I am going to examine the hardships endured at home, in institutions and in society of children in Dickenson times. At this time poverty and cruelty was rife and commonplace in society, institutions which were supposed to care for children, exploited and abused their authority over them. These institutions were run by greedy, corrupt hypocrites, whose only main interest was making money, and usually exploiting the children at their disposal to make the money they so desired. We also see cruelty and neglect in domesticated situations, parents and guardians taking their children for granted, or not appreciating them. In my exploration I will be using the novels, “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”.
Dickens understood the life and hardships of children because he himself had a difficult childhood; he never forgot the experience of poverty and misery. For us to comprehend the times of Charles Dickens it is necessary to know the background of his life. Dickens was born in 1812; his father was clerk working for the Navy Pay office, so even at an early stage in his life he had an opportunity to see life along the Thames and the Docks of London. As he turned twelve years old, his parents got him a job in a Factory, he hated every minute of the job. At this time Dickens started to experience the poverty stricken parts of London and it greatly concerned him, during his time in the factory his family were imprisoned in a debtor’s prison, Dickens grew angry at the cruelty and misery when he visited the prison and over the years his resentment of poverty, cruelty and injustice continued to develop as he lived in London, the central hub of the world at that time, he began to understand the ugly underside of life in the capital. Dickens was a social critic, you could also tell from his writing that he had a social conscious, and understood a place like London at this time. Arguably his greatest novels were those which feature prominently children and their hardships, I will now explore some of these novels.
In one of Dickens great novels ‘Oliver Twist’, we see children as slaves in the workhouse, forced to work under their cruel and exploiting authority figures. From early on in this novel we experience many examples of cruelty, neglect and hypocrisy. The authorities of the workhouse see the children as commodities which they can use to their advantage, to make money, to exploit them. The adults who run the workhouse think they are doing the right thing, the perceive themselves as the epitome of fairness, taking in the poor and feeding them and letting live under a roof instead of the streets, when in truth the workhouse is an exploitation of the normal people within it such as Oliver, The authority figures are nothing more than hypocrites which Dickens use’s to show us example of when adults neglect and exploit children.
There are numerous examples of exploitation and neglect in this novel, but the greatest example is when Oliver asks for more. This scene in the novel is one of the greatest scenes of literature, this passage highlights Charles Dickens talent in describing the situation in his novels beautifully, it also shows where Dickens sympathy lies with the children. In this passage Dickens portrays the young boy as a hero; Oliver is used as an expressive figure for all the exploited children within the workhouse, when he asks
“Please Sir, I want some more”.
The master’s reaction to Oliver’s request is irrational and violent, and the reaction from the master is crucial to Dickens portraying the injustice of the workhouse. The master is outraged because he feels that the child should take what they are given and be thankful for it, this ‘natural order’ of the workhouse has been upset because of Oliver’s simple request and the authorities have over reacted, another interesting point is the reaction of the board to the situation, they are shocked and appalled, at a child questioning the workhouse’s right to feed the children the little they are given. Another reaction which again confirms the board’s feelings towards a child questioning them is the gentleman in the white waistcoat who exclaims
“That boy will be hung”
This highlights the fact that the children in the workhouse have no say on how their lives are ran, and the board feel that their right to run the workhouse how they want was threatened by Oliver’s simple request that he wanted to be without hunger.
Towards the end of this passage the board of the workhouse decide to sell Oliver off:
“A bill was next morning posted outside the gate, offering a reward of five pounds to anybody who would take Oliver Twist of the hands of the Parish”.
This again confirms that the children of the workhouse were regarded as commodities, and the cruel and exploitative men of the board were allowed to put a price on human life. Dickens stresses the injustice of this in his novel, and shows that he is against slavery of any kind, but most of all against children, this example of slavery occurs in England, which also further annoys Dickens as England is supposed to be the leading nation at the time.
Later on the novel, we meet the character Fagin, he is another who exploits children, in this case, he forces them to risk persecution by the law to steal for him, in order to make himself wealthy, this section of the book tells us of a world that the children run, different to the normal society. Fagin calls his children ‘students’, he does however treat them differently than the workhouse previously did. He rewards them when he is pleased with their performance treating them with money or food, however, when is not satisfied with their performance he attitude changes dramatically. He would:
“Expatiate with great vehemence on the misery of idle and lazy habits”
He would also inflict violence on the children as well; an example of this is when he knocked the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates hurtfully down the stairs. This example of exploitation is an abomination, there is not a sense of hypocrisy in Fagin’s den as there was in the workhouse, Fagin does not pretend to be a just and law-abiding citizen, as there are a degree of humanity in Fagin’s actions, as the children seem to prefer Fagin’s den to the drudgery of the workhouse situation.
