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Victorian Mentality


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Victorian Mentality


I chose as a title for my diploma paper ‘The Cultural Discourse in Dickens’s Novels’ because I intend to analyse the cultural values of the Victorian period rendered very minutely by Dickens’s pen and also because I am interested in the life and civilization of Great Britain.

I admire the glorious epoch dominated by the strong personality of Queen Victoria, who changed the way of thinking and under the rule of whom England triumphed in all the fields and developed a powerful economy.

I want to present the realities of the 19th century England which include not only the progress and prosperity of the society suggesting the idea of modernity, but also the negative elements such as hypocrisy, conventionalism, injustice of the legal system, inhuman conditions of work for women and children. I feel obliged not to neglect these matters as they are very well reflected in Dickens’s work; Dickens criticized the entire society with the defects of human characters.

It is appreciable the way Dickens revealed the reality: as a representative of Realism, he had the duty of treating the reality as a source of inspiration also appealing for his own experience. He considers that the social milieu determines in a large measure people’s character and behaviour. Dickens impressed me by the sympathy he showed for children, especially for those living an unhappy life and in harsh conditions, the orphans, illustrating the poverty and the ill-treatment they had to endure.

Thus, I shall try to analyse the matter with the highest degree of objectivity just like Dickens did.

I. 1. Victorian Mentality

Victorianism is an impressive historical and cultural reality, defined by measures and attitudes which opened the way to modern economy, democracy and education. In the Victorian age England passed from being a predominantly rural society, governed by a traditional aristocracy and a powerful Established Church, to being a mercantile and industrial country, allowing for pluralism and diversification in the professional, political and religious spheres. Victorian literature provides a model for what in each epoch is the simultaneous opposition to and assimilation of preceding modes of thinking, creating and existing. The pattern of Victorianism consists of a diversity of convergent and divergent tendencies. The epoch when it was regarded in terms of middle-class complacency and conventionalism and of reactions against that spirit is past. Victorianism is the meeting-point of tradition and modernity.

For much of the 19th century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), conveyed connotations of “prudish”, “repressed”, and “old-fashioned”. Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that was a second English Renaissance. Like Elizabethan England, Victorian England saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture. Popular ideas about the Victorians and attitudes toward their age change as it recedes into the past. Modern writers who were trying to free themselves from the massive embrace of their predecessors often saw the Victorians chiefly as repressed, over-confident, and thoroughly Philistine. The adjective “Victorian” denotes prosperity, grandeur, energy, England’s progress, but it is also associated with hypocrisy, ugliness and conformism. England seemed to know a period of prosperity beyond example.

Man seems to have become the master of nature. Steam replaces the force of arms of animals of wind.

Victorianism denotes not only an epoch but also a cultural phenomenon whose significance transcends the limits of the age.

It might be defined by the complementary action of the opposite tendencies: individualism and self-denial, material pursuits and idealization of existence, the influence of science and of force of religion. G. K. Chesterton (1966) looked upon the age in terms of a compromise 1 : its praise of Puritan politics and abandonment of Puritan theology, its belief in a cautious but perpetual patching up of the Constitution and its admiration of industrial wealth. But above all Chesterton pointed to two important features of Victorianism:

a)     the cheapness and narrowness of its conscious formulae;

b) the richness and humanity of its unconscious tradition. It was the reintegration of this tradition into Victorian life that the writers were aiming at. And indeed, the profound social and economic changes brought about a new mode of life which was considered by some as a break with traditional ways and with the old human relationships. Alfred Tennyson had a sense of disaster because of the failure of social adaption to keep pace with scientific discovery. The famous thinkers of the age saw in the past a remedy for the chaos and anarchy of the present. John Ruskin’s Gothicism was an example to be followed by contemporary artists. The return to the ancient literature offered, according to Mathew Arnold, a possibility of revival and a source of inspiration for Victorian literature. His antinomic pairs, Hellenism and Hebraism, “sweetness” and “light”, are not only dualities, but also complementary attitudes towards human existence, acting within the Victorian age itself.

Against romantic exuberance there are the search for balance, the rational element in thought and neoclassical elements in art that give the distinctive character of the Victorian age. Summing up the polarities of the age, J. H. Buckley (1951) shows that although concerned with immediate gain, the Victorians were nostalgic, and celebrated the past and its culture. 2

The Victorians were conventional and believed in authority, yet they encouraged the “doing-as-one-likes” principle and free trade. The sense of balance and progress had its counterpart in a feeling of restlessness and anxiety:

“The term Victorian became associated with confidence, direction, progress, and identity and as such functioned as a comforting amulet to ward off everything that threatened to undermine the security of the middle classes. In reality, the period of Victoria’s reign was characterized by change and instability: the threat of revolution; the discrediting of old traditions; the usurpation of a God who could always be relied upon to sanction the deeds and words of the philanthropic and paternalistic, by an indifferent and mechanical process; the loosening of the chance of matrimony and the empowerment of women and the working classes: what Thomas Carlyle referred to as a “boundless grinding collision of the New with the Old.” 3

Indeed the Victorian age was an age of contrasts. We still hear of Victorian pity, prudery, but we know that there was Victorian optimism and achievement. To many people the word “Victorian” carries the feeling of stuffiness - of over-filled and decorated rooms with the curtains shutting out the view and the windows tight-closed, of people in dark, sombre and formal clothes of great length and complexity. The solid material progress of the age had been unsurpassed in any previous period in history, and the standard of life in Victorian England was almost certainly higher than anywhere else in Europe or the America of those days and far in advance of the countries in the East. The complex, even contradictory nature of Victorianism has had an overwhelming effect upon the twentieth-century mind, so that Ifor Evans is probably right when he states that: “The end of the 19th century was more than the end of an era in time: it was the close of a spiritual epoch. We still turn back to that Victorian age with a complicated mixture of a contempt, envy, misunderstanding, and sometimes half-conscious affection.” 4

The new forms of government and human activity, the developments in democracy and education were associated with a new conception of man’s place in society.

I. 1. a. Victorian mentality in social life

In the first half of the nineteenth-century, a number of key words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. They are “industry, democracy, class, art, and culture.” The importance of these words is obvious. The changes in their use, at this critical period, bear witness to a general change in modern characteristic way of thinking about English common life: about social, political, and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of the English people’s activities in learning, education, and the arts. 5

In ideology, politics and society, the Victorians’ life is characterized by innovation and change: democracy, feminism, unionization of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements took form. In form, this age of Darwin, Marx and Freud appears to be not only the first that experienced modern problems but also the first that attempted modern solutions. “Victorian”, in other words, “ can be taken to mean parent of the modern - , and like most powerful parents, it provoked a powerful reaction against it.” 6 More than anything else what makes Victorians Victorian is their sense of social responsibility, a basic attitude that obviously differentiates them from their immediate predecessors, the Romantics.

The modern structure of class, in its social sense, begins to be built up. First come lower classes, to join lower orders, then higher classes; middle classes and middling classes follow at once; working classes and upper classes appear later and the upper middle classes are first heard of in the 1890s. Class indicates, quite clearly, a change in the character of these divisions, and it records, equally clearly, a change in attitudes towards them. Class is a more indefinite word than rank, and this was probably one of the reasons for its introduction. The structure then built on it is in nineteenth-century terms: in terms, that is to say, of the changed social structure, and the changed social feelings, of an England which was passing through the Industrial Revolution, and which was at a crucial phase in the development of political democracy.

In Victorian times the view held was that, if you worked hard enough, you deserve to get on, and that, if you got on in the world, you would be able to buy everything you or your family needed in order to lead a happy and healthy life. The standard of life depended a good deal upon the number of members of the family or household actually at work. This often tended to put the middle and working classes more nearly on a level, so far as money was concerned, than either side would have supposed. For the workers’ children usually left school as soon as possible – at some point between eleventh and thirteenth birthday; those who had reached the top standard were allowed to leave early, and the factories could take on any child as a half timer at eleven (up to 1893, at ten). They therefore contributed something to the family budget at an age when the perhaps more fortunate children of the middle class were only about half-way through their education and training.

The social and economic transformations effected by the Industrial Revolution were increasing so steadily the difference between the rich and the labouring poor, that Benjamin Disraeli, England’s Prime Minister in 1868, regarded the country as being composed of two nations, separated by material and geographic barriers and knowing very little of one another. The hard conditions of the agricultural labourers and the general instability of life favoured emigration in large numbers to the industrial towns as well as to the colonies and the United States.

Slavery was abolished in the British Empire by the Act of 1833. It gave the slave-owners 20 million pounds in compensation for their slaves, paid by the British taxpayers.

As a consequence of the Children’s Charter of 1833, the Ten Hours Bill was passed in 1847, limiting the working hours of women and youths in textile factories. In the following years legal limits were set to the work in other kinds of factories as well. The inhuman conditions of work for women and children in the coal mines where somewhat relieved by the passage of the Mines Act in 1842, through which the underground employment of women and children under the age of ten was forbidden. The use of little boys as sweeps by masters who found it cheaper and easier to pass them through the sootchoked chimney then to use a special brush for the purpose had for a long time stirred the indignation of the people. Acts were passed in 1840 and 1864 to do away with it but the practice continued, the local authorities turning a blind eye to it. In 1875 an Act was passed that finally eradicated that social evil.

The Victorian family usually had numerous offspring and the royal family provided an example. Lytton Strachey shows that there were no fewer than thirty-seven great grandchildren at the time of Queen Victoria’s death. A picture of the period displays “the royal family collected together in one of the great rooms at Windsor – a crowded company of more than fifty persons with their imperial matriarch in their midst.” 7 But the living conditions of the children of the poor were pitiable. G. M. Trevelyan points out: “the streets of the slums were still the only playground of the majority of city children, few of whom had schools to go until 1870, and none of whom had play centres until the turn of the century.” 8 The Malthusian theory attributed the material difficulties of the poor to the tendency of the population to increase faster than the means of subsistence. Those particular circumstances account for the great interest the Victorian people generally took in the life and games of children. The acts passed in their favour were partly due to the works of the novelists of the day who revealed the pathetic existence of children through poverty, neglect, abuse as well as through the cruel methods of education.

The same thing was true of the women-folk of the family. Working class girls were employed in large numbers in the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and, indeed, in the lighter jobs throughout industry. They also provided the vanished Victorian army of domestic servants, well over a million strong, which cleaned and cooked and looked after the children in the three- and even four-storied houses of the suburbs. The daughters of the middle class might become shop-assistants in the better trades; if they had acquired a reasonable education they might aspire to the rank of governess in wealthier homes. But the typewriter, and consequently the typist, was still a novelty, and the City office, until very near the end of the Victorian era, had usually an all-male staff.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to ignore the efforts which were being made to alter the position of women, for there was perhaps no social movement of the time which had in the long run such important consequences. The movement for the emancipation of women became more accentuated in the last thirty years of the Victorian age. Women’s rights were advocated in the novels of the epoch and supported by the example of Florence Nightingale. Florence Nightingale and her band of nurses in the horrors of the Crimean winter of 1854-1855 gave the first impetus to the demand that women of the upper classes should be allowed to play a part in the world outside the home. The advance was on three fronts. By a series of laws beginning in 1870 an end was slowly made of the monstruous legal position, by which the property of a married woman - land, a share in a business, or money in the bank - used to become the property of her husband to do as he liked with.

An advance in the education of girls and young women began in the middle of the nineteenth-century. Women’s colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were founded and secondary schools were much improved. The idea was to make teaching a profession for women. The first modern girls’ schools, such as Queen’s College, Harley Street, and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, dating from 1848 and 1850, had great difficulty in recruiting suitable staff. Now it was possible for the whole standard of the education of girls at school to be gradually raised. But the old practice of employing an untrained governess for the daughters of the family died hard, because it was firmly rooted not only in a Victorian parent’s notions of feminine modesty but often also in the desire to make for the heavy public-school fees expanded on the sons. In 1871 the National Union for Improving the Education of women of All Classes began to organise cheap day schools for girls. The University of London opened its degree examination to women in 1878.

There was even an unreasonable prejudice against the entry of women into the profession where they were obviously needed, that of medicine. The pioneer, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was obliged to take their own medical degree in Paris; but she secured the opening of London medical degrees to her sex in 1877. Lastly, women began to be allowed to figure in public affairs - a natural development of the great Queen’s reign, though she herself did nothing to help it on. In 1867 a proposal was made that they should have the parliamentary vote. But women ratepayers were allowed the vote in municipal elections in 1869, and in county council elections from the start in 1888; and when the century closed women could also serve on district councils and the boards which managed poor relief and schools.

The shift from an interest taken in the woman-as-rebel to that taken in woman-as-other, which began to take shape in the Victorian age, has led in modern times to theoretical contributions concerning feminine ‘otherness’. If patriarchy (the symbolic) is associated with authority and the law, feminity (the semiotic) is defined by subversive rebelliousness and avant-garde attitude. 

I. 1. b. Victorian mentality in religion

In the nineteenth-century English religious life was plural. The 1851 census listed no less than thirty varieties of Nonconformists. They objected to paying rates to the Established Church, to being excluded from university education. The authorities at Oxford excluded Nonconformists and Cambridge refused to admit them to degrees. Hence a demand of the epoch was to separate theology and religious teaching from educational institutions which should thus become free from any denominational ties. The Parliamentary legislation of 1854-1856 enlarged the teaching staff and removed disabilities which prevented Nonconformists from taking degrees, but it did not allow them to hold fellowships.

In religion, the Victorians experienced a great age of doubt, the first that called into question institutional Christianity on such a large scale. The whole epoch was characterized by seriousness of thought and self-discipline, an outcome of the Puritan tradition to which the Wesleyan and Evangelical movements had given new life. The standard of strict morality and the notion of duty, whether sincerely and merely conventionally accepted, had on the whole a beneficial influence: “the assumption that a gentleman would sooner die than condescend to crooked, or a lady to impure ways – though it may have been responsible for all sorts of repressions and hypocrisies – did beyond doubt tend to enforce a high standard of conduct.” 9 

The Evangelicals advocated a strict code of morality and became a powerful minority at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. Their views were virtually identical with those of the Nonconformists to which a considerable part of the prosperous businessmen belonged. “Queen Victoria”, Strachey shows, “ruled in the light of beauty, conscience, morality…Many of her characteristics were found among the middle classes.” 10

Both Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins address the growing impotency of organized religion that was present in the Victorian era. Scientific discovery, especially evolution, had found explanations of the dynamics of the universe which debunked what the church offered. This crisis is perhaps summed up best by the great controversy when Bishop Colenso published in 1862 The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined. This book questioned the justice of the church, which forcing ministers to except the scripture literally. As Voltaire once said, “If God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Human beings hunger for an understanding of why things are as they are. Organized religion had simply been bested in performing that function by the natural sciences. Consequently, its popularity dropped.

Strachey was attracted by the biographies of some great personalities who brought with them a sense of renewal. Speaking of Newman as “a child of the Romantic Revival, a creature of emotion and of memory, a dreamer”11, Strachey shows that it became his duty to rescue the Church from a series of unfortunate circumstances in which it had become entangled, bearing the signs of human imperfection. Dr. Arnold was the embodiment of the new spirit required at the time to reorganize an outdated educational system. In his scheme of education, he laid great stress upon morals and religion, his aims resembling, on the whole, the items that made up Arnold’s view of civilization: “What we must look for here is, first, religious and moral principle; secondly gentlemanly conduct; thirdly intellectual ability.” 12

Newman was the supreme practitioner of that refined intellectual and spiritual perception that is the link between Arnold’s intellectual and religious writings. Moreover, Newman had best described and accounted for changes in religious dogma as the result of changes in general culture: his doctrine of development, itself an acknowledgement of the new nineteenth-century demand for an “historical” view of things, was admirably adapted to the needs of an Arnold increasingly attuned to the whispers of the Zeitgeist. Pater found in Newman the fullest formulation of the psychological grounds of faith and the act of the belief-one-half of his final, awkwardly maintained dualism. He was responding, again, to Newman’s prophetic sense of the special character of any apologetic adequate to the needs of the nineteenth-century, a sense first clearly enunciated in the Introduction to the Development of Christian Doctrine. To both Arnold and Pater, Newman had presented the image of the European and Christian civilization as an enduring source of value satisfying the permanent ethical and aesthetic needs of man: in effect, the basis of the culture superior to the anarchic individualism of the nineteenth-century.

Newman’s role was that of the supremely adequate nineteenth-century apologist of orthodoxy in terms comprehensible to his contemporaries.The chief effort of the final two decades of Arnold’s life in the religious writings was precisely to defend the validity of Christian ethics and Christian feeling, even while acknowledging the disappearance of God announced by contemporary agnosticism and science. In Pater’s most Christian phase, religion remained only the supreme ‘hope’ or ‘possibility’ but still a ‘necessity’. Even in his early, most antipathetic mood, when traditional religion was presented largely as the forerunner of certain ideal modes of apprehension, the ‘religious graces’ remained as the crown of life, to reward of the highest human striving. Newman could be important to these two men in part because orthodox Christianity, although imperiled, remained a decisive cultural force in England.

