Student Project on Sanitation and Disease in Great Expectations

This example is typical of the way most students approached their web writing projects in both structure and content. The student divided the project into two essays, the first providing contextual material about pollution in Victorian London and its outskirts, while the second applies that material to Dickens's novel. In the contextual essay, the student draws on several sources, both primary and secondary, to present a coherent account of the problems associated with the disposal of waste, focusing on those aspects that appear in Great Expectations and thus are discussed in the second essay. Notice, however, that the second essay, even after several drafts and conferences with the student, while moving toward a deeper and more sophisticated discussion of the interpretive significance of Dickens's depiction of sanitation and disease, still struggles to get beyond a fairly straightforward comparison of historical reality with Dickens's rendering of it. The student does an excellent job of showing that what might appear to modern readers as merely metaphorical is in fact intensely realistic, and that Dickens's contemporary readers would have understood the gruesome details lying behind what is alluded to only euphemistically. But the student only hints at taking the next step: an argument about the importance of this realism, about, for example, the implied social commentary in this insistence on filth, disease, infection.

Putrefaction in Nineteenth-Century England

England, in the mid-nineteenth century, turned out to be ill suited to deal with its own industrial revolution. The industrial revolution had created overcrowding in the cities because of the advent of the factory system. The creation of the railroad system also added to overcrowding because agricultural laborers were now able to find work in the cities. These factories produced industrial waste that was deposited into the rivers. The overcrowding of the cities produced enormous amounts of waste in the form of kitchen refuse, animal carcasses, and human waste products. The combination of human and industrial wastes led to severe contamination of the cities and the waterways that pervaded both the rural and urban dwellings of England.

Organic matter was everywhere due to the cities' inability to deal with all of the byproducts of human consumption. Rotting organic matter was found in "stagnant sewers and cess pools, in heaps of garbage and excrement, in churchyards so packed with bodies that corpse parts continuously surfaced" (Hamlin 93-94). Sewers, garbage, and cemeteries were to be found in every town, so "putrefying matter claimed a great deal of attention in mid-Victorian cities" (Hamlin 93). It is for this reason that there are so many nineteenth-century accounts regarding the sanitation and the public health of nineteenth century England.

Public health was greatly affected by the treatment of sewage, which was done primarily by placing all waste products into the nearest body of water. Marshes are products of rivers that flow over their banks to saturate nearby fields with water. The rivers of nineteenth century England contained more than just water, however. One account of a flooded area was reported by a Mr. Gilbert to Edwin Chadwick, the Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, who published a report on the sanitary condition of Great Britain in 1842. The reporter found that:

the land is nearly on a level with the water, the ground is marshy, and the sewers are all open. Before reaching the district, I was assailed by a most disagreeable smell; and it was clear to the sense that the air was full of most injurious malaria. The inhabitants . . . had all a sickly miserable appearance. The open drains in some cases ran immediately before the doors of the houses, and some of the houses were surrounded by wide open drains, full of all the animal and vegetable refuse. (Chadwick, 80)

The drains that Gilbert is referring to were used to keep raw sewage. When bacteria acts on organic matter, they give off gaseous byproducts that were named sewer gases. A report was made regarding the toxicity of sewer gas by John Simon, who was Chadwick's successor in the British sanitary program. Simon reported that "these gases which so many thousands of people are daily inhaling, do not, it is true, in their diluted condition, suddenly extinguish life; but though different in concentration, they are identically the same in nature with that confined sewer-gas which, on a recent occasion, at Pimlico, killed those who were exposed to it, with the rapidity of a lightning stroke" (Winslow 255). Overrun sewers were a fairly common occurrence when the land in question was below sea level, because the water could not drain out of the marsh. The scientists of that time knew that these conditions were hazardous to the health of those living anywhere near to raw sewage areas, such as near marshes or rivers. It had recently been discovered that it was not the rotting organic matter itself that was causing the spread of disease, but rather the agents that cause the organic matter to rot in the first place. This is significant because under the former assumption, the natives felt that by placing their refuse in the closest body of water, as soon as they could no longer see their garbage, it would no longer pose a health threat to them. One pathology report noted that: "the pathologist knows no difference of operation between one organic substance and another; so soon he recognizes organic matter undergoing decomposition, so soon he recognizes the most fertile soil for the increase of epidemic diseases" (Winslow 256). This conclusion is in regard to the then-recent finding that the agents that cause disease are not the rotting organic matter itself. It is, however, the agents that cause the organic matter to rot that harbor the potential for epidemics.

