In late 2014, I wanted to design a ‘big project’ for my third-year eighteenth-century literature and culture course. I conceptualized a website project that would encourage teamwork and a strong classroom culture, enhance research and bibliographic skills, teach ‘writing for the web’, promote a deeper understanding of eighteenth-century British culture, and generate a legacy project for the students. I got a lot of support from the English Department’s liaison librarian, Chad Crichton, the UTSC Library’s Digital Scholarship Unit Coordinator, Kirsta Stapelfeldt, and Nancy Johnston from the UTSC Writing Centre. We worked together throughout the semester to try to achieve our goals. It was also important to me to ask the students to connect our understanding of Hogarth’s series to the twenty-first century. I hope that the insightful comments my students made about the ongoing struggle to address sexual violence and community responsibility show how the study of historical periods and other cultures can enhance learning and help to effectively activate and promote change. Since the Winter 2015 term, students have created more content for other Hogarth series and our "Hogarth in Context" website continues to grow and develop.
~ Anne Milne
Hogarth's relevance in the 21st Century: ENGC37, Winter 2015
Our 'Poem Talk'* Assignment, Winter 2018
In January 2018, I assigned a small group of students a bank of questions about Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode. These students prepared written answers to each of the questions and then we discussed the questions in a live session. I've posted excerpts from the written responses here. I've also included the work of a few students not in the original group who chose to answer some of the same questions as they appeared on the final exam.
1. Consider what Fielding says about Hogarth in the Preface to Joseph Andrews (see quotation below) and find ONE example in Marriage à la Mode that supports Fielding’s contention.
He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter, would in my opinion do him very little honour; for sure it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature, of a preposterous size, or to expose him in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It hath been thought a vast commendation of a painter, to say his figures seem to breathe; but surely it is a much greater and nobler applause that they appear to think (51).
Ryan Gillies: Let’s look at Plate 5, “The Bagnio”. In this scene, the countess is on her knees and her husband is dead on the floor having been stabbed by her lover, Silvertongue, who is escaping out the window. Others run in hastily to see what the commotion is about. Items like the masks on the floor suggest the lovers have come from a masquerade ball. This alongside the use of the “Bagnio” as their room reveals that the Countess and Silvertongue thought deeply about this affair – and thought deeply about how they could mask their identities while having an affair in an establishment where no prodding questions would be asked. The countess is depicted sobbing on her knees. The kneeling position suggests she is weak with grief as well as asking for forgiveness. It is clear the countess is thinking about her situation and how she will be questioned as to why she was alone with another man in a bedroom and why he killed her husband, the Earl. She thinks of this, placing herself in the most vulnerable and unassuming way possible so her guilt/blame for this tragedy will be deflected elsewhere. Additionally, the countess’s lover, her lawyer, is seen climbing out the window half dressed with a shocked expression on his face. It is evident that the lawyer’s mind was racing thinking about the guilt, blame, and immediate danger he placed himself in regards to the affair and hurting/killing the Earl. His actions reflect this thought, as he doesn’t bother gathering his clothes let alone his thoughts; instead, he climbs out the window for the safest and fastest way possible given the situation. The other minor characters also appear to be thinking deeply, as they hold weapons in their hands. Because of this, it is clear that after hearing the commotion emerging from this “bagnio” or room, that they thought about the dire situation and the danger the characters could potentially be in. As a result, they intuitively think to bring weapons as a makeshift form of defense.
Rachel Armstrong: As Silvertongue moves through the plates, spectators start to see just how insidious his presence is. There are no blatant burlesque elements: Hogarth does not ridicule the presentation of the characters, he simply produces a character and lets that character show the spectator what kind of person he is. Silvertongue does not appear as characteristically evil. He has no villainous attributes that would stand out immediately to an onlooker. lnstead he appears as a normal man. If Hogarth were truly a burlesque painter the focus of the work would be the exaggeration of characteristics, such as the oversimplification of Silvertongue's heinousness. He would outwardly appear as characteristically evil looking and this would have created a grotesque and or comic image. Since Hogarth doesn't exaggerate or oversimplify details of his characters, he allows the viewer to analyse what is happening in each plate and how each plate is a puzzle piece in the grand scheme of the series.
