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The Images In The Novel Oliver Twist English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5547 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The aim of the following thesis is to present the image of a child in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. On the strength of this novel, the author will attempt to discuss the importance of a child’s psychological, physiological and emotional needs, and ways of their fulfilment in the process of a child’s development.

Children are innocent and defenceless human beings and to ensure their safe and proper growth, they need to be provided with an environment conducive to their healthy development. Adults often overlook the importance of their child’s needs, they are simply unaware of their existence, and in consequence, children mature into troubled and unstable individuals. The lack of parental support, which often results in neglect, abuse and child’s humiliation, may in fact seriously injure the child’s psyche.

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Most Charles Dickens’ novels feature an image of a child – Pip, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield; in his portrayals Dickens argues that children and adults perceive the world differently. In spite of their limited knowledge and experience children are acute and sensitive observers. In his novels, Dickens shows children, who struggle with the adversities of adult life, children who have no childhood and must survive against the hostile society of the Victorian England caught in the frenzy of the Industrial Revolution. The author relies often on his own experiences, his childhood was disturbed by the tragedies in his own family, which gives his novels a sense of authenticity.

Charles Dickens was born on 7th February 1812 in Portsmouth in England as a son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father’s irresponsibility and lack of ambitions were the reasons why his family situation was often uncertain. He was always in debt and, as a consequence, in 1824, when Charles was only twelve years old, his father was imprisoned, together with his family. However, through his uncle’s instigation, young Charles found employment at a newly opened blacking factory and was spared from the prison’s sentence. Michael Slater, Dickens’s biographer, shows how this experience influenced small Dickens:

…Dickens leaves no doubt as to the degree of the psychological and emotional earthquake suffered by his twelve-year-old self: ‘It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age… No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from any one […] I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond’. [1] 

Dickens is an expert at children’s feelings and emotions, and through his works, he urges adults to be sensitive towards their fragile personalities. His novels, and his child characters, witness the abuse of children in the Victorian Period. His works were to give voice to children who desperately needed help and who rarely were able to communicate their needs – and even more seldom obtained the help they needed.

The first chapter of the following thesis is divided into four parts. In the first part, the author will describe the importance of children’s psychological needs necessary to their proper growth. The emphasis will be placed upon the needs’ fulfilment methods and the consequences of not fulfilling them: a lack of a child’s psychic stability, problems in adolescence, etc. In the second part of Chapter One, the author will discuss violence against children in the Victorian Period and its consequences. On this occasion, the ideas of a Polish psychologist, Aleksandra Sobkowska will be presented in the context of the recent findings of New Psychology. Still in Chapter One, I will introduce Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory of the hierarchy of human needs. At the end of the same chapter, the author of the thesis will present the figure of Charles Dickens as a victim of the Victorian epoch’s Industrial Revolution, a victim of social injustice and economic deprivation, a victim of ‘childhood interrupted.’

The Second Chapter will focus on the characterization of and the role of children in the Victorian society in the period of the Industrial Revolution. On that occasion, Oliver Twist, Dickens’s portrayal of children in the historical and socio-economic context, will be discussed in detail and placed in the context of the Maslowian theory of the hierarchy of needs. In this chapter, the author will also ponder on Dickens’ involvement in the struggle against a child’s exploitation; it is not clear whether in his books, the author aimed at evoking sympathy for the children and their plight, and thus he wrote mainly for the adult readership; or attempted to elucidate children on the causes of their unjust and despicable conditions.

Chapter One

Children’s needs and violence against children.

The aim of the following chapter is to present the importance of needs in children’s psychological growth. In the course of Chapter One, the author of the thesis will refer to the foundations of Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs. The author will also discuss different types of violence against children as the most detrimental element in a child’s psychological development. Finally, Charles Dickens’ life will be placed in the context of the Victorian period.

Children’s psychological needs

Psychological needs of a human being are of great importance first and foremost for children, however, adults very often forget about it. Satisfying a child’s material needs such as clothing, feeding, etc, they are convinced that they adequately fulfil their parental responsibility. In the light of modern psychology such an attitude is viewed critically. Though easily convinced that material goods are all they need, children become increasingly dissatisfied. Disturbing signals in our daily life – children committing serious crimes, children becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs, adolescents dropping out of school; are all but proof of the existence of an area in a child’s psyche that remains overlooked and neglected.

