Two Different Portrayals of Orphans in Dickens

June 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Victorian literature is over-populated with orphans. The Bronte sisters, Trollope, George Elliot, Thackeray and Gaskell all positioned orphans as leading characters in their novels. This trend continued into the Edwardian period, as Frances Hodgson Burnett created the orphaned protagonists Colin, Mary, and Sara. While it can be argued that the use of orphans reflects the enormous number of orphaned children and a different definition of “orphan” than is commonly used today (a Victorian “orphan” could have one parent), the number of orphans in nineteenth century English literature remains disproportionately high – and nowhere is it higher than in the works of Charles Dickens. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield all include a plethora of orphans. Dickens’ treatment of these individual characters, however, varies widely. For example, while both protagonists of Great Expectations and David Copperfield are missing mother and father, their paths in life differ markedly. Whereas David Copperfield is portrayed as the stereotypical plucky orphan who charts his own way in the world, Pip remains trapped in situations in which he has little agency. Despite David’s “undisciplined heart,” youth, and gullibility, he remains free from the taint of criminality that so doggedly follows Pip throughout Great Expectations. The two different approaches illustrated in Great Expectations and David Copperfield are consistent with the contradictory Victorian attitudes to orphaned children and the curious blend of fascination and fear with which they approached this social issue. Auerbach discusses Victorian attitudes to orphans at length. She notes that the “orphan is born to himself and establishes his own social penumbra” (Auerbach 395). Victorians viewed orphans as unencumbered by family histories or the other societal expectations that bind as much as they support. Thus, the orphan is a free agent, potentially capable of writing his own life story in ways that “regular” children, burdened as they are with parental and social expectations, are not free to attempt. The literary orphan’s “appearance of winsome fragility” is deceiving because it masks an enormous “power of survival” (Auerbach 395) necessary for creating a position in the world. This view is consistent with how Dickens portrays David. The “winsome fragility” of David is repeatedly emphasized in the early chapters of the novel. David is first seen as an infant, and then as a small child chattering about crocodiles. Dickens creates an endearing picture as the reader sees the young David frolicking on the beach with little Em’ly. David himself comments on the fragility of this time, noting “as to any sense of inequality, or youthfulness, or other difficulty in our way, little Em’ly and I had no such trouble because we had no future. We made no more provision for growing older, than we did for growing younger” (DC 39). This sense of winsome fragility is underscored by the pleasure with which Mrs. Gummidge, Peggotty and Mr. Peggoty take in the children, “as if they might have had in a pretty town, or a pocket model of the Colosseum” (39-40). The hero’s winsome nature only makes the cruelty of the Murdstones all the more devastating. Lest there be any doubt as to David’s size and strength, the illustrations by Hablôt Knight Browne emphasize David’s smallness. We first see him sitting in a church pew, very much alone among the adults that tower above him. His small size is emphasized in the subsequent illustrations, in which David is seen in a largely adult world, entirely dwarfed by the chair in which he is seated. While it can be argued that all children are winsomely frail, Victorians held that the orphans possessed this trait in spades, given their uncertain status in the world. The winsome fragility of the infant David soon gives way to surprising strength as David begins to react against his lot in life. After the death of his mother, David starts to take on the roles associated with independent adults. He is conscious that other children behave differently from him. He wonders whether his “precocious self-dependence” confused Mrs. Macawber with respect to his age (GE 140). Similarly, he wonders “what the waiter thought of such a strange little apparition coming in all alone” (DC 142). He demonstrates a surprising maturity and avoids getting entangled in the Macawbers’ financial ruin. After Mr. Macawber’s arrest, he notes that he lived “the same secretly unhappy life; but I led it in the same lonely, self-reliant manner” (DC 148). This singular “otherness” allows David to interact with adults as an adult without the diminished expectations of intelligent discourse that are frequently placed upon children. Unlike other children, he makes his own place in the world as an adult. His secret uphappiness merely serves as fuel for further self-development.This transformation from being dependent upon adults to becoming a singularly self-reliant child in London reaches a new level when he resolves to run away from Murdstone and Grinby’s in the hope that his Aunt Clara can provide him with a better situation. While it can be argued that David is regressing back to a parental situation, the better view is that he has realized what he needs and has formulated a plan to meet those needs. David’s execution of his “resolution” illustrates the enormous power of survival of which Auerbach speaks. The reader sees David struggling with the logistics of getting from London to Dover, having his money stolen, pawning clothing