Romantic and Enlightenment aspects of Engels

Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England presents the problem of slums in England’s largest cities using both a Romantic and Enlightenment perspective. Engels uses  Romanticism by appealing to the feelings of the reader by describing a direct experience of the slums. He appeals to the Enlightenment perspective by describing the slums as poorly planned and unsystematic.Engels draws on the romantic idea of the importance of feeling by inducing emotions in the reader by describing the slums in detail. In reference to Old Town of Manchester he talks of the passageways being covered in “a degree of dirt and revolting filth, the like of which is not to be found elsewhere. “(1106) Engels also describes a public bathroom as being so unkempt that “the inhabitants of the court can only enter or leave the court if they are prepared to wade through puddles of stale urine and excrement.”(1107) These vivid and disgusting images would invoke pity in readers and draw upon the romantic idea of valuing feelings. Engels also uses Enlightenment ideas to warn readers about the state of the slums. Particularly he criticizes the unsystematic way in which the slums are built. “The shameful lay-out of the Old Town has made it impossible for the wretched inhabitants to enjoy, cleanliness, fresh air, and good health.”(1107) This line places part of the blame for the poor condition of the slums on poor planning and engineering of those parts of the city. This would resonate with enlightenment readers who value systematic, well-planned civil engineering.

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2 thoughts on “Romantic and Enlightenment aspects of Engels

  1. Although I agree with your analysis that Engles’ “Condition of The Working Class” attempts to provoke a romantic emotion through his vivid descriptions of the slums, the unsystematic community, in which these people lived, wasn’t directly pointing towards the Enlightenment. I believe that Engels used the unbelievably dirty conditions as a way to separate the two societies where he could show the true “reason” behind the enlightenment. After the tragic depiction of the slums and his elegant viewpoint of the rich, Engels describes how, “Class warfare is so open and shameless that it has to be seen to be believed.” The struggle to prove your worth is what ultimately drove the people to the cities in the first place. The men are chasing the money and therfore the ability to work, but many times this kills our natural instincts. Now that the countrymen have, “let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant,” the rich have used their cheap labor to increase their own capital and therefore power. The poor have no control in gaining substantial wealth yet they deeply long for such a lofty dream. The separation of classes and the fight between them is what the industrial revolution, and the enlightenment, was all about.

  2. I think Engels’ frustration has to do with the fact that the low wages and living conditions of the working poor prevented them from realizing their “innate characteristics and potentialities” and the “pursuit of happiness” (1102). In other words, there is something dehumanizing about the conditions wrought by industrialism and he seems to be drawing upon the ideals of the Rights of Man that characterize the Enlightenment. At the same time he decries the isolation and meanness, that “[n]o one even thinks of sparing a glance for his neighbour” that leads to “narrow-minded egotism” (1102), which sounds a lot like Wordsworth’s complaints about modern life in “Tintern Abbey” and “Yew-tree.” So it’s not that Engels is advocating for an Enlightenment or Romantic view, just that some of their principles inform his reaction to the putrid conditions in industrial cities.

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