Children differ significantly from one another; therefore, each child has to be treated separately whether it is by its parents or educators. Adults usually realize far too late how important they are for their children’s development, generally when their children start misbehaving and cause problems. [2] In order to prevent such a situation, it is necessary to study the mechanism of the needs’ formation; then consciously new and positive needs – a need to discover, to know, to feel good about oneself – can be created. As far as the mechanism of creating new needs is concerned, they are formed first through satisfying the needs that already exist. It is very important to offer children the opportunity to develop new and valuable needs, and rewarding responses of the environment have a great influence on children’s psychic growth.

One of the main needs that are worth mentioning here is the need of emotional contact between a mother and a child. At the beginning, this contact has a more physical character, but in time, the character of this contact changes. It has a more psychological sense and needs another form of fulfilment. [3] Parents are able to create proper conditions to form a child’s personality; to achieve this aim, parents must continuously observe and recognize their child’s needs and try to understand them. Many factors have an influence on a harmonious course of a child’s development, including all psychophysical processes, and affect the child’s future stance – point of view, and the way she or he is perceived by the society. [4] 

Human needs are divided into: material, biological, organic and psychological ones. Generally, psychological needs are additionally divided into:

A need of safety – shaped in ontogenesis

A cognitive need

An activity need

A need of independence and personal development

An emotional and social interaction need

A sense of belonging and acceptance need

A possession need

b. Violence against children as the negation of proper


A child who is harmed is the one who is suffering due to improper behaviour of other people, mainly parents and guardians, and who experiences injustice and a sense of powerlessness. This process, whether intentional or unintentional, and resulting from adults’ actions, may have a negative influence on a child’s physical or psychological development. [5] 

Dickens’ stories abound in episodes involving both psychological and physical abuse among children. Children rob one another of dignity and belongings. They accumulate anger and frustration in themselves. They are weak and dominated by adults and find abusing their equals or weaker ones as the only possible way of venting their anger. Violence against children leads unavoidably to violence in children. This too is a result of a ‘childhood interrupted,’ of a thwarted development. Violence against children is the most perverted form of violence; children are defenceless and innocent human beings at a formative stage, who are susceptible to a physical and to psychological injury. Though violence may reside in children themselves, for example, in unwanted, problematic, chronically ill or disabled children; in the majority of cases, children are victims of violence perpetrated by adults. Violence occurs in many different circumstances, and may have different forms, but generally three groups of reasons for its occurrence may be distinguished:

violence in children directed against others (children as well as

adults) is a result of the children’s frustration with their own health (disabled and chronically ill children), with their social and indirectly economic status (orphaned children, children of alcoholics, etc.) and, importantly, often is a consequence of war;

violence in parents directed at children which often is a result of social pathologies – dysfunctional families;

violence being a result of a family’s social isolation owed to their religion, ethnicity, social or economic status, etc.

According to Aleksandra Sobkowska, a Polish psychologist, there is a conventional division of violence against children based on its type: physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Negligence of children is sometimes considered to be the mildest form of violence, however, it is most common, and it is extremely harmful and just like any other form of psychical abuse – beatings, torture, etc. extends its effects into the sphere of a child’s psyche. Therefore, the distinction between physical and psychological abuse, at least in terms of their lasting effects – psychical and psychological scars – overlap and blur.

In Sobkowska’s view, psychical abuse of children has cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences – a child’s abuse syndrome may be manifested by:

a lack of a sense of security

a lack of a sense of belonging to the closest people

a lack of or low self-esteem

spiritual loneliness

a feeling of being harmed

a feeling and consciousness of guilt and shame

difficulty in forming relationships.

In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, there are many examples of child abuse and violence ranging from the very basic lack of alimentation:

Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into another world, and there gathered to the fathers which it had never known in this. [6] 

through terrible living conditions;

An unfinished coffin on black tressels, which stood in the middle of the shop, looked so gloomy and death-like that a cold tremble came over him, every time his eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almost expected to see some frightful form slowly rear its head, to drive him mad with terror. The recess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave. [7] 

resulting in a sense of fear and spiritual loneliness:

He was alone in a strange place; and we all know how chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel in such a situation. The boy had no friends to care for, or to care for him. The regret of no recent separation was fresh in his mind; the absence of no loved and well-remembered face sank heavily into his heart. [8] 