for food, cooling his blistered feet, confronting the ruffians, and persevering throughout the twenty-three mile trip to Aunt Betsy’s. This trip transforms Pip; never again will we see him as dependent upon others as he was upon the Murdstones and others who hijacked his childhood. This transformation went to the heart of the Victorian fascination with the orphan, whom they invested with enormous personal strength and fortitude. No longer bound by ties to father and mother, his job at Murdstone and Grinby, or the cruel Murdstones, David can make his own path in the world. While David may seem immature, gullible, or undisciplined, he is never again completely at the mercy of others. It is little surprise that this transformation coincides with a name change – from David to Trotwood. The Victorian fascination with the orphan as a free agent also dovetails with their belief in the Protestant work ethic. The abhorrence of idleness and a belief in the redeeming power of labor allowed Victorians to believe it conceivable for a orphan to pull himself up by his bootstraps – and perhaps be far more successful than one who is burdened with family and other obligations. David’s rise from the bottle shop where he begins “the world on your own account” (DC 136) to a successful writer makes him very much an English Horatio Algers. Curiously, Algers was writing at roughly the same time in the United States. Literary orphans were routinely used as examples of the Protestant work ethic – and in this regard, David is no exception. The Victorian belief in the singular strengths of the orphan that is operative in David Copperfield is barely present in Great Expectations. In its place are other, far darker notions. As much as the Victorians were fascinated with the ability of the orphan to negotiate his own place in the world, they also viewed orphans as “faintly disreputable,” of “uncertain parentage,” and “always threatening to lose focus and definition” (Auerbach 395). The same freedom from binding social ties that allowed orphans to succeed also permitted them to violate the social contract in other more damaging ways. Because of this belief, Great Expectations is a far darker novel, that plays to Victorian fears of crime and uncleanness. While also a bildungsroman, the life story of its orphaned protagonist follows a very different trajectory as Pip becomes ever more mired in conflicted emotion and criminality. The orphan’s violation of the social contract plays straight into the Victorian fear of crime. As much as the Victorians were enamored by the idea of the orphan as a free agent, they were also wary of the orphan’s aura of criminality. This belief was not entirely fanciful. After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, aid for orphans was sharply curtailed. Relief (such as it was) was no longer provided by the local parish, but rather by a union of parishes. The only public relief was the workhouse – which was intentionally redesigned to be as harsh as possible to prevent freeloaders. Taken together, these changes had the effect of driving the poor into the cities where crime became rampant. Although the inception of the London Metropolitan Police was no doubt inevitable, a strong argument can be made that the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was responsible for the crime wave that necessitated the inception of the police in 1868. Citizens were preyed upon by roving tribes of child criminals much like Fagan’s gang. Since orphans had no means of support, they were suspected of harboring enormous, untapped criminal potential. This contradictory attitude toward orphans was recognized by the Victorians themselves. Laura Peters relates that the Inspector of Parochial Union Schools had difficulty reconciling the fact that many orphans “took the highest honours in teaching examinations, yet simultaneously orphans furnished 60 percent of the criminal population” (Peters 7). As of January, 1854, 50-60% of those attending pauper schools or housed in reformatory prisons were orphans. Peters goes on to describe what she calls “the penal narrative,” which she argues arises from “the sense of social failure…within the middle class psyche” that is occasioned by the existence of orphan criminals (Peters 38). Such penal narratives typically involve the arc of a criminal scheme actuated by or upon orphans. Very little of this Victorian fear of crime is seen in David Copperfield. While the forgery and frauds committed by the orphan Uriah Heep provide a subplot, these acts do not subsume the entire novel. Likewise, the Macawber’s brush with debtor’s prison is hardly criminal. In comparison, Great Expectations is saturated with crime. Although Peters holds out Oliver Twist as a penal narrative, Great Expectations would be an equally applicable example. As the novel begins, Pip steals brandy, a pie and a file after being threatened by a convict on the marshes. While a modern reader may become impatient with Pip’s apprehension of being unmasked, such feelings would make far more sense to the Victorian reader who associates orphans with criminal ventures and anticipates further unfolding of the criminal schema. Having been told that Pip is capable of crime and has associated with escaped convicts, the Victorian reader would keep a watchful eye for further such developments. Pip shares this feeling – and as much as he tries to rise above his station in life, he is perpetually reminded of his criminal taint. The appearance of the second convict in the Three Jolly Bargemen reaffirms the dubious social legitimacy of orphans. After establishing that Pip is sent to the bar by