It is tempting to say that if there had not been the ‘miracle’ of Newman – the subtler defender of religious orthodoxy who was also the adequate definer of a humanist consciousness – Late Victorian literary life might well have been less ‘religious’ than it was, and that without him it is impossible otherwise to account for the precise religious tone sufficing much of the work of the period.

I. 1. c. Victorian mentality in education

In the mid-Victorian epoch there was no national educational system controlled by the state. Elementary education provided by charity, parish and Sunday schools was insufficient and unsuitable and generally conducted on church principles. The purpose of Sunday schools, started in 1780, was the religious and moral instruction of the pupils who were taught reading, sometimes writing and also notions of simple arithmetic. Some of the teachers were volunteers and others were paid by the children’s parents. At the end of the eighteenth-century there appeared a number of private schools which taught reading, writing and summing either in the evening or during the day by persons who volunteered to do it in their spare time.

The instruction was addressed to the poor and was accessible even in villages. In favour of even humbler ranks of children, schools of industry were set up, giving instruction to girls in spinning, knitting and needle work and to boys in weaving, gardening and handicrafts. These schools were sometimes supported by the parish rates. Secondary education was carried on in public schools such as Eton, Winchester, Harrow which had basically a classical curriculum; in private academies in which the middle classes were instructed, offering a more modern and scientific orientation especially as regards such knowledge that could be applied to matters of everyday life. As many of these academies prepared boys for business and the office, their number increased at the beginning of the 19th century. This type of education was also carried on in the old grammar which in the Victorian age were growing less important.

In the middle of the 19th century there was little provision for the secondary education for girls. The opinion was that girls and young women should receive knowledge of a merely useful or domestic kind.

Besides, the expenses of the public school were so high, that girls were often sacrificed in favour of their brothers.

As England’s economic power was increasing, the need for secondary education grew imperative. This led to the development of public schools. A great contribution in that respect was made by Dr. Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, who created a new type of public school based on a stricter discipline. It served as a model to others. He was the first to introduce modern history, modern languages and mathematics into the curriculum. Arnold reformed the educational system of England and changed the whole atmosphere of public school life.

After Palmerston’s death in 1865, John Russell became prime minister and introduced a bill for the further extension of the franchise, but without any success. During E.H.Derby’s third administration, Disraeli, as leader of the House of Commons, introduced a suffrage act. The Second Reform Bill of 1867 enfranchised the working classes of towns leaving the agricultural labourers unenfranchised. Thus the common people were given some political rights, but very little was done for their education. The educational reformers, the writers and philosophers of the age regarded education as a means to alleviate the conditions of children employed in factories at an early age. The situation was that “nearly as many children were believed to be without school of any kind as were in attendence at all schools, state-aided or uninspected, put together. ” 13

The Victorian age was characterized by movement for universal primary education, the inclusion of modern sciences and languages in the curriculum, weighed down by religion, moral philosophy and the teaching of Greek and Latin. The demand that the state should take over the responsibility of supporting financially and organizing education was heightened by the extension of the parliamentary franchise in 1867. Through the Education Act of 1870, primary education became compulsory.

Cambridge opened the tripos to women in 1881, and three years later Oxford allowed women to take the examination of certain of its schools. The abolition of religious tests at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham in 1871 removed the last impediment for the Nonconformists, allowing them admittance into national education.

Through the Education Act of 1899, the Board of Education became the central authority for elementary, technical and secondary schools. Through that Act and the Education Acts of 1902-1903, the English state accepted full responsibility for national education.

I. 1. d. Victorian mentality in philosophy

The predominance of reason as against romanticism and emotion appeared as a reaction against the preceding age, but also as a result of the marked material and scientific development of Victorianism. The new theories in the field of natural sciences opened a new era for the scientific and philosophic thought of mankind. It was the age of religious controversies and of the conflict between science and religion on account of Darwinism and the discoveries of science.

The essay was a favourite literary form with the outstanding thinkers of the age. It offered the possibility of tackling a great variety of topics: literary, political, historic, economic, moral. It allowed at the same time for a great freedom of expression. The Victorian essay is a conversational, relaxed or persuasive, rhetorical modality of trying out in discoursive prose and idea of putting over moral reflexions. It is a spiritual adventure, an excursion into various fields of human culture.

However great the absorption in material values, it was counter-balanced by an effort of spiritual regeneration. Victorian rationalism held the centre, but it was attacked on many sides.

The intellectual history of the time consists largely of a series of reactions against it represented by: the Oxford Movement, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and Alfred Tennyson. Carlyle insisted on the importance of duty. John Stuart Mill, who had been eduacated according to the strict principles of utilitarianism, experienced a moral crisis and finally understood the importance of feeling.

Utilitarianism as an ethical doctrine with economic, juridical and social implications had a considerable influence upon 19th century thinking and basically formulated by Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism as a moral theory was defined in Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and in Deontology, a popular exposition of Benthanism arranged and edited by his disciple, John Bowring (1834). The principle of “utility” as defined as “that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil and unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” 14

Bentham believed that humanity was urged by two major motives: pain and pleasure. Consequently he argued that the only aim a man ever pursued was happiness and the absence of pain. The basic utilitarian principle states that an action is right if it achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. J.S. Mill later on added new shades to the theory, showing that virtue and knowledge could produce happiness of a superior kind.

John Henry Newman enters as a figure of central importance because of his commanding position in the thought of both younger men and because the contrasts and continuities in Arnold and Pater often become clearest in relation to him. Newman was attracted to Arnold because he provided the fullest definition and exemplification of the highest, most complex use of the human faculties, a complex of values both men saw as increasingly under attack from an insurgent scientific naturalism and a newly refurbished rationalism. ‘Reason’ itself was increasingly confined to the methods of science and technology and denied a significant role in metaphysical or theological speculation.

The study of man as a creator of his own existence was the concern of philosophy. Man engaged in the shaping of his life is the creator of culture which raised him above his natural state, giving him the liberty to exert his spiritual and moral powers.

Arnold was one of the leading figures in the intellectual movement of the Victorian age. In the judgement of his epoch and the treater of the major problems of human life, he combined intellect and feeling so that “his main effort was that of a sage, a teacher, a moralist and a physician of the human spirit.” 15

In his essay entitled Culture and Anarchy he analyses the structure of the British society and classifies it into Barbarians, Philistines and Populace in relation to culture. The Philistines embodied the main defects of the epoch: vulgarity, lack of authority, provincialism, lack of contact with cultural traditions and the European intellectual movement. Arnold’s view of civilization consists of four points: conduct; intellect and knowledge; beauty; social life and manners. His conclusion was that the English middle class had a fine conduct but failed in the over points.

As for the Barbarians, their qualities did not allow a leading role in times of rapid changes for them. The Populace was too uneducated and easily misled. All the three classes acted according to their “ordinary selves” whereas culture developed one’s “best self”.

I. 1. e. Victorian mentality in the legal system

During the Victorian age, crime and criminal behaviour were of concern to the society and they were identified as offences because of the impact they had on individual ‘victims’. The society had responses to such ‘crimes’, both in terms of judgement and sentences, and also to the ‘criminals’, regulating how they are viewed and accepted by society.

The period perceived by its contemporaries as one of socio-cultural, economic and political change seems particularly susceptible to creating climates of social panic, with the consequent sense of moral outrage in society producing both new pieces of legislation and new interpretations of existing law. This climate has been identified as characterising the last fifty years of the 19th century including fears relating to demographic growth and shifts in demographic patterns within Britain.

The impact on the Victorian age of the development of railways should not be underestimated, since this altered many aspects of social organization and cultural attitudes, as well as the economy. In many ways, large number of the ‘crimes’ relate to railways, either directly as with the ‘offences’ committed by railway companies or more indirectly, with a greater mobility of population encouraging a greater lawlessness and with travel providing the opportunity for certain types of assault.

The Victorian climate of social panic produced the legacy of a range of legislation and legislative responses. Thus, the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 remains in force, at least partially. The Victorian period was one that saw considerable activity relating to social-legal developments.This period has been affected by a sense of change in the global role of the British nation and the consequent desire to regulate such change through aspects of the legal system.

In that atmosphere, certain ‘classes’, or ‘types’, of people are, individually and communally, identified as particularly threatening if they turn to behaviour identified as socially ‘offensive’. Juvenile delinquency figures as a major worry for this era. Female offenders were regarded with greater social concern than male offenders, with considerable implications for prosecution and punishment levels.

Equally, there was in the Victorian period a presumption that ‘crime’, certainly habitual crime of a type to offend social sensibilities, was a predominantly lower class affair. Fraud and other essentially financial ‘offences’ carried out by apparently ‘respectable’ members of society also became identified as issues of moral outrage in the Victorian period. The perception that financial crimes actually amounted to a fraud on society was articulated strongly throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The crimes threat to the health of society as a whole.

The problem facing Victorian society, for example, was that ambition for social and material betterment on the part of individuals was central to the Smilesean concept of ‘Self-Help’, much admired and required by respectable elements. Yet, it was acknowledged that such aspirations could lead respectable members of society into temptation to commit crime, including gambling, speculation and fraud. There is also the issue of ‘professionalism’, something stressed and prized by the Victorian society. It sets high standards and provides opportunities for fraud and deceit through misuses of those standards, both by individuals and institutions. Much of the apparent confusion and hypocrisy of Victorian society over moral values may well relate to the difficulties of reconciling similarities of motivation behind the performance of certain activities labelled socially constructive and desirable and the performance of others labelled socially disfunction. Thus it can be said that in terms of social attitudes, as well as the exercise of legal discretion in areas such as sentencing, their can be a similarity of response based on the social position of the person on trial, despite the context of very different crimes.

Violence in the home and the difficulties in prosecuting perpetrators is another area where public attitudes and concern to this type of behaviour could usefully provide information about the Victorian legal system. Problems associated with domestic violence could reveal expectations of domestic relations, whether within the bounds of formal matrimony and resultant families, or within less formally organized relationships between the adult partners and resultant offspring. From the Victorian period, one issue that has not been fully investigated is the scale of wife deaths that have occurred in certain communities. The problems of wives beating their husbands can also relate to attitudes towards parental control over children, especially in terms of arranged marriages, and to violence practised by children towards parents and grandparents. Again such offences have been defined by the Victorian period as “unnatural”, requiring an understanding of such incidents as offences of a particularly moral dimension.

The Victorian period effectively created the category of the juvenile offender, in the context of children and adolescents whose behaviour, in some way, was identified as a threat to social stability and communal happiness because of the implications that their actions and attitudes had for society both immediately and when they became adults.

Prostitution evokes both popular fascination and moral outrage, and is also a serious concern about the potentially destabilizing impact on society. Within the board parametres of prostitution, child prostitution did feature as a particularly difficult and intractable societal problem, as the debates of the age of consent to sexual intercourse, accompanied by the issue of who, in the case of a child prostitute being brought before the legal system, is the ‘victim’ and who the ‘offender’.

The issue of parental control over children, the need for parental correction and for the exercise of discipline within schools and other child- centred institutions, as well as different attitudes towards child vulnerability, have all ensured that the Victorian age seems to have displayed a great concern with the issue with the protection of animals from expressions of human cruelty. It is a further problem that mental cruelty was not seen as a matter that was likely to concern the courts, and so has remained largely invisible outside anecdotal and fictional sources. Yet both locally and nationally, as cases before magistrates’ courts and various philanthropic institutions indicate the issue of physical cruelty towards children was identified as a social problem, though class stereotyping ensured it was seen more as a working class problem than one afflicting the middle and upper classes.

For the Victorians, drunkenness was the major problem, while the possession of alcohol can form offence in itself. Class, race, gender and age factors are all key contributors to assessments of degrees, of both moral outrage and social panic, and the consequent definition of offences or ‘crimes’.

Another aspect of ‘crime’ is the identification within the society of elements within its own ‘respectable’ ranks of individuals and groups committing offences that cannot be contained within societal expectations, unlike, the extreme offence of murder. Most murders committed by the respectable were identified primarily as offences of sudden passion performed on a irregular basis, which can be dismissed as major threats to social stability on the comforting grounds of insanity, with all the impact that has had for the operation of the legal system and the punishments handed out. But various types of theft, especially financial offences such as fraud, where crimes that, successfully carried out, required the sophistication and education associated with the middle classes. It is further complicated by the issue of the victims of such offences, seen popularly as ‘little people’, those not in positions of power and wealth though not automatically from the working classes.

The lack of conformity implied by a life style of this nature is seen as posing a threat to society because of the implied rejection of established values and standards of behaviour. During this period, vagrancy assumes a higher profile because of the demographic shifts and new patterns of available work associated with this period. These combine to produce a feeling of insecurity amongst ‘settled’ elements of society, particularly when, as in the Victorian era, this ‘homeless’ and ‘unemployed’ element becomes particularly visible. Thus, vagrancy is an examination of the patterns of use of legislation against vagrancy, and social measures to deal with these rootless elements, can help to explain the wider context in which a climate of social panic evolved.

I. 2. Dickensian perspectives on Victorianism

Dickens gave a pretty complete picture of his epoch. The world created by him is mainly a kind of nightmare London of chop-houses, prisons, lawyers’ offices, and taverns, dark, foggy, and cold, but very much alive. Dickens’s novels are animated by a sense of injustice and personal wrong; he is concerned with the problems of crime and poverty, but he does not seem to believe that matters can be improved by legislation or reform movements – everything depends on the individual, particularly the wealthy philanthropist. If he has a doctrine, it is one of love.

He also concentrated on the social conditions of his own day. The law appears as a web of falsity covered by endless and absurd formalities, which cause procedures to drag on for years. During a lifetime, during generations, men and women live in hope and terror of the impeding pronouncement, slipping into debt and ruin or into insanity – the victims of an unsparing mechanism, the English legal system. Yet, Dickens does not merely attacks the legal formalism but also the private property, protecting it by the cruelty of the penal code, by the debtors’ prison, all presented as the varied forms of torture of an inhuman system, all constituting accusations and demands for reform.

Dickens’s social criticism moves from specific cases to the indictment of an entire society and of general defects in human character. With the passing years, Dickens progressively intensified his hostility to current society.

No novelist before him had treated the lower middle classes on such broad lines or in so frank a way. He studies them not as a detached, superior kind of observer, but as one on their own level; sympathy, an immediate community of impressions, and, as it were, an instinctive fraternity, thus impregnate his study. Be the tone that of pathos or of humour, the mediocre lives on which he focuses his attention, as if naturally, to acquire the dignity of art. Such is the permanent foundation of his realism. But below it, in the inner realms of consciousness, one could feel the quivering image, the anguish of soul-debasing poverty. The unforgettable experience of his early youth – that humiliating phase of his life – thus becomes one of the decisive elements in the moulding of his personality. Even when those hardships had been left behind, Dickens could never forget them.

He is a fine observer of life, taking up a position on people and facts. In his work, man is presented all the time hunt by the image of the social injustice, of poverty and human malice.

He focused his attention, especially in Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, on the victims of the contemporary life. Defining himself as a novelist of the humble and the oppressed, Dickens includes in this category the middle class which was ruined by the consequences of the rapid development of industrialism. He endows his characters with nice moral and intellectual features. Middle class appears idealized in his novels, shown as being the only social category capable of becoming a real model of virtue. This world suffers of poverty and injustice, endures and forgives, bears and loves returning a kind of behaviour, lacking revolt or violence.

The figures of aristocrats, endowed with positive traits by the author, appear as “benefactors” (for example, Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist ), or change – unforeseeably, getting rid of the nature they have been presented so far – becoming kind and honest (as old Dombey under the influence of Gay, his clerk).

The most typical aspects of life during the Victorian age appear in Dombey and Son and Oliver Twist. One of these aspects is represented by the workhouses. The latter novel also includes descriptions of the slums of London.

“A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.” ( Ch. VIII, p. 55 )

His works were critical of the age, though, the great industrial and scientific development made them confident in progress and in the moral improvement of the individual. As documents, his writings have often been quoted by professionals historians to illustrate specific institutions and realities of the 19th century England: the debtors’ prison, child labour, workhouses, gas lighting, London traffic, the Courts of Law, Government Offices, schools, parliamentary elections. But his works also stir a set of associations with the old pre-industrial epoch, idyllic scenery, travels undertaken in stage coaches, delightful inns on the way, benevolent naïve and picturesque characters, talks by the fire.

Dickens wrote about matters the public was really concerned with. The principles of selection, the standards and values were commonly shared. The plot patterns were made up of incidents, and situations which were considered to matter in human life equally by writer and reader. Changes in economic and social position were indications of significant movements in the character’s state. Many novels he wrote analyse hypocrisy and the way in which it could assume the appearance and reputation of virtue.

