Posted in Reading, Teaching

Navigating Dark Passages

J.M.W. Turner’s “Slave Ship” (1840) / W.W. Norton

At first glance, the painting The Slave Ship seems primarily a showcase for the artist J.M.W. Turner’s use of light and color. But the painting’s title, its subtitle, and closer inspection of its details reveal that Turner’s painting speaks to the  consequences of slavery and oppression, as well as the ways in which we depict such injustices. Readers who encounter The Slave Ship in conjunction with other Victorian-age literature may be reminded not only of the words of John Ruskin–once owner of the painting, who described its “awful but glorious light” (385)–but also of the realization by Frankenstein’s monster that without money or social status, he was considered a “vagabond and a slave” (Shelley 107).

Those words of Shelley’s not only express the sentiments of nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, they also echo the words of her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When the monster recounts Saphie’s education, he observes how “[t]he young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage of which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion [Christianity], and taught her to aspire to higher levels of intellect, and an independent spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (110).

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Excerpt from “The Slave Ship.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. 385.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Turner, J.M.W. Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On). The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. C1.

2 thoughts on “Navigating Dark Passages

  1. Thanks, Lenore. “Navigating Dark Passages” is my version of an assignment for my British Literature Survey students. Each of the three volumes of the Norton anthology includes a full-color section of visual art of the same period (Romantic, Victorian, Twentieth- and Twenty-first Centuries). This semester I created an assignment series that asks students to write a blog post that draws parallels between one of the art works and one of the pieces of writing they’ve read in each volume. The students have produced some of their most vibrant writing in these posts and have revealed very thoughtful–and in some cases surprising–connections.

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