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Hard Times by Charles Dickens

The characters of Hard Times provide a unique case study of the fascinating “nature versus nurture” question – a topic that has invited reams of writing and tomes of dialogue over the years. The complex interplay of the parent-child relationships, education, and innate psychology are central issues in Dickens’s novel. Hard Times portrays characters in their growth from childhood to adulthood and explores how parenting and educational practices play a part in the overall outcome of an individual. Although the primary relationships in Hard Times convey the message of an individual “reaping what he sows” in the realm of parenting and education, Dickens’s underlying message indicates that upbringing integrates closely with the innate personality and psychology of an individual. In Hard Times, it is as though Dickens anticipated the complex interplay of psychological and physiological concepts that the scientific community is only starting to understand today.

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times reads in many ways as a moralistic novel. Some critics, who “thought little of” the novel, claim that it was nothing more than “a didactic tract” (Pittock 109). It is clear Dickens had an objective message he wanted to convey to his readers through Hard Times. When it comes to what exactly the message is, however, one finds differing opinions due to the layers of meaning, the imagery, and the multitude of themes found within the novel. One of the primary messages that Dickens appears to convey in Hard Times is the biblical idea of sowing and reaping, which is apparent even in the main sections of the novel, as they are titled: “Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering.” The organization of nature’s methods and biblical injunctions are also clear in imagery and wording choices used throughout the novel. For example, scholar Bruce Wallis observes that Dickens “employs the Christian names of the characters living by Christian values to underscore their functions in the story” and juxtapose these characters against the ones who do not uphold the same set of values (26). On the surface, Dickens’s message is straightforward: a man will reap what he sows, and failure to understand this will eventually lead to problems and sorrow.

The main place where these ideas are found is not in the imagery or the names of the characters, but in the characters themselves and in their relationships with each other. In Hard Times, the physical and mental growth of the characters is traced and Dickens clearly delineates the conflict characters face when they do not adhere to laws of nature or fail to recognize that their system of operating “violates rather than conforms to the laws of nature” (Schacht 80). This conflict reflects the question that currently permeates the fields of psychology, philosophy, and biology: “Is nature or nurture more powerful in creating an individual?” Hard Times seems to proclaim nurture as the primary determining factor in how an individual will turn out, yet at a closer glance, characters are found who appear to adhere more to their innate nature than to their upbringing.

Hard Times follows the lives of two children as they grow to adulthood. Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are the eldest children of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind and Mrs. Gradgrind, a couple to whom the facts of life are more vital than any other element in it, and who raise their children to follow a stringent application of facts. The novel declares that the Gradgrind children “had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed, like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture room” (15-16). This was the ideal upbringing according to Mr. Gradgrind, an approach that “proves scientifically as well as morally dubious” due to his “false assumption about human nature” (Schacht 82). Because the father fails to understand the vital balance of nature and nurture, his children are “ignorant of a rich range of narratives and entertainments” (Starr 322). As Tom and Louisa children grow, their development is clearly lopsided, which negatively affects their lives in many ways.

Raised according to facts without fancy, Tom shows signs of serious character flaws. From the beginning, he is portrayed as a self-centered character; this does not change throughout the novel. As a young adult, Tom hints to Louisa that she is going to receive an offer of marriage from Josiah Bounderby, a businessman her father’s age, and he pleads with her to accept the proposal because it will ensure him a good position with Bounderby. Tom tells Louisa, “It would do me a great deal of good … It would be a splendid thing for me. It would be uncommonly jolly … You won’t forget how fond you are of me?” (94) His whole focus in the monologue is himself, and his sister’s happiness does not enter the equation. Being raised according to “facts alone” (9) proves to be a serious problem, for the plain facts tell Tom that it would be in his best interests to have Louisa marry a man more than twice her age whom she does not love.

An interesting aspect that also comes into play in Tom’s character (or lack of character) is his mother. Although the part she plays in the novel is slight, the words she speaks make it clear what type of character she is. When correcting her children, Mrs. Gradgrind states, “I declare you’re enough to make one regret ever having had a family at all. I have a great mind to say I wish I hadn’t. Then what would you have done, I should like to know” (23). The woman is self-absorbed, and her son manifests that same perspective on life. With this connection between mother and son, it appears that Dickens is conveying the vital role of a parent’s nurturing, even in subconscious perceptions, and how such things can affect a child over the course of his life.

