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A Rake’s Progress VII

24 November 2014

Bethlem’s most famous fictional patient is probably Tom Rakewell, the creation of the artist and satirist William Hogarth (1697-1764). A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings (later published as engravings) depicting scenes from Tom’s life, was Hogarth’s exposé of the cruelty, depravity and hypocrisy which he saw in London society, as well as a morality play in which evil finally comes down on the head of the evildoer. Here on the blog we have been publishing and commenting on the 8 engravings in sequence, one each month, and we are now nearly at Bethlem where the last act of the drama unfolds.

The seventh engraving in the series shows the penultimate stage of Tom’s destiny. “The gambler’s doom is upon him. The passion has swept away a second enormous fortune, and we are not greatly surprised at finding him a prisoner in the Fleet, with about as much hope of release therefrom as the awful debtor’s laws of those hard and dreadful days could offer him; which is as much to say, that there was not the shadow, the faintest outline, of a chance existing.”1

The threads of Tom’s life appear to be unravelling before his eyes. His wife is shown “violently reproaching him for having deceived and ruined her” and “to crown this catalogue of human tortures, the poor girl whom he deserted, is come with her [their!] child - perhaps to comfort him…but the agonising view is too much for her agitated frame”,2 and, fainting, Sally Young is assisted out of the prison. Tom “she was to see but once more on this side of the grave”3 – and so the scene is set for the denouement of the narrative.

To be continued.

1 J. Trusler and E.F. Roberts, The Complete Works of William Hogarth, vol. 2, p 100.

2 ibid., p. 101.

3 ibid., p. 103.

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