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Children of Burden

Updated: Feb 8

In the Novels of CHARLES DICKENS

by Elizabeth Faris



“The child is father of the man” wrote William Wordsworth in his 1807 classic My Heart Leaps Up. While the title of the poem is true to its optimistic message, this particular line, if taken out of context, is rather more ambiguous. What the poet meant to say, of course, is that the natural exuberance of childhood is a resource that lingers in each of us at lifelong disposal. Interpreted in a more literal light, however, it assumes a note of irony, especially in reference to the less than idyllic fate of so many children living in Victorian times. Countless of those born to that fiercely competitive climate were to fall victim to its indifference, neglected and obliged to shoulder burdens far beyond their years. Whether orphaned, abused, or made surrogate for parents disabled or delinquent, for them Wordsworth's inner beacon was all too soon snuffed out, a permanent shadow crowding in to take its place.


Charles Dickens is famous for having had occasion to glimpse their plight first-hand. Although his earliest years were reportedly carefree, by the time he was ten, his father’s debt from bad investment had eclipsed his means, and the family was forced to relocate to a poor district of London. Then, when Charles was twelve, John Dickens was sentenced to the notorious debtor’s prison known as the Marshalsea. In the interest of minimizing costs and maximizing income, the boy was taken out of school to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. The six shillings he earned for a ten-hour day pasting labels on pots of boot blacking was to be applied towards his own board and to help with family expenses. It turned out to be a workplace in no way inspiring of a young lad's fancy: in his own words, “a crazy tumble-down house… literally overrun with rats…. The sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up before me as if I were there again.” (Forster) Thus, we find him perched upon a wooden stool and peering through dusty slivers of daylight into squalor perhaps beyond all prior imagining, the lasting impressions of which he would go on to preserve in their first vibrancy in timeless works of fiction.


For Dickens was both resilient and resourceful, inordinately blessed with Wordsworth's brand of buoyancy and determined to turn the trials of his past into useful lessons for the present. In his career as a novelist, he would work tirelessly to expose hypocrisy and injustice in every sector of society from the hovels of Whitechapel to the drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square. Stories like Oliver Twist (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838) and Hard Times (1854) aim blistering rebuke at people and institutions that would presume to abuse, exploit or marginalize defenseless individuals and, most especially, the vulnerable child. Through his elaborate plots, he breathed new life into the ghosts of his past so they might speak of his outrage at a society seemingly blind to the pain it inflicted, imbuing each living cog in its great machinery with such a healthy dose of humanity that their inborn right to recognition could scarcely be ignored.


In David Copperfield (1849), he created a protagonist widely considered his most autobiographical. Young Copperfield, like Dickens himself, finds the warmth and security of a happy childhood pulled out from under him after an abrupt change in family circumstances. Fresh from the altar, her mother's new husband is bent on molding her to an ideal which does not include a son from a previous marriage. David, then, is duly dispatched, first to relatives of his nursemaid, then to boarding school, and finally - after the death of his mother - to a glue factory very like the one of Dickens' own experience. Indeed, the theme of loss or estrangement between mother and child is one that prevails in several of Dickens' plots. In Dombey and Son (1846), little Florence is rendered invisible when her loving mother dies giving birth to a brother who proves more than sufficient to satisfy her stepfather’s obsession with producing a male heir. In Bleak House (1852), Esther Summerson is reunited with her long-lost mother, Lady Dedlock, only to be parted from her once again due to conflicting loyalties, and then finally, forever, when that disgraced and disconsolate parent becomes the author of her own demise. And in Great Expectations (1861), Estella, the adopted daughter of the eternally-jilted Miss Havisham, has been raised, out of retribution, to show such utter indifference towards men that the mask at last becomes her, leaving her no hope of generating love for herself, much less feeling it for her own controlling mother.


