The Victorian Child Portrayed by Dickens and Carroll
Social Issues of the Victorian Era
The Victorian Era was a time period represented by industrialization, social progress, and prosperity. However, with the greatest metamorphosis that England ever encountered severe social issues came along. This era faced social problems that ranged from poverty, crime, and violence, to marked boundaries between social classes, and exploitation of workers, women and children. One of the major concerns of the Victorian society was the treatment and life style of children. At the time, England was highly populated by children, since families were big. The rapid industrial growth increased the cost of houses, which left many families homeless. This contributed to overpopulation of cities and shocking unsanitary life conditions. The idea of child rights was regarded as ridiculous, so the exploitation of children was an accepted and supported idea. Children would work long hours in a variety of factories, coal mines, or doing odd jobs under hazardous conditions. Due to an unhealthy lifestyle, poverty, exhausting work shifts added to infections and other circumstances child mortality rate increased and impacted England. As a result, writers of the time reacted to these social concerns and presented critiques to their environment through their novels, poems and plays. Celebrated authors like Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll made a stance against child labor, by supporting the idea that children were innocent creatures that should be shielded from harm, and idolizing childhood as a time for imagination and education in their books The Adventures of Oliver Twist and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Charles Dickens and the push for Social Progress
Charles Dickens published his novel The Adventures of Oliver Twist in 1838, during the early years of the First Wave. In his book he highlighted the hardships that poverty stricken children suffered as a result of industrialization. The novel narrates the adventures of a boy who was orphan at birth and whose life depends of Victorian institutions. Foundations like the farm where Oliver was raised, or the workhouse where he was born and brought back to work at a later age; were established to protect and provide relief for the poor. Instead these places became worst than prisons, feared, and hated for the cruel conditions the committed were forced to live by. The institutions fail to protect and care for Oliver more than once in the story. For example, Oliver fell under the care of the Beadle Mr. Bumble in the workhouse. There he was not only feed inhuman portions of food and forced to work long hours, he was mistreated and beat up by the Beadle. Oliver was so miserable that when the workhouse personnel decided it was troublesome to keep caring for the boy, they were willing to give him up as an apprentice to anyone. Oliver was only saved by luck before he could have been given away to a man that was known for killing his apprentices. Along the terrible circumstances the boy is forced to live by, Dickens presents Oliver to the reader with a very likable personality, and untouchable innocence provoking pity from the reader.
Throughout the book, Oliver is often tricked into doing things that more than often get him in trouble, result in cruel punishment, thus evoking pity from the reader. When he still lived at the workhouse, he was pushed by older boys to ask for another helping of gruel. Here Dickens explains the child's behavior of asking for more, because he was “...desperate with hunger and reckless with misery” (Dickens, 10). The cruel punishment and situations that follow this incident, makes the reader feel pity and root for Oliver very early in the book. With the reader on Oliver's side, Dickens moves on to show the reader his unbreakable innocence. Throughout the story, Oliver is put in situations that test his innocence. More than once in the book the boy is pushed by other characters to break the law by stealing for a living. Oliver never acts under the pressure to steal. Even if sometimes others intervene for him, he makes the decision of not helping Sikes in a robbery. This meant his life would be at risk, but still he says “Oh! Pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal” (Dickens, 84). Dickens also shows that Oliver innocence is unbreakable, because even if other characters accuse him of being a “...hardened young rascal” (Dickens, 17) Oliver's good nature and soft hart never changes. By showing the reader a likeable and innocent main character, Dickens intends to provoke a more positive attitude towards children, and a need to shield them from harm.
