Victorian Literature The Gospel of Work
Patrick Fessenbecker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0145


In 1843, Thomas Carlyle proclaimed a new “Gospel” for modern England: “Work, and therein have wellbeing.” Inspired by Carlyle’s vision, writers such as George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Friedrich Engels, and others subsequently developed their own version of his spiritualized conception of work, reimagining the relationship between work, the self, and society. Indeed, the centrality of work is one of the primary characteristics of Victorian thought: as Walter Houghton remarks in an oft-quoted line, “after ‘God,’ the most popular word in Victorian England was ‘work.’” Certainly, the emphasis on work appeared across Victorian culture, appearing in Victorian painting, self-help manuals, and even board games. Yet Carlyle and the Victorians were also influenced by a longer tradition: the gradual investment of worldly professions with religious energy inherent in the idea of a secular “vocation.” The fundamentally philosophical nature of the “Gospel of Work,” and of the idea of a secular vocation more generally, appears in its basic form in Carlyle’s argument for it. When one sets to work, he contends, a sort of moral transformation occurs: agents forget the searching questions of religious skepticism and the distractions of incidental desires and remake or realize themselves. Moreover, a society of such workers would no longer be founded on the cash “nexus”; in other words, social relationships would no longer be determined by economic structures. In that sense, meaningful work is essential for the healthy person and the healthy society. But when taken seriously and applied broadly, this seemingly straightforward philosophical claim encountered a number of philosophical difficulties and ideological tensions. Most obviously, it was not clear whether the sort of industrial labor actually available to most people could have the effects Carlyle and others imagined. Correspondingly, to advocate for the importance of the Gospel of Work under industrialism began to seem politically suspect, especially after versions of the Gospel of Work served to justify imperialist expansion. Then, too, it gradually became apparent how thoroughly the Gospel of Work was interlaced with elaborate assumptions about gender. Finally, the vexed status of the productions of writers and artists pushed at perhaps the hardest question in the Gospel of Work: what, after all, is “work,” and how is it different from other human activities? This research has been supported by the Danish National Research Foundation, grant number DNRF127.

General Overviews

The most commonly cited and probably still the best survey of the Gospel of Work is Houghton 1957. For Houghton, the Victorian emphasis on work was a symptom of growing religious skepticism: one could avoid the despair that comes with questioning God by losing oneself in one’s work. Briggs 1990 is more narrowly focused on Samuel Smiles, but it connects Smiles’s analysis of self-help to the broader emphasis in the middle of the 19th century on success through work self-improvement. Mintz 1978 turns in its later chapters to an emphasis on George Eliot, but the opening of the book surveys the idea of a “vocation” and includes in particular an analysis of the way the idea of a vocation structured Victorian biography and autobiography—the story of one’s life is the story of the discovery of one’s work. Danon 1986 purports to be the first monograph devoted to work in the English novel: it is primarily interested in tracing what the author calls the “myth of vocation.” Bradshaw and Ozment 2000 is an anthology that brings together a number of primary sources regarding work in the Victorian era. Dawson 2005 is from a journal of adult education, but it has a brief, clear, and well-researched summary of the history of the idea of a “vocation.” Dupré and Gagnier 1996 is similarly brief, introducing the hard problem of defining “work” and surveying several definitions. Breton 2005 is perhaps the most extensive early-21st-century study devoted to the Gospel of Work, and continues the critique of its ideological function one finds in Danon’s book, arguing that the actual social conditions of Victorian labor give the lie to the philosophical virtues attributed to work. But see also Lesjak 2006, which uses a survey of Victorian literature to interrogate the distinction between work and leisure.

  • Bradshaw, David, and Susan Ozment, eds. The Voice of Toil: Nineteenth-Century British Writings about Work. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.

    This anthology has multiple sections, the first of which contains many of the quintessential expressions of the Gospel of Work. The final two sections include essays that question the Victorian emphasis on work: “Work as Oppression” includes writings that question whether work is really a form of self-fulfillment, while “Separate Spheres of Work” brings together pieces that consider why the injunction to work is so different for men and women.

  • Breton, Rob. Gospels and Grit: Work and Labour in Carlyle, Conrad, and Orwell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442675421

    In readings of Thomas Carlyle, Joseph Conrad, and George Orwell, Breton argues that the context in which writers advocated the Gospel of Work undermines its philosophical credibility. When the only labor available is alienated factory labor, advocating that one work for work’s own sake is not politically neutral.

  • Briggs, Asa. “Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work.” In Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851–1867. By Asa Briggs, 116–139. New York: Penguin, 1990.

    First published in 1954, Briggs’s book is—with Houghton 1957—part of the development of Victorian studies as an academic field. The chapter on Samuel Smiles is primarily interested in Smiles’s relationship to politics and economics. Briggs argues that Smiles’s emphasis on the Gospel of Work grows out of his dissatisfaction with attempts at social reform, as he came to think genuine improvement required individuals to develop themselves.

  • Danon, Ruth. Work in the English Novel: The Myth of Vocation. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

    Danon discusses the rise of the idea of work as a vocation in Robinson Crusoe then suggests the same idea comes under critique in Great Expectations. Jude the Obscure shows the impossibility of integrating meaningful work with social acceptance, while at the same time stressing the importance of work to life.

  • Dawson, Jane. “A History of Vocation: Tracing a Keyword of Work, Meaning, and Moral Purpose.” Adult Education Quarterly 55.3 (2005): 220–231.

    DOI: 10.1177/0741713605274606

    The middle section of the article—“Historical Meanings of Vocation”—briefly traces the term from its early use in Catholic monasticism through the Protestant Reformation to its analysis in Marx and Weber.

  • Dupré, John, and Regenia Gagnier. “A Brief History of Work.” Journal of Economic Issues 30.2 (1996): 553–559.

    DOI: 10.1080/00213624.1996.11505819

    One of several essays Dupré and Gagnier wrote on the nature of work, this essay contrasts varying definitions of work, emphasizing their incompatibility—work as a commodity, for instance, contrasts sharply with the view of work as self-fulfillment.

  • Houghton, Walter. “Work.” In The Victorian Frame of Mind. By Walter Houghton, 242–262. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

    Houghton’s treatment of the Gospel of Work occurs as part of his analysis of Victorian earnestness. His survey highlights many of the components of the Gospel of Work—its stress on self-denial, its assumption that work leads to happiness more reliably than idleness does—that later critics would emphasize. But his primary argument contends that the injunction to work was really a response to rising religious skepticism.

  • Lesjak, Carolyn. Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388340

    Early-21st-century entry in a substantial body of scholarship on the Victorian “industrial” or “social-problem” novel, admirably annotated in the Oxford Bibliographies in Victorian Literature article “Social-Problem Novel” by Bethan Carney. The text argues for the category of the “labor novel,” of fictions interested in the distinction between labor and pleasure; if we in the early 21st century tend to think of pleasure as an inherently private activity while labor is inherently public, Lesjak argues that many Victorian novelists did not see things this way.

  • Mintz, Alan. George Eliot and the Novel of Vocation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674428560

    Mintz draws on the biographical and autobiographical writings of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and John Stuart Mill to suggest a distinctively Victorian genre of autobiography: the story of a “vocation.” Mintz argues that these works demonstrate a sense that the life of the individual is structured around a calling. A person undergoes a search culminating in the discovery of his work and spends his life in the expression of that project.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.