Changes in social status determined the hero’s values, his appearance and manners, so that Dickens was also concerned with the phenomenon of snobbery.

I. 2. a. The idea of master / masterhood

In Dickens’s novels, the characters are presented as users and victims or as ‘masters’ and ‘servants’; thus the author establishes between them a relation of authority. Parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and emploees, all of them are treated as the strong and the weak, the latter under the former’s submission and the distance between them estranges from one another.

Beginning with Dombey and Son, there is an increasing interaction between characters and their cultural milieu. Motivation is determined more by environmental pressures and less by the impulses of the isolated and unrestrained ego. Society has assumed the role of corporate villain, and individual malefactions are made to seem symptomatic of prevalent abuses. The victimized child is recurrent figure in Dickens’s fiction from his earliest work; but in the mature novels the all but universal neglect or abuse of children by their parents is systematically elaborated as one of the signs of the times. Dombey’s pride, so fatal to the happiness of his family, is a class pride, typifying the irresponsable exercise of authority by those in positions of rank and power. The novelist ironically questions if Mr. Dombey’s master-vice was an unnatural characteristic.

The idea of masterhood can also be identified in the educational system. Dickens shared the belief of all leading Victorian reformers that more and better education was requisite if the lower classes were to be helped to better their conditions; but he also perceived that the delegated authorities used educational reform as an excuse for regimenting the minds of pupils, indoctrinating them with class prejudice and instilling a critical acceptance of debased values. Along with those like Paul Dombey who suffer under outmoded methods of instruction, Dickens created a gallery of youths spoiled by more progressive schooling. The sending of little Paul to Dr. Blimber’s school is a real part of the history of little Paul, such as it is.

Although Dickens’s girl heroines are much more vitally involved in their stories than the patriarchal benefactors whom they replace, they like all of the novelist’s creatures who conform to type are conceived in fundamentally static terms. They are, however, frequently played off against a very different kind of female character who testifies to Dickens’s growing concern with the psychological grounds of internal conflict. For the later novels present a remarkable series of women of passionate temperament, whose outbursts of feeling and reckless actions signify divided natures.

They all, for one reason or another, have been humiliated, placed on the defensive, and relegated to the position of outsiders by society, with which they seek to get even for their wounded self-esteem. Their number includes Edith Dombey, Fanny Dorrit, Miss Wade, and Tattycoram. Whether innocent or guilty, all these fear, while at the same time they resent and defy, the tyranny of opinion. The sympathy which they in part compel as victims under a moral code inequitable in its oppression of their sex is counteracted by their erratic response to fancied grievances.

For all, like Miss Wade, are neurotic self-tormentors, riven between hatred against those who have used them and against themselves for submitting to be used. Miss Wade is a case of supressed female resentment and anger although the emotions are caused more by the treatment which she receives because of her illegitimacy and the position of social insecurity and inferiority which derives from it than by any sexual entanglement or feelings. Her anger comes from a sense of heart pride. Another victim can be considered Florence Dombey. Her stern and unbending father, preoccupied with his desire for a son and heir to the firm, ignores and resents her.

For Mr. Dombey, his wife is a mere body good only to give birth to boys. Mrs. Dombey is a victim and loser from the very beginning of the novel.

The non-solidarity characterizing the Dombeys is illustrative of the Victorian wives’ exclusion from and lack of participation in the life of the couple – a social ‘cell’ copying the Victorian social rules. The breaking of the strict social distance groups the participants into subjects and objects within the Victorian social context – where even values are seen as superior and inferior and where life and language itself is characterized by an ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ mentality and vocabulary.

The communities based on male power give rise to a paradoxical social distancing: mothers and children make up an oasis of calm and peaceful comfort. But it is noticeable a growing solidarity between mother and daughter in Dickens’s novels and a distancing from husband and father.

This nearing – distancing behaviour highlights the females’ desire to reveal those values which could distinguish them from the domineering males that control and use the wills of the ‘weaker’ ones. It is the case of Edith Dombey who, having enough of her husband’s domination and distance, flees with Dombey’s manager, Carker.

The school masters and instructors represent very truly the state of middle-class education of early-Victorian days. Dr. Blimber’s establishment in Dombey and Son is a well-chosen example of the private school for young gentlemen that survives in the memories of gentlemen at present neither young nor old; when the reader sees its educational system at work, he becomes aware that nothing is taught here, nothing learnt. The education presumed to be given is ‘classical’. Dickens himself, whose boyhood knew little or nothing of Greek and Latin, had a strong prejudice against the ‘classics’; their true value he was not capable of appreciating, and his common sense told him that, as used in the average middle-class school, they were worse than valueless – the cover for any kind of inefficiency.

Paul Dombey is a picture of childhood such as only Dickens could draw. One could observe the novelist’s preoccupation with children dominated by their parents, their sufferings, their education. Poor little Paul is crushed by a system of ignorant selfishness.

Other examples of victims under the domination of stronger persons are Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit. The first must endure a cruel treatment from his ‘masters’, he is the image of the lost and oppressed child, while the latter is the victim of her own family who think she is the right person to sacrifice for them and for a better living.

I. 2. b. The idea of power

The distribution of power in the Victorian society defines and strictly controls the situation which highlights the hierarchy of social roles.

With the Dombeys, the values are inherited – so gained once for all – supervised and rigidly ordered. Using railways prominently and effectively, it was very up-to-date, though the question posed included such perennial moral and religious challenges as are suggested by the child Paul’s first words in the story: “ ‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’ ” (Ch. VIII, p.86) Some of the corruptions of money and pride of place and the limitations of ‘respectable’ values are explored, virtue and human decency being discovered among the poor, the humble and the simple and not among those having power.

Dombey is the progenitor of a long line of figures for whom wealth has become the symbol of status, conferring the right to oppress the less fortunate. Variations on the type are Mr. Merdle and Mr. Carker. William Dorrit joins this company when he inherits his fortune and is able to translate into actuality his playacting in the role of Father of the Marshalsea.

In Little Dorrit, the Circumlocution Office, and all that goes with it relates much more widely to the conditions of the time, and they do so more significantly as well. It represents the symbol of power in the society, a classic satire on bureaucracy. The question is in the end that of the whole transformation of English public life which became both possible and unavoidable, as England developed into an advanced industrial and commercial society. In fact, the period of the novel was a period of rapid change in public administration. Dickens hated the insolence of office.

In the same novel, there is a world of money and snobbism. “The Bohemians of Society”, with reference in Book 1, Chapter XXVI to Mrs. Gowan and the other occupants of the “grace and favour” apartments, also as Bohemians. Dickens really meant something like “The Gypsies of High Society”: plausible parasites who flourish without working. Here there can be included not only the haughty Barnacles and Gowans, but also the company of users and swindlers – ranging from the fake benignity of the dozing “Patriarch” Casby, actually a blood-sucker of the poor, to the demented grandeur of Blandois, the villain of the novel.

Again, Mr. Meagles’s wedding party for his daughter, and William Dorrit’s cultivation of the Merdles (and indeed, in a grotesque way, Mrs. General ) are both cases of ‘tuft-hunting’. Dickens’s radical social insight, at least so far as the upper strata of society were concerned, was that ‘red tape’ was not merely and indeed not essentially a political phenomenon. Political red tape was merely one variety of something that ran everywhere through the springs of power and the springs of influence. It was society. The circumlocutions of politics were no more than part of all the grandiose circumlocutions of life. “Society, the Circumlocution Office and Gowan, are of course three parts of the one idea and design.” 16

Society everywhere disguises social reality in an elegant carapace of social convention and social sham. The chapter in Carlyle’s work 17 entitled The Dandical Body is especially to the point. The Dandy, Carlyle’s symbol for all those who live by clothes – philosophy sham, is one with Dickens’s social Bohemians – the Gowans, Barnacles, Casbys, Merdles of this world.”

Needless to say that, by revealing this system of power, Dickens emphasized in fact the mockery at the society.

Many people say that they want to get rich, but what exactly does this mean? According to John Ruskin and Dickens, a person’s richness depends not merely on how much money he has, but also upon how much power he has over others. Unto This Last (1860), Traffic (1858) and Little Dorrit argue that people strive for power rather than money.

In the beginning of the novel, Father Dorrit has no money and lives in a prison, yet he feels that he has power over those around him. Dickens shows Dorrit’s sense of pride despite his poverty:

“All new comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep his sense of its gravity. He received them in his poor room (he disliked an introduction in the mere yard, as informal – a thing that might happen to anybody ), with a kind of bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome to the Marshalsea, he would tell them. Yes he was the Father of the place.” (Ch.VI, p.65) At this point, Dorrit’s fellow prisoners respect and look up him.

Later in the novel he becomes rich but no longer feels the same sense of power. He becomes dissatisfied because he has lost his power, and thinks of his days in prison; it is a sort of inner conflict:

“Manifold are the cares of wealth and state. Mr. Dorrit’s satisfaction in remembering that it had not been necessary for him to announce himself to Clennam and Co., or make an allusion to his having ever and any knowledge of the intrusive person of that name, had been damped over-night, while it was still fresh, by a debate that arouse within him whether or not he should take the Marshalsea in his way back, and look at the old gate.

He had decided not to do so; and had astonished the coachman by being very fierce with him for proposing to go over London Bridge and recross the river by Waterloo Bridge – a course which would have taken him almost within sight of his old quarters. Still, for all that, the question had raised a conflict in his breast; and, for some odd reason or no reason, he was vaguely dissatisfied.” (Book 2, Ch. XVIII, p.630 )

Dorrit feels unhappy because he is powerless despite his wealth. He misses the respect that he received when he was still in prison. Dickens thus demonstrates that power, not money, makes Mr. Dorrit happy.

As a spokesman of his age, it is quite obvious that one of Dickens’s concerns was the idea of power which governed the English society.

I. 2. c. The idea of surviving

Dickens’s early experiences were deeply imprinted upon his conscience and affected him to such an extent that in interpreting his novels, one must take into account for whatever they might signify.

The shameful practice of child labour played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. The displaced working classes took it for granted that a family would not be able to support itself if the children were not employed. The children of the poor were forced by economic conditions to work as Dickens did. His father passed through a financial crisis and was finally looked up in Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison. The twelve-year-old boy was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, where he was also employed as a living advertisment. He worked there for half an year but he felt hurt, injured and could never forget that he was abandoned by his family.

In 1840 perhaps only twenty percent of the children of London had any schooling, a number which had risen by 1860, when perhaps half of the children between 5 and 15 were in some sort of school, if only a day school or a Sunday school; the others were working. Many of the more fortunate found employment as apprentices to respectable trades or as general servants, but many more were not so lucky. Most prostitutes were between 15 and 22 years of age.

Dickens’s novels present orphans who have been cut off from their families, from affection and support. Oliver Twist is a child brought up in a workhouse, Amy Dorrit is grown up in the Marshalsea Prison and forced by the circumstances to work for family.

Dickens’s heroes are children. Being orphans, their situation is pathetic and they are confronted with inhuman conditions. They live in miserable dwellings and are forced to work hard a living. It is the case of the poor Oliver who is employed as a chimney sweeper or as an apprentice at an undertaker’s shop. In Dickens’s presentation the dog-eat-dog philosophy has extinguished the very principle of communal concern, leaving the weak perpetually at the mercy of the strong.

Oliver’s words, while he is being led to Sowerberry’s undertaking establishment, so poignantly dramatize the helplessness of the unprotected that even Bumble is momentarily abashed: “ ‘I will be good indeed; indeed, indeed I will, sir! I am a very little boy, sir; and it is so – so - …So lonely, sir! So very lonely! ’ ” (Ch. IV, p.26) The boy’s cruel treatment and miserable adventures are accompanied by descriptions of hunger, stealing, murder or hanging. Remarkable for the social conditions he had to bear is the scene in which Oliver asks for a second helping of gruel: “ ‘Please, Sir, I want some more’ …Oliver, asking the cook at the workhouse for more gruel.” (Ch. II, p.12)

Oliver is confined in Fagin’s lair, but at the end of his third installment, he is suddenly endowed with miraculous strength and thrashes Noah for insulting his dead mother; it is clear that he has a core of human feeling and goodness that will strongly arm him against both the brutality of society (the Board, Bumble ) and the diabolic cunningness of the master-criminal Fagin.

Thus, Oliver is watched over by Providence as well as Amy Dorrit. On the contrary, Nancy, who is obliged to prostitute herself to survive, has not the same fate. Although deep inside Nancy has a kind nature, she ends murdered by Sikes.

Another example of individuals who struggle for existence is Amy Dorrit. She is a young woman who lives in a world of wickedness and yet she is unspoiled by it. She sacrifices her youth and works as a seamstress to support her family found in the Marshalsea Prison. She leads a life deprived of any joy; Amy helps her brother to be released from prison and her sister to take part in the social life of London with the price of her work.

Dickens helps in a way his characters to survive. He loves his heroes embodied by children and as they are not supported, he lends them a helping hand in order to surpass the harsh conditions of their living.

I. 2. d. The idea of freedom / emancipation / liberty

The movement for the emancipation of women became more accentuated at the end of the Victorian period. In Dickens’s novels, the heroines still seemed to be under men’s domination. Though, they struggle for their freedom.

In a world in which only men had independence, being able to choose and having the financial power to become masters, women strive after escape, they try to become free and gain the liberty to decide for themselves.

This need for freedom refers also to the women of lower condition who want to free themselves from their masters. It is the case of Tattycoram’s abandonment of the Meagles. She finds shelter in Miss Wade’s home. Yet, she feels caught again in her new mistress’s ‘claws’ and decides that a flight would be more appropriate in order to liberate herself from her.

Another flight from an unbearable milieu is that of Florence Dombey, who is haunted by her father’s image of a cruel and insensitive master; it is also the case of Edith Dombey, Florence’s step mother who flees with her husband’s manager, Mr. Carker, in the hope of a better life.

In Oliver Twist, the reader witnesses another example of a character who is deprived of his freedom; I refer to the poor Oliver who is confined against his wish to live in Fagin’s den and to earn his living by stealing. Though, he succeeds to escape a few times and every time he is discovered and brought back to former ‘home’.

The lack of freedom in Dickens’s novels is due either to the social condition of certain characters such as William Dorrit who is imprisoned for debt or as his daughter who is born in prison, or to a self-imposed confinement such as Mrs. Clennam’s. She has remained in the house for most of the last fifteen years of her life and behaves like the prisoner that one would expect to find within the walls of such an enclosure. Although she has the freedom to venture out, Mrs. Clennam remains not only within her house, but within her own room.

In reference to women’s impossibility of choosing their own way in life, there is the case of their marriage as a constraint of the social condition they belong to. Here I should mention Edith Granger who marries Mr. Dombey for power and wealth as well as Fanny Dorrit, or imposed by the family as Pet Meagles’. Thus, marriage is seen as an institution having as an aim the consolidation of the social relations.


Chesterton, Gilbert Keith ( 1966 ) : The Victorian Age in Literature,

Oxford University Press, London, p. 10.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton ( 1951 ) : The Victorian Temper,

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussets, p. 2.

Wynne-Davies, Marion ( 1995 ) : Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, Bloomsbury Publishing plc., London, p. 208.

Williams, Raymond ( 1975 ) : Culture and Society 1780-1950,

Penguin Books, Middlesex, p. 13.

Evans, Ifor ( 1966 ) : English Poetry in the Later Nineteenth Century,

Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, p. x.

Landow, George P. : ‘Victorian and Victorianism’ on

Strachey, Lytton ( 1935 ) : Queen Victoria, Chatto and Windus, London, p. 246

Trevelyan, G.M. ( 1979 ) : Rnglish Social History, Penguin Books,

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, p. 558.

Stratford Wingfield, Esmé ( 1932 ) : The Victorian Sunset, George

Routledge and Sons, Ltd., London, p. 32.

Strachey, Lytton, op. cit., p. 28.

Strachey, Lytton ( 1934 ) : Eminent Victorians, Chatto and Windus,

London, p.16.

Strachey, Lytton ( 1935 ) : Queen Victoria, Chatto and Windus, London, p. 182.

Ward, A.W., Walter, A. R. ( eds. ) ( 1964 ) : The Cambridge History of English Literature XIV, the Nineteenth Century, Part Three, Cambridge University Press, p. 427.

( 1959 ) : Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. III, Inc. Benton Publisher,

London, p. 417

Willey, Basil ( 1980 ) : Nineteenth-Century Studies, Cambridge University Press, London, New York, p. 102.

Letter to John Forster, April 1856.

Carlyle, Thomas ( 1942 ) : Sartor Resartus, J.M. Dent & Co., London.

II. 1. DOMBEY AND SON versus Victorian Values

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Retail, Wholesale and for Exportation is a bitter novel whose main themes are the ethical degradation of the rich, the dissolution of the family and of affection undetermined by worship for money, amounting to the authoritative condemnation of material values when they get the better of such feelings as tenderness and sympathy. Its reference was to both a family and a family business.