his sister (and thus is not there by choice), the second convict reappears. His surprise appearance affirms the Victorian suspicion of the inexplicable link between criminality and orphans that transcends the rational mind. Although the second convict is “a secret-looking man who I had never seen before” (GE 292), there is little doubt that he is related to the convicts Pip met on the marsh. The convict establishes the identity of Joe and Pip, and pries out of Joe his relation to Pip, thereby establishing for himself that Pip is an orphan. Even the images of the gravestones with which the novel opened appear again, as the convict fixes Joe’s residence near “the lonely church, right out in the marshes, with the graves around it!” (292). After the convict establishes his identity by surreptitiously flashing Joe’s file at Pip, the men discuss turnips. However, even this innocuous subject is a mere cover, as the reader later learns that the Magwitch’s earliest memories are of stealing turnips. Upon returning home, Mrs. Joe is quick to correctly characterize the stranger saying “A bad un, I’ll be bound” (GE 55). The entire incident sits uneasily with Pip, who sleeps poorly, thinking “of the strange man taking aim at me with his invisible gun, and of the guiltily coarse and common thing it was, to be on secret terms of conspiracy with convicts – a feature in my low career that I had previously forgotten” (GE 55). Pip is aware of his origins and is understandably uneasy that his one-time random association will uncontrollably develop into further criminal proclivities. Having established Pip as tainted by criminality, it comes as no surprise when the convict reappears and reveals a past that matches Pip’s darkest fears. Magwitch relays I’m not a going fur to tell you my life. But to give it to you short and handy, I’ll put it into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. There, you’ve got it. That’s my life pretty much, down to such times as I got shipped off… I’ve done everything pretty well – except been hanged. I’ve been locked up, as much as a silver tea kettle. I’ve been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town and put out of that town. I’ve no more a notion of where I was born than you have – if so much. I first became aware of myself down in Essex, a thieving turnips for my living (GE 236). This association between criminality and orphanhood is exactly what the Victorians – and Pip – feared. In Great Expectations, this association becomes more tortured when Pip learns that Magwitch was his anonymous benefactor. Magwitch destroys Pip’s fantasies of social advancement when he tells Pip, “I’ve made a gentleman on you. It’s me wot has done it. I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore arterward, sure as every I spec’lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth. I worked hard, that you should be above work” (GE 220). Predictably, Pip is absolutely horrified; he relays that “the abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast” (GE 220). Although unstated, Pip’s sense of horror is directed as much at himself as at the convict. By providing Pip’s fortune, the convict has contaminated Pip’s fundamental being. His flight from the commonness of the blacksmith shop was in vain. The success and domestic bliss in which David invested so much time and work will never be Pip’s because he has based his “expectations” on what turned out to be a criminal scheme. Even the dubious object of his dreams, the orphan Estella, is tainted when Pip learns that she is Magwitch’s daughter. The long-ago criminal association in the marshes festered over the years so that it now undermines everything important in Pip’s life. Other criminal characters reveal further insights into the contradictory Victorian attitudes toward orphans. Such insights can be gleaned by comparing Uriah Heep and Orlick. On the surface, these characters have much in common. In addition to being Dicken’s most unqualifiedly revolting creations, both engage in criminal acts for which they have no remorse. Dickens uses both of them as doubles for the protagonists. However, these surface similarities fail. The differences between Heep and Orlick reveal as much about their respective doubles as they do about Victorian notions about what it meant to be an orphan. The inescapability of criminal contamination is illustrated by Orlick. Pip has absolutely no control over Orlick, as Orlick inevitably appears wherever Pip is found. Initially a fellow worker at the forge, he appears later as a gatekeeper at Satis House. He crouches in the darkness in Pip’s London lodging and finally ambushes Pip on the marsh. No matter where Pip goes, Orlick eventually appears. The very inescapability of Orlick corresponds to the impossibility of Pip’s divesting himself of the criminal taint that is part and parcel of being an orphan. Like Orlick, Uriah is frequently in close proximity to David. For example, Uriah and his mother fix themselves upon David in an attempt to prevent him from speaking freely with Agnes or Mr. Wickfield. Even the object of Uriah’s mother’s knitting which “looked like a net; and as she worked away with those Chinese chopsticks of knitting-needlles…getting ready for a cast of her net by-and-by” is seen as an snare for David as she stubbornly refuses to leave the room (DC 482). However, despite this proximity, the association between Uriah and David is not as relentless as the association between Orlick and Pip. There are numerous subplots in which Uriah does not figure at all, such as David’s marriage to Dora, his relationship to the Peggotty family, his friendship with