The conditions in London were as disgusting as those found anywhere. A Mr. Howell, a member of the council of the Society of Civil Engineers, had described what he had found in "the Metropolis" of London:

I would instance a recent case in my own parish, where I was called to survey two houses about to undergo extensive repairs. It was necessary that my survey should extend from the garrets to the cellars: upon visiting the latter, I found the whole area of the cellars of both houses were full of night-soil, to the depth of three feet, which had been permitted for years to accumulate from the overflow of the cesspools. (qtd. in Chadwick 117)

This situation could be found all over London, due to the improper disposal of fecal matter.

The causes of epidemics do not lie only in the marshy areas--the spread of disease could also be linked to the housing conditions, which were terrible. "Cottages" were "built on the ground without flooring, or against a damp hill. Some have neither windows nor doors sufficient to keep out the weather, ...or supply the means of ventilation; and in others the roof is so constructed or worn, as to be not weather tight. The thatch roof frequently is saturated with wet rotten [sic], and in a state of decay, giving out malaria, as other decaying vegetable matter" (Chadwick 80-81). These living conditions were breeding grounds for disease in and of themselves--there was no escape from disease for those residing in these types of abodes. Another problem of housing was that there was overcrowding within the individual houses--there were too many people trying to live in a house. Chadwick remarks about one family where six people had to sleep in a one-room house, where one third of the house had been transformed into sleeping quarters for all six people. Such a situation was the norm rather than the exception in nineteenth-century England (Chadwick 83). This gross overcrowding could lead to the spread of disease from one infected family member to the rest of the family.

Putrefaction in Great Expectations

These images of unsanitary England are also seen in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. The conditions of rural England approximate what life must have been like for Pip's family. Pip says that "ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea" (Ch. 1). These marshes and rivers contained raw sewage, as did most rivers of the time, from the local inhabitants who did not know how to dispose of their wastes. These wastes included kitchen refuse and human waste--namely urine and fecal matter. The rural inhabitants also dumped animal carcasses into the river, using the river as a means of disposal. Human bodies were buried in churchyards, but often in shallow graves that were overflowing with bodies. Pip's seemingly imaginative description of Magwitch avoiding body parts in the cemetery takes on a more literal meaning in this context. This occurs in chapter one, where Pip describes Magwitch as looking "in my young eyes as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in." These "hands" that Pip alludes to are parts of bodies that have become unearthed during the course of time. Because the bodies were buried so shallow, there was a threat of the graveyards being washed away due to overflowing rivers, causing the bodies to be cast downstream. Anyone living close to these shallow grave sites would be at risk to exposure to disease.

Although the reader is not given any information regarding the housing conditions and water conditions of Pip's family prior to the death of his parents and his five younger brothers, nineteenth-century readers would have assumed that the reason behind the death of Pip's parents and five brothers was the poor sanitary conditions of the housing and the waterways. The reader is given a clue as to the state of other buildings in the marsh country. Pip's description of the lime kiln must have approximated the housing conditions of other buildings in the marsh country. When Pip was waiting for a reply at the door to the lime kiln, he says: "I looked about me, noticing how the house--of wood with a tiled roof--would not be proof against the weather much longer, if it were so even now, and how the mud and ooze were coated with lime" (Ch. 53). The house that Pip describes here even has a tiled roof, which should have been better protection against the weather than the thatch roofs that other houses may have had. The ooze that Pip is referring to is probably mud mixed with human waste that has settled on the marshes from the nearby river. These living conditions help the reader understand that Pip's parents and five younger brothers could have died through disease that can thrive in such unsanitary conditions.

