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Industrial Revolution in Literature

Industrial Revolution in Literature

The Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) caused great societal, political and economic change. The resulting industrialisation, influx of new technology, and mass movement of people from the countryside to cities naturally became topics of literature as well.

Some writers were inspired by the potential of machines, while others such as Charles Dickens produced seething social critiques of the exploitation of the working class during the Industrial Revolution. Whatever the view, the Industrial Revolution became a force in literature as well as in society.

Industrial Revolution in Literature: historical context

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain from around the 1750s to around 1830. This then began to spread to other countries. During industrialisation, manual labour was replaced by mass production and there is great economic growth. As well as an increased division of labour, technology was used more to provide solutions to problems (rather than relying on people to solve the problems). Before people carried out tasks like processing and fabrication by hand at home, yet later this was achieved in factories through industrial manufacturing processes.

Industrialisation is a process in which an economy is transformed from a predominantly agricultural economy to one based on manufacturing goods and industry. In conjunction with the process of industrialisation, urbanisation usually takes place too.

Urbanisation is when people move from rural areas to cities and towns. This results in the fast population growth of the urban areas.

Effects of the Industrial Revolution

As more and more manufacturing facilities grew, the communications, finance and transportation industries also expanded to accommodate the increase in the production of goods.

Factory System

The factory system was vital in the Industrial Revolution and replaced the cottage industry. It was more autonomous, effective, and time-efficient than the cottage industry, in which workers used hand tools and limited machinery to create goods in their homes.

Factory system: The factory system began in Britain in the late eighteenth century and was the production of goods using machines in large factories.

Cottage Industry: The cottage industry was a small-scale industry with craftsmen creating goods from home.

The first factories were created after the invention of the water-powered frame by Richard Arkwright in the 1760s. Overall, the factory system allowed the owners to amass a significant wealth and produce more goods. It also completely changed how people worked; now, workers were part of the production line and worked in shifts.


Technology was essential in the Industrial Revolution as it sped up the production line and completely revolutionised how things were produced. Suddenly, machines could create objects exceptionally quickly, whereas before, everything had to be made by hand. The cloth production became faster and meant that human labour was needed less. The development of the metal and textiles industries allowed commercial and personal goods to be mass-produced.

Key inventions of the period include:

  • steam engine

  • flying shuttle

  • water frame

  • spinning jetty

  • power loom.


The increased production of goods due to technological advances and factories meant that more goods needed to be transported. The invention of steam power led to steam-powered locomotives being used to transport freights. Steam-powered ships and boats were used to carry goods along British canals and rivers and across the Atlantic.

Over 2000 miles of canals were used in Britain during industrialisation by 1815.

While steam engines required coal, steam power let miners go deeper and dig out more of this supposed inexpensive energy source. As a result, the demand for coal increased exponentially as it was needed to run the factories, and for steamships and railroads.

Industrial Revolution in Literature, steam-powered train, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Trains using steam power were a staple feature during the industrial revolution.


The new trains' fast speed demanded better communication, so in 1837, two British inventors, Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke, presented the first-ever commercial telegraphy system.

While it was initially used for railroad signalling, this invention completely changed world communication. Before, it would take days or even weeks for a message or letter to be sent. Now messages and signals could be sent a lot quicker, paving the way for our current hyper-connected world.

Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution

While industrialisation in the Industrial Revolution positively impacted the lives of some by significantly increasing their wealth and well-being, it negatively impacted the lives of the poor and the working class. With urbanisation happening rapidly, people moved to towns and cities for better opportunities but were often met with harsh working conditions and discrimination.

Working Conditions

The mass movement of people from the countryside into the cities lead many to terrible living and working conditions. Overcrowded cities experienced high levels of pollution, lack of drinking water and unacceptable sanitation.


The use of machines in the Industrial Revolution used up vast amounts of energy. To do this, fossil fuels like petroleum and coal had to be burned, and this caused air pollution and smog. Chemicals were also used to create various goods, which further added to the pollution.

Farmlands and forests were destroyed to create railroads, and waste was thrown into rivers. As the cities were densely populated, this made the effects of pollution worse on the population.

Child Labour

Children did work before the Industrial Revolution; however, the rapidity of the Industrial Revolution created a great demand for workers. Orphans and poor young people were taken from London’s Workhouses, forced to work for long hours, and didn’t have access to education.

Subjected to dangerous jobs, many children were forced into horrible situations. Due to children's small size, they were viewed as ideal for fixing machines as they were running. This led to many brutal workplace accidents, as described in John Brown’s A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy (1832) when a ten-year-old girl's apron got stuck in a machine in a textile mill:

In an instant, the poor girl was drawn by an irresistible force and dashed on the floor. [...] She uttered the most heart-rending shrieks.