Psychological violence is a conscious destruction or significant limitation on a child’s possibility of proper development. Ranging from insults, as can be seen in the following episode from Oliver Twist:

Get downstairs, little bag o’ bones’. With this the undertaker’s wife opened a side door, and pushed Oliver down a steep flight of stairs into a stone cell, damp and dark, forming the ante-room to the coal-cellar, and denominated the kitchen. [9] 

It is hard to draw any conclusive ideas as to what future awaited Oliver, and whether his childhood filled with pain brought to bear on his life as an adult. There is a note to the preface of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist which say:

It tells the story of an unfortunate orphan boy from his early years in the harsh environment of the workhouse, to his struggle for survival in the dangerous world outside its gates. [10] 

A parallel between the story of Oliver Twist, ‘… a boy who dares to ask for more’ [11] and the life of Charles Dickens is evident. As a young boy, Dickens was forced to work in one of Britain’s infamous sweatshops, or as they were often referred to, children factories. His father’s debts put the whole family in prison; only young Charles was spared his freedom, however, in exchange for hard labour in a blacking workshop. In a way similar to most children from poor neighbourhoods of London, Dickens suffered pains of poverty – hunger and all things most children his age would take for granted. Hunger haunted little Charles, something that is echoed in the story of Oliver Twist, but what pained him more was his hopelessness against the odds set by the cruel society of the 19th century Britain. Britain was undergoing a period of transformation; the Industrial Revolution was at its peak; many people fled the impoverished countryside and settled in big cities. There, they were exploited by the capitalist industrialists. Slavery was by then outlawed in Britain’s overseas colonies, importing cheap labour was out of the question, yet the growing economy needed hands, many hands, inexpensive hands. In such circumstances, children became a commodity – cheap and easy to manage. Factories soon filled with little children whose parents, all the while working themselves to near death, still failed to make ends meet. This is an era of Britain’s great economic expansion; this is an era that witnessed the birth of communism.

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Britain was getting rich, or at least the rich were getting richer; for the rest the society was falling apart. Many children faced a very bleak future; orphaned (mostly through abandonment); deprived of any possibility for social advancement, just like Oliver Twist, veered onto the dangerous path of crime. Dickens resisted the temptations of becoming a criminal; perhaps, in that sense, he was lucky; his contacts with London’s underworld remained luckily within the confines of his fantasy.

” I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond” [12] ‘Dickens, a literary giant of the Victorian England, was first and foremost, its victim. As a child, he suffered all the deprivations shared by most of his books’ characters – Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Pip and David Copperfield; whose lives’ stories became a great testimony of Britain’s shameful past – a past tainted by abuse against the innocent and the weakest – children.

c. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

This part of the thesis is based on the psychological theory authored by Abraham Maslow. Among other things, he wrote about human nature being good or at least neutral. It cannot be assumed that a child is born with a bad nature. [13] Because of its pessimistic, negative and restricted conception of human nature, Maslow became very critical of psychology. Unlike other scientists, he conducted his tests on healthy people, people without, for example, brain injuries; and he reached a number of new and innovative conclusions concerning personality. He claimed that psychology is much more occupied with people’s weaknesses rather than strengths; that the main focus of psychological studies is sin, and virtue tends to be omitted. [14] 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is represented by the following diagram:

Maslow recognises, and illustrates his notion by means of a pyramid, that human needs can be divided into five levels, four of which represent deficiency needs (referred to also as basic needs) and are associated with human physiology. Only when those needs are satisfied, a human develops a need of self-actualization (referred to also as growth needs).

d. Society in the Victorian Age

Dickens’ hero, Oliver Twist, lived in a difficult time characterised by changes and the resulting serious crisis in the politics, economy and religious life. Victorians expected progress, rapid changes that were to improve their daily lives; apart from the elite, life in the nineteenth century was very hard for most of simple citizens, especially for children. Many peasants, driven away from the countryside by the prospects of better lives in the cities, fell victim of industrial exploitation and the capitalist system of economy. Cities grew in population too rapidly, forcing many to live in squalid neighbourhoods filled with filth and crime. Urbanization meant more places of work, but the cost of living in big cities often exceeded an average family’s means. Families were large or too large; people lived in overcrowded houses in hand-to-mouth conditions. Industrial production was carried on at great risks and causing suffering of men, women and children. Britain’s status as the ‘workshop of the world’ was achieved at a great human cost [15] .

