The Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution which laid the foundation of the modern supply chain started in the 18thcentury in the Great Britain (as it was famously known then but is now called the United Kingdom). Since it marked the beginning of automation, this period also led to a widespread discontentment and unemployment in people. During this time, the nation as well as its literature, were both changing. Due to the rapid and heavy reliance on machines, people thought that they were losing their connection to nature, this was therefore, also the period that saw a rise in Romantic literature. In the hustle-bustle of cities and factories, poets and authors preferred to write about nature, the simple joys of life, and the societies that were disappearing into urban collectives.
This period also gave birth to deeper philosophical questions like the relationship between humans and their environment, the consequences of abandoning human emotions for economic progress, and the possibility of the unlimited expectations from a mechanised society.
While Charles Dicken’s Hard Times is a hard-hitting and celebrated account of the period, here are our 4 favourite books that depict the social changes brought on by the industrial revolution.
Published in 1818, Frankenstein details the social and economic changes brought about by the industrial revolution. Shelly was a part of the Romantic movement and like all Romantics she was sceptical of the industrial revolution and its rampant technological advancements. Shelly revelled in the promise, beauty, and power of nature. She believed that industrialisation did not just harm nature, but also the human body, mind, and spirit, which depend on the natural world for nourishment.
Shelly wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the rapid, reckless progress of the industrial revolution. She used the book to mirror the horrific capacity of the human mind, a glimpse of the consequence of not containing greed for progress. While Shelly was not against technological advancements, she believed that the risks undertaken to reap these rewards were too high.
Victor Frankenstein, Shelly’s protagonist represents the spirit of the industrial revolution. He uses cutting-edge scientific tools to reward humanity with the greatest gift of all, immortality. He creates a human-like robot, an artificial being, a monster. The being seeks affection however, its presence causes loathing among humans. The story looks at the consequences of Victor’s actions and his act of playing God. Even two hundred after its publication, the novel still continues to caution humanity and contemporary life.
Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy, 1840
Frances Milton Trollope
Inspired by her visit to Manchester, Trollope published Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy in 1840. As the title suggests, it is a story of a young boy who is forced to work in a textile mill. The story illustrates the atrocious conditions within the factory and the then common practice of child labour. Between 1800 and 1900, due to their petite structure and nimble bodies, children were forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, to increase the output in cotton mills. Through her work, Trollope wanted to make people aware of the tragic human cost behind the rapid industrialisation, she wanted to highlight the plight of the children and assert that systemic changes were required, instead of private philanthropy to solve the widespread problem of suffering among factory workers.
Trollope’s story had a widespread impact among the British people. It played a key role in pioneering social reforms and campaigns for better working conditions. The Factory Act of 1844, limited a maximum of a six-and-a-half-hour shift for children between the ages of 8-13. In 1880, in England, education was made compulsory for all children under the age of 10. In 1901, the minimum age to work was brought up to 12 years of age. Unfortunately, such laws are still not prevalent in all countries. While frowned upon, child labour is not criminalised in many parts of the world. Trollope’s story therefore, unfortunately, is still as relevant as the day it was published.
North and South, 1854
Gaskell published North and South in 1854. The novel, set in a fictionalised town of North England, through the eyes of a protagonist from South England, presents the reader with a first-hand account of the conditions of the mill workers and their lives. The novel comments on the complexity of labour relations. Through the novel’s protagonist, Margret Hale, who is sympathetic to the plight of the workers, and her relationship with John Thornton, the mill owner, Gaskell presents the reader with a detailed account of the balance of power and relations between the labour and the land-owners. While the labours, desperate and hungry, are working in horrid conditions, the mill-owner is compelled to keep the mill running and is forced to take drastic steps to stop the labour from striking. Gaskell highlights the grey and delicate relationship between the two.
In a novel that takes the reader through the soot and smoke of an industrial town filled with pain, suffering, and death, Gaskell presents with the reader with a love story that bridges class and economic differences and leaves the reader hopeful for a better future. Gaskell, like her protagonist, was deeply affected by the difficult conditions of the workers and used her novels as instruments of social criticism.
Silas Marner, 1861
George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Mary Ann Evans wrote Silas Marner in 1861 and published it under the pseudonym George Elliot. Silas Marner is the story of a linen weaver in a small town in North England. Marner, the protagonist is money-hungry and spends his life hoarding it. Even though the pursuit of earning more money is causing Marner to age prematurely, he is blinded by his insatiable greed. Elliot uses Marner as an example of the robotic lifestyle brought about by the industrial revolution.
Elliot touches upon the theme of class in her novel. She talks of how the industrial revolution accentuated the class difference and the inhumane treatment of the factory workers. She points out how it is problematic if society deems a person’s worth only on the basis of his economic capacity. Elliot also gives the reader a vivid description of the life of the rich juxtaposed against the life of the working class. Elliot believed that the industrial revolution would force people to lose their individuality and would lead to humans viewing each other as instruments of production. She also talks about how the greed for money and power would lead to the hardening of the human heart and justify the oppression of the less wealthy. Throughout the novel, she repeatedly re-iterates the pre-industrial values of relationships and community.
Through her book, Elliot highlights how human worth should not be equated to productivity and economic potential, a lesson that is worth remembering today, as much as it was during the industrial revolution. She illustrates the inevitable dehumanisation that would be brought on due to the industrial revolution. However, she ends her novel with hope and reformation, convincing her reader that a society with pre-industrial values of love and humanity is still conceivable.