Years later, when Tom commits a crime and it turns out badly for him, he blames everything on his sister, accusing her of “Leaving old Bounderby to himself, and packing my best friend Mr. Harthouse off, and going home, just when I was in the greatest danger. Pretty love that! … You never cared for me” (275-76). Tom’s self-centered perspective conveys a reflection of both his mother’s attitudes and his father’s education; even though the former was not officially “taught,” it was manifested in the household as he grew, and Tom picked up on it. One scholar remarks that Tom’s upbringing and education formed him into “a heartless egoist, a gambler and a thief” but he also states, “The Toms of this world come from a variety of social and educational backgrounds” (Pittock 115, 122). This indicates that it is not only education and nurture that “makes” a man. Some of these negative personality traits seem to come more naturally to certain characters than others.

Louisa’s character also manifests the importance of nurture, but in a different way from that of her brother. She is the product of her father’s upbringing and education, and as such, “figures as a stunted character who ends badly” (Starr 319). In short, hers is not a happy story. When Louisa chooses to marry Gradgrind in spite of the fact that she has no feelings for him whatsoever, she tells her father, “You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream” (101). These pitiful words indicate how powerful her father’s training and input had been over her life and viewpoints. Later, when she returns to her father’s house, the victim of a miserable marriage and a confused heart, she asks her father, “How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? … What have you done … with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” (208) Louisa recognizes the failings of her father in raising and training her; yet, as a direct product of her father’s training, she feels she has no power to supersede that influence.

A character in the novel who adds further complexity to the notion of sowing and reaping is Josiah Bounderby, described as, “A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man” (21). Bounderby would tell anyone in hearing range about his inferior upbringing, making statements such as, “I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. … I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty” (22-23). It was widely “known” in Coketown that Bounderby was born in a ditch and raised by an alcoholic grandmother because his mother deserted him. Yet later in the story, his mother is introduced; the true relationship between Bounderby and his mother is seen. When asked why she abandoned her son, the mother exclaims, “Josiah in the gutter! … Never! … though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could” (253). She relates that she and her husband lived humbly so they could afford an education for Josiah. Bounderby’s actual upbringing was completely different from the story he told. Although raised by decent and caring parents, the man turned out dishonest, selfish, and uncaring. Contrasted against Tom and Louisa Gradgrind, who are showcased as products of their educational and moral upbringing, Bounderby seems more a product of himself and his innate nature.

Two other characters in the novel first seen as children, and later as young adults, are Bitzer and Sissy Jupe. These individuals – rather than portraying solely the power of their environment and education – also convey that a combination of elements determine the individual. Little is known about Bitzer, except that he is the son of a widow who works in the workhouse, and that he is a product of the school that Mr. Gradgrind created, a school devoted to teaching “Facts alone” (9). When he grows into adulthood, Bitzer makes a conscious decision to use his education in ways that push himself forward in life. Bitzer envies Tom’s position with Bounderby, and looks for an opportunity to better his position, which he gains when Tom disappears after committing a crime. Bitzer “pursues the escaping Tom and makes a citizen’s arrest on him” because he understands that by doing so, he will “recommend himself to Bounderby” (Pittock 114). The young man is an opportunist, who does not mind whose toes he steps on as long as he can get ahead. His focus on the facts of Tom’s criminal behavior keeps him from manifesting a “heart” in the matter of arresting Tom Gradgrind. Bitzer adheres closely to the facts of life that were the basis of his education in Gradgrind’s school, yet it appears to be a conscious decision rather than a part of his inner personality.

Sissy Jupe was raised among a welcoming group of circus people and is abandoned by her father, an aging clown who leaves town without warning. It is revealed that the father abandons her because he hopes that, without him holding her back, Sissy would “be taught … education” (39). She is taken into the Gradgrind household as a servant / foster child, and enters the “Gradgrindian” world of facts and figures. She asks regularly whether her father has contacted Gradgrind; abandonment weighs heavily on her. In today’s world, parental abandonment is a clear marker for severe psychological issues for a child. Sissy’s presence in the Gradgrind household, however, transforms their world from a bland place of facts and figures to a warm atmosphere where there is a “clear admission of Sissy’s power and influence” (Sage 328). Sissy’s nature proves stronger than her environment. Perhaps it is the effect of her early upbringing in the circus; perhaps it is something innate in her psychology. It is impossible to choose one completely over the other.

