Literary Representations of Class and Industrialization
In our age of modern industrialization complete with occupational health and safety it is so easy to forget the conditions that our 19th century ancestors worked in and how young they were when they went to work. Wages were so low that parents had to send their children out to work in factories that were so dangerous that injuries were common. The injuries did not consist of just cuts and pulled muscles but of lost fingers, hands, arms, legs and life. Children as young as five years old were working ten or more hours a day. There was no recess or games or play. Instead they worked until they were too tired to even eat. They worked so long and hard that they crippled their own little bodies.
When we read accounts such as these in a textbook it is hard for the 21st century work hours and safety feature regulated reader to grasp the social impact of early industrialization. So much of what we read today is fiction or highly sensationalized that it might as well be fiction. Even the stories we are told by our parents and grandparents about walking to school through snow this deep with gunny sacks around their feet uphill both ways lends us the impression that we cannot trust stories from the past.
Yet it does not take much more than to read “The Cry of the Children” who work in the coal mines and if given the chance to play in a meadow as do the young sheep that they would rather lay down to sleep. They are too old for their youth with pains that are for the elderly and too young to look forward to resting in there grave. William Todd’s Narrative “Experience and Sufferings” is so bleak and it makes you wonder why they had children or when they had time to procreate if both parents and their children all lived and worked in such misery. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the slums where begging and selling yourself into prostitution so that you may buy moldering bread or rancid meat would get you and your family through just another day or two so that you could continue living in the dirty slum with the open sewers.
We can’t put ourselves in their position while we sit in our central heated home with running water and our complaints are of overeating during the holidays. Things back in the day were certainly different than they are now but they must have been appalling even in their own time or we would not have descriptions as described in “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844” the “privy without a door…passing through pools of urine and excrement” on their way to Allen’s Court by way of “dirty stairs…heaps of refuse and filth”. We have all been in the unsavory part of town with garbage in the alley but we don’t live, eat and beg for food there, dying by degrees so that we can dress in rags and eat food we would likely not give to the dog. I felt guilty reading these works as I lay on my upholstered chesterfield in my suburban living room in clean clothes, warm and fed.