Some scholars speculate that Dickens' liking for the subject may have sprung, in part, from his purported resentment of his own mother for refusing to allow him to return to his cherished studies long after the family breadwinner had been released from jail. But even if this theory were arguable, it would in no way absolve the father in the eyes of his son. Indeed, would-be paternal personalities crop up throughout the works of Dickens that prove perpetual sources of disillusionment and hardship for their offspring. Not least among them is Wilkins Micawber of David Copperfield, the quintessential profligate, who is forever driving his family into cul-de-sacs of debt and destitution in blithe pursuit of the main chance just around the corner. Likewise, Seth Pecksniff of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), the soul of vanity and greed, shows no remorse in exploiting his daughters for his own selfish ends, delivering the pretty one into the arms of an abusive husband and the forsaken other to a place of hostile retreat. And Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times, an ardent Utilitarian, raises his children in such strict adherence to the law of fact over fancy that he leaves them bereft of any means to express their emotion.


In Little Dorrit (1855), the father subjects the daughter to the insidious torment of an all-consuming dependency. Like John Dickens, he, too, is confined in the Marshalsea, where over twenty long years he has been reduced to a carping shadow of his former self, utterly reliant upon young Amy to bolster his endless claims of everlasting relevance. Because she is possessing of a keenly compassionate nature, she is willing to put her own dreams aside and accept her role unconditionally, showing all the grace and humility her father sorely lacks. In some respects, Amy's predicament is not unlike that of Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend (1864), who likewise relinquishes her own aspirations to support a father who makes a living robbing the corpses he drags from the river Thames. She secretly stashes every spare penny towards providing her younger brother with the means to flee their squalid existence. Shortly after he makes his escape, the father's body is dredged from the bottom of the river and Lizzie is left high and dry for a purpose of her own. However, she soon befriends Jenny Wren, a young doll's dressmaker who, though crippled, devotes herself to supporting her own father, a hopeless tippler she calls her 'bad child'. Thus, in all of these self-sacrificing daughters, we see glimmers of Dickens himself and the imperfect father whose shoes he was obliged to fill in temporary suspension of his own ambitions.


Perhaps most memorable, however, are Dickens' tributes to the innumerable children of his time who had no parent at all, nurturing or neglectful. Orphans of all shapes and sizes duck in and out of the pages of his novels, from Pip in Great Expectations to Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Stop to Bailey in Martin Chuzzlewit. Some are lumped in with those of their kind, some singled out by a benefactor, and some left entirely to their own devices. While the boys of Nicholas Nickleby's Dotheboys Hall live at the mercy of a one-eyed brute who thrashes them for a fee, street urchin Jo of Bleak House fends for himself under perpetual threat of starvation and being "moved along" from nowhere to nowhere else. Meanwhile, the protagonist in Oliver Twist (1837) begins at the bottom of the barrel, but rises to the top after the truth of his parentage is finally revealed. Born in a workhouse, from there he is foisted from one uncaring hand to the next, starved, bullied, beaten, stuffed in a coffin and threatened with hanging, until at last, striking out on his own, he ends up on the streets of London. There, he becomes entangled in a whole new web of treachery featuring Fagin and his ring of pickpockets, the villainous robber Sikes, and a mysterious stranger who calls himself Monks, each of whom has something to gain from his boldfaced exploitation. Indeed, the dastardly lengths to which these predators are willing to go to achieve their dark purpose is surely a measure of Dickens' revulsion at society's failure to foster the unclaimed child.


In short, throughout the novels of Dickens a moral prevails that points to our obligation to nurture the child, both in our midst and within ourselves. For it is that enduring inner voice - that purest manifestation of human spirit - that binds us at our deepest level. Only through the selfless act of embracing the child we share can we glimpse the truth beneath our individual layers of self-protection: the truth that lights the way to tolerance. "God bless us, every one!" says Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1843). How fitting that the fate of this innocent child should hinge upon Mr. Scrooge's epiphany: an old miser's willingness to reconcile the boy he used to be with the man he has become, and thus restore his long-lost ability to give and receive love. Charles Dickens, like William Wordsworth before him, knew that to choose the child is to free the spirit of the distortions of darkness and rediscover joy.





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