Which concept proves to be stronger in the novel? Nature or nurture? It seems that neither idea completely prevails. For a novel written in the 1800s, it is remarkable that Hard Times conveys the complex interplay of nature versus nurture, of environment versus biology, of parenting and education versus psychology and physiology. Charles Dickens could not have known about various concepts known today in the realm of psychology and biology. For example, recent neurological tests on juveniles indicate that there is a neurological difference, even in adolescents, of young people with mental and behavioral conditions as opposed to juveniles in a normal controlled population (Barrutieta, 2015). Abnormal brain functioning in the emotional processing of certain juveniles indicate a neurologically-based inability for these adolescents to experience the effects of certain stimuli, such as unpleasant stimulation, which gives credence to these individuals’ greater levels of aggression or other unhealthy engagements. As if anticipating some of these new concepts, Dickens avoids creating characters who only respond to nurture; nature clearly plays a role. The outcome in his characters’ lives is more complex than what appears on the surface level.

Charles Dickens also showcases in his novel certain parental theories outlined in current psychological practices. For instance, the current concept of the four parenting styles can be seen in Dickens’s novel: the authoritarian parent expects unequivocal and unquestioning obedience; the permissive parent allows pretty much anything, even misbehavior; the authoritative parent invites positive, open communication with children; the neglecting parent is minimally involved in their child’s life (Bartol 116). Mr. Gradgrind demonstrates authoritarian parenting, taking no heed of his children’s natures or desires, yet focusing entirely on facts. Mrs. Gradgrind oscillates between neglecting and permissive parenting, as she is clearly more focused on herself and does not have a close relationship with Tom or Louisa. These unhealthy approaches to parenting clearly had a negative effect on the Gradgrind children.

Josiah Bounderby appears to manifest the psychological idea of cognitive scripts, a concept in which individuals learn what type of behavior brings rewards of some sort, and thus they continue in that behavior (Bartol 144). The cognitive scripts model is a hypothesis promoting the idea that any social behavior, including aggressive behavior, is connected to mental “scripts” that individuals learn and then continue to use out of habit in day-to-day life. One cognitive script that Bounderby learned to utilize was the fictional narrative of his upbringing, which presumably brought him sympathy and recognition, raising his status in the eyes of others. In his case, this verbal script that he used on various occasions was in actuality a cognitive script that must have served him well at some point in his life, so he continued using it to bring those same physical or psychological rewards.

Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind, in spite of their foibles and shortsightedness, only wanted the best for their children. Bounderby’s mother only wanted the best for her son. The same could surely be said of Sissy Jupe’s disappearing father and Bitzer’s mother in the workhouse. Each parent likely did the best he or she could with the knowledge and the capabilities available. The same can be said for the vast majority of parents today. Parents, as a whole, aim to raise happy, successful, wise individuals who will be productive in society in some way – through the arts, the sciences, or the humanities. Yet now, just as in Charles Dickens’s time, there seems to be no “magic bullet” or easy answer as to what parenting approach is guaranteed to produce a well-rounded and happy individual. No amount of strict adherence to facts or stringent application of figures can determine the outcome of a child as he or she grows into adulthood.

What makes a man? What makes a woman? It is a complex interplay of psychology and physiology; of nature and nurture, of environment and innate biology. As such, the exact ingredients and perfect recipe of a healthy and successful individual will likely never be discovered because it is different for each person and so many factors come into play. The best a parent can do is be aware of these multiple factors – as well as take into account the biblical concepts that Dickens conveyed of sowing and reaping. Ultimately, however, parents would likely do well not to forget that all-important thing, the “something” that Mrs. Gradgrind could not quite put her finger on when she was on her deathbed (194). It could be something different for every parent, but one can conjecture that it always has something to do with unconditional love, an invitation to faith, an ample serving of devoted time, and a dash of whimsy and imagination on a daily basis.


Works Cited

Barrutieta, Lucía Halty and Prieto-Ursúa María. “Neurophysiological indicators of emotional processing in youth psychopathy.” Psicothema, 27 (3) (2015): 235-240. Web. 1 May 2016.

Bartol, Curt R and Anne M. Bartol. Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach. Prentice Hall: Pearson (2010). Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: Penguin (2003). Print.

Pittock, Malcolm. “Taking Dickens to Task: ‘Hard Times’ Once More.” The Cambridge Quarterly 27.2 (1998): 107–128. Web. 23 April 2016.