In this situation Dickens also shows his craft, he is showing how the children have a better life in a criminal and harsh but fair environment, than a hypocritical and unjust government environment.
In Victorian England, there where numerous cases of domestic neglect and cruelty towards the children of this time, in Dickens writing, he showed the public the neglect that was around at the time.
A string example of domestic neglect is in the Novel ‘Great Expectations’. This is a comic and amusing example of a household which is struggling to keep itself together, the family in mention is the Pocket family, this family are not poor and Dickens shows us that there is neglect in the middle of comfort, where the children are allowed to mature and grow in there own ways, with little supervision from their parents. The passage in the book is littered with irony which exaggerates how sad and harmful the situation is for the children in the Pocket family. The irony emerges from the passage as Mr. Pocket, who is a professor in domestic economy, but fails to correctly manage his own home, throughout the passage in the novel he is constantly stressed and harassed and always ruffling and abusing his hair to relive his stress:
“With one very strong effort to lift himself up by the hair, he dismissed the hopeless subject”.
Although Mr. Pocket does come across a nice, kind man in the passage he obviously cannot control his children, he lacks the basic parental skills and is a failure as a parent when it come to looking after his children, he does however try to help the household by arguing the case for the baby, when the mother protests:
“Belinda, how can you be so unreasonable?, Jane only interfered for the protection of the baby”.
But shortly after Mr Pocket’s action he is made to back down by his wife.
Dickens also use’s another character in the novel to portray a terrible tragedy in any period of time, the mother of the Pocket family is extremely neglectful of her children, she does not even know how to address them:
“Mrs Pocket looked as if she had thought that she had the pleasure of inspecting them before, but didn’t know what quite to make of them”.
This situation in today’s society is disgraceful, but in Dickens’s times this was acceptable. The mother of the children is portrayed by Dickens to be more concerned about titles and the class system of England than her own children. In the novel Dickens presents Mrs Pocket as unawares of the children being in the same home, more or less oblivious of them, Dickens also presents her as a hypocrite just like he did with the masters in the workhouse, as Jane try’s to care for the baby Mrs Pocket rebukes:
“How dare you tell me so?”
This reaction shows us that Mrs Pocket thinks she knows best when in reality, she knows much less than the person she is shouting at.
Again this passage is typical Dickens; he presents the children as heroes in a hopeless struggle against self-obsessed, hypocritical adults, although the cruelty in this passage is not deliberate as the parents do not actually know how to take proper care of their children and therefore, neglect them.
Another example of cruelty and neglect towards children by adults, is in the novel ‘Great Expectations’ the passage of Pip’s Christmas Dinner show us Victimisation is evident throughout this passage with Pip being the main target of the abuse. Pip does not enjoy his Christmas meal or celebrate the Season because Mrs Joe’s friends, Wopsle, Pumblechook and the Hubbles spend their time and most of the entire meal criticising Pip. Dickens again shows his audience that hypocrisy and cruelty are not just in institution such as workhouses but in the Home.
During the meal as the adults are critical to Pip, irony is evident and exaggerates the cruelty shown to Pip, as it is the Season of Goodwill, but no one seems to show any to Pip. As he is a child he does not get a proper seat at the table:
“Squeezed in at an acute angle of the table cloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye”.
In my opinion I think that this passage shows us how shockingly children where victimized in Dickenson times, just for being a mere few years younger than there oppressors, this passage demonstrates how unfairly the children where treated in these times, at the time in the passage everyone is supposed to have a fair an equal share as it is the season of Goodwill. Dickens writing skill of describing the situation and characters in it helps to show us how Pip feels out of place and how he does not look forward to Christmas, this allows us to emphasize with Pip, and put ourselves in the situation he is in, it also comes across in the writing that Dickens empathises with Pip as well.
To conclude, I feel that Charles Dickens writing portrays the children as little heroes, who are forced to suffer unnecessarily at the fault of adults during the Victorian times. The Children are presented by Dickens as the most honest and caring creatures in a hypocritical society. Dickens use’s his writing to tell his audience that in these times children are entitled to enjoy life as any adult would, not made to suffer because they are younger and smaller.