Discrimination against women

The Industrial Revolution established and consolidated gender inequalities in the workplace (that lasted for decades after it). Before, cloth-making was traditionally a woman's job and carried out by hand at home. Yet the industrialisation of the textile industry meant that cloth could now be mass produced in factories. Machines had devalued what was seen as women's work. In order to continue supporting their families, women were forced to work in factories and mines. Yet women were paid half of what men were paid for the same work because factory owners assumed women didn’t have families to support.

Authors during the Industrial Revolution

Now we will take a look at authors who responded to the above-mentioned effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Charles Dickens

Perhaps the most famous of Victorian writers, Charles Dickens, was appalled at the consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Oliver Twist (1838)

The cruel treatment of the poor and in particular, orphaned children influenced Dicken's second novel Oliver Twist (1838). This social novel greatly critiqued workhouses, child labour and representations of poverty.

With an orphaned child as the novel's protagonist, Dickens criticises Victorian preconceptions that the poor deserve their suffering. The novel follows Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and forced to work with little food or safety. After asking for more gruel, Oliver is sold into an apprenticeship, from which he soon escapes. Left with few options, he then enters the criminal underworld.

Workhouses of the Poor Law of 1834

The Poor Law of 1834 made workhouses for the poor. They were supposed to be harsh places to stop people from staying on government food aid (which was called ‘relief’ at the time).

Families were separated as soon as they entered the workhouse and were confined in prisons and had to work every day.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol (1843) satirises the cold ruthlessness of the factory owners and their obsession with money during the Industrial Revolution.

The protagonist is the 'squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching' businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite his amassed fortune, he refuses to part with money either through donations to the poor or properly paying his overworked clerk. After visits by the ghost of his former business partner and the spirits of Christmas, Scrooge must learn to become kinder.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell's biography is primarily shaped by the Industrial Revolution. Much of her childhood was spent in rural Cheshire until she married the Unitarian minister William Gaskell. They then moved to Manchester: the world's first industrial city.

Mary Barton (1848)

The terrible working and living conditions of Manchester's working class became the basis of Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton (1848). The novel follows two working-class families, the Bartons and Wilsons, and their attempts to navigate the unequal distribution of power and wealth.

North and South (1854)

Gaskell's third novel, North and South (1854), then switches the perspective and uses a protagonist from Southern England to comment on factory owners. Much like Gaskell herself, the protagonist Margaret Hale moves from the countryside to an industrial town, witnessing the havoc caused by the Industrial Revolution. The complexity of labour relations is shown through a series of strikes, resulting in clashes between workers and employers. The novel is set in Milton, whose inspiration from drawn from Manchester, where Gaskell lived.

Industrial Revolution in Literature: Romanticism

Romanticism is a literary movement (ca. 1790–1850) that emphasised nature, the rural world, the common human, imagination, and the reader's powers to generate their own world.

The rise of Romanticism can be seen as a literature's backlash against the Industrial Revolution. Escaping from the crashing modernity and rise of technology, factories, and cities, Romantics focused on nature, rural life and subjectivity. The below table provides a rough idea of how Romantic literature responded to the Industrial Revolution.

Consequences of the Industrial RevolutionRomantic Literature
Rise of urbanisation and cities Focus on rural life and nature
More technological inventions demanding rationality and logicExploration of Subjectivity and Imagination
Rise of class inequalities and industrial factory ownersEmphasis on the common human

William Wordsworth

One of the most famous Romantic poets, William Wordsworth published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge the 'Lyrical Ballads' (1978). This essentially marked the beginning of Romanticism. In the Preface to the Second Edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads' (1801), Wordsworth outlined the manifesto of what poetry is. We will take a closer look at this preface to examine how Romantic literature directly responded to the Industrial Revolution.

Urbanisation in the Industrial Revolution vs Rural Nature in Romantic Literature

In the Preface, Wordsworth frequently mentions rural life and nature:

'in a state of greater simplicity [...] the manners of rural life [...] and rural occupations [... reflect] the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

low and rustic life was generally chosen

– Preface to the Second Edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads', p 2642

The emphasis on nature and the countryside harks back to a time before the Industrial Revolution increased urbanisation and moved the population to the city.

Before the Industrial Revolution, about 80% of the population lived in rural areas and depended on farming and agriculture. However, the increase in population due to the agricultural revolution had made opportunities in agriculture scarce, which resulted in a mass movement to industrialised cities. By 1850, most people were living in cities rather than in villages. Jobs were now in factories in cities, drawing many from the countryside into the city.

Technology in the Industrial Revolution vs Imagination in Romantic Literature

William Wordsworth also criticises technology and how the Industrial Revolution has placed technology at the highest value. In the 'Preface to the Second Edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads', Wordsworth argues that technology distracts the mind and prevents critical thinking by leaving the mind overly stimulated. Wordsworth felt that this increase in technology leaves the mind in:

a state of almost savage torpor (lethargy).