Sage, Victor. “Girl Number Twenty Revisited: Hard Times’s Sissy Jupe.” Dickens Quarterly. 29.4 (2012): 325-335. Web. 27 April 2016.

Schacht, Paul. “Dickens and the Uses of Nature.” Victorian Studies. 34.1 (1990): 77-102. Web. 25 April 2016.

Starr, Elizabeth. “Manufacturing Novels: Charles Dickens on the Hearth in Coketown.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 51.3 (2009): 317-340. Web. 25 April 2016.

Wallis, Bruce L. “Dickens’ HARD TIMES.” Explicator. 44.2 (1986): 26. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 27 April 2016.

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It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence . . . but God is absent also from all Job’s words about God . . . because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order . . . God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself. – Frederick Buechner


From the genesis of sentient humanity, mankind has asked, “Why am I here?” Another question follows before the first echo dies: “Is there a way I am meant to live?” If there is a reason for life, logic concludes that there must be a right “way” to live. Even if there is not an overarching purpose, one can still determine that following a particular way of life can bring success, wealth, and happiness. This philosophical conclusion, however, might not play out as intended in real life. This is evidenced by two sacred stories that outline two different quests for “the way”: the Indian tale of Rama and the Hebrew narrative of Job. Both stories convey that effectively following a way is a quest in itself, the end of which not even the wisest know.

Dharma in Rama the Steadfast

Dharma is a primary belief of the main characters in Rama the Steadfast, a book based on the Ramayana, one of India’s earliest sacred texts. Dharma can be defined as “a right and moral conduct, the exercise of duty toward the human community” (Hacker 480). Central practices include obedience to parents, respect for people of higher rank, and an attitude of “friendliness and helpfulness” toward others (Hacker 481). Rama and his brother, Laksmana, portray an attitude of righteousness and justice in their actions, and Rama’s response to conflict is always cognizant of dharma.

The “ideal” life of dharma is that members of each caste and each stage of life honor the particular duties to which they are prescribed; religion, education, vocations, and rituals are all conducted in a “dharmic” fashion (Hacker 483). Dharma has a loose connection with the idea of salvation, as truly righteous actions are not attached to worldly motives and are thereby worthy of an “otherworldly reward” (Hacker 484). Dharma is the motivating and determining factor, thus salvation is “achieved by action” (Hacker 491). The actions of Rama throughout Rama the Steadfast are true to dharma.

Gods and Nature Supporting “Godlike” Man – How Rama Wins the Day

Rama the Steadfast tells the story of a prince about to take his father’s place on the throne when he is exiled for 14 years at the request of his father’s second wife because the king owed her two boons. She claims the throne for her son, Bharata. Rama, true to dharma, follows his father’s command and leaves the kingdom of Ayodhya that day. His wife, Sita, and his brother, Laksmana, accompany him and take on an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness. During their final year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by a raksasa – a demon – and the bulk of the story is the quest of Rama to find and rescue Sita.

As soon as Rama’s exile is announced in the first chapter, it is clear everyone in the kingdom, and the earth itself, grieves his departure:

People in the streets had their faces contorted by tears; joy could nowhere be glimpsed … No cooling breeze blew, the moon did not soothe nor the sun heat the earth; all the world was out of joint. Sons neglected their mothers, husbands their wives, brothers their sisters … everyone thought only of Rama (14).

In the main battle of the epic, when Rama and Laksmana fight the raksasas who carried Sita away, nature and the gods join in support of Rama. The two brothers, pierced with many arrows, lie drenched in blood, near death, yet a god heals them so they can continue fighting: “…their wounds closed and their bodies quickly regained their colour and bloom; their power, heroism, might, vigor and greater qualities – were redoubled” (293). When the final fight begins between Rama and evil King Ravana, again nature is filled with evil signs toward Ravana, but “For Rama … sweet, auspicious signs sprang up on all sides, presages of victory” (345). According to the “way” of dharma that Rama follows, it appears that if a man maintains a just and righteous life, gods and nature will empower an individual, enabling him to succeed.

The Moral Quandary of Dharmism

Not everything about dharma, however, is righteous and just. Scholar Robert Goldman points out that in the various dialogues between Rama and other characters, Rama emerges as the perfectly moral character (25). The quandary that arises is how to view the end of the story, when Rama’s moral character is juxtaposed by his harsh attitude toward his wife. Although this ending does not occur in Rama the Steadfast, in the traditional telling, Rama “rejects [Sita] coldly” as soon as he rescues her because she might have been tainted during her captivity. She plunges into a fire to prove her innocence and is protected by the god “of fire and purity” (Brockington 365).

