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Death and Hypocrisy in Victorian Literature

Free Research Essays Literature has undergone immense changes from the earliest period until nowadays. The two eras during which British literature altered significantly are the Victorian and Modern periods. The Victorian period lasted from 1837 to 1901 and was characterized by a change in social and economic life given that it was the onset of the industrial revolution. The paper provides an overview of the major features of two literary works created by Victorian poets. Analyzing the poems of Thomas Hardy and Robert Browning, it became evident that the two artists were concerned with the issue of human intent in a similar manner. They show that human intentions may be quite different from what it is perceived to be. Moreover, a close study of the two texts revealed that the works presented the theme of death similarly but minimal divergence was still noticed. Thomas Hardy treats the concept of death humorously with high application of satire and irony. Browning’s work, however, portrays the manner in which the image of dead people is embellished adorned. Thus, while Hardy perceives death as a tragedy, Browning tends to illustrate death as a time to gain the deserved embellishment of own person.

Keywords: British literature, Victorian era, Hardy, Browning, death, intention.

Death and Hypocrisy – Victorian Literature

The Victorian period is characterized by intensive industrialization that made the life of poor people difficult. The middle class became richer while the poor had to work even harder in factories to earn a living. Victorian literature showcases that even in such a situation, people managed to preserve ethical standards in society (Damrosch, 2009). It is renowned for its realism and the extensive use of sensory elements. They were often included in literary works to outline the social and economic issues, which affected the society. This paper compares and contrasts the ways Thomas Hardy in “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave” and Robert Browning in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” approach these problems. From the very beginning, it is obvious that there are numerous similarities between the works of the authors. For example, the way in which the characters are presented is alike. In both works, seemingly upstanding people eventually appear to be the opposite of what they are perceived and expected to be. Moreover, the characters are portrayed in the face of death or dead, which reveals the truth about their lives. Thus, Thomas Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave” and Robert Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” make it evident that human intentions are frequently not those that other people might perceive; however, the lie and hypocrisy always come to light when the death is near.

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In his poem, Robert Browning presents the story of one character, a bishop. The cleric is on the verge of death. While on his deathbed, the bishop selfishly orders a very expensive place as his burial site. Under usual circumstances, it would be expected that a man of his caliber, namely the Man of God, should not be bothered with the earthly possessions and pleasures or even the place for burial since the residence of the soul is what matters. On the other hand, Hardy’s poem recounts the story of a woman who has just been buried. Driven by her passion and love, the woman holds a belief that the husband is still mourning her death, which, in fact, is not the case. The husband overcame the grief and found a new lover, with whom they have started a new life. Usually, it is expected that marriage and love are eternal. Therefore, if one loses a spouse, he or she is supposed to be in grief and mourn for a long period instead of seeking to find a new lover as soon as possible.

Similarities and Differences

One of the vivid similarities between Hardy’s and Browning’s poems is the fact that the characters believe in the afterlife and hope for being remembered by the alive. The readings share a common illustration of people’s expectations regarding themselves after their demise. The woman in Hardy’s work seems to have a great concern about the person digging her grave. As the process progresses, her desire to be remembered by those who she was acquainted with grows. Unfortunately, the woman’s expectations regarding her loved ones are the opposite of what happens in real life. Her relatives and the nearest ones no longer think of her. Even though in the Victorian literature, unlike in modern one, events or ideas to logically follow one another, in Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” the unconscious and conscious thoughts of the bishop are mixed and chaotically joined. It is a tool to imitate the confused rambling. In this speech, the only thing that actually bothers the bishop is the tomb, the remainder of his existence. Thus, the poems have the same connotations and focus on the afterlife and opinions of others rather than life itself.

Victorian literature was also greatly influenced by the conflict between faith and science. The Catholic Church was known for its focus on material well-being. Hardy and Browning show a materialistic worldview as one of such problems. In Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” a typical life in the Victorian era is depicted. Trying to depict the mindset of the middle-class during that period, Browning illustrates the bishop giving sermons on the vanity of material wealth (Damrosch, 2009). He is the representation of figures of authority in the Catholic Church (Moran, 2006). However, being on his deathbed and making his last wishes about how he is to be treated after the death, the bishop dreams of his tomb being adorned. Ironically, he shows the desire for material opulence, which is what he taught people to avoid. Such revelations about the characters are a typical feature in the style of Victorian literary works. Regardless of the fact whether the bishop ever existed, he is a common person of the Victorian times – hypocritical and preoccupied with materialism. Therefore, using this style, Browning tries to criticize the vice that grasped most people who professed the Christian faith. On the one hand, they appear to reject material possessions and, on the other hand, desire opulence and earthly recognition. Through the character of the bishop, Robert Browning wanted to show the double standards among Victorian Christians and particularly the clergy.

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Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave” also utilizes realism to depict what actually happens in the world. Using the fictional character of the woman, Hardy seems to be aimed at showing how soon people are forgotten once they die irrespective of whether they were greatly loved and who they were during life. Through the use of common for Victorian literature sensory elements, Hardy tries to make it evident that death diminishes the feelings of love or hate. The woman thinks that those who hate her still do so even after her death. Similarly, she expects that those who loved her would keep the memory of her long after she dies. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Once a person dies, his or her interaction with the natural world ends. It is clearly demonstrated in the third stanza, where the woman realizes that she has been forgotten by her loved ones and enemies in the same manner. She gives up and asks the person digging the grave to identify oneself. She realizes that it is the dog, a Victorian symbol. Hardy uses the dog to show the kindness and devotion of the animals, which last unlike those of humans. The woman praises the dog and states that no human can rival it. The message that Hardy wants to pass is that human relations sometimes devaluated in tragic moments. In other words, when death is involved, only a few are always remembered.

Another aspect of death addressed is its inevitability. Having perceived this idea, the bishop thinks that he can continue his opulence in the face of death. Browning wrote this poem at the time when there was a transition to the period of the Early Renaissance. The church was becoming a political organization more and more, causing people in authority to rival each other. The material competition was common in the Victorian era. It is also shown in Browning’s poem, when the bishop gives the prescription of how his tomb should look like to surpass that of his predecessor, Gandolf. The bishop is worried about the possibility of losing his status and material wealth rather than spiritual issues. The poem uses dramatic irony to showcase how materialism engulfed religion during this period.


The poems under consideration show the fact that when people die, they are often forgotten despite having been loved, as it happened with the woman, or being in authority, as the bishop. The character’s behavior depicts the fact that they deem themselves worthy of remembrance by all that were close to them. Their expectations seem to be wrong, and the truth is that after they die, no one bothers to remember. The authors of the two poems extensively use dramatic irony and satire to address the theme of death. Hardy and Browning illustrate that, despite the material possessions, death is inevitable.

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