suite the context of ‘a specific context or spiritual need, other extraneous and purely physical associations can be evoked’ (61).

In his chapter on Judgement Wheeler devotes a lot of space to the different theological views on judgement, as well as the different ways in which judgement was portrayed in literature, laying the focus primarily on poetry. In the remainder of this chapter he draws attention to the novel writer as judge as well as to the limitations of realist fiction when writing of judgment, heaven or hell. For, Wheeler writes,

‘One of the main limitations of realist fiction in the nineteenth century was that narrators, unlike the heavenly spectators in Evangelical epic poems, for example, narrators could not penetrate the veil which separates ‘this side’ from ‘that side’: even their so called ‘omniscience’ is restricted to time and space’ (113).
The only exception are, according to Wheeler, those moments of crisis in the novel (characterised by ‘stress or fracture in the narrative’) which allow the author to incorporate the “other world” into the novel, ‘usually through visionary or some other spiritual experience’ (113).

In his chapter on heaven Wheeler discusses the different theological views on heaven; was it a state of mind or an actual place? In his discussion of heaven as a place Wheeler states that in the Victorian time the deployment of ‘heaven’-language in literature was highly problematic as the topographical place of heaven was under debate. However, the use of ‘kingdom’-language was less problematic as the term kingdom, as it was used by Christ in the New Testament, was solely used to denote ‘the eternal divine king-ship’ (126). According to Wheeler the idea of ‘kingdom’ in the nineteenth century was not seen as connected to a ‘realm’, but rather to the idea of being subjected to a leader. As such the use of this term avoided the problem of locality.

In his chapter on heaven Wheeler also writes the conveyance of the ‘continuities and discontinuities between this fleeting world and heaven [...] in the language of hymnody through [the] special uses of tense and syntactic construction’ (136). Here Wheeler refers to the three different types of present tense that can be identified in Victorian hymns: (1) the eternal present of heaven, (2) ‘the “locutionary” present in which the hymn is sung’ and (3) ‘the “existential” present of a mortal lifespan, as opposed to a future post-mortem existence’ (136). The syntactic constructions that Wheeler is referring to are those constructions which bring heaven and earth into synchrony. To illustrate this Wheeler refers to the poem ‘Hosanna to the living Lord’ by Bishop Reginald Heber. In the first verse of this poem earth and heaven are portrayed as singing together, causing them to be synchronised:


Hosanna to the Incarnate word,

To Christ, Creator, Savior, King,

Let earth, let heaven Hosanna sing

[...] (139)
In the final paragraph in his chapter on heaven, ‘Heaven in poetry of sacred and profane love’, Wheeler describes the tension between heaven as a place of the reunion of lovers or a place of worship by looking at poetry of, amongst others, Gabriel and Christina Rosetti. By freely shifting between the three tenses described above, as well as between the subjunctive and the indicative mode these two authors are able to ‘explore the relationship between sacred and profane love within the horizon of eternal life’ (174).

In his final chapter Wheeler focuses on the ambiguous terms used in theology to describe hell. When speaking of ambiguous religious terms hell is perhaps the best example, as the word ‘hell’ has three different meanings in the New Testament: (1) it is the Greek version of tartarus (the purgatory), (2) had─ôs, which literally means “the unseen world” and is a type of purgatory for both good and evil, and (3) ghenna, ‘a word for the common sewer of a city where the bodies of the worst criminals were dumped, and which came to mean punishment, but never endless punishment, beyond the grave’ (195). The biblical texts themselves are not always unanimous in their description of hell. However, these contradictions did not lead to the same problems as they did with heaven, because the ‘contradictoriness of traditional descriptions of hell – a place of fire and water, crowdedness and solitude, noise and silence – is itself an aspect of its horror’ (183).

Wheeler also writes about the portrayal of two types of hell on earth in poetry and prose. The leading novelists and poets of the time were using the religious language related to hell to portray two different types of hell on earth. Firstly, there is the hell of the industrial revolution and urbanisation which can be found in the descriptions of the horrible conditions in the slums and the factories (especially the factory ovens and fires) that can be found in the novels of authors like Charles Dickens. Secondly, there is a hell on earth characterized by a sexual relationship without love, which can be found in, amongst others, George Meredith’s poem Modern Love and A. C. Swinburne’s poem ‘Laus Veneris’.

Heaven, Hell and the Victorians is a clear overview of the different theological views present in Victorian England on death, judgement, heaven and hell and their reflection in Victorian literature. Perhaps, in some cases, the book might have profited if the religious views of one of the major players in the theological debate were not only to that person’s name, but also to the religion to which that person belonged. The only seriously fault that could be found with this book is that a lot more attention is awarded to poetry than to prose, which is a shame, since many prose texts harbour a religious complexity within them which would have been perfect to illustrate the ambiguity of religious terms.

I hope that you have found my summary interesting. My next blogpost on the Victorian afterlife will be on Victorian escathology per religion.