In this novel, Dickens began to address social issues directly and to organize it around clear themes and dominant images. It was a crucial novel in his development, a product of more thorough planning and maturer thought and the first in which “a persuasive uneasiness about contemporary society takes the place of an intermittent concern with specific social wrongs.” 1

Dombey and Son is a complex novel which contrasts the dismally obsessed and loveless household of Mr. Dombey with the happiness and cheer of the Toodle family home and the shambolic establishment of Walter Gay’s uncle, Solomon Gills. Like so much of Dickens’s writing, it is also concerned with the theme of pride and redemption. Another noteworthy point is the importance of railways in the book, as this was the time when they were beginning to transform English life.

The story begins with the birth to Paul Dombey and his wife of a son, destined to inherit the great City firm of Dombey and Son. Mrs. Dombey dies in childbirth and the boy, Paul, proves to be constitutionally weak. He grows to be more fond of his sister than of his father, and has the habit of disconcerting those who attempt to instruct him by his quick perceptions. Not a very strong child, the young Paul dies and the Dombey household begins to feel the results of the machinations of John Carker, general manager of Dombey and Son.

Dombey’s second marriage, to the widowed Edith Granger, proves loveless and childless. The passionate Edith finally runs away with Carker, though she soon abandons him and he is killed in a railway accident. Dombey’s ensuing mental and physical decline parallels his business difficulties. Only as a ruined man can he at least respond to Florence’s enduring love.

The moral theme of this book was Pride – pride of wealth, pride of place, personal arrogance. Dickens started with a clear conception of his central character and of the course of the story in so far as it depended upon that personage; he planned the action, the play of motive, with unusual definiteness, and adhered very closely in the working to this well-laid scheme nevertheless, Dombey and Son is a novel which in its beginning promises more than its progress fulfills. Impossible to avoid the reflection that the death of Dombey’s son and heir marks the end of a complete story, that a gap is felt between Chapter XVI and what comes after.

With Dombey and Son the dynamic operation of change on the life of the age begins to dominate Dickens’s imagination. In the railways, spreading their network from city to city across the face of England, the novelist found an emblem for the innovating spirit which had overnight replaced the leisurely world of stagecoaches and country inns.

The novel demonstrates the persistence of an “inner life” in a “business” world – a life it constructs according to values of spontaneous emotion and familial feeling. In Dombey’s conversion, the novel affirms the persistence of feeling even under the corrupting influence of business – the certainty, for even the most alienated of spectators, of recovering a position within the warmth of family feeling.

Dickens in his Preface puts the private indulgence of emotion into the service of the family. In the world within the novel, a family is restored to natural feeling. And in the world without, a family – invented by Dickens – is created. The novelist becomes the father of a newly forged community founded on feeling he himself evoked.

Thus, although the novel values precisely the non-instrumentality of feeling, Dickens also provides an explicit use for the feeling the novel summons into existence: the novel and its author become the mediators in the formation of an imaginary community.

And in the fantasmatic family constructed by Dombey and Son, filiation is replaced with familial feeling. Finally, though this family is too vast for its members ever to become acquainted with one another, each member need know of the others only what Edith communicates to Dombey through Florence at the novel’s end: that, if Dombey has in fact come to love his daughter, “ ‘there is one feeling in common between us now, that there never was before.’ ” ( Ch. LXI, p. 572 )

The novel is concerned with the evil of money and mercantile pride. Like Carker, Dickens is in the business of managing feeling; like Florence, however, he manages to make the management of feeling not feel like business, since he only evokes what is already available for evocation “within” each reader: our “sense” of privacy, our “familial feeling”.

The ethical degradation of the rich, the dissolution of the family and of affection undetermined by worship of money, amounting to the authoritative condemnation of material values when they get the better of such feelings as tenderness and sympathy, seem to be Dickens’s preoccupations in this novel; he also denounced the mentality of the leading classes.

Beginning with Dombey and Son, Dickens gradually changed the picaresque pattern of his earlier novels and adapted it to the requirements of subtler effects and a richer social and psychological content.

II. 1. a. ‘House’ as prison

The whole of the novel is shaped by Paul Dombey’s monomaniacal desire to bring about the young Paul’s inheritance. Thus, his son is subjected to a regime designed to bring the days of his childhood to an end as quickly as possible so that he can begin to take up his inheritance. Mr. Dombey protects his own son by keeping him as in a ‘prison’ in a sort of solitude that forbids him to get into contact to his very sister, to whom he is devoted: “An indescribable distrust of anybody stepping in between himself and his son; a haughty dread of having any rival or partner in the boy’s respect and deference; a sharp misgiving, recently acquired, that he was not infallible in his power of bending and binding human wills; as sharp a jealousy of any second check or cross; these were, at that time, the master keys of his soul.” (Ch. V, p. 46 )

Florence Dombey feels herself as in a ‘cage’ as well. She lives in a solitary ‘home’ neglected by everybody: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.

No magic dwelling place in magic story, shut up in the heart of a thick wood, was ever more solitary and deserted to the fancy than was her father’s mansion in its grim reality, as it stood lowering on the street: always by night, when lights were shining from neighbouring windows, a blot upon its scanty brightness; always by day a frown upon its never-smiling face.” ( Ch. XXIII, p. 281 )

Thus, she flees from her desecrated home and takes refuge in the queer old house with the sign of the Midshipman, lives there under the guardianship of the tough and tender old seaman.

‘House’ as prison is in contrast to the homeliness Florence finds in her temporary dwelling-place. She and the Captain, as they sit together by the fireside, are enveloped in the atmosphere of homeliness, which favours every form of moral good. Oddity and homeliness –these are the notes of Dickens at his best.

As critics have remarked, Dombey and Son is a melodramatic novel, containing a number of scenes in which behaviour seems to transgress conventional boundaries, as, for example, the scene in which Edith announces to Dombey her desire for a separation in the presence of Florence and Carker.

Florence, like Captain Cuttle, cannot adapt to the modern world and has no place in it.2 Her character is interior both in the sense that the reader sees her from the inside – that is he reads her thoughts – and that she seems to belong indoors. Dickens emphasized her old-fashionedness and interiority by twice thrusting her suddenly and unexpectedly into the public sphere, in what almost seems like an irruption of privacy into that sphere: once, when she is lost by Susan Nipper in the City, and a second time, after Dombey strikes her, when she takes flight there, the second instance in some ways recapitulating the first.

“Where to go? Still somewhere, anywhere! Still going on; but where! She thought of the only other time she had been lost in the wild wilderness of London – though not lost as now – and went that way. To the home of Walter’s Uncle…The roar soon grew more loud, the passengers more numerous, the shops more busy, until she was carried onward in a stream of life setting that way, and flowing, indifferently, past marts and mansions, prisons, churches, market-places, wealth, poverty, good and evil…At length the quarters of the little Midshipman arose in view.” ( Ch. XLVIII, pp. 585-586 ) The Midshipman becomes her refuge.

The demise of the firm of Dombey and Son is accompanied by the end of Dombey’s ability to sustain his powerful public image – to hide, as the novel puts it, “the world within him from the world without.” ( Ch. XL, p. 628 ) But the novel’s omniscience has already revealed “the world within”. Gossip and rumour only expose what Dombey’s readers have already been shown; publicity only seeks the violent effacement of boundaries the omniscient narrator has already effaced. The narrator in fact makes a point of taking characters behind locked doors and pursuing them there: “He went into his room, and locked the door, and sat down in his chair, and cried for his lost boy. ” ( Ch. XVIII, p. 229 ) “When the door yielded, and he rushed in, what did he see there? No one knew. But thrown down in a costly mass upon the ground, was every ornament she had had, since she had been his wife.” ( Ch. XLII, p. 583 )

Yet, even as the novel charts the destruction of private and public worlds, it differentiates the latter as rapacious, greedy, and careless about knowledge.

Dombey’s fear of invasion is an extreme form of the bourgeois desire for privacy. He wants too much privacy; he wants, selfishly, to keep himself to himself. And he needs too much privacy because he desired too much power: his fear of invasion is the perhaps inevitable result of imagining that “the earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in. ” Even as he desires Dombey and Son to be “the world”, he acknowledges and therefore fears difference –for the presence of others signifies the existence of other worlds.

In the passage in which Dombey cannot escape “the world”, the narrator assures us that Dombey’s sense of being pursued is “not a phantom of his imagination”. ( Ch. LI, p. 628 )

The novel ultimately replaces the public world of Dombey and Son with this world made of feeling, a private, self-sustaining, conflictless domestic world which cannot be violated by the public world because it does not acknowledge that world’s existence. Once Walter has returned, Florence “never left her high rooms but to steal downstairs to wait for him when it was his time to come, or, sheltered by his proud, encircling arm, to bear him company to the door again, and sometimes peep into the street. ( Ch. LVI, p.690 )

Yet when they marry, they can leave the house, not just for the streets but for the high seas, because Florence’s love creates a world all its own, “a world to fly to, and to rest in, out of his Walter’s image.” ( Ch. LVI, p. 690 ) In the end, Florence can “be happy anywhere”. ( Ch. LVI, p. 692 ) As she and Walter walk to the church, they are “far removed from the world without them” ( Ch. LVII, p. 705 ), separated from the public sphere whose rapaciousness and irrelevance is represented in the destruction of Dombey’s house and the misguided rumours the world ‘blabs’ about him. Dombey’s house has been revealed to be just that, a house – the portable haven of domesticity, the home built out of feeling, which Florence recreates wherever she goes.

II. 1. b. Family as prison

From the disintegration of old traditions making for social cohesiveness in an age so given to self-aggrandizement not even the family is immune. Dickens’s portraits of hard-hearted parents are a reflection of his own bitterness against his father and mother for abandoning him during a crucial period in his boyhood. However this may be, the neglected children in his novels are perhaps less to be pitied than those who are callously exploited to further their parents’ own selfish ends. Among those who traffic in the love of sons and daughters, sometimes but by no means always under the pretext of altruism, are Mr. Dombey and Mrs. Skewton in Dombey and Son.

Dombey’s great subject is obviously the relationship between father and daughter, ending in Dombey’s discovery of that everyone else discovered long ago: that “Dombey and Son is a Daughter after all”. ( Ch. LIX, p. 739-740 ) But Florence’s victory is essentially a victory of emotion over convention, of the natural over the artificial, and of private life over public life.

The novel places itself in a context within which that is valued appeared to exist outside, and untouched by the marketplace. This is the essence of Florence’s value, as well as of the contrast between Edith, who is unnaturally made conscious of a status as a marketable commodity, and Florence, whose naturalness results from her having been left – through neglect – to her “natural heart”. Florence, who for Dombey is “ base coin”, appears to escape the laws of the marketplace, including those laws which govern the exchange of women, and embodies instead the values that Dickens poses as an alternative to those of the marketplace, both in her person and in the qualities she represents throughout the novel. 3

Though Dombey rejects Florence, he could not entirely stifle Paul’s feelings and Florence’s for each other. ( Chs. VIII and XVI )

Even as the novel constructs a world of feeling within each individual, it also forges another inner world, one that its culture imagined as its primary refuge from the public world and the marketplace: the family. Nancy Armstrong argues that the novel plays a crucial role in what she calls government through the family, pointing out that fiction “helped to formulate the ordered space we call the household…and used it as the context for representing normal behaviour.” 4 The novel, Armstrong writes, naturalizes cultural and political values by “presuming to discover what was only natural in the self.”5 Armstrong traces a movement in the mid-nineteenth century from government through force to government by means of the use of strategies of surveillance centring on educational institutions and the family – movement Dombey replicates in its replacement of Dombey’s repressive rule with a family world centred on Florence, the novel’s chief agent of surveillance from within.

Armstrong argues that though the household, as a female domain, might appear to exist outside political life, in its disciplinary and educational work and its incalculation of ‘civilizing’ values, it plays a crucial political role.

Dombey naturalizes the family by presenting it as an endangered and disrupted by the external force of business, enacted in Dombey’s fundamental confusion of firm and family – confusion which results in his dislike for his daughter and too – great reliance on Carker. In order to locate the sources of its tensions outside the family, that is, the novel must make them the results of desires it terms alien or unnatural even to their owner. The unnatural, then, is defined as whatever fails to support the idea of family that the novel itself constructs. Only when Dombey gives way to the “sense of injustice” that, Dickens claims, is “within him, all along” ( p. 3, Preface ) can he and his family recover their ‘natural’ affection for one another.

Florence stubbornly insists upon an idea of family against all indications to the contrary, treating Dombey and Son as a family rather than a firm. Marriage creates a private space, distinct and safe from the in authentic public space that surrounds it. The novel’s lesson has been not only that Dombey and Son is “a Daughter, after all ”, but that Dombey and Son is a family, not a firm; or, if a firm, one reconceived in the image of the family.

Diane Sadoff has argued that Florence uses Dombey to mediate her desire, seeking him as her rival for the love of others. 6 She feels repressed anger against her father and a kind of vehemence against Paul: it is the moment she watches him to death. That suspicion is augmented by her fantasy of her life had she been a “favourite child”.

“She imagined so often what her life would have been if her father could have loved her and she had been a favourite child, that sometimes, for the moment, she almost believed it was so, and, born on by the current of that pensive fiction, seemed to remember how they had watched her brother in the grave together; how they had freely shared his heart between them; how they were united in the dear remembrance of him.” ( Ch. XXIII, p. 284 )

Emotion creates a place from which Dombey feels excluded. Such scenes recur between Florence and Fanny, Florence and Paul, Florence and Edith, with Dombey always the silent spectactor.

He perceives in these scenes emotion in which he cannot share, emotion which robs him of his property in Edith or in little Paul. But Dombey also imagines the emotions of others as a threat to him: anyone else’s feeling for Paul undermines his hold on the boy. Thus while he experiences himself as shut out of emotional scenes, he also repeatedly shuts himself up in order to experience emotion in private. He feels a need to distance himself from feeling. He invites Carker to become the mediator of his relations with Edith; he seeks someone to ‘interpose’ between himself and Florence.

“It troubled him to think of this face of Florence.

Because he felt any new compunction toward it? No. Because the feeling awakened in him – of which he had had some old foreshadowing in older times – was full-formed now, and spoke out plainly, moving him too much, and threatening to grow too strong for his composure…More than once upon this journey, and now again as he stood pondering at this journey’s end, tracing figures in the dust with his stick, the thought came into his mind, what was there he could interpose between himself and it?” ( Ch. XX, p.252 )

Whatever the specific cause of Dombey’s “strong feeling”, he distances himself from it, even seeking a wife for precisely the reason. For although Edith’s affectionate relationship with Florence disturbs him, it is exactly what he requires to maintain his anger against Florence. 7 Delegating Carker to humiliate Edith, he displays his strength defending against the threatened loss of control that strong feeling evokes.

Dickens bends the novel to fit Florence’s vision, so that it ends in a reconciliation founded on little Paul’s memory.

“We will teach our little child to love and honour you; and we will tell him, when he can understand, that you had a son of that name once, and that he died, and you were very sorry.” ( Ch. LIX, p. 739 )

In the world according to Florence – a familial circle based on the remembrance of little Paul – the family, side of oedipal rivalry, is reconceived as a world all its own, a state of conflictlessness and undifferentiation, all rivals eliminated, the possessive love which engenders rivalry replaced by remembrance and sympathy.

The family is thus united by remembrance of little Paul and love of Florence. But what is ‘the family’? The novel replaces one familial structure with another, neither exactly fitting the image of the typical ‘nuclear’ family. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the family group made up at Dombey, Florence and Walter, little Paul and little Florence. What circulates is not a specific family structure, but a feeling that signifies ‘family’: an image of family in which conflict is absent and in which members are linked by the sharing of feeling, by in fact possessing the same feelings about family.

II. 1. c. The image of the father / master

The novel shapes Dombey’s desire to bring about his son’s inheritance of the great City firm of Dombey and Son. Florence is almost totally ignored by her father; she is of interest to him only as she affects Paul who is devoted to her. Although reproachless, she cannot shed the conviction that she is somehow to blame for her father’s hostility. When little Paul dies, the bereavement serves to alienate Florence further from her father, despite her desperate eagerness for his love.