2. A follow-up to Question 1: If Hogarth’s “figures…appear to think”, pick out one figure in Marriage à la Mode and talk about what she/he is thinking. Be specific.
Anamika Bansal: I would like to focus on the Steward in the foreground of the plate, "The Tete a Tete". He is in the process of leaving the room, holding multiple bills, and a ledger under his arm. He looks upward, with his left arm raised, and a frown on his face. The scene he is leaving behind is a disgruntled young gentleman, and a satisfied young lady. Both are in disarray, mirroring the room that is also in a messy state. The Steward seems to be simply fed up and is looking towards heaven for help. The man's body is scrunched up, with his back bent, all showing signs of disappointment and a signal of giving up on the situation. Looking at this man, it is easy to that he is a person who plays an important role, yet is ignored. The Steward conveys to the viewer that the young couple is hopeless: 'only heaven can help them'. I can envision the annoyance he may be feeling in that moment. When Fielding writes that the "figures... appear to think", I believe he is referring to their human-like qualities. It is the steward's unconscious movement (looking heavenward), that makes him seem natural in this moment.
Gina Nemati: In the first plate the Earl is literally thinking when he is staring at his reflection in the mirror. It's quite comedic to think that on the day of the marriage settlement he is more enamoured by his own reflection and his own self than his to-be wife and he ignores her completely. The smile on his face as he is looking at his reflection suggests he is thinking about his future. What is he gaining by marrying a wealthy merchant's daughter?
3. Which character in the series do you find most interesting. Why? Use TWO examples to show us what you find interesting about this character.
Madeline Chang: I thought the child was interesting primarily because neither of the parents seem to really care for it. In Plate 6 the child gives the dead countess a kiss, but other than that, there is no actual interaction. So then I thought, why bother giving birth to a child if you don't even care for one in the first place? Then I remembered that this was an arranged marriage, so they were likely expected and possibly half forced into having a child they don't even care about. This increases their burden and shows another aspect of arranged marriages. Hogarth's critique here is a bit more subtle ,which I thought was really cool, since I didn't think much of the child before I engaged in that thought process. Hogarth doesn't just use the child for critiquing arranged marriages, He also uses it to point out certain things in the story. In Plate 6, while the child is kissing the countess,we see the beginnings of the symptoms of syphilis. The spread of disease could be symbolic though showing the corruption inherent to 'fashionable marriage'.
4. Discuss the 'praiseworthy plot' as it applies to Hogarth’s series. Use TWO examples to show how it works across the series.
Rachel Armstrong: A praiseworthy plot is one that "turns upon a single incident" and in the case of Marriage à la Mode this driving incident can be seen in the first plate where Earl Squanderfield and the merchant agree upon arranging a marriage between their offspring. This initial incident is the starting point of this series and denotes a clear beginning to the mess of events that will occur. The mess of events is also foreshadowed by the blatant self interest all of the characters in this plate, as everyone is only out for themselves. Subordinate incidents then grow out of this initial incident. In plate two, there is evidence suggesting that the Earl's son has been cheating on his wife as a dog sniffs out another woman's bonnet tucked in his pocket. The hard evidence against both partners solidifies in Plates 3 & 4. These plates indicate a clear middle to the plot as it starts building up expectations for the climax and ending of the series which are shown in plates 5 and 6 respectively. In the fifth plate the different plot strands come together. The Earl's son and the merchant's daughter are seen together again, but one of them is now dead. The final plate finishes the series with the death of the merchant's daughter who has commited suicide in response to the news that her lover, Silvertongue, is hanged at Tyburn.
5. Talk about visual ‘linking devices’ Hogarth uses to draw connections across the individual plates in the series. What example impressed you the most?