Wordsworth thought that the technology of the Industrial Revolution resulted in the sluggishness of the mind. This is a great criticism as imagination is incredibly important in Romanticism. Romantics held that the act of reading becomes sublime as it draws on the reader's powers to generate new worlds. Imagination is recognised as a productive capacity, yet this appeared to be stilted by the Industrial Revolution.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Literature

Karl Marx and Marxism

Marxism is a political, social and economic theory that states that a revolution of workers will reverse the effects of capitalism and allow a communist state to take over.

Karl Marx saw the factories and the unfair treatment of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Marx witnessed first-hand in the UK how the government supported the wealthy classes, who profited from the toils and suffering of the working class. While the middle and upper classes thrived on the economic output of industrialisation, the working-class and poor people continued to suffer. The increasing gap between workers, owners and production resulting from the Industrial Revolution encouraged him to write Das Kapital (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1867), kick-starting the philosophy of Marxism.

During the Industrial Revolution, factory owners who controlled production quickly became extremely rich. They also held great political and economic power as during this time, only the wealthy were allowed to vote in Britain.

Marxism has had a lasting impact on the world, inspiring the rise of communist states across the globe, from the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to Vietnam and East Germany. The philosophy was also picked up by writers such as Bertolt Brecht, John Steinbeck and George Orwell who dealt with Marxist and socialist themes. Marxism even influenced critical theory in literature, spurning a whole framework of examining texts through Marxist literary criticism.


Modernism is a literary and artistic movement that began in the late 19th century. It is characterised by a break with previous traditions, increased subjectivity and internalisation and the themes of alienation, loss and the city.

The Industrial Revolution considerably sped up the process of urbanisation. This impacted Modernist literature, as the city and urban life played a vital role in Modernist texts. Often, the city became the predominant character itself, such as in the film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927).

Any sense of optimism in technological progress during the Industrial Revolution was then shattered by WW1. This sense of disillusionment and loss is reflected in the alienation explored in Modernist literature, such as HG Wells's 'The Wasteland' (1922).

Industrial Revolution in Literature - Key takeaways

  • The Industrial Revolution profoundly changed society through urbanisation and industrialisation as well as increased technology and communication.
  • The author Charles Dickens satirised the consequences of the Industrial Revolution by criticising the treatment of the poor, workhouses and the ruthlessness of the factory owners.

  • The Industrial Revolution shaped Elizabeth Gaskell's biography and literature, such as the novels North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848).

  • Romanticism responded to the Industrial Revolution by emphasising nature, rural life, imagination and the common human.

  • The Industrial Revolution had a far-reaching impact on literature, influencing Modernism and the philosophy of Marxism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Industrial Revolution in Literature

Romanticism can be seen as a literature's backlash against the Industrial Revolution.

Romanticism's emphasis on nature and the countryside harks back to a time before the Industrial Revolution increased urbanisation and moved the population to the city. 

The social impact of industrialisation such as terrible working conditions, child labour and pollution, inspired writers like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Elizabeth Gaskell's novels Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854) commented on the effects of the Industrial Revolution. 

The inequalities of the Industrial Revolution appalled the Romantics, who wanted to return to the language of the common human. 

Final Industrial Revolution in Literature Quiz


What is Industrialisation?

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A process in which an economy is transformed from a largely agricultural economy to one based on the manufacturing of goods and industry.

Show question


What is Urbanisation?

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Urbanisation is a process in which people from rural areas of the country move to cities and towns which results in the fast population growth of the cities/ towns.

Show question


In which country did the Industrial Revolution begin?

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Show question


Which two British inventors created the first-ever commercial telegraphy system?

Show answer


Charles Wheatstone

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When was the first-ever commercial telegraphy system introduced?

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Which texts are written by Charles Dickens?

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Oliver Twist (1838)

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Which literary movement was affected by the rise of urbanisation during the Industrial Revolution? 

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Show question


How many miles of canal were being used in Britain by 1815?

Show answer


2000 miles

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Why did William Wordsworth criticise the rise of technological innovations? 

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Wordsworth argues that technology distracts the mind and prevents critical thinking by leaving the mind overly stimulated. 

Show question


How did the Romanticism react to the rise urbanisation and cities in the Industrial Revolution

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By focusing on nature and rural life. 

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Before Industrialisation, what percentage of the population in Britain live in rural areas?

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Which philosophy resulted from the Industrial Revolution?

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What is the cottage industry?

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The cottage industry involved workers working from home using hand tools and limited machinery to create goods in their homes.

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How many people did tuberculosis kill in the nineteenth century in Britain?

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60,000 to 70,000 people. 

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What is the Workhouses of the Poor Law of 1834?

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The Poor Law of 1834 made workhouses for the poor. They were supposed to be harsh places to stop people from staying on government food aid (which was called ‘relief’ at the time). Families were separated as soon as they entered the workhouse and were confined in prisons and had to work every day.

Show question


What is the focus of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848)

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The lives of two working-class families, the Bartons and Wilsons.

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