Later, she is still banished from Rama’s presence because of the questions the people had about Sita’s purity. Finally, years later, Sita is brought before Rama and she calls on her mother, the Earth, to swallow her up in defense of the ill treatment she had received from Rama (Brockington 365). Where other characters in the epic support or contrast Rama’s perfect adherence to dharma, Sita brings into question how deep dharma’s morality goes. How “right” is a way that deals a death blow to women to preserve “their male kinsmen’s honor” (Goldman 32)? Sita’s centrality in the epic complicates issues, making it impossible for one to fully depend on dharma as the right “way” to live and operate.

Words without Knowledge – the Plight of Job

The story of Job, as a basis of both Christian and Jewish values, contains surprising dialogue that draws into question not the goodness and morality of a “godlike” man, but of God himself. Job, the central character, is “blameless and upright;” he has sons and daughters, thousands of cattle, slaves and land, making him “greater than all the dwellers of the East” (Alter 193). Everyone presumes – including Job – that his morality and uprightness earn his position and success. Then everything goes wrong. Job’s livestock, his children, and finally his own health are wrenched away, and he is left scraping his diseased body with a shard of pottery.

Three wise friends visit and sit in silence with Job for seven days. Then they speak the words that are presumably in line with what everyone thinks. They “appear to be constantly arguing on behalf of God, taking His side against Job” (Ehrlich 32). The words Job’s friends speak would have made sense in a world ruled by dharma. They concluded that if Job was truly righteous, God would not have done such things to him, thus either Job or his children must have had secret sin. In spite of their arguments, Job maintains his claim to righteousness. What is more, he demands his day in court … against God. One scholar notes, “Of all the countertexts in the Bible, the Book of Job is the most forthrightly provocative” because of the way it questions the “traditional idea that God always rewards the good and punishes the guilty” (Ostriker 267). Job questions the actions of God.

When God finally speaks, however, Job falls silent. God does not pull back the curtain completely and explain His purposes, but he does lift the veil enough to reveal Himself as the one who knows and commands all things. He questions whether Job can trace the movement of the stars and the birthing of the wild animals in season, or fish for a leviathan with a hook (Alter 215-216). The reader gathers that God’s questions are rhetorical. Bernard Ehrlich observes that Job “does not admit that he understands the reason for his suffering” but that he does acknowledge “his own understanding is very imperfect” (33). What is more, Job does not try to justify the actions of God, as his friends had tried to do, because “any attempt to justify God would really imply passing a judgment on Him” (Ehrlich 34). Job acknowledges that it does not matter if he is righteous before God. He recognizes that God operates outside the confines of human understanding.

Before God speaks to Job, the tortured man proclaims, “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more” (Job 9:33-34). When God does speak, Alicia Ostriker observes that the words of God appear “designed to smash Job and mankind into humility by an overwhelming display of creative might” (271). It is not about goodness or badness, about dharma and karma. It is about the Creator of all things who shines the sun and sends the rain on all manner of mankind, simply because that is what He does. In the end of the narrative, God gives Job twice over what he had lost. This is God’s way, and Job still chooses to follow him. Job’s questions remain unanswered, but beholding God makes the questions irrelevant.

When Quests for the Way Fall Short

The basis of Rama’s morality is his adherence to dharma. Rama’s righteousness earn him respect of men and gods, creatures and nature itself. The story centers on his abilities so much that the character of Rama has come to be “recognized and revered in India as God” (Brockington ix). As such, Rama’s actions toward Sita are even more difficult to explain; dharma is brought into question as an effective and righteous “way.” If the Way is described, as one scholar promotes, as “the extent to which one’s actions express certain virtues” (Cline 108), Rama’s actions cause his “way” to bend away from complete morality.