In Dombey and Son one could very well notice a rather static and cold distance between the couple Mr. Dombey - Mrs. Dombey. The husband - wife relationship is dominated by Mr. Dombey whose pride when admiring his baby son or whose way of addressing his wife reveal an attitude which is characteristic of the Victorian age: “a loveless = gentleman-like = conventional bahaviour imposed ”, on the one hand, by “the obliging disposition of his / Paul’s relations and friends in private”, and by “the onerous nature of one position in public” ( Ch. V, p. 56 ), on the other hand.8 In the Victorian world, the social distance dominates the family relationships and “turns a ‘home’ into a ‘House’ where everybody is given a price and is measured in terms of clear profit.” 9

In Dombey’s second marriage, his wife gets the same treatment. Edith’s kind attitude towards her step daughter makes Mr. Dombey feel he is losing ground in front of his own daughter: “her show of devotion for my daughter is disagreeable to me. (…) It is likely to induce people to contrast Mr. Dombey in her relation towards my daughter, with Mrs. Dombey in her relation towards myself. (…) I object to it. (…) I expect her to defer, immediately to my objection. (…) She may be opposing me; but I object to it in any case, and in every case. (…) But I will have submission first.” (Ch. XLI, p. 525 )

Although Dombey has a harsh attitude of rejection towards Florence (Chs. II and V ), she cannot dissimulate. When she is under surveillance, called upon to play with Paul under her father’s eye, her manner is “forced and embarrassed”. (Ch. III ) Throughout long sections of the novel she suffers a lot, silent and alone, in Dombey’s house. She thinks that it is in the nature of things to be treated in the way her father does to her and resigns herself to it: “…it is our duty to submit.” ( Ch. XVIII, p.216 )

Alone, Florence can have, or imagine that she will have, the father she does not possess in reality, and she can have him because both now possess Paul. But the image of standing with her father over Paul’s grave expresses not just a desire to have her father to herself, but also a desire for revenge; her fantasies about her own death convey the same feeling: “Yes, she thought if she were dying, he would relent.” ( Ch. XXIV, p. 310 )

Dombey sleeping resembles Dombey dead. In either state, the disturbing reflection of Florence is absent from his face. The idea of Dombey’s death comes a relief to her, presenting an image of the father she cannot have while he is alive and aware of her.

Whereas Florence is all feeling, Dombey, of course, is all resistance to feeling. Dombey characteristically imagines himself as a witness to the emotions of others.

“The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, what was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be as absorbed in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down – a mere spectator – not a sharer with them – quite shut out.” ( Ch. III, p.30 )

Dombey traces a movement from rule by force – the repressive, masculine regime of Dombey himself – to a naturally occurring acceptance of similar values in a regime overseen by Florence, who rules not by force but through nature. Beyond the father is the Father. Nature, once discovered, results in unanimity, in the recognition of one’s duty to the Father, which – in the microcosm of the Dombey family – is the same as duty to the father.

The novel ultimately takes the father’s part. By attributing Dombey’s downfall to his tyranny and obsessiveness, and then asserting “duty to the father” as the highest of values, the novel reflects not just Dickens’s own ambivalence about fathers but one characteristic of his age. 10 Punishing an actual father for tyranny and egotism but also for his fallibility because he can be punished, the novel comes up with an abstraction – an infallible Father – to put in his place an ‘other’ who, like Florence’s fantasies of Dombey, can be fashioned to suit individual desires precisely because of his inaccessibility. Such a father can be suspected of withholding love only because “he did not know how much she loved him…[s]he must try to bring that knowledge to her father’s heart one day or other.” (Ch. XXIV, p.307 )

Such a father’s apparent failure is always actually one’s own. The novel retains the father’s repressive rule, but it retains it in the form of ideology – what is internalized and willingly practiced rather than imposed by force. This accounts for the religious feeling of much of the novel’s talk about the ‘remembrance’ of little Paul, the image of “sharing his heart”, and even the internalization of Florence’s image. External repression is replaced with a religion of family: the acceptance of, and even desire for, duty to the Father.

Coming to knowledge in Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Retail, Wholesale and for Exportation means an end to conflict in the discovery of one’s duty and one’s familial feeling, the discovery of what the ‘inner’ self has already known and attempted to assert. Dombey’s change of feeling, his return to the natural self, is accordingly represented as a dawning recognition: he now knows what he did not before; he remembers it. In other words, what individuals need to know is that which is most natural, and therefore most familial, and which finally comes from within rather than from without.


Tillotson, Kathleen ( 1957 ) : Dickens at Work.

Of Florence and Captain Cuttle, Dickens writes: “In simple innocence of the world’s ways and the world’s perplexities and dangers, they were nearly on a level.” ( Ch. XLIX, p. 600 )

Robert Clark discusses Florence’s relation to the “exchange of women” argument in ( 1984 ) : Riddling the Family Firm: The Sexual Economy in Dombey and Son, ELH 51, pp. 69-84.

Armstrong, Nancy ( 1987 ) : Desire and Domestic Fiction, Oxford University Press, New York, introduction and pp. 23-24.

Armstrong, Nancy, op. cit., p. 9.

Sadoff, Diane ( 1982 ) : Monsters of Affection, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 60-62.

The intention seems to be that Edith will interpose between Dombey and Florence, but Florence also becomes a wedge separating Edith from Dombey: “Florence would have risen when her father entered, and resigned her chair to him; but Edith openly put her hand upon her arm, and Mr. Dombey took an opposite place at the round table.” ( Ch. XXX, p. 377 )

Carpov, Maria, Cmeciu, Doina ( 1996 ) : Semiologia culturii, nr. 1, Bacau, p. 123.


See Sadoff, Monsters of Affection, p. 55, on the idea of the family as devouring all other social institutions. Sadoff also describes “Victorian ambivalence about…paternal authority: the desire for its stability, decisiveness, and cultural validity side by side with the hatred of its narrowness, stubbornness, and social domination – oppression – of those without such authority.” ( p. 6 )

III. 1. Oliver Twist versus Life and Work

Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, in 1883, to show the reader things as they really are. He felt that the novel should be a message of social reform. One of its purposes was to promote reform of the abuses in workhouses. In no way does Dickens create a dream world. His imagination puts together a bad place during a bad time; an English workhouse just after the Poor Law Act of 1834.

Oliver Twist is concerned with social and moral evil – the workhouse and the criminal world. In this novel, Dickens like members of various contemporary protest groups throughout England, adopted the melodramatic mode in order to resist the alienating and classifying effects of The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, whose operation became the explicit context for the novel’s initial chapters.

Through the 18th century, deferential, ‘familial’ feeling among the ranks had been nurtured through highly public displays of punishment and benevolence, one of each was the scene of relief staged by the old poor laws prior to 1834. In these parish rituals, the impoverished appealed to their local gentry for the assistance they considered a birth right.

The Poor Law Amendment Act intervened in this public exchanges, imposing a system of relief based on a mainly economic version of modern classification. This not only altered the rules of exchange between the ranks, but also changed the constitution of personhood for those involved in the transactions. By means of the melodramatic mode, Dickens’s novel stages the conflict between the old law and the new in terms of the older law’s assumptions.

Oliver Twist had a twofold moral purpose: to exhibit the evil working of the Poor Law Act, and to give a faithful picture of the life of thieves in London. The motives hung well together, for in Dickens’s view the pauper system was directly responsible for a great deal of crime. It must be remembered that, by the new Act of 1834, outdoor sustenance was as much as possible done away with, paupers being henceforth relieved only on the condition of their entering a workhouse, while the workhouse life was made thoroughly uninviting, among other things by the separation of husbands and wives, and parents and children.

Against the seemingly harsh treatment of a helpless class Dickens is very bitter; he regards such legislation as the outcome of cold-blooded theory, evolved by well-to-do persons of the privileged caste, who neither perceive not care about then result of their system in individual suffering.

“ ‘I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him, whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron, could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. (…) There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.’ ” ( Ch. IV, p. 28 )

By “philosopher” Dickens meant a political-economist; he uses the word frequently in this book, and always in the same spirit which moved Carlyle. He is the through-going advocate of the poor, the uncompromising Radical.

In a preface to Oliver, written in 1841, Dickens spoke at length of its second purpose, and defended himself against critics who had objected to his dealings with the lives of pickpockets and burglars. His aim was to discredit a school of fiction than popular, which glorified the thief in the guise of a gallant highwayman; the real thief, declared, he had nowhere found portrayed and his own intention was to show the real culture, vile and miserable, “for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life.” 1

The novel is the story of a young orphan boy who reflects the life of poverty in England in the 1830’s. It illustrates the evils of the Poor House’s of the time and corruption of the people who work there. It also shows the depths of London’s crimes with an emphasis on petty robbery and pick pocketing. Oliver Twist shows the workhouse primarily, as it is experienced by Oliver; it permits Dickens to demonstrate the way children and adult men and women lived in these unpleasant institutions.

Dickens attacks the modern workhouse with a sort of inspired simplicity as a boy in a fairy tale who had wondered about sword in hand, looking for ogres and who had found an indisputable ogre.

All the other people of his time are attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad politics, or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things because they are bad. All the others are Radicals with a large R; he alone is radical with a small one. He encounters evil with that beautiful surprise which, as it is the beginning of all real pleasure, is also the beginning of all righteous indignation. He enters the workhouse just as Oliver enters it, as a little child.

In Oliver Twist Dickens presented the underworld, “the most criminal and degraded of London’s population” 2 , thieves, vagabonds, criminals. Dickens’s aim was to depict those people as they really were, not idealized as in other novelists’ works. Instead of presenting fascinating, successful thieves as Fielding did, underlining his view that ‘greatness’ was distinct from ‘goodness’, Dickens described the full dens in which his characters hide, the shabby clothes they wore, their most degraded thoughts and deeds.

III. 1. a. The conditions of the orphan

The horrible conditions of the poor which so exasperated Dickens resulted from the old Poor Law, which, by its system of granting relief in aid of insufficient wages had gone far towards pauperizing the whole of agricultural England.

In Oliver Twist he determined to dramatize the harshness of the new legislation by showing its effects on a representative of its most helpless victims, an infant born and immediately orphaned in a workhouse. Oliver Twist is born in the workhouse, where his mother has been brought after being found half-dead in the street. She dies giving birth to him and, until he is nine, Oliver is placed in the care of Mrs. Mann at a branch workhouse; then he is taken back by Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, to the workhouse proper.

The baby farm he was sent to was a feature of the early nineteenth-century provision for paper orphans. But by the time he is nine years old (Ch. II) the new Act is in effect and his fate is settled by one of the elected Boards of Guardians that had been newly established.

Oliver is the embodiment of a conception to which his creator was to return more than once – the lost child; and the sequence of episodes which subjects the helpless boy to one malignant environment after another could hardly be bettered. Oliver is passive under his misfortunes. Suffering is visited on him and he is both defenseless and blameless. This forlorn child’s plight elicits a primarily emotion response from the readers.

Oliver’s childish miseries show well against a background of hopeless pauperdom; having regard to his origin, the reader grants the gentle and affectionate orphan, who is so unlike a typical workhouse child, and is made to feel his sufferings among people who may be called inhuman, but who in truth are human enough, the circumstance considered. Be it noted that, whereas even Mr. Bumble is at moments touched by natural sympathy, and Mr. Sowerberry, and the workhouse hags – are fiercely cruel; in them, Dickens draws strictly from his observation, giving the reader the very truth in spite of sentiment.

Oliver Twist reflects quite clearly a starving self which is locked in a desperate struggle with the withholding and emotionally absent mother. The child is attacked for wanting life, which is itself represented both as actual food and as the mother’s nurturing love. Oliver, of course, never knew his mother, who died of hypothermia soon after his birth:

“As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper actions of his lungs…the pale face of a young female was raised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectly articulated the words, ‘Let me see the child, and die’…the surgeon deposited it in her arms. She imprinted her cold and white lips passionately on its forehead, passed her hands over her face …and died…her blood had been frozen forever.” ( Ch. I, p. 2 ) Oliver is cut off from the earliest and most fundamental dyadic experience with the mother, which is one of a warm and loving nurturing close to her body. The confrontation with the ‘ogre’ takes place in the workhouse where Oliver has been selected by the other boys to go forward:

“The evening arrived; and the boys took their places …the gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver…child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table, and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said…’Please sir, I want some more.’ The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale…the assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys filled with fear.

‘What!’, said the master at length, in a faint voice. ‘Please, sir’, replied Oliver, ‘I want some more’. The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle, pinioned him in his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.” ( Ch. II, p. 12 )

This starving and weakened child dares to ask for more food. The cook’s use of the ladle as a weapon rather than as a means of nurturing ironically echoes the master’s own attack on Oliver with the ladle, and highlights the hostility inherent in this particular constellation of self and other.

Oliver’s state, following his plea for more food is grievous. He is placed into solitary confinement “and cried bitterly all day; and when the long dismal night came on, spread his little hands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching in the corner, tried to sleep…drawing himself closer and closer to the wall, as if to fell even its cold hard surface where a protection in the gloom and loneliness which surrounded him.” ( Ch. III, p. 14 )

He is locked away like a lost heart of the self, in a dark and frozen chamber. Oliver turns to the wall in obvious yearning for touch lest he be pulled into the terrors of physic annihilation that would accompany the loss of all contact. Its hard cold surface is reminiscent of his actual mother’s frozen body.

Most importantly, though the system of the poor is not changed, the good in Dickens’s novel outweighs the evil, and Oliver who is part of this good lives happily ever after.

III. 1. b. The idea of survival

In Oliver Twist Dickens concentrated on the social conditions of his own day which were terrible especially in the slums of English cities. Oliver is born into a world of “sorrow” and “trouble”. ( Ch. I, p. 1 ) He is nameless, a simple “item of mortality”, left not in the road, but to “the tender mercies of church wardens and overseers”. ( Ch. I, p. 1 ) He is “thrust upon the poor laws” and in the “charitable” world of the parochial workhouse, Oliver is “brought up by hand”; he is described as a “juvenile offender against the poor laws”, a “culprit”, one who requires “superintendence”. ( Ch. II, p. 4 ) Oliver receives the “sage, deep, philosophic” provisions regulated by the board; the law of the Poor House Board is: “all poor people should have the alternative ( for they would compel nobody, not they ), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by the quick one out of it.” ( Ch. II, p. 11 ) Just like his society which places the blame on the dispossessed orphan, Mr. Bumble wants to get rid of the child and together with the workhouse Board is ready to send him off to sea, most likely to be drowned.

Even when the evil Chimney Sweep, Mr. Gamfield, comes before the board to employ Oliver, he is not refused on any moral ground, not on the fact that he had already “bruised three or four boys to death”, but because chimney sweeping is a “nasty business”. The board refuses to release Oliver unless the Chimney Sweep will “take something less than the premium.” ( Ch. III, p. 17 ) This reference to Oliver’s narrow escape at being apprenticed to the chimney sweep alludes to the plight of the climbing boys, a contemporary scandal.

After an unhappy experience of apprenticeship with an undertaker, Oliver runs away, reaches London and falls into the hands of a group of thieves consisting of Fagin, the leader of the gang, Bill Sikes, a sinister criminal and Nancy’s companion, the Artful Dodger, a pickpocket.

No sooner had he escaped the “parochial” world that he entered another one, that of the Jew. When Oliver relates to the Dodger that he has no money or lodgings in London, the Dodger offers to provide: “ ‘I know a ‘spectable old gentleman, as lives there, wot’ll give you lodgings for nothing, and never ask for the change…’ ” ( Ch. VIII, p. 54 ) Oliver soon learns that the kindness of the Den of thieves is very much alike that of the workhouse.

Although Oliver’s character is virtuous and innocent, Dickens comes close to endangering his idealized virtue in the great temptation scene in Chapter XVIII. This is where the child is being carefully brainwashed, first cunningly cold-shouldered and isolated, then cunningly brought in the deadly warmth of the thieves’ family circle.

“Oliver was but too glad to make himself useful; too happy to have some faces, however bad, to look upon; too desirous to conciliate those about him when he could honestly do so; to throw any objection in the way of this proposal. So he at once expressed his readiness; and, kneeling on the floor, while Dodger sat upon the table so that he could take his foot in his lap, he applied himself to a process by which Mr. Dawkins designating as ‘japanning his trotter-cases’. The phrase rendered into plain English, signifieth, cleaning his boots.” ( Ch. XVIII, p. 129 ) Oliver escapes the situation but there is still the presence of a real threat.

Oliver is rescued by the benevolent Mr. Brownlow, but the gang of thieves kidnaps him; prompted by the villainous Monks, they have a special interest in keeping him. They send him out with Bill Sikes to break into a house, but the thieves are surprised and Oliver is shot. The lady of the house is horrified to discover that the wounded burglar is only a child; Mrs. Maylie and her daughter, Rose, take care of Oliver, nursing him back to health.

Oliver had been left in a ditch to be taken up only by death: “The air became more sharp and piercing, as its first dull hue: the death of night, rather than the birth of day: glimmered faintly in the sky”. ( Ch. XXVIII, p. 206 ) But instead of dying, Oliver “summons up all his strength for one last trial.” ( Ch. XXVIII, p. 207 ) And it is only through this perseverance that Oliver finally receives true mercy; he enters the sunny world of the Maylies. Taken in by the Maylies, Oliver enters a paradisiacal world where his wounds are bound up. Rose says:

“ ‘… think that he may never known a mother’s love, or the comfort of a home…Aunt, dear aunt, for mercy’s sake, think of this, before you let them drag this sick child to prison.’ ” ( Ch. XXX, p. 217 )

Then, Mr. Brownlow works to redeem Oliver’s inheritance and identity.

