The story that stood out to me the most in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss was that of Frank Cavilla, the “gentle and affectionate husband and father” who lost his job and was unable to find employment. According to London, he “could not make both ends meet…[and] steady work could not be obtained” due to the conditions in the East Side. He was forced to watch his wife and four children starve before his eyes, and eventually fell ill himself due to malnutrition. After coping with this state of misery for eighteen months, he cut the throats of his wife and four children in order to save them from the horrific conditions in which they had been forced to live. Cavilla was arrested and taken to court, and soon after Jack London heard about his case. This story stood out to me because of the hopelessness that it portrays. Cavilla felt so sure that there was no possible way for their lives to improve that he killed his family in order to protect them from the horrible conditions, while allowing himself to go on living without having to provide for five additional people. This story was heartbreaking, and most definitely the one that stuck with me the most. I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the desolate conditions—both physical and mental—that thousands of people were forced to endure in silence throughout the supposedly “prosperous” Victorian Era. As I put myself in Cavilla’s shoes and attempted to feel the emotions that he must have felt at the time in which he realized that things would never get better for him and his family, I realized how truly awful it must have been. For the people living in these horrific conditions, death often seemed a much better option than being forced to live a life full of misery, starvation, illness, and poverty.
Archive for January 24, 2009
My perspective regarding the Victorian Era has changed drastically in the last week, especially after reading Jack London’s The People of the Abyss. Before enrolling in Jack the Ripper’s London, I had always pictured the Victorian Era as being a time filled with grandeur and prosperity. As a little girl I had an American Girl Doll that lived during the Victorian Era, and the clothes that came along with the doll reflected wealth and upper-class standards. She had her “cold-weather outfit,” which consisted of a velvet dress with a fur cape, a gorgeous hat complete with flowers, and a fur hand warmer that matched her lovely miniature ice skates. For the summer she had a sundress and wicker hat with matching ribbons for her hair, and for her everyday dress she had a stylish plaid dress, gold necklace, and button-up boots. There was a book that came along with the doll telling me about her life, and she lived in a beautiful Victorian-style home with a well-to-do father, a mother that was the epitome of the perfect hostess for social events, and several servants that helped the family with their everyday household tasks. The character was always dressed according to her mother’s “prim and proper” standards, and was not allowed to get dirty as she played with the servant children. The family would often talk about Queen Victoria, and it seemed that the world was at peace—at least among the upper-class. This rosy depiction of the Victorian Era has been the perspective that I have maintained until this point. Now, however, I know differently. I was astonished and taken aback as I read London’s first-hand accounts of the East Side, documenting the poverty, misery, filth, and hopelessness that was rampant at the time. In essence, the idealistic view of the wealthy that many have come to associate with the Victorian Era was merely a façade for the grim reality that lay beneath.