People including small children worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day in, most of the time, unbearable conditions. The majority of people the so-called working class, which ironically included the unemployed, lived in the scruffiest of households.

The industrialists treated the less fortunate, especially children, simply, and only, like objects, manpower. Children were exploited more than adults, because they never dared to ask for more. What is more, parents willingly agreed to this exploitation, even of very small children (often younger than six years of age), because they, too, could earn a few pennies. This extra income for starving families was at times a matter of life and death. Children employed in industry, suffered and often fell ill, at times irreversibly. Their childhood was taken away from them, but what is more, the precarious working and employment conditions, often forced them into the streets where they begged or stole to survive.

Most children were denied the stability of having a home, being abandoned by their parents. Sometimes they were subjected to violence or solitude, being under-nourished or even starving, covered with rags, sleeping in empty cellars. Deprived of love and support from adults, they were neglected and lonely among others. The working class children had no rights and their hardship earned them no respect.

People in Victorian England believed they were doing what was best for their children. But they were gripped by an idea which was widespread at that time – that children were empty vessels, containing nothing worthwhile until filled with what adults judged best. [16] 

Dickens in his novels depicted the Victorian society’s major problems. The writer portrayed the society in all its variety, touching all their problems but the theme to which he always returned, was the family, childhood, injustice, inequality, crime, corruption, scandals, poverty, as well as the suffering of children. Whatever he wrote was written with passion, because he experienced seeing life, from the point of view of the poor people and abused children.

In his time, few people understood children as well as Dickens did, and he was the first writer who described children’s thoughts and feelings capturing the way they spoke, behaved, and suffered.

Chapter two

Children’s needs and violence against children based on Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.

The aim of the following chapter is to present the connection between a child’s needs and life in the Victorian Age – on the basis of Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist is the first novel in which Dickens speaks out against social injustice and an inadequate economic system that condoned the plight of the poorest, yet the largest, segment of British society. His, is not a portrait of a happy and harmonious family, but a debt-ridden, broken family where children, unless employed in Britain’s worst workshops, are viewed as a burden. The author tries to show terrible conditions in workhouses where poor people were forced to live and work if they could not pay their debts. In his novel Oliver Twist, Dickens also draws a critical picture of charitable foundations and their involvement in children’s orphanages. Additionally, Dickens sheds light on London’s dangerous criminal underworld.

The main character of the novel, Oliver, is a neglected, illegitimate child. He does not know his father and his mother died at his birth. He is brought up as an orphan in cruel conditions in an orphanage typical of the Victorian Age. This small and lonely child is drawn into the world of brutality and violence. The fact that he does not have parents increased his loneliness and difficulties in life because he is deprived of their support which is very important, especially at the beginning of everyone’s life. Having a normal life is important for a child, but for Oliver that proved an unattainable dream. Oliver spends the first nine years of his life in a badly run home for young orphans and later he is transferred to a workhouse for adults. There, not only does he lack means to secure himself a decent upbringing, but is constantly short of the essentials such as sufficient amount of food, a room to sleep or clean clothes. When he is nine, he is still a child and he does not understand the world around him, especially his own status. Once, he asks an adult what it means to be an orphan:

– ‘Boy,’ said the gentleman in the high chair, ‘listen to me. You know you

are an orphan, I suppose?’

– ‘What’s that, sir?’ inquired poor Oliver.

– ‘The boy is a fool – I thought he was,’ said the gentleman in a white

waistcoat. [17] 

Oliver is afraid of adults; he does not understand why strangers decide about his future and his life, and in their presence he often trembles and cries. One of the most important and memorable images in the novel is the moment when Oliver feels extreme hunger and asks for something more to eat: ‘Please, sir. I want some more.’ [18] This famous scene is symbolic in that sense that it expresses Oliver’s revolt against his situation. He does not understand that such behaviour is unacceptable in the workhouse and he is beaten as a result and then put up for sale, like an object, not a human being. Oliver acts against the rules because the situation in the workhouse is ‘abnormal’; his basic needs are not satisfied.

The living conditions in the workhouses of the 19th century Britain were very severe and often these harbingers of modern day sweatshops resembled more prisons than houses. The treatment of children was terribly bad, some of them even starved to death. The sufferings of children in the Victorian Age indicate that their basic needs were not satisfied. The fundamental, basic needs which are essential for our survival, such as proper nourishment, a place to sleep, warmth were not met then.