Dickens perceives the world as an arena of intense ethical struggle, polarized into moral and material extremes, where the poor but virtuous are prosecuted by the rich and corrupt. The motive force of the melodrama is the villain who is recognized by the reader as the embodiment of evil. The result is usually a happy one for the sympathetic character, resulting just rewards and punishments and affirming the laws of morality and the benevolent wakings of providence. The writer allowed virtue and good prevail over crime and evil.

In order to survive, Oliver is asking for more. He is pathetic because he is

an optimist. The whole tragedy of that incident is in the fact that he does expect the universe to be kind to him, that he does believe that he is living in a just world. He comes before the Guardians with gloomy experiences, but he comes with a happy philosophy. He knows that there are wrongs of man to be reviled; but he believes also that there are rights to be demanded.

Innocent and loving, Oliver represents all that is good in society. He abhors the thought of stealing, violence, or mistreatment of any sort, and though he is eager to please will not go against the morals instilled in him. Yet, he has to steal in order to remain alive. He genuinely cares for others around him, and will do anything to make someone want to keep him. In him, Dickens showed the principles of good surviving through adverse situations and being triumphant in the end.

III.1.c. Life education

Oliver is born into a world of thieves and of mean people. His innocence and naïveté will not help him to battle his way through difficulties, he is forced by those around to earn his living by less fair means.

After outraging the authorities by daring to “ask for more” ( Ch. II, p. 12), Oliver is apprenticed to an undertaker, where he is no better used than in the workhouse. He runs away and meets the Artful Dodger, who takes him to Fagin’s den in the London slums. The streets reveal vice and Oliver is, against his will, involved in the “business” of stealing. Fagin has a stable of boys being trained to steal; his associates are the coarse and brutal burglar Bill Sikes and Nancy, a prostitute.

Fagin is a villainous old man who employs young boys as thieves. He wants to turn Oliver into a little robber as well. The vulnerable child is confined in Fagin’s rotting lair, a musty and dreary old building. Fagin’s “kindness” is such a threat in that it might have led him to accept his degradation, abandoning all his cherished dreams of growing up to be a learned man.

Chapters IX and X present Fagin schooling his gang of pick-pockets and Oliver accepts the situation not knowing how dangerous it is:

“ ‘Well’, said the Jew, inspecting them closely; ‘they’re very good ones, very. You haven’t marked them well, though, Charley; so the marks shall be picked out with a needle, and we’ll teach Oliver how to do it. Shall us, Oliver, eh? Ha!Ha!Ha!’

‘If you please, sir’, said Oliver.

‘You’d like to be able to make pocket-handkerchiefs as easy as Charley Bates, wouldn’t you, my dear?’ said the Jew.

‘Very much, indeed, if you’ll teach me, sir’, replied Oliver.” ( Ch. IX, p. 61 )

Oliver thinks that stealing is a kind of game which makes him have fun and that is why he is in a way eager to watch the others do it.

“When the breakfast was cleared away, the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a curious and uncommon game, which was performed in this way. The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard-chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin in his shirt: buttoned his coat round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick, in imitation of the manner in which old gentlemen walk about the streets any hour in the day. Sometimes he stopped at the fire-place, and sometimes at the door, making believe that he was staring with all his might into shop-windows. At such times he would look constantly around him, for fear of thieves, and would keep slapping all his pockets in turn, to see that he hadn’t lost anything, in such a very funny and natural manner, that Oliver laughed till the tears ran down his face. All this time, the two boys followed him closely about: getting out of his sight, so nimbly, every time he turned round, that it was impossible to follow their motions. At last, the Dodger trod upon his toes, or ran upon his boot accidentally, while Charley Bates stumbled up against him behind; and in that one moment they took from him, with the most extraordinary rapidity, snuff-box, note-case, watch-guard, chain, shirt-pin, pocket-handkerchief, even the spectacle-case. If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets, he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again.” ( Ch. IX, p. 61-62 )

Every effort is made to turn Oliver into a thief but he cannot be corrupted. In Chapter X Oliver is caught in a trap, although it was not him who committed the theft.

Fagin keeps Oliver for his self-interest; his “kindness” does not rise out of mercy, but rather out of opportunity. He will enlist and aid Oliver and take him on as a satellite only because Oliver will increase his profits. It is the “Rule of Number One” upon which Fagin’s dark religion depends. ( Ch. XLIII, p. 328 )

Hence, the Den’s distortion of kindness through its “Rule of Number One” becomes almost its own religion with Fagin its titular head. Functioning as its own little church with its rituals such as the “pocket-picking game”, the Den endeavours to indoctrinate Oliver.

“ ‘If you don’t take pocket-handkerchiefs and watches’, says the Dodger, ‘some other cove will; so that the coves that lose’em will be all the worse, and you’ll be all the worse too, and nobody half ha’p’orth the better, except the caps wot gets them – and you’ve just a good a right to them as they have.’ ” ( Ch. XVIII, p. 132 )

Here, the Dodger describes individualism as the thief’s rights to other’s property; Fagin calls this the “catechism” of “the trade”. ( Ch. XVIII, p. 132 )

That little Oliver, the fleeing victim of social injustice should quickly find himself ensnared into the criminal underworld, is realistic enough and entirely consonant with Dickens the good citizen’s belief that the swarming children of the poor and outcast, neglected or abused by society, will become criminals almost inevitably and constitute a great danger in the State that so treated them.

Fagin’s world now appears as the next set of adverse situations that will test Oliver’s ability to survive. As such, this world must be morally dangerous, sinister but also in some way seductive, so representing a greater threat to innocent goodness even than the harsh tyranny of the workhouse world which, though it might threaten to reduce Oliver to “a state of brutal stupidity and sullenness” ( Ch. IV, p. 25 ), was powerless to corrupt his immortal soul.

Oliver Twist was clearly made to show the reality of the world. Dickens does not create a dream world that captures the optimism of readers. He is truly showing things as they really are; how the world really is. He carefully planned his setting and description of places so that he could capture every detail of the hard life. Dickens’s purpose was to spark a sense of rage through people’s hearts towards the English workhouses. He was promoting reform by getting the people involved in the melodramatic novel of Oliver Twist.


Dickens, Charles ( 1980 ) : Oliver Twist, New American Library, New York, p. 6.

Dickens, Charles, op. cit., p. xv.

IV. 1. Little Dorrit versus Prison

Little Dorrit, as Dickens presented it, is a novel of imprisonment. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the 19th century which was recalled and copied from the life of the novelist’s father in the old Marshalsea prison.

The image of the prison appears from the very beginning, in the very first chapter of the novel. It is the prison of Marseilles where two of the characters were confined.

“In Marseilles that day there was a villainous prison. In one of its chambers, so repulsive a place that even the obtrusive stare blinked at it, and left it to such refuse of reflected light as it could find for itself, were two men.(…)

It received such light as it got, through a grating of iron bars, fashioned like a pretty large window, by means of which it could be always inspected from the gloomy staircases on which the grating gave.” ( Book 1, Ch. I, p. 2 )

The captive men were isolated in a kind of “tomb” or “well” oppressed by a polluted atmosphere:

“A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim. Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside;” ( Book 1, Ch. I, p. 3 )

The prisoners are looked as “birds” in a cage, isolated behind bars.

“ ‘Adieu, my birds!’ said the keeper of the prison, taking his pretty child in his arms, and dictating the words with a kiss.” ( Book 1, Ch. I, p. 6 )

The prison seems to haunt almost every character in the novel. Though, William Dorrit and his family escape the Marshalsea when the former inherits a fortune. All of them travel to Italy, where Dorrit, once known as “the Father of the Marshalsea”, dies, being unable at last to remember anything but his past years in the prison. ( Book 2, Ch. XIX ) Therefore, the prison becomes a stigma which branded almost his entire life. Little Dorrit is haunted by the Marshalsea as well:

“It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they live, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away again tomorrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom did what they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: in all this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for poor accommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it: which was exactly the Marshalsea custom.” (…) ( Book 2, Ch. VII, p. 511 )

Even Arthur Clennam falls the victim of a fraud and is sentenced to the Marshalsea. He is marked by confinement in a different way.

Dickens invites the reader to draw a parallel between the material reality of the Marshalsea and the less tangible, though no less present, internal prisons of his characters. Mr. Dorrit and his son, Tip, must live as inmates of the debtors’ prison, but when they become free to leave its walls – whether permanently at the end of the first book or temporarily as when Tip seeks work – they retain the prison mentality:

“Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him…until the real immovable Marshalsea was asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back.” ( Book 1, Ch. VII, p. 76 )

The reader comes to see that most characters live in their own, internal prisons. Mrs. Clennam, confined to the physical prison of her room, also suffers with the guilt of withholding wealth from her son. Her prison corrodes her being:

“ ‘But let him look at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointed that I shall so make reparations for my

sins.’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. V, p. 50 )

Mr. Merdle finds himself imprisoned by his reputation, the Barnacles by their thirst for power and the lack of power in their bureaucracy. The theme that the prison destructively confines echoes throughout the novel.

IV.1.a. Users and victims

As in every society, the strata include rich and poor people and the latter become the victims of the former. The strong ones abuse of the weaker’s helplessness and impossibility to defend themselves.

The first book of Little Dorrit is suggestively entitled “Poverty”. Amy Dorrit is a victim of the society, but at the same time of her own family. She was actually born in prison, being named the “Child of the Marshalsea”, and she sacrifices her youth working as a seamstress in order to support her family.

A rich compound of false values keeps the characters of the novel trapped into a rejection of life’s spontaneous possibilities. They are self-victimized more or less. Mrs. Clennam is imprisoned by her catatonic moralism and bleak conscience. William Dorrit is imprisoned by delusions of “position” and obfuscation of language – no reality can break past his guard – and at the end he almost falls prey to the poisonous Mrs. General, the monstrous double of his feeble humanity.

Mr. Merdle, the awesome financier courted by all England, turns out to be a common swindler, also imprisoned, in his case by his guilt and digestion. The Avenging Spirit of this great man’s life is the chief Butler, emperor of snobs, just as behind Mrs. Merdle, the beauty imprisoned by her magnificent bosom, there shrieks the maddened parrot, ultimate voice of nothing. Miss Wade is imprisoned by her resentments, so unchecked that her keen intelligence sinks into malevolence.

Panks is imprisoned by his job as money-sqeezer for the old humbug Casby. And even Mr. Clennam, that fine intelligence succumbs to the mania for speculation in Mr. Merdle’s schemes, landing him in the Marshalsea, imprisoned nowhere the Dorrits have been. Though he fights his own battles with the bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office, Arthur Clennam falls himself in the trap of the shrewd, eminent Merdle. He is ruined and dishonoured.

He is not only a victim of the system, but one of his own mother. He has been brought up in unhappy homes, under bitter guardians and a black disheartening religion. He has not broken out of the Calvinistic tyranny, but is still under its shadow. Though forty years old, Clennam is still in a gloomy childhood. But when he reenters his sepulchral house there is a weight upon his soul which makes it impossible for him to answer, with any spirit, the morbidity of his mother. ( Book 1, Ch. V )

Another victim of the novel is Tattycoram, an orphan girl adopted by the Meagles as servant-companion to their daughter, Pet. She rages with justified anger against the condescension she suffers in the family and runs away with Miss Wade, an escapade brilliantly evoked in Book 1, Chapter XXVII.

The swindlers of the novel are the Barnacles, Mr. Merdle and Blandois. These men had society tied to their purse-strings.

“Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, ‘Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?’ And, the reply being in the negative, had said, ‘Then I won’t look at you.’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. XXI, p. 246 )

Blandois is the devil of the story. Veering from a mad pride to cringing self-pity, he does not bother to pretend virtue; like Gowan, he uses candour as a strategy of deception. He requires the attentions due to a gentleman, as if that were a God-given right beyond any need of justification. Blandois must be seen as an extreme version, a sort of pure essence, of the mania for status – really a moral sickness – that rules Dickens’s world. There is also a touch of self-satire in Blandois, for he does not care to deceive nearly as much as he demands to be served. Cavalletto, his fellow-prisoner, is Blandois’s victim:

“Monsieur Rigaud, finding the listening John Baptist in his way…,reminded him with a push of his foot that he had better resume his own darker place. The little man sat down again upon the pavement, with the negligent ease of one who was thoroughly accustomed to pavements;” (Book 1, Ch. I, p. 7 )

“ ‘Put the bottle by with the rest’, said Rigaud.

The little man obeyed his orders, and stood ready to give him a lighted match; (…)

‘A thousand thanks, my master!’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. I, p. 7 )

“ ‘Haha! You are right! A gentleman I am, a gentleman I’ll live, and a gentleman I’ll die! It’s my intent to be a gentleman. It’s my game. Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go.’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. I, p. 9 )

Another type of user is Fanny Dorrit who, due to her pride and ambition, treats the others as if they were her servants. The scene in Book 1, Chapter XXXI, regarding Amy’s “infamous” conduct, is relevant. Here Amy Dorrit is walking towards the Marshalsea Prison with Mr. Nandy, thus, she appears in public with a pauper. Fanny meats the couple just before they reach the prison door and instead of the usual forms of greeting, she makes a curious observation: “ ‘ Why, good gracious me, Amy!…You never mean it!’ ” ( p. 367) Amy is confused by her sister’s obscure comment and asks her what she means. The explanation she gets from Fanny is far from satisfactory, moreover insulting:

“ ‘Well! I could have believed a great deal of you’, returned the young lady with burning indignation, ‘but I don’t think even I could have believed this of even you!’

‘Fanny!’ cried Little Dorrit, wounded and astonished.

‘Oh! Don’t Fanny me, you mean little thing, don’t! The idea of coming along the open streets, in the broad light of day, with a Pauper!’…

‘O Fanny!’

‘I tell you not to Fanny me, for I’ll not submit to it! I never knew such a thing. The way in which you are resolved and determined to disgrace us on all occasions, is really infamous. You bad little thing!’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. XXXI, p. 367 )

Fanny’s treatment of Amy is intimidating, not only by the nature of the accusations but also by the language she uses for her sister. “Mean little thing”, “bad little thing” and later “common-minded little Amy”, “complete prison-child” and “prevaricating little piece of goods” ( Book 1, Ch. XXXI, pp. 368-369 ) are discouragingly accusing and belittling.

Frightened and upset, Amy cannot even suggest that there is no essential difference in social status between the Dorrits and Mr. Nandy. Instead, she is “wounded and astonished” ( p. 367 ), “pale and trembling” ( p. 369 ) and remorseful. All these symptoms suggest that she is afraid of keeping in line with her conduct. Thus she tries to make up for the harm she has done to her family face and apologizes.

Amy is intimidated and confused not only by Fanny’s cruel words but also by her father’s gently expressed disappointment in her. Mr. Dorrit’s claim that Amy has humiliated him is a threat to Amy’s desire to be a perfect daughter. After Mr. Dorrit explains the nature of her offence, she attempts to explain her behaviour:

“ ‘I don’t justify myself for having wounded your dear heart…I do nothing but beg and pray you be comforted and overlook it. But if I had not known that you were kind to the old man yourself, and took much notice of him, and were always glad to see him, I would not have come here with him, father, I would not indeed.’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. XXXI, p. 369 )

The same treatment of Fanny gets her own husband who is kept under her foot.

“ ‘Is this your fan, my love?’ asked Mr. Sparkler…

‘Edmund’, returned his wife, more wearily yet, ‘don’t ask weak questions, I entreat you not. Whose can it be but mine?’

‘Yes, I thought it was yours’, said Mr. Sparkler.

‘Then you shouldn’t ask’, retorted Fanny. ” ( Book 2, Ch. XXIV, p. 694)

“ ‘There! For goodness’ sake don’t talk’, said Fanny: ’I want to talk, myself.’

‘Edmund, Edmund, you would wear out a Saint.’ ” ( p. 695 )

“‘Edmund, you ridiculous creature’, returned Fanny, with great indignation.” ( p. 696 )

“ ‘Pray don’t, Edmund! Your habit of interrupting without having the least thing in the world to say, distracts one. You must be broken of it.’ (…)

‘For a wonder I can agree with you’, returned his wife.” ( p. 697 )

Some of the victimized characters of Dickens’s novels, such as Amy Dorrit, are very much beloved by the readers. Needless to mention that the novelist himself was touched by them and thus reserved them a better fate in the end.

IV.1.b. Hope and failure

Dickens may have been without “hope” as he puts it, at the level of general social and political transformation. But for him it seems to have been an aspiration and perhaps it was a conviction that there could come a time for the individual, when a crisis of suffering, or perhaps plain need, could free him from the imprisonment of his own persona: and in part, “Riches” are what come to men in the hour of liberation. As Dickens’s novel resolves itself, the imprisoning surfaces are broken through by the emancipating reality beneath. Truth will come out: and as it does so, elasticity returns to the springs of life.