One wonders what would happen if Rama were to stumble into the presence of the God revealed in the Book of Job, rather than the presence of the gods who gave him strength to defeat the raksasas. Perhaps he would not have maintained his righteousness even while rejecting his own wife. Perhaps, in the presence of an unquestionable God, he would have been struck speechless like Job, failing to depend on his swaying sense of morality. Perhaps he would have also sought for an arbiter, a mediator, as Job did. Ultimately, neither Job’s uprightness nor Rama’s dharma appear to measure up. No matter how just or moral, they are not enough. Both “ways” expose a further need that involves forgiveness and mercy. Their quests fall short; however, the idea of an arbiter to bridge the gap remains. Where mankind fails in morality and actions, perhaps one’s quest for the Way would be successful if a mediator between God and man could be found, one who ensures grace for life and death.




Works Cited

Brockington, John, and Mary Brockington. “Afterthoughts.” Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007): 361-372. Print.

Brockington, John, and Mary Brockington. “Introduction.” Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007): ix – xxxvi). Print.

Cline, Erin M. “The Way, The Right, And The Good.” Journal of Religious Ethics 37.1 (2009): 107-129. ATLA Religion Database. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Ehrlich, Bernard. “The Book of Job as a Book of Morality.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34.1 (2006): 30-38. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Goldman, Robert. “Resisting Rama: Dharmic Debates on Gender and Hierarchy and the Work of the Valmiki Ramayana.” The Rāmāyaṇa Revisited. Ed. Mandakranta Bose. Oxford: Oxford U.P. (2004). Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Hacker, Paul, and Donald R Davis. “Dharma in Hinduism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 34.5 (2006): 479-496. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Job: The Open Book.” Michigan Quarterly Review 46:2 (2007): 267-287. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Puchner, Martin. “The Hebrew Bible.” Trans. Robert Atler. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 193-217. Print.

The Bible: King James Version. Thomas Nelson: Nashville (1972). Print.

Valmiki. Tr. John Brockington and Mary Brockington. Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007). Print.

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literary analysis of sir gawain and the green knight

A Debate on the Power of Grace

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is thought to have been written in the latter part of the fourteenth century. The author is unknown, but the original manuscript that contained Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also included three religious poems with the titles Pearl, Patience, and Purity (Norton, 135). As such, the author clearly had a Christian worldview. In fourteenth-century England, two opposing views had arisen regarding Christianity. The first view held that an individual’s salvation and connection with God was purely by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Champion 416). The other view insisted that the grace of God assisted mankind, but that the primary burden of responsibility was for people to earn their own way to Heaven (Champion 416. It was a debate of grace versus works. This debate is woven into the poem, creating a unique layering of religious elements.

Regarding this raging religious debate during the time that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, Larry S. Champion stated, “It is inconceivable that [the author] could relate a tale of perilous adventure in which a Christian knight must make a choice between faith and self-determination without conscious reference to the profound religious controversy of his age” (420). It would have been clear to anyone who read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that time period that the author used the story’s plot to represent the two opposing viewpoints on religion, and to convey his personal opinions on the matter.

On the one hand, the character Sir Gawain represented an honorable knight who was impressive and courageous: “Fastened in his armor he seemed fabulous, famous, / every link looking golden to the very last loop (590-91). At the same time, Sir Gawain was also portrayed as one who trusted in God, indicated by lines such as, “Yet for all that metal he still made it to mass, / honored the Almighty before the high altar” (592-93). On one hand, Gawain represented his own physical strength and power. On the other hand, he manifested the grace and power of God. The core issue of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is where the knight will ultimately place his trust.

Although described as “flawless in his five senses” (640), this flawlessness only lasts as long as he puts his trust in God. When Sir Gawain is lost in the depths of the forest during his quest to find the Green Knight, he utters one prayer and suddenly catches sight of “The most commanding castle a knight ever kept, / positioned in a site of sweeping parkland” (767-68). This is a clear victory of grace over nature. However, when Sir Gawain is tempted by Bertilak’s wife to revoke his honor by wearing her green sash, “it entered his mind / it might just be the jewel for the jeopardy he faced / and save him from the strike in his challenge at the chapel” (1855-57). When he chooses to depend on nature’s magic to “rescue” him, that choice is vain. Sir Gawain only overcomes nature when he depends on the grace of God.

The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears to have utilized Gawain’s relationship to the green sash and the pentangle as a representation of the religious controversy of his era. Champion states, “When Gawain places his faith in God … he is a knight of the shield. When he places faith in himself … he is a knight of the sash” (Champion, 421). It is an interesting plot device that the sash – the symbol of “falsehood” – was the very object that served to bring Sir Gawain to recognize his need for grace. In this way, the author might have been attempting to convey the message that even one’s mistakes and sins can ultimately lead to salvation through dependence on the grace of God.