The idolization of childhood was another method that writers used to bring a better life to the children of England. Charles Dickens shows the reader an idolized image of childhood by illustrating how easily wasted this chapter of life is. In order to highlight this, Dickens introduces many children in his novel that contrast with Oliver in several aspects. All the other kids in the story are in a situation similar to Oliver, but their infancy has been wasted. The first children that Dickens compares Oliver with are The Artful Dodger and Charles Bates. Both characters serve as foils to Oliver's innocence and child-like attributes. The Artful Dodger is presented to the reader as a young gentleman. The audience can see the marked differences between him and Oliver starting by the way The Dodger dressed “He wore a man's coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up to his arm, to get his hands out of his sleeves... He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less” (Dickens, 31). By dressing the Dodger in this manner, Dickens shows him as an adult in the body of a child, or rather, a boy that was forced to grow up too soon. The Dodger is not much older than Oliver, but since he has been forced into a life of crime to survive, he has wasted his childhood. Another character that is used to highlight this issue is Charles Bates. Charlie is first introduced to the audience smoking along with other four children. Dickens describes them as boys “none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle aged men”(Dickens, 33). Charlie is not only used to reinforce the idea of children forced to grow into adults too quickly, but he also helps to demonstrate the lack of innocence and the cynicism of the adult world. Charlie is often portrayed as a boy who laughs and mocks Oliver's innocence cynically. He lost his innocence when he entered the world of adults.
After Dickens shows his readers the image of what a wasted childhood looks like, he moves to persuade the reader that only adults can protect children from missing out in this important part of life. Throughout the first half of the story, Oliver is surrounded by adults that see him as a rascal, a criminal on the making, or that try to force him into a criminal life. However, for every one of this instances there's an adult that intervenes between Oliver and a life of crime that will rob him of his infancy. The best example for this can be found in Nancy. She is the character that risks the most to help Oliver, because she remembers what was it like to be ill-used by Fagin at his age, she says: “I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this! I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since” (Dickens, 62). In a breathless effort to protect Oliver from Fagin and Sikes, after he has been snatched from the streets, Nancy wrestles with them to protect the boy from harm. She attacks Fagin while saying: “Let him be or I shall put that mark on some of you, that will bring me to the gallows before my time” (Dickens, 61). Here she foreshadows that she will die protecting Oliver and that the downfall of both villains will come thanks to her. Nancy might not be the most tender influence in Oliver's life, but it is the most important. She is the one that connects him back to his family when she speaks to Rose, and dies because she protected him in more than one occasion. Through her, Dickens speaks to his audience claiming that adults are responsible for helping and protecting children from harm. Dickens transforms this character into a heroine, he gives her redemption for a life of crime when helping Oliver, saying that it is never too late to do the right thing. Utilizing the image of a wasted childhood and the message of adults being the ones that can stop it, Dickens idolizes childhood as a crucial time in human life that can only be protected by others. Nevertheless, Dickens technique to idolize childhood is not the only one that writers utilized during the Victorian Era.
Lewis Carroll and his views on Childhood
Lewis Carroll supported the same ideas as Dickens in his novella Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but he took a different approach. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published a book narrating the adventures of Alice under the pen name Lewis Carroll in 1865. At this time, England had accepted the new idea that children were delicate and innocent. Many reforms were applied along the country in order to protect children at work and at home. Nevertheless, these new laws took time to be fully implemented. The lack of enforcement for these laws continued as late as 1891 when “over 100,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were still employed as domestic servants in England” (Gubar). Also education for children was not a priority in England during the early 1860s. With these ongoing issues, Carroll set to reaffirm child innocence, and infancy as a nostalgic time of education and enjoyment.
Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland with fantastic and dreamy tones that meant to be more friendly towards children. He narrates the story of a little girl's journey to the magical and nonsensical world of Wonderland while she transitions from childhood to puberty. Carroll set to share and implement his ideas about the innocence of children in his book. He presents the reader with a sometimes gullible, delicate girl who matures through her journey enough to make her own decision and identify herself in the world, but without losing that magnificent childhood innocence because she is not yet an adult. Carroll shows the reader Alice's innocence by having her being a very imaginative and simple child. This is especially true when he shows her trying to make sense of the world around her using her own logic. After meeting the Duchess, Alice think to herself “When I'm a Duchess, I won't have any pepper in my kitchen at all. Soup does very well without. Maybe it's always pepper that makes people hot-tempered, and vinegar that makes them sour, and chamomile that makes them bitter” (Carroll, 43). Alice is adventurous, curious, and smart, what makes her a very likable character. Lewis Carroll said about children “Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred” (Gubar). However, he goes beyond idolizing Alice's innocence, he goes as far as to idolize childhood. The idea of childhood as a period of education and enjoyment that only comes once in a lifetime was highly used by authors of the time.