According to Maslow, food occupies the lowest level of the pyramid in the hierarchy of needs, and belongs to the very primitive group of needs, which are essential for survival; refusing proper nourishment to hungry people, especially children is the negation of humanity. What is more, Oliver Twist is denied safety and stability; he is an unloved and lonely child thrown into unsympathetic adult world, where he lacks parental love, affection and protection.

In Maslowian theory, Oliver is denied access to the second developmental level and his need to feel safe remains unfulfilled.

At the beginning, Oliver is not aware of his situation; gradually, however, he comes to realize his standing:

– ‘I am a very little boy, sir; and it is so- so …’

– ‘So what?’ inquired Mr Bumble in amazement.

– ‘So lonely, sir! So very lonely! Cried the child […]. [19] 

This small boy feels he should have some rights as a human being and he seeks love. It is only natural for a boy like Oliver to look for love and a sense of belonging, a feeling that gives people a sense of stability. Again, the fundamental need, the third level of the Maslowian pyramid representing the hierarchy of needs necessary for a child’s proper physiological and psychological development remains unfulfilled. Although he leaves the workhouse, his circumstances never improve; he moves in with Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker. Subjected to moral and physical oppression, Oliver continues to feel lonely, cold and abandoned; in his new home he has no place to sleep:

– ‘Then come with me,’ said Mrs Sowerberry, taking up a dim dirty lamp, and leading the way upstairs; ‘your bed’s under the counter. You don’t mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn’t much matter whether you do or don’t, for you can’t sleep anywhere else. [20] 

Another boy, named Noah Claypole, who too is a worker at Sowerberry’s workshop, constantly abuses Oliver, but the main character endures his fate without a word of complaint. One day however, acting on an impulse, Oliver fights off Noah’s attacks. He fights in defence of his mother’s name but despite his innocence, Oliver is severely punished. This situation illustrates the Maslow’s notion of violence being a result of a thwarted development – in an environment where a child’s basic needs remain unfulfilled; violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour are a consequence. In other words, a child who is deprived of an opportunity to fulfil his needs uses aggression, turns to aggression; he/she does not act like a ‘normal’ child. This moment in the novel marks another important transition; Oliver demands to be respected – he reacts with violence against the insults used with regard to his mother – an action that points to the fourth level of the Maslowian pyramid, the need of esteem.

Oliver decides to escape because he refuses to endure his treatment. He chooses London hoping to change his life for better. In spite of being exhausted and hungry; he does not give up and is still full of hope and determined. He meets Dodger, who offers him a helping hand. Unaware, Oliver joins a gang of juvenile pick-pockets, run by a Jewish emigrant named Fagin. Dodger and other young boys, and now Oliver, roam the streets of London stealing, when they can, hanging out, laughing. Fagin’s gang creates an authentic society and provides these unwanted boys with security and a sense of belonging. Oliver has never known this kind of life; he is drawn to it to gain respect amongst peers, but also to feel accepted, relied on, and needed.

At the beginning, Oliver does not realise that he has joined a criminal group. He does not understand the whole situation but tries to be a quick learner and to acquire new skills, i.e. pick pocketing. However, because he has little experience, or simply because he still is a naïve little boy, he gets caught and arrested. Fortunately for Oliver, Mr. Brownlow, one of the gang’s victims, recognizes the boy’s innocence, exonerates the boy during the investigation and takes him into his custody. Oliver leads now a better life, at last, but he is not sure if his benefactor will not one day send him back into the streets of London. He asks Mr. Brownlow:

– ‘Oh, don’t tell me you are going to send me away, sir, pray! […]

Don’t turn me out of doors to wander in the streets again.

Let me stay here and be a servant.

Don’t send me back to the wretched place I came from.

Have a mercy upon a poor boy, sir! [21] 

Mr. Brownlow, however, reassures the boy of his true devotion to his upbringing:

– ‘My dear child,’ said the old gentleman, moved by the warmth of

Oliver’s sudden appeal, ‘you need not be afraid of my deserting

you, …’ [22] 

A few weeks later, however, Oliver is kidnapped by Nancy – a prostitute who is incited by Fagin. What is more, he vanished precisely when Mr Brownlow entrusts him with money and sends him shopping. Oliver does not think about himself but is afraid that Mr. Bro


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