When bringing in the religious juxtaposition between Christianity and more natural forms of religion, this grace is portrayed as more powerful than nature. Author Louis Blenkner observes the importance of the “Nature-Grace dichotomy” by stating that “both covenant tests [that Gawain undergoes] are conducted within the natural order” (358). She mentions, “It is not mere coincidence that Gawin’s “aunter in erde” (27) begins on Christmas … the celebration … of Grace freely submitting to Nature in order to triumph over it and redeem it” (357). Blenkner seems to be stating that the importance of nature in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is primarily to juxtapose it against the theme of grace, and highlight grace of being the greater element by virtue of its ability to “triumph over and redeem” nature.

Two contrasting symbols used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also contain aspects of the religious debate of the author’s era. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield was a representation of truth, and the green sash offered to him by the wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert represented falsehood (Champion, 421). These two symbols present an interesting paradox in the character growth of Sir Gawain. Toward the end of the poem, Sir Gawain insists on wearing the green sash as a visible token of his frailty and pride. He states, “This, its token, / I will drape across my chest till the day I die. / For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean; / once sin is entwined it is attached for all time” (2509-2512).

Sir Gawain, by the end of the story, fails to completely accept forgiveness. Although he receives absolution from Bertilak de Hautdesert, Gawain considers himself to be forever marked by his own trickery and deceit. Sir Gawain considered it impossible to be completely expunged from his sin, bringing into question the author’s perspective on the issue of grace versus works. If grace could truly cover sin, could it not also completely cleanse a sordid stain? If so, why the need to continually bear the mark of sin? If one truly believed and fully accepted that the saving grace of Christ covers all sin, there is no need to bear the scars or seek a mark to maintain a semblance of penury. The scars are already worn by hands that stretched across a cross. The wound is already deep in the side of a Man whose heart was broken for mankind.

He bore the stripes. He wore the crown of thorns. So that we, by His grace, might be washed as white as the Lamb that was slain.



Works Cited

Blenkner, Louis, O.S.B. “Sin, Psychology, And The Structure Of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.” Studies In Philology 74.(1977): 354-387. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Champion, L. S. “Grace Versus Merit in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Modern Language Quarterly 28.4 (1967): 413-25. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2006. 135-188. Print.

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Literary Analysis of Beowulf

One of literature’s earliest epic poems, Beowulf, contains a unique amalgamation of religious concepts that, at times, seem to contrast each other. Considering the time period and popular worldview of the time during which the poem was written, it is likely that the author was intentional in the style and content of his work. Although it is widely considered that Christian elements appear to be unnaturally forced into Beowulf, a more reasonable perspective is that the authors deliberately used this layering for a distinct purpose.

Beowulf has been read by millions of readers and critiqued by hundreds of scholars, yet it remains a popular classic worldwide; perhaps the very construct that weaves varying religious contexts has helped to create an enduring interest in this poem. Christian mores mingling with Germanic myth and nature’s religion create a distinctive relationship seldom seen in other literary works. The author of Beowulf is assumed to have been a Christian, yet core constructs that define Christianity appear to be absent. Various writers and critics have put forth ideas as to why the poem intertwines contrasting religious beliefs, and infer the author’s purposes in doing so.

Beowulf, written sometime between the eighth and tenth century, is thought to have been based on an earlier oral epic. As such, it is possibly “the lone survivor of a genre of Old English long epics” (Norton, 36). The poem, in many places, conveys biblical ideals. At the same time, these Christian concepts seem to have been layered over the original Germanic epic, which focused on mythology and paganism. This construct appears forced in some places, and creates questions in the mind of reader and critic alike.

For example, the character Beowulf makes statements that portray his physical strength and prowess in a self-exalting fashion, such as when he states, “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel” (678-9). Later in the poem, he also says, “As king of this people I shall pursue this fight / For the glory of winning” (2513-14). His statements are proud and boast of his physical prowess. In other parts of the poem, Beowulf appears to suddenly “remember” that his victory lies within the grace of his Lord when making statements like, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God” (440-41), and “if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (1657-58).