Lewis Carroll also set out to idolize childhood as a beautiful part of life. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll portraits childhood as the time for imagination, education, and unwinding. Alice is constantly asked by the local residents to recite lessons. She recites the poem Father William that is about a conversation between a father and his son, who argues that his father is old, and yet he does things the young do. He asks his father how he kept his jaws so strong, to which he answers: “In my youth, I took the law and argued each case with my wife; And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw, Has lasted the rest of my life” (Carroll, 19). Here Carroll is saying that laws should be argued, and since this is related to education, the laws about education should be especially discussed. Carroll introduces other themes about education in his story, like the many books Alice sees during her long fall through the rabbit hole, and the lessons that she has to learn on her own. These seem to be the most important. She learns to be more patient, not to jump to assumptions, and keep her thoughts to herself from time to time. This are signs of maturity. Carroll doesn't just idolizes childhood as a time for education, he glorifies it as the an innocent, playful and simpler time of life.
The imaginative nature of Carroll's novella brings a more positive attitude towards children. He uses fantastical gardens, elaborated games, and colorful characters to give the story a carefree feeling, which is what childhood should be like. He then appeals at the audience nostalgic feelings for childhood at the end of the novella. Alice ends up waking up from her wonderful dream and tells all about it to her sister, who in turn watch little Alice run off and reflects on her sister's dream. Alice's sister, who is almost an adult, closes her eyes and “half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality” (Carroll, 67). Since she is almost an adult, Alice's sister has lost part of the innocence that would allow her to believe, like Alice, Wonderland to be real. Then she imagines herself an old woman that would remember nostalgic her own childhood and rejoice on the one from her younger children. She imagines how “she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child life, and the happy summer days” (Carroll, 68). With this as his last sentences, Carroll gives the reader a chance to remember and reflect on their own infancy and feel nostalgic. This is to evoke the worship towards childhood in his audience.
The Approach of Both Works
Both texts set out to make a stance against child labor. The authors of The Adventures of Oliver Twist and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland touch the same points, but take different approaches. Charles Dickens concentrates in portraying children as pure and innocent by evoking pity from his readers. In order to do this, Dickens presents Oliver with a very as a simple child that lives through the a series of heartbreaking instances. Once he has evoked pity from the reader, he shows how Oliver’s innocence is unbreakable. Even after a life of neglect and poverty, Oliver never gives in to a life of crime like many others have been forced to do. Lewis Carroll attempts to do the same in his book. To reaffirm the innocence of children, Carroll introduces Alice as a very intelligent, yet gullible girl. She is simple minded and with an eagerness to learn that makes her very likable. Carroll also uses a more soft and colorful narrative to demonstrate how children see the world. Both authors also set out to glorify childhood. Dickens wants to create a conscience about what a wasted childhood looks like and what the adults can do to protect kids from missing out on this important phase. Dickens shows his readers with several examples of wasted childhood. He sends the message about adults being the only ones that can shield children from harm to his audience through characters like Nancy. By doing this, he puts infancy and its importance in a pedestal. Lewis Carroll also supported the worship of child life. He evoke nostalgic feelings on his audience when he talks about how infancy occurs only once and how greatly missed it is when its over. Carroll also addresses the importance of education during this phase. Both writers utilized their books to impulse social progress. Dickens fought child labor and the Poor Law, while Carroll fought to enforce the child labor laws and to get children education. Through their texts, both authors supported social progress in a time of industrialization, transformation, religious doubt and groundbreaking scientific theories. They addressed important social issues when society seemed to resist change. This is why their ideas became timeless, and are still breathing, living pieces of literature.
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Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. New York: Heritage, 1939. Kindle.
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