Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth's "Four Stages of Cruelty' and the Paradox of Inhumanity

By Steintrager, James A. | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth's "Four Stages of Cruelty' and the Paradox of Inhumanity


Steintrager, James A., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


In 1751, William Hogarth released a series of engravings entitled "The Four Stages of Cruelty" (figures 14). The story they tell appears almost banal in its clarity: a poor boy, Tom Nero, begins by torturing animals, eventually moves on to killing a human, and ends up an unwilling participant in an anatomy lesson at the Royal College of Physicians. (1) As if this narrative were not already easy enough to read, a visual prolepsis inscribes Tom's destiny in the first engraving: a boy has drawn a stick-figure of the protagonist as a hanged man and turns his index finger towards the future corpse. From the beginning, the reader of the engravings knows where the narrative is going and what message it proffers: cruelty to animals, which is to be shunned in any case, leads to cruelty to humans and thence to the application of justice to the wrongdoer. Various parallels from engraving to engraving reinforce this central irony of the victimizer becoming the victim: Tom tortures a dog in the first engraving, and in th e last a dog makes off with his heart; the down-plunging arrow in the first engraving has the same angle of attack as the chief physician's demonstration rod in the last; the corpse of Tom's lover in the third engraving lies in the same position as the dissected body of her paramour and murderer in the final scene-beside her a note to "Dr. Tommy." (2) It seems improbable that any reader of the series could not make sense of it.

The "Four Stages of Cruelty" thus conforms to the received idea of Hogarth's usual practice. The artist is best known, after all, for serial engravings and paintings that tell relatively straightforward stories while their backgrounds are rich in details. Such details simply underline the principal point and provide copious local color ("A Rake's Progress," "A Harlot's Progress," "Industry and Idleness" come to mind). It is this Hogarth who is so useful in teaching classes on eighteenth-century English literature: the story gives a quick lesson regarding the middle-class mindset and the details present an often amusing snapshot of another era (consideration given to satirical exaggerations). In the "Four Stages," moreover, the narrative would have been made even simpler because of an assumed lack of sophistication in a segment of the target audience: the poor. In fact, after the initial and already relatively low-priced printing, Hogarth tried to have the engravings put out in inexpensive woodcuts in order b etter to reach the illiterate lower classes--a project that fell through because of mounting costs. (3) Hogarth himself claimed that "the leading points....were made as obvious as possible, in the hope that their tendency might be seen by men of the lowest rank." (4)

And yet, in spite of the attempt to simplify--and at times because of it--the clarity and legibility of the "Four Stages" hides both the risk of nonsense and a remarkable and illuminating complexity. Nonsense, because it is not obvious how the series can communicate its message at all unless it first brings the lower classes into its system of values. That is, how can someone be made to understand that cruelty to animals is an evil, if it is precisely this value that is not held? Complexity, because the way in which the engravings do attempt to bring the lower classes into its value system entails overcoming a fundamental logical paradox: pity can only appear as a universal characteristic of humanity if particular instances to the contrary are shown to be "inhuman." In fact, if focus is shifted from the narrative to the so-called background details, it becomes clear that Hogarth's message is underwritten by an underlying structure--and that this structure is not without problems. Simultaneously, this shift i n focus reveals that reading the series merely in terms of class leads to a limited understanding of the logical and historical problems with which Hogarth is grappling. Rather, the engravings insistently single out for opprobrium various groups that cannot be defined in terms of class alone. …

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