The characters in Little Dorrit, although some of them lead a life full of sufferance, still have a ray of hope. For instance, Amy Dorrit, who was born and raised in prison, has not lost the belief that better days would come in her life. She loves Arthur Clennam and she is so dedicated to serving those around her she cares about so that she tries to ignore her normal personal desires.

When Little Dorrit tells her protégée a fairy tale about a beautiful princess who visits a strange woman at a spinning wheel, it seems clear that Amy describes her own thoughts and fantasies of Clennam – visions which she believes she will carry to her grave. In her tale, the mysterious woman keeps a shadow in her cottage, a memory of someone. When the woman dies and her wheel stops turning, this shadow goes with her into her grave. ( Book 1, Ch. XXIV )

Amy hides her own feelings and hopes in silence. The following passage reveals that Little Dorrit negates her own intense emotion, her love for Arthur Clennam. Also, Amy’s dialogue supports the theme of self-sacrifice.

“He saw the devoted little creature with her worn shoes, in her common dress, in her jail-home; a slender child in body, a strong heroine in soul…’So far removed, so different, and so much older, I am the better suited for your friend and adviser…Why have you kept so retired from me? Tell me.’

‘I am better here. My place and use are here. I am much better here’, said Little Dorrit faintly.” ( Book 1, Ch. XXXII, p. 382 )

She goes on to stammer that she keeps no secret from Clennam, and Dickens also describes as possessing a bleeding breast. Obviously, she longs for Clennam, she is prepared to endure intense self-deprivation. In mythologizing her love for Arthur in a fairy tale, Amy tries to kill off her love for Arthur into art. Through the story, Amy tries to convince herself of the impossibility of fulfilling her desire, envisioning for herself a lonely life. Little Dorrit’s tale seems meant to serve as a prediction of the lonely life Amy planned for herself. Though, she gives up this loneliness and marries Clennam at the end of the novel.

In Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam loves Amy in silence as well. He must humble himself to the woman he loves to prove his devotion. He realizes his love for Amy when he is at the Marshalsea Prison. He humbles himself and shows respect for her.

“ ‘Always so much older, so much rougher, and so much less worthy, even what I was must be dismissed by both of us, and you must see me only as I am. I put this parting kiss upon your cheek, my child – who might had been more near to me, who never could have been more dear – a ruined man far removed from you, forever separated from you, whose course is run while yours is but beginning. I have not the courage to ask to be forgotten by you in my humiliation; but I ask to be remembered only as I am.’ ” ( Book 2, Ch. XXIX, p. 760 )

Only by humiliating himself to Little Dorrit can Arthur express his true feelings for her. Little Dorrit realizes that Arthur lost his hope in a way. She reacts to him by soothing and comforting him:

“As he embraced her, she said to him, ‘They never told me you were ill’, and drawing an arm softly round his neck, laid his head upon her bosom, put a hand upon his head, and resting her cheek upon that hand, nursed him as lovingly, and God knows as innocently, as she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the care from others that she took of them.” ( Book 2, Ch. XXIX, p. 756 )

Flora Finching, a former lover of Arthur Clennam, still hopes for his love, but this proves to be a failure.

“ ‘Indeed I have little doubt’, said Flora, running on with astonishing speed and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, ‘that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I’m sure than that the lady should accept you and think herself very well-off…’ ” ( Book 1, Ch. XIII, p. 152 )

Upon hearing that Clennam had not, in fact, married a Chinese woman, Flora commences her ruthless flirting: “ ‘Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!’ tittered Flora.” ( p. 152 )

As human life is a life of surface and sham, failure can appear in any moment. In this situation is Arthur Clennam, who becomes a prey of the financial panic described in the novel. In his illness and penury at the close of the book, Arthur comes to see how hitherto he also cultivated a surface; one, in fact, of conventional commercialism, of being old and avuncular before his time, of convincing himself that he is unloved and unloving. In the prison he partly sees through the self-deception: but not enough for him to suppose that Little Dorrit, whom he now knows he loved him once, loves him still despite his financial disaster. In the final chapter, he reaches that truth also.

In Book 2, Chapter XXIX, Amy gives him hope and offers him her support; she is asking Arthur to think of her “gratitude and affection”, and to accept simply her money as a gift.

The crashing into ruin of Clennam’s house, home of a generation-long deception and self-deception, focuses the reader’s vision of how at least those few who reject and destroy the false “surface” may arise from life’s ruin, into new and valid life, as reborn.

IV.1.c. Legal justice and divine justice

In Little Dorrit the legal justice is identified with the injustice of the law. The legal justice does not really exist, except for the poor. It is the case of those who cannot pay their debts and are punished by the English law to spend the rest of their lives in confinement. Amy, the youngest child of William Dorrit, a debtor and an inmate of the Marshalsea Prison for debt, was actually born in the prison.

The legal justice is done only to the ones who are the victims of the society such as the Dorrit family; they are imprisoned for inability of paying back their debts while the users of the society escape justice. It is the case of the criminal Blandois who is sentenced for murder, but who is set free, though. Or the shady Circumlocution Office which reflects the injustice of the governing system.

The often and emphasized idea of imprisonment has to do with that of seeming as against being. In fact, the idea of imprisonment runs more widely through the book: not only Rigaud’s prison, the Marshalsea, Mrs. Clennam’s incarceration, the Circumlocution Office as the prison of the creative mind of England, and the monastery of the Great St. Bernard, though this is ironical: it is the blind Mr. Dorrit who so sees it; not only the dungeon-like tenements of Venice the whole of which Little Dorrit finds only another Marshalsea, and the constant self-handcuffing gesture of Mr. Merdle. The squalid cramping of Mrs. Gowan’s apartment full of grace and favour and of Mr. Tite Barnacle’s mews-establishment, are further hints of the self-imprisonment practised by the dandies.

Most important, perhaps, imprisonment is the idea that links the extravagant recapitulations of the denouement ( Book 2, Ch. XXX ) to the main narrative. This is true, not simply because Arthur Clennam’s true mother, the singer lived and died imprisoned by Ephraim Flintwinch, the idea of a caged song-bird being doubtless present. The crucial point is that one now sees that what was true for William Dorrit – escaping from prison, he was a prisoner still – is true for all the major characters.

All are prisoners through the force of an idea characteristic of the mid-nineteenth-century, with its deep sense of casual law and long temporal continuity: the present is imprisoned in the past. The message from Arthur’s father – “Do not forget” – was an injunction to remember past obligations. Forgetting them, Mrs. Clennam remained imprisoned in her malformed schemes of retribution. Release lies in the formal, almost ritual burning ( Book 2, Ch. XXXIV ) by which Little Dorrit breaks away from the past, getting rid of its legacy to win free of its burden.

The divine justice represents the reward that Little Dorrit gets for her life of suffering and for her kind nature. The price of her goodness is her marriage to Arthur Clennam. Dickens believes that only love can free one from society’s prisons. Only after Arthur breaks free from the confines of society, and embraces wholeheartedly the love and goodness of Little Dorrit, can he find peace:

“Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for the moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun’s bright rays, and then went down. Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness…They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed.” ( Book 2, Ch. XXXIV, p. 826 )

Dickens suggests, with the phrases “fresh perspective” and “inseparable and blessed”, that authentic partnership and love provide the only solution to imprisonment.

V.1. Dickens’s Narrative Art

Dickens was first and foremost a storyteller. It was so that he thought of himself; it was so that he was regarded by the contemporary public for which, in the first instance, he wrote; and it is here that any critical examination of his achievement must begin.

Dickens’s mastery over his medium is the record of his growth from a remarkably fecund improviser whose panoramic stories were presented as a series of discrete episodes to a writer capable of incorporating segments of narrative into complex, but tightly articulated, wholes.

In all his novels, there is a tendency to sentimentalize life. The novels cover a wide range, social, moral, emotional, and psychological. Thus, he is much concerned with very ordinary people but also with abnormality ( e.g., eccentricity, depravity, madness, hallucinations, dream states ). He is both the most imaginative and fantastic and the most topical and documentary of great novelists.

The technique of his novels follows the development of novel writing from a picaresque tradition to an experimentalist tendency, although the author remains somewhat on the “surface” of life. But for Dickens, with what fascinating variety and intricacy, with what exuberant vitality, do all the false surfaces of life take on colour and proliferate!

The structure of his novels is governed by a mystery that has to be discovered; there is a mystery at the core of every Dickensian novel which is a problem of visions well as a device and is carefully treasured to the last sections of it ( Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit ). It represents Dickens’s awareness that the reader fails to see the true complexity of life. The mystery determines the detective story technique, the maintenance of suspense by alternate complication and elucidation.

It is further enhanced by the atmosphere of places and moments that he manages to create, by a sense of the uncanny, of horror and of the sinister that he succeeds in conveying. Such examples are legion in the Dickensian work.

His art has a deep human quality. As its chief instruments are tears and laughter, and above all the poignancy and flavour of their fusion, Dickens is a prominent figure in the lineage of humourists. His humour, that is to say, the temperament of his reaction to the alternate aspects of life, is rich because it is formed of intense elements, his sensibility being keenly alive to the moving significance as well as to the odd nature of things.

The aim of fiction, as Dickens saw it, was to amuse, to elevate, and finally to calm. When his evil-doers have been got rid of, he delights in apportioning quiet happiness to every character in the novel beloved by him and his readers.

In calling on the conventional artifices of melodramatic plotting, Dickens was endeavouring to replace the straight linear progression of the picaresque tale with a more involved type of narrative. Melodrama is theatrical rather and literary and appeal, and has a colourful alteration of violence, pathos and humour. Dickens is a mastermind at melodrama. It is clearly portrayed in Oliver Twist because of the structure of the novel.

The vocabulary which Dickens habitually employs to describe his narrative methods is extremely revealing. He never seeks even in his most mature work to create the impression that his plots evolve by their own impetus out of an inner logic of events. Form and meaning do not organically coalesce; rather they are related through a process of deliberate and overt manipulation. To recur to Dickens’s chosen analogy, the themes of the later novels provide the warp or groundwork through which the artist threads an intricate pattern of interlocking episodes to impose the desire completeness and finality of design.

Dickens’s fiction stems from the mingling of epic and dramatic elements which imparted to the English novel its characteristic form in the 18th century. Translated into prose narrative, the epic issues in all the many varieties of the picaresque tale. The novels’ debt to drama is equally manifest, whether in the broadly farcical scenes of Fielding and Smollett or the obvious dependence of the sensation novelists on stage melodrama.

By temperament and experience Dickens was receptive to both traditional strains. In popular narrative and dramatic modes, then, Dickens found forms of expression comfortable to his imaginative vision; and he set out to perfect a manner of his own through experimentation with their possibilities.

No one can resist the appeal of Dickens’s pathos – born of a heart-felt sympathy with all the wronged, all the victims of life; neither can the sternest-minded reader unperturbed by his high spirits and inexhaustible humour. Kindly emotion and irresistible humour, everywhere present, always delightfully blended in the writings of Dickens, are fused into a rich alloy – the “Dickensian charm” 1 – by the novelist’s supreme gift: his amazing imagination.

V.1.a. Point of view

In the novels quoted so far, Dickens uses the omniscient point of view, he knows everything about everything. This omniscience means detachment and gives the narrator the power of manipulating his characters.

The narrator of each novel is some unidentified person or voice who always uses the grammatical third person – ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’. This omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. Another characteristic of this type of narrator is that such a story-teller, unlike any human being who has ever lived, knows what is going on inside the mind of other people or at least other characters.

In Dombey and Son for example, readers often see what characters wish to keep secret. Apparently disregarding boundaries between public and private spheres, omniscience creates its characteristic effects precisely by establishing and then violating such boundaries. But while this is always true of omniscience Dombey’s narrator reminds the reader of it often than most. Through comments, through extended scenes in which the reader observes Florence or Dombey alone, the reader is made aware that he observes scenes in which characters would, but for narrator and the reader, remain unobserved.

Omniscience, with its emphasis on interiority, its interest in revealing what transpires when ‘no one’ is present – its ability, precisely, to violate privacy – is paradoxically suited to disseminate the values of private life: to sustain a fiction of privacy. And because it is sure of what takes place behind closed doors – because it so absolutely violates privacy – the novels’ omniscience paradoxically manages to align itself against the public world and with the private, even as it reveals private affairs to the public eye.

True character reveals itself in the incompleteness of a character’s control over his or her appearance, and the narrator establishes his power over his characters, just as the characters do over one another, by noting these lapses of control. Thus, purporting to see through to true character, this narrative technique establishes its own truth value. The narrator sets himself up as an eye that sees beyond what is presented for public consumption.

Omniscience shows what any keen-eyed observer might see – what individuals themselves “give away”. But most characteristically it shows what no one sees, what characters keep to themselves or what no one cares to see. By emphasizing what “no one knows”, Dombey’s narration signals the importance of what characters do when they are alone, establishing the value of privacy for the revelation of true character.

Alerting the reader to the importance of what goes on when no one is watching, Dombey and Son valorizes characters – Florence above all – whose primary attribute is their inattention to the public world, characters who prefer to be alone, with whom the reader spends long periods in private, and who, even in public, are incapable of “surface” acting. Linking the values of privacy and the natural, Dickens thus manages the unmanaged heart, constructing the natural and the private in opposition to the unnatural and the public, establishing an emotional system in which characters are valued to the extent that they are able to ignore the public world. 2

As a narratorial projection, Florence might be said to represent not a fantasy of omniscience as control, but one of omniscience as lack of control. Naturalizing Florence’s desires, the narration reveals as inevitable what Florence and the omniscient narrator have always “known” – because they affirmed it – to be so.

To paraphrase Roland Barthes, the very being of omniscience is to keep the question of who is speaking from ever being answered. 3 Quotation, Susan Stewart writes, “points not only inward but outward as well” 4 , establishing a “world within” and one without. Its source unnamed, the quotation naturalizes “foreknowledge”; the narrator’s voice might well be “the rain that falls” or “the wind that mourns”. It might be, for that matter, the father’s voice.

The other two novels follow the same pattern.

V.1.b.1. Descriptions of people

Dickens’s prose varies in quality, but he is nearly always readable. In his novels he describes and attacks many kinds of unpleasant people.

His characters include thieves, murderers, men in debt, stupid and unwashed men and women, schoolmasters, hungry children, and those who do their best to deceive the honest.

Dickens’s figures are only masks – not characters, but personified characteristics, caricatures and distorsions of human nature. Some of his gentler ones are very weak such as Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist or Florence Dombey. Others are humourous – exaggerations of one human quality to the point of caricature, as Edmund Sparkler or Mr. Toots. Characterizing a person, Dickens uses important literary devices:

a) physical description – telling the reader what the character looks like:

“The Doctor was a portly gentleman in a suit of black, with strings at his knees, and stockings below them. He had a bald head, highly polished; a deep voice; and a chin so very double, that it was a wonder how he ever managed to shave into the creases. He had likewise a pair of little eyes that were always half shut up, and a mouth that was always half expanded into a grin, as if he had, that moment, posed a boy, and were waiting to convict him from his own lips. Insomuch, that when the Doctor put his right hand into the breast of his coat, and with his other hand behind him, and a scarcely perceptible wag of his head, made the commonest observation to a nervous stranger, it was like a sentiment from the Sphinx, and settled his business.” ( Dr. Blimber’s portrait in Dombey and Son, Ch. XI, p. 129 )

b ) dialogue – what the character says; for example, Fanny Dorrit reveals her proud and arrogant temper in the way she speaks to her sister: “you mean little thing”, “stupid child”, “you little Fool”. ( Book 1, Ch. XX, p. 243 )

c ) physical actions – what the character does, particularly in relation to what he or she says or thinks: the same whimsical Fanny Dorrit ( “ ‘You little Fool!’ returned her sister, shaking her with the sharp pull she gave her arm.”, Book 1, Ch. XX, p. 243 )

d ) judgement by others – what other characters say and think about a person:

“ ‘Miss Dombey is confiding and young – perhaps hardly proud enough for your daughter – if she have a fault.’ ” ( Mr. Carker’s statement, Ch. XXVI, pp. 323-324 )

e ) thoughts or mental actions – the character’s inner life, what the character thinks; for example, Arthur Clennam’s meditations: “He had kissed her when he raised from the ground, on the day when she had been so consistently and expressively forgotten. Quite as he might have kissed her, if she had been conscious.” ( Book 2, Ch. XXVII, p. 731 )

f ) the narrator’s judgement – what the narrator tells the reader about the character: “Mr. Dombey seemed touched, as it is not improbable the major designed he should be, by this allusion. He looked down and sighed: and the major, rousing himself fiercely, again said, in reference to the state of mind into which he felt himself in danger of falling, that this was weakness, and nothing should induce him to submit to it.” ( Ch. XX, p. 245 )

In building up his characters, Dickens reduces them to their main features, simplifies them in a sense but endows them with symbolic value and universality.