Steerforth, and his educational and professional achievements. Unlike Orlick, Uriah is ultimately escapable because his sliminess is external to David. David has overcome the taint of the orphan, while Pip has internalized it. This difference is further is further established by an examination of the individual culpability of David and Pip. Uriah’s crimes are wholly independent of David. David’s role is merely to “assist at an explosion” (DC 623) in which Uriah is confronted by Mr. Macawber, Traddles, Agnes, and Aunt Betsy. While Uriah blames David for the revelation of his crimes, saying “”You’ve always been an upstart, you’ve always been against me” (DC 638), this is distinctly different from shifting the blame to David. Indeed, Uriah wholly takes responsibility as he threatens his confronters saying “Miss Trotwood, you had better stop this or I’ll stop your husband shorter than will be pleasant to you…Miss Wickfield, if you have any love for your father, you had better not join that gang. I’ll ruin him, if you do…I have got some of you under the harrow. Think twice before it goes over you” (DC 629) . In comparison to Uriah’s sole culpability, Orlick’s criminality adheres to Pip at every step of the way. Falling back upon English common law, Orlick provides the actus reus, while Pip provides the mens rea. Pip “was always in Old Orlicks way”; he “cost him that place”, and he “come betwixt me and a young woman I liked”. Orlick attempts to kill Mrs. Joe because Pip “was favored,” while “Old Orlick [was] bullied and beat” (GE 292). If the point were not made sufficiently, he says “but it warn’t Old Orlick as did it; it was you” (GE 292). This wholesale transfer of culpability to the orphan was sufficiently believable to the Victorian mind. While Orlick’s assertions are far-fetched, they contain just enough merit to cause the Victorians to view Pip with suspicion. The reversal of roles and shifting of blame is not enough to obviate Orlick’s guilt, but it does serve to unquestionably contaminate Pip. It is noteworthy that Uriah is punished for his offenses, while Orlick remains uncharged. Uriah bears the sole responsibility for his crimes, whereas since Orlick has shared culpability, he is punished only for his subsequent attack on Mr. Pumblechook. The uncharged offense remains part of the tainted penumbra surrounding Pip, not Orlick. In conclusion, a comparison of Great Expectations and David Copperfield reveals that unlike some other Victorian writers, Dickens does not seem to have a single defining view of the orphan. (Reed 251) Rather, Dickens takes numerous contradictory positions – as indeed the Victorians themselves did. On one hand, Dickens sees the orphan as evidence that the social contract has been broken. According to this view, the orphan becomes an untrustworthy, a potential “bad seed,” and the cause of much of the criminality that afflicted London. No matter how well situated the orphan may become, he is still viewed with suspicion. His tainted background means he is never completely redeemable. In writing about Jude the Obscure, John Reed remarks that there is “no way for these orphans, emblems of man’s isolated, disinherited condition, to place themselves in harmony with a higher authority” (251). This view is just as applicable to the orphan Pip. On other hand, this is not the sole view. The Victorians could not limit themselves to such a narrow view of the orphan problem without attacking the throne itself. After all, Queen Victoria was fatherless; Albert was motherless. Moreover, the very number of orphaned children was so huge (various estimates suggest that 10% of all children were missing a father and 13% of children were missing a mother), that this narrow view lacked complete versimilitude. Dickens’ use of the orphan also suggests that while “partial and genuine orphans may go bad for lack of guidance…they may also make of their isolated condition a basis for solid growth” (Reed 252). This view is applicable to the orphaned David. As noted supra, David’s rise to success is a confirmation of the tenets of the Protestant work ethic. His hard work and persistence enable him to rise above his dubious beginnings. This contradictory view of orphans stems in part from how the Victorians viewed the poor. While the adult poor were seen as suffering from a moral failing, Victorians were reluctant to extend this view to orphaned children of the poor. Properly raised, the orphan is seen as a tabula rasa. Insofar as David fits this categorization, he is never tainted by poverty in the same way Pip is – and consequently avoids being mired in complex intrigue that prevents Pip from achieving his great expectations. Works CitedAuerbach, Nina. Incarnations of the Orphan. ELH 42.4 (1975): 395-419.Byrd, Max. “Reading” in Great Expectations. PMLA 92.2 (1976): 259-265.Dessner, Lawrence Jay. Great Expectations: “The Ghost of a Man’s Own Father”. PMLA 91.3 (1976): 436-449.Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.Dickens, Charles. Four Complete Novels. New York: Random House, 1982.Engel, Monroe. The Politics of Dickens’ Novels. PMLA 71.5 (1956:) 945-974Finkel, Robert J. Another Boy Brought up “by Hand”. Nineteenth Century Fiction 20.4 (1966): 389-390.Hara, Eiichi. Stories Present and Absent in Great Expectations. ELH 53.3 (1986): 593-614.Needham, Gwendolyn B. The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield. Nineteenth Century Fiction 9.2 (1954) 81-107Peters, Laura. Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.Reed, John. R. Victorian Conventions. New York: Ohio University Press, 1975.

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