Overall, some lines of the poem do not appear to join seamlessly with the others. The idea of a strong and unmatched warrior is built on the Germanic tradition, in which war, feuds, and fighting are supported, and pride, honor, and physical strength are highly valued. Comments about Beowulf in the poem remark on his strength: “A thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty / In the grip of each hand” (380-81). However, other lines support the traditional view of Christianity, in which one’s strength or might depends on the will of God: “He relied for help on the Lord of All / On His care and favor. So he overcome the foe” (1272-73). The poem “reflects well-established Christian tradition,” but at the same time, “references to the New Testament are notably absent” (Norton 37).

One possible reason for this apparent contradiction is that it is an intentional construction utilized by the author. One critic suggests, “The oblique nature of the Christian elements in Beowulf indicated the poet’s conception of something other than the Christianizing of Germanic folklore” (Cain 228, emphasis added). This author observes that “the poet deliberately parallels the pagan Germanic past with the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament” (228). In other words, perhaps the poet intentionally used a story centered on an early, pre-Christian era, in an effort to demonstrate the “prefiguration of the Christian world in his native heritage” (Cain 228). This can be interpreted in much the same way that Christianity was “prefigured” throughout the Old Testament by the formation, development, and history of the nation of Israel.

The author of Beowulf could have intentionally inserted a Christian worldview, without using the language or terminology of that worldview, partly because of the fact that the characters in Beowulf would not have been knowledgeable of Christianity, as the story is supposedly set in pre-Christian Scandinavia. This deliberate construct brings in the idea of a more “overarching” religious element that is played out in more than merely the references to religion in Beowulf. For instance, lengthy portions of Beowulf are devoted to the topic of feuds. Beowulf’s reasons for coming to aid Hrothgar was directly linked to a feud: Beowulf’s father had to leave his own country and live among the Geats due to a blood feud, which eventually resulted in Beowulf’s desire to help Hrothgar in his time of need (459-472). Although feuds were a main “staple subject in Germanic epic and saga” (Norton, 38), they could also represent a deeper and more overarching feud.

One article states, “The historical Scandinavian feuds are referred to so frequently that it is obvious that the poet wishes them to be present in his hearers’ thoughts as he tells his tale” (Osborn 973). Author Marijane Osborn delves deeper into the idea of feuds by mentioning a “cosmic” feud that was written into Beowulf via biblical history. When Grendell is introduced, it is with a rendition of biblical tradition, as the poem first referred to this character as a “demon” (86). The poem then reveals that Grendell’s anger against the great hall of Heorot had to do with hearing “the clear song of a killed poet / telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters” (90-93). These are clear indications of a monotheistic, biblical worldview.

A few lines later, the author gives “history” that deals with biblical figures, and traces them directly to Grendel. Beowulf states, “he had dwelt for a time / in misery among the banished monsters, / Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts” (104-107). This information would have been unknown to the protagonists in the story, as the characters were supposed to have lived before Christianity was introduced to the Scandinavian lands. This perspective strengthens the idea of Beowulf’s author using Christian ideals, yet intentionally failing to insert specific references to a God or Jesus. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and other minor characters would not have been aware of Christian concepts such as grace or salvation. The overarching “cosmic feud” is interlaced into the story more as an allegorical reflection than a direct statement, supporting the idea that these elements are placed by the author as intentional constructs.


This unique perspective suggests that the author of Beowulf intentionally used this approach of inserting a particular worldview without using overt language or circumstance of that worldview. It could be viewed in a manner similar to that which J. R. R. Tolkien used when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. In that classic series, there is no mention of God or other religious indications; however, the author himself held strong religious beliefs, and he wove the overall theme of good versus evil into The Lord of the Rings. Even though no religious concepts were ever stated or debated by the characters, the idea of light versus darkness and victory of the weak and humble over the mighty is apparent.

It would be impossible to completely understand the author’s exact reasons for writing on the precise topics chosen when penning Beowulf. At the same time, concrete conjectures can be made when considering the worldviews of the time period in which it was were written. In closely reviewing the poem, it seems clear that the author intentionally created a unique interplay of religious elements to accomplish some purpose. Historical parallels, cosmic feuds, allegorical reflection, and contrasting symbols not only create a unique story, but the interwoven spiritual and religious elements ensure that Beowulf relates a powerful tale of courage and sacrifice … foreshadowing, perhaps, of the wordless courage mingled with ultimate sacrifice, when a single man withstood evil as He hung upon a cross to redeem a broken world.


Works Cited

Cain, Christopher M. “Beowulf, the Old Testament, and the Regula Fidei.” Renascence 49.4 (1997): 227-40. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2006. 36-106. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

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