Hogarth in Context: The Political, Social, and Biblical Allusions in A Harlot's Progress

William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1732) is a series of six engravings that follow a young woman, Moll Hackabout, and her decline as she is pulled into a life of prostitution after arriving in London from the country. By default, these engravings are initially seen as a set of illustrations that capture Hogarth’s artistic talent from a modern day viewer’s perspective. However, A Harlot’s Progress is not confined to its visual entertainment. By pairing critical analysis and historical context, with political, social, and biblical allusions and symbols, this essay will discuss how Hogarth’s engravings go beyond their function as art. These plates simultaneously function as a preservation of the moral, conventional, and regulatory tensions of eighteenth-century British society.

Hogarth’s allusions take form in two ways: as objects subtly inserted into the background and through the social status or actions of Moll’s coworkers and acquaintances. For example, the seemingly innocuous inclusion of a pair of scissors hanging at Moll’s waist in Plate 1 hold a deeper commentary that highlight the immoral temptations that surround eighteenth-century city life. A pair of scissors resemble the male genitals, while the blades each symbolize legs; this suggests an association between closed scissors and chastity— in opposition to opened scissors, which connote promiscuity (Santesso 505). This is a symbol of the tension between either remaining chaste, or succumbing to the vice that surrounds London.

This dichotomy of pursuing or withholding continues in the subsequent plates, with the exception of Plate 4. The insertion of the mask in Plate 2 highlights the acts of revealing and concealing; while the display of one breast while the other remains concealed in Plate 3 upholds the tension between morality and immorality. Plate 5 shows tension from a different perspective, two doctors are arguing over which experimental method to treat Molly’s syphilis with. The conflict on whether to use cupping or bleeding reminds the audience that women in positions like Molly are often faced with a choice between two evils (Frith 51). Tension in Plate 6 is exemplified by the dismissive mourners at Moll’s wake who drink alcohol and pilfer her belongings during a moment of loss, and the variety of expressions are blatantly neglectful and preoccupied (Wagner 168). The tension evident in these plates further exhibit the choice between moral and immoral behavior that permeate Moll’s environment over the trajectory of her life. The tension is an important element to the series as it acts as a warning to other women that while one immoral act may seem permissible it leads down a path of hard choices with no easy way out.

Plate 4 removes Moll from her living quarters, and instead, offers an interior view of Bridewell Prison. This prison was created to house petty criminals and used them for hard labor with the hopes of reformation; this represents a tipping point for Molly, as she did not use her time in prison to reform, while also symbolizing the prevalence of immoral or destitute individuals in London (Clive). The succession of people positioned at Moll’s left side allude to the social hierarchy within the city of London: man, woman and child, and lastly, a black pregnant prisoner. This emphasizes the difficulty of the situation Moll was initially in when arriving to London, as a young woman she was already at a disadvantage socially, politically, and economically and failed to be extra vigilant leaving herself vulnerable to fall even further. The black prisoner positioned in the background and her swollen belly emphasize the negative view of sexual promiscuity, though it is unknown whether she is in prison for sexual deviance like Moll (Molineux 503). Here, the tensions are presented threefold; the ranking of people from left to right highlight that even within the bounds of Bridewell Prison, the tensions between the social status of people are not stripped or ignored.

 The church’s role in regulating the immoral behavior within of British society are embedded into Hogarth’s engravings. Consider the clergyman’s presence in Plate 1, and Plate 6 where a drunk clergyman is seated; tension is evident in the presence of the church figure in a morally corrupt environment.

 This conflict of church and rake culture is a strong example of the satirical commentary throughout Hogarth’s illustrations. Despite the fact that Hogarth includes a political commentary on capital punishment in Plate Four, indicated by the man condemned to the gallows on the left, and the sketch of the hanged man on the right, the presence of authority and biblical allusions further conflate the tension between pursuing and withholding. By pitting the biblical paintings of Abraham and Isaac or Jonah and David in Plates 2 and 3, against the clerical figures in Plates 1 and 6,  the churches intent to regulate immoral behavior is not firmly upheld since they are drinking and dismissive of the vices that surrounds them in every frame. It is only in Plate 4 where we see Moll actually being punishedhowever, as mentioned above it is it a bit late for her to reform her lifestyle since Moll subsequently contracts syphilis and dies.

The historical analysis of all six plates resurrects the social, political and biblical conventions of Hogarth’s lifetime; critical details further stress his satirical commentary on women, the church, social classes, and vices that surround eighteenth-century British life. This exposes the tensions between class, race, the church, and politics within British society, and the lack of viable choices women who have begun to deviate face. Once Moll has begun to live a corrupt life it becomes a slippery slope where decisions to act morally will result in limits on freedom and income, while decisions to act immorally come at a gradually higher cost.