These poor living conditions did not only exist in rural areas; they also existed in urban areas, such as London. The contamination of the waterways around London was much worse than what was found in rural areas. The problem was compounded in congested cities, such as London, where there was a higher density of people and still no way to dispose of waste. The reader finds references to the filth of London when Pip goes to there for the first time. With "no experience of a London summer day," Pip is oppressed by the hot exhausted air, and by the dust and grit that lay thick on everything" (Ch. 20). The "hot exhausted air" is probably a combination of industrial air pollution and the gases that emanated from open sewers. This, along with the water pollution, made for very unsanitary living. In this context, Mr. Jaggers' "washing his hands with his scented soap" also has a very literal significance. Although Dickens is making an obvious metaphorical point regarding Jaggers washing the dregs of society off of his hands, his compulsive washing is also a precaution against ingesting anything that his hands may have touched during the day, including other people, who were very dirty (Ch. 26).

London's image is even worse in the context of the unsanitary conditions of its waterways. Pip gives the readers their first account of the conditions of the water when Pip is looking for Mrs. Whimple's house, where Magwitch is hiding out, and which is close to the Mill Pond bank. Pip remarks on the "ooze and slime and other dregs of tide" he finds on the way to Mrs. Whimple's house (Ch. 46). The ooze and slime are probably references to human waste that is floating on the river and lapping onto the bank of Mill Pond, due to the tide. The "other dregs" are the other things that people must have thrown into the river, such as animal carcasses, and whatever other refuse people would have needed to get rid of. The Thames is an estuary; therefore whatever was floating in the river would be floating there for a long time until it simply dissolved into the water. Through the force of the tide, the sewage that was splashing against the banks of Mill Pond would have created a veritable sewage spray consisting of atomized water molecules that contained bacteria. This bacteria, now airborne, could infect those who lived on or near to the Mill Pond. The condition of the waterways could also be the reason for Magwitch's, and later Pip's, sicknesses.

Magwitch falls ill after fighting in the water with Compeyson. The wound that Magwitch receives on the top of his head and the water that Magwitch must have swallowed were contributing factors to his decline in health, along with the internal injuries from Compeyson. The reader knows that there must have been some sort of bacterial infection because Pip falls ill shortly after visiting Magwitch. The communication of some bacterial diseases is such that Magwitch's bacterial infection could have been communicated to Pip just by Pip breathing the same air as Magwitch. Pip's sickness was definitely caused by bacterial infection, as revealed in Pip's statement: "I had a fever and was avoided, that I suffered greatly, that I often lost my reason, that the time seemed interminable, that I confounded impossible existences with my own identity" (Ch. 57). Pip's disease was communicable, as evidenced by the fact that he was "avoided" and left alone so that those who had reason to look in on him would not get sick also. The severity of Pip's fever gives the reader a look at how terrible bacterial infection could be, because Pip says that he "often lost [his] reason." The sicknesses of Magwitch and Pip were not without comforting moments, as shown by Pip staying with Magwitch during his sickness, and Joe taking care of Pip during his.

The references to sicknesses also have a counterpart--the nursing back to health or at least the comforting of the afflicted. Pip comforts Magwitch when he is on his death bed. He goes to visit Magwitch in order to keep him company (Ch. 56). Even though Pip does this out of the kindness of his heart, it is not a good idea because this is probably how Pip gets his own sickness. When Pip gets sick, he has Joe to comfort him during his time of need. Pip asks Joe if he has been watching Pip for the duration of Pip's sickness, and Joe replies, "pretty nigh, old chap" (Ch. 57).

The images contained in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations are more realistic than what the reader may originally believe. The twentieth-century reader should know what the nineteenth-century reader knew--that London and its environs were an unsanitary place to live. This was a place where epidemics were a common occurrence due to unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. This sort of investigation into the condition of life in nineteenth-century England may lead to other truths that may have been evident to nineteenth-century readers, but we as twentieth-century readers are oblivious to.