V.1.b.2. Descriptions of institutions

In his novels, Dickens also describes ‘unpleasant’ institutions such as government departments, bad schools and prisons.

The institutions appear in his novels as real characters; the Circumlocution Office, the Marshalsea Prison in Little Dorrit and the Workhouse in Oliver Twist are depicted in great detail.

“It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hammed in by high walls dully spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs, who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door, closing up a second prison, consisting of strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.” ( Book 1, Ch. VI, p. 57 )

Dickens excelled in the art of description. The institutions are of such great intensity, that they have become symbolic.

V.1.b.3. Descriptions of places

Despite the great number of characters in his novels, each one can be easily distinguished due to Dickens’s brilliant characterization technique. One of the methods that he employs to enhance the uniqueness of his characters involves describing them connected to their surroundings. He creates landscapes and residences that parallel the essence of the character found within. For example, in Little Dorrit, when Arthur Clennam returns home to visit his mother, his first glimpse of the house foreshadows the gloom he will see in his mother only a few moments later:

“An old brick house, so dingy as to be but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank ( which is saying much ) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty. Many years ago it had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.” ( Book 1, Ch. III, p. 31 )

The dinginess or filthiness of the Clennam house makes it almost black in appearance, and this blackness reflects not only the mood of sorrow and guilt within the house, but also the very appearance of Mrs. Clennam, who has worn only her black widow’s dress for the past fifteen months: “There was smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow’s dress for fifteen months.” ( Book 1, Ch. III, p. 33 )

Characterization of this kind appears numerous times in Little Dorrit, often in a less subtle form. The description of the Meagles’ home includes details of Pet’s charm and thus directly links the character to her setting: “It was a charming place ( none the worse for being a little eccentric ), on the road by the river. It stood in a garden, no doubt as fresh and beautiful in the May of the year as Pet now was in the May of her life; and it was defended by a goodly show and handsome trees and spreading evergreens as Pet was by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles.” ( Book 1, Ch. XVI, p. 191 )

In Oliver Twist, passing from the shadow of the workhouse to that of criminal London, the reader submits to the effect which Dickens alone can produce; London as a place of squalid mystery and terror, of the grimly grotesque, of labyrinthine obscurity and lurid fascination, is particular to Dickens. He taught people a certain way of regarding the huge city. The vile streets, accurately described and named; the bare, filthy rooms inhabited by Fagin and Sikes and the rest of them; the hideous public-house to which thieves resort are before the reader with a haunting reality.

The places inhabited or frequented by the thieves are usually depicted at night: the labyrinthic streets in the slums of London, the frightening interiors of the dilapidated houses.

V.1.c. Symbols

Dickens’s novels are laden with symbols expressing deep significances. His powerful symbolic portrayal of life as a river which flows into the sea of death is used for the first time.

In Dombey and Son, the sea is invoked metaphorically to foretell little Paul’s death ( Ch. XVIII ). The symbolic waters appear also in Oliver Twist; for example, the rain which “came down thick and fast” in accordance to Oliver’s state of weakness ( Ch. XXVIII, p. 206 ), or the tears in Oliver’s eyes. ( Chs. XXXIV and LI).

Dickens’s use of dreams for fictional purposes is extremely sophisticated. He is especially original in exploiting the waking dream, in which impressions derived from the surrounding world merge with subjective imaginings. Oliver Twist undergoes to such experiences, which leave in their wake an intuitive sense of the evil threatening him. The first occurs in Chapter IX when Oliver, “in a drowsy state, between sleeping and waking” beholds Fagin sorting over the jewelry which includes the trinket once in the possession of the boy’s dead mother. ( p. 58 )

The second and more sinister episode comes in Chapter XXXIV. Oliver’s new found security in the Maylie household is shattered when he awakens from a nap to the certainty that Fagin and Monks have been watching him through the open window. (p. 255 )

The dreams are present in Little Dorrit as well. It is the case of Mrs. Flintwinch in Chapters IV, XV, XXIX in Book 1 and in Chapters IX and XXIII in Book 2.

In Oliver Twist metaphors get symbolic meanings: Rose Maylie’s handkerchief, the Jew or Bulls-Eye. Rose is a symbol of good in the novel with her loving nature and perfect beauty. When she gives Nancy her handkerchief, and when Nancy holds it up as she dies, it shows that by her acts, Nancy has gone over to the ‘good’ side against the thieves; her position on the ground is as if she is in prayer, and this shows her godly or good nature.

Fagin himself is a recurring symbol for the evil. Several times Dickens refers to him with known devil names or symbols. He talks of Fagin with flaming red hair and a beard, along with a three-pronged roasting fork, which are symbols of Lucifer. Before he is to die, he refuses to pray for himself and his being a Jew has a very evil connotation. He is greedy and mean trying to pull Oliver and others into his web of evil.

Mr. Sikes’s little white dog is really a metaphor for his own evil personality. The dog, with its willingness to harm anyone on Sikes’s whim, shows the true evil of the master. Sikes himself knows that the dog is the symbol of himself and that is why he tries to drown the dog. He is really trying to run away from who he is. This is also illustrated when Sikes dies and the dog does immediately as well.

The shadow has great symbolic significance in Little Dorrit. It represents hidden secrets; secrets from a hidden past or of corruption. In the very first chapter, the narrator explains: “To come out of the twilight of pillars and arches – dreamily peopled with ugly old shadows piously dozing, spitting, and begging – was to plunge into a fiery river, and swim for life to the nearest strip of shade.” ( Book 1, Ch. II, p. 21 ) People find the shadows relaxing and comforting in the way they conceal their rude habits and the shallowness of their piety. The sun does not treat people so kindly. It serves as a baptism of fire, revealing their true selves.

Mrs. Clennam’s house contained such corruption and such a dark, torrid history that “If the sun ever touched it, it was but with the ray, and that was gone in half an hour, if the moonlight ever fell upon it, it was only to put a few patches on its doleful cloak, and make it look more wretched.” ( Book 1, Ch. XV, p. 178 ) Shadow enveloped the entire house because of the secret evil abiding within its walls. The sun itself refuses to touch it, afraid of what its revealing rays might discover. At this point of the story, the nature of this evil remains a mystery to the reader, but this grotesque description of the house foreshadows what he will find inside.

Dickens also refers to the shadow as a more personal thing, a stifling memory of some hidden or frightful past that haunts people wherever they go. He writes, for example: “the shadow of the Marshalsea wall” was a real darkening influence, and could be seen on the Dorrit family at any stage of the sun’s course. ( Book 1, Ch. XXII, p. 263 ) The Dorrit family, now living very lavishly, cannot forget their past, as distant as it may seem from their present position.

In Little Dorrit, the symbol of Mrs. Clennam’s watch is both subtle and

complex. The watch symbolizes Mrs. Clennam’s unceasingly tortous guilt. Not only did she ruin any hope of happiness for her husband and his lover, but she took their love-child and wronged him, Arthur Clennam, by keeping him as her own son in ignorance until too late – until after his real mother had died. While her husband, Arthur’s father, lies on his deathbed, he entrusts this watch to Arthur to be given to “his mother”. The significance lies in the initials engraved into the watch: “D.N.F.” or “DO NOT FORGET”. And she does not forget. From the moment the watch enters the book, in Chapter III, it stays on the table before her ( p. 53 ), and when next presented in the scene with Blandois, the watch “is lying before her as it always did.” ( Book 1, Ch. XXX, p. 355 ) The engraved initials whose meaning no living person knows except herself symbolizes the brooding guilt she bears alone because she cannot tell anyone her dark secret.

On a higher plan, the watch also symbolizes her warped religion which focused on an angry, vengeful God who “does not forget” or forgive. Little Dorrit’s opinion that Mrs. Clennam should “be guided by the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities” ( Book 2, Ch. XXXI, p. 792 ) rather than her wrathful, unbending God represents Dickens’s criticism of the Victorian Evangelical Christianity that neglected the compassionate Christ for the fear-and-trembling God.

In Dickens’s novels even the names of the characters have symbolic value, such as the Barnacles and the Stiltstalkings in Little Dorrit, or the Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble and Oliver Twist in the homonymous novel. Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle, is characterized as an “officious jack-in-office” and is connected with bumble-bee, suggesting the idea of useless noise. Twist connotes helplessness: the boy can be twisted around by anybody.

In the guise of symbols Dickens hides the reality, though he determines the reader to discover their senses.

V.1.d. Time and space

The temporal and spatial dimensions are very well specified in Dickens’s novels. For example, Dombey and Son begins with time written in a capital letter:

“On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time – remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go – while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.” Ch. I, p. 5 )

In Chapter VIII of the same novel, time appears as a mark of people’s lives: “Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time – so far another Major Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.” ( p. 83 )

Dickens’s favourite setting was nineteenth-century London. Thus, time and place were contemporary with the author. He placed Little Dorrit in a time when debtors’ prisons still existed. The Marshalsea setting dominates much of the action of the novel:

“Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it.” ( Ch. VI, p. 57 )

Setting tends to focus on place and on those techniques, such as descriptions and allusions to verifiable facts that create setting.

The author informs the reader that the action happens in a specific real place, in this case, the London of Dickens’s time. His novels describe landscapes, cities and interiors in great detail. The following appears in Oliver Twist:

“The wall and ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt. There was a deal table before the fire: upon which were a candle, stuck in a ginger-beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, a loaf and butter, and a plate. In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand was a very old shrivelled Jew…” ( Ch. VIII, p. 56 )

Spatiality and temporality are inherent in Dickens’s work, in view of his purpose of displaying the reality as it was.


Guibillon, G. : La litterature anglaise par les textes, Librairie A. Hatier, Paris, 27th edition.

For “emotional system”, see Hochschild, The Managed Heart, p. 12.

Barthes, Roland, S/Z, p. 140.

“What stands outside the quotation mark is seen as spontaneous and original; hence our generic conventions of speaking from the heart, from the body, from nature.”: Stewart, Susan ( 1984 ) : On Longing, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 19.

VI. Conclusions

The Victorians were sure that their social and political problems could not be resolved on a purely party basis. As a spokesman of the Victorian age, Dickens wrote his novels with the purpose of improving social conditions.

Thus, he attacked against an economic structure determining social misery in Oliver Twist or denounced the mentality of the leading classes at large in Dombey and Son. In his novels, he had frequently alluded to the insufficiency of existing institutions, as well as to aspects of individual and social conscience. Then he came to one more superstructural aspect: the legal system, as he presented it in Little Dorrit.

Injustice is the keyword which characterizes the Victorian period. Dickens satirizes the legal system and attacks the ponderous mechanism of the law itself as an expression of contemporary society, based on the idea of property.

As a fine observer of life, Dickens took up an attitude towards people and facts. In the novels presented in this study, one could notice and could feel a strong sense of social lawlessness, one could perceive a prominent image of misery and of human malice. Aspects of the most characteristic of the English reality in the 19th century were not neglected by the writer’s pen. His own life experience helped him to understand the harsh conditions of the poor and made him sympathize with the victims of the contemporary society.

Beginning his novels as fiercely satirical attacks on contemporary injustice, Dickens succeeded in changing them into personal works, providing for all a 19th century parable of the triumph of good over evil, of innocence and purity over devilish cunningness and corruption.

VII. Bibiography

I. A. Works by Charles Dickens

( 1995 ) : Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Retail, Wholesale

and for Exportation, Wordsworth Editions Limited.

( 1992 ) : Little Dorrit, Everyman’s Library, London.

( 1992 ) : Oliver Twist, Everyman’s Library, London.

I. B. Books on Charles Dickens

1. General books

Blamires, Harry ( 1991 ) : A History of Literary Criticism, Macmillan

Education Ltd., London.

Bottez, Monica ( 1985 ) : Aspects of the Victorian Novel: Dickens, Bucuresti, TUB.

Burgess, Anthony ( 1994 ) : English Literature, Longman.

Cartianu, Ana ( 1967 ) : Istoria literaturii engleze ( Sec. XIX ), Bucuresti.

Daiches, David ( 1975 ) : A Critical History of English Literature, vol. III, Secker and Warburg, second revised edition.

Day, Martin S. ( 1963-1964 ) : History of English Literature, vol. III, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York.

Galea, Ileana ( 2000 ) : Victorianism and Literature, Editura Dacia,


Legouis, Emile, Cazamian, Louis, Las Vergnas, Raymond ( 1968 ) :

A History of English Literature, J.M. Dent & Sons, revised edition.

Thornley, G.C., Roberts, Gwyneth ( 1994 ) :

An Outline of English Literature, Longman.

The preface to Dickens, Charles ( 1992 ) : Oliver Twist,

Everyman’s Library, signed by Michael Slater.

The preface to Dickens, Charles( 1978 ) : Little Dorrit, Penguin,

signed by John Holloway.

2. Internet Articles on Charles Dickens

Boyd, Betsy ( 1995 ) : ‘Ascetic Love in Little Dorrit’ on 

Ceylem, Deniz Tarsha: ‘Intimidation and Embarrassment in Conversations of Dickens’s Novels’ on  Chang, Annette ( 1996 ) : ‘The Watch: Symbolism in Dickens’s Little Dorrit’ on

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith: ‘Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens’ on

Constable, Emily C. ( 1997 ) : ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine on Dickens’s Unforgettable Characters’ on

Constable, Emily C. ( 1997 ) : ‘Characterization and Setting in Dickens’s Little Dorrit’ on

Constable, Emily C. ( 1997 ) : ‘Female Saviours in Victorian Literature: Amy Dorrit’ on

Garabedian, Catherine ( 1997 ) : ‘Power and Love in Aurora Leigh and Little Dorrit’ on

Geroux, Ellen ( 1997 ) : ‘Prisons in Little Dorrit’ on

Gissing, George: ‘The Immortal Dickens’ on

Hadley, Elaine: ‘Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in England’s Marketplace, 1800-1885’ on

Hecimovich, Gregg A. ( 1990 ) : ‘Oliver Twist and The Good Samaritan Parable: Distortions of Religious Language in Victorian Society’ on

Johnson, E.D.H. : ‘Dickens’s Narrative Art’ on

Johnson, E.D.H. : ‘Presentation of Characters’ on

Johnson, E.D.H. : ‘Social Background’ on

Keller, John Robert: ‘Lucky’s Bones: A Sense of Starvation in Watt, Waiting for Godot and Oliver Twist’ on

Kincaid, James R. : ‘Little Dorrit: The Attack on Comedy’ on

Landow, George P. : ‘Guilt, Criminality, and Doppelgängers in Dickens’


Landow, George P. : ‘Some Brief Observations on Paradigms and Literary Structure’ on

Silvey, Katie: ‘An Analysis and Interpretation of Oliver Twist’ on

Wells, Erin ( 1996 ) : ‘Shadow as a Symbol in Dickens and MacDonald’


Wells, Erin ( 1996 ) : ‘Swindlers and Society in Dickens and Carlyle’ on

II. Works on Victorianism

1. General Works

Birdsall, S.Viault ( 1990 ) : Western Civilization Since 1600,

McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Deac, Livia, Nicolescu, Adrian ( 1983 ) : British Life and Civilization, Editura Didactica si Pedagogica, Bucuresti.

Dramba, Ovidiu ( 1998 ) : Istoria literaturii universale, vol. II,

Editura Saeculum I.O., Editura Vestala, Bucuresti.

Galea, Ileana, op. cit.

Schneider, Wolf ( 1968 ) : Omniprezentul Babilon, Editura Politica, Bucuresti.

Williams, Raymond ( 1975 ) : Culture and Society 1780-1950, Penguin Books, Middlesex.

2. Articles on Victorianism

Bédarida, François ( 1981 ) : ‘In Anglia epocii victoriene’ in

Magazin istoric, nr. 1, translation by Florentina Dolghin.

Cmeciu, Doina ( 1996 ) : ‘Politeness: Women’s and Men’s Linguistic Behaviour; A Comparative Study on W. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and in Ch. Dickens’s Dombey and Son’ in Semiologia culturii, nr. 1, Bacau.

Philip, André, Philip, Loïc ( 1979 ) : ‘Revolutia industriala in Anglia’ in Magazin istoric, nr. 9, translation by Ioan Dragomirescu.

3. Internet Articles on Victorianism

Caperton, John ( 1989 ) : ‘The Crisis of Organized Religion’ on

Cody, David ( 1987 ) : ‘Child Labour’ on

DeLaura, David J. : ‘Victorian Philosophy’ on

Landow, George P. : ‘Victorian and Victorianism’ on

III. Dictionaries

Lefter, Virgil ( 1994 ) : Dictionar de proverbe englez-roman,

Editura Albatros, Bucuresti.

*** ( 1995 ) : Lexicon Universal Encyclopædia, Lexicon Publications Inc., New York.

*** ( 1974 ) : The New Encyclopædia Britannica, vols. V and XIX.

*** ( 1996 ) : Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Gramercy Books, New York.


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