Tasnim Sumaiya: The use of the ‘decapitated’ head in all of the plates was an impressive linking device. The heads not only provide pictorial cohesion, alongside with proclaiming the message that the institution of marriage is a ‘decapitation’ by the upper class who pervert it. More interestingly however, the images of heads in each plate also provide a pictorial summary of the emotions in the plate. To elaborate, the first plate consists of Carvaggio’s painting of the decapitated Medusa. In this picture her eyes are bulging and her mouth is shaped in a way that implies she is screaming. The representation of this head signifies death, decay, and the last burst of life before one turns to stone, since after Perseus decapitated Medusa, that is what became of her. This alludes to the institution of marriage for the upper classes in that it steals the last burst of life from them before they become void of feeling. This is exemplified due to the expression on the soon-to-be-wedded couple’s faces, in that neither seem keen about the nuptials – in fact, they appear discontented. Furthermore, the death and decay foreshadow the inevitable decay of the marriage (they are unfaithful, the marriage ‘dies’, and both the Earl and the Countess die). Each plate captures the atmosphere of the plate with pictures including the mutilated figure of a man’s head in the picture of the doctor practicing cannibalistic services (as seen through the bone passing through the man’s head), the Black child pointing at Actaeon to emphasize cuckoldry, the saint’s bust, and in the final scene of the lady’s death. While none of the heads are decapitated in the last plate, the presence of a mutilated child next to the mother’s dead body implies ‘internal’ mutilation.
Gina Nemati: The visual 'linking devices' I found most intriguing were the dogs in Plates l, 2 and 6. In Plate l there were two healthy dogs though they were bound together to represent the young couple's arranged marriage. By the second plate there is only one dog. This could represent a break up between the couple. At this point, the Lady and Earl are not happy together and subsequently are cheat on one another in the next few plates. Dogs are absent in Plates 3, 4, and 5. It is only in the last plate where we see a starving dog with its ribs sticking out. It comes as no surprise that the dog is skin and bones because it is symbolic of the marriage. With the dogs representing loyalty and the lack of loyalty between the couple, the relationship starves and eventually dies.
6. What information, items, characters, etc. are left out of the series? If you could add one additional plate what would it depict, and what details would you include?
Anamika Bansal: The information left out of the series is of the husband doing anything good. Hogarth However, in my opinion many aspects of the time period are depicted in the plates. Servants, colonialism, and the interest in orientalism, and the fading of traditions, with decreasing sanctity of the household of the noble class, with the tendency towards disease is all shown. The virtuous nature of women is also exhibited, where the wife goes through a process of repentance. The moral lesson, of receiving adequate consequences to your actions is also portrayed by the finality of the individual's death. The latest fashions are included, with the classic literature also on display. The portraits are somewhat lacking of the couple's behaviour at social events in the public. If they pretend to get along with each other, or if they behaved in a more restricted manner. lf l could add an additional plate, I would choose to create the plate of Silvertongue being hanged in front of a crowd. In the plate, I can imagine the face of this advisor, showing a distraught expression, or after being hanged. It would have given a glimpse into this person's heart. Whether he was apologetic for having killed the lady's husband, or if hew."; simply frightened. I am also imagining the crowd being present. The crowd would either be filled with gentry, bearing the marks of syphilis, or it would be filled with onlookers, who are not grieving a death, but are gossiping about the death. I think this type of plate would have really given a glimpse into the daily lives of other England citizens. Perhaps in the audience there would be another marriage being negotiated, even while a man was being hanged. I think this would send a message and it would be funny.
7. Do you have any concerns with this series from your twenty-first century perspective? What do you like about it?
Hibo Mousa: As a person living in the twenty-first century seeing the black person being used as a slave or in the background really upset me. The fact that they were being used and ignored somehow put an emphasis on their bodies. I also noticed that women dominated the space. In each image the women are the brightest or the largest figures. You could see this as a good thing but it seems to me that the women are taking up these spaces in a negative way; in the second plate women are seen as promiscuous or somehow in the wrong. This continues into the third plate where the woman is diseased. In the fifth plaque the woman's lover has killed her husband and, in the sixth plate the focus is on the Countess who has taken her own life.
8. Suggest something we should also read/listen to/look at that’s somehow related to Marriage à la Mode. Explain why. (This can be anything you like – a current song, film, artwork, current event, etc. Feel free to provide a link or bring something in to show us).
Hibo and Madeline both suggested Romeo and Juliet were related to Marriage à la Mode. Anamika suggested the television series The Good Place. Gina cited a verse from the Christian Bible: "Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find? The righteous lead blameless lives; blessed are their children after them." (Proverbs 20:6-7). Rachel thought Panic! At the Disco's 2005 single called, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" was a good match for Hogarth's series.
Work Cited: Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews and Shamela. Penguin, 1999.
*The title "Poem Talk" references the awesome podcast, POEMTALK, a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation. The format for this assignment was inspired by POEMTALK.