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Structures of the feminine in Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens


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Vlakančić, Tina. (2016). Structures of the feminine in Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Diploma Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of English Language and Literature. [mentor Jukić Gregurić, Tatjana].

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The aim of this text is to isolate and define the recurring female character types in Dickens’ early novels – Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The research of women’s roles in Victorian culture when middle and upper-class women were “’protectively’ enclosed in the home and subordinate to senior male figures: father and brothers when single, husband once married” (Moran 36), has demonstrated that female characters in the novels reflect these roles. Furthermore, it has been shown that Dickens’ involvement in the rehabilitation of prostitutes and his relationship with his mother also played a major role in the development of his characters. In Victorian novels, mothers are “almost always … incapacitated, abandoning, or dead” (Dever i). The portrayal of mothers in Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby does not deviate from this claim, as it has been shown that the mothers of both novels fit into one of these categories. That “the maternal ideal in fiction … takes its shape and its power in the context of almost complete maternal absence” (xi) can be demonstrated by the absence of Oliver Twists’ mother who, right before her death, kissed Oliver on the forehead and, with that, established herself “as the standard of goodness and virtue for the boy” (27). In Chapter XXXVII of Nicholas Nickleby, another dead mother is praised through an emotional speech given by her son, Edwin Cheeryble. However, a great number of orphaned characters are given one or several parental surrogates. The wealthy and respectful Maylie family adopts Rose Maylie, while Oliver encounters Mrs Bedwin who takes care of him for a short period of time, but is later adopted by the Maylies as well. However, Nancy, the prostitute, does not share the same luck as the two aforementioned characters, and is instead raised by a gang of criminals for whom she has to engage in immoral activities. It is evident that Oliver Twist provides dead or missing and therefore idealized mothers who are usually replaced with parental surrogates, whether positively or negatively portrayed. In Nicholas Nickleby, however, apart from dead and idolized mothers, much revolves around the concept of living but incompetent mothers. The foolish Mrs Nickleby was modelled after Dickens’ mother, while Mrs Kenwigs fails at mothering due to her materialistic pretences, much like Mrs Mann from Oliver Twist. Therefore, in these novels mothers are either dead and idealized, or alive and demonized. Female characters who are innocent, pure, passive, humble, and beautiful represent the ideal which corresponds to the Victorian ideal of femininity. Dickens bestows his angelic characters with beauty and modesty and, consequently, rewards them with a marriage to good men if they remain pure. Rose Maylie is the character who represents the feminine ideal in Oliver Twist, while Miss Nickleby and Madeline Bray epitomize this ideal in Nicholas Nickleby. Consequently, they are all rewarded with marriage for love. However, women who do not embody this feminine ideal and deviate from the norm, are ultimately unrewarded, or in the case of Nancy the prostitute from Oliver Twist, even brutally murdered. Dickens also used minor characters to portray either the virtuous or the fallen. Therefore, kind and cheerful Miss La Creevy is rewarded with marriage, while the Kenwigs and the Squeers women who harbour aristocratic pretensions do not receive what they want – wealth and marriage. Finally, Dickens portrays both his angelic and fallen characters as victims of men and society. Apart from suffering tremendously in the novel and being murdered at its end, Nancy is used as a means of economic exchange as she is forced into prostitution. In Nicholas Nickleby both Kate and Madeline are also used as means of economic exchange. Madeline was supposed to enter an arranged marriage with an old and despicable man in exchange for settlement of her father’s debts. Kate was forced to attend a dinner party through which Dickens aimed to show the problematic aspect of using an innocent girl as a means of economic exchange by utilizing an array of economic terms in attempts to transact her. Based on the evidence provided by the novels, the authors who argue that Dickens was a man of his time, but not ahead of his time, are certainly correct, as he rewards the angelic and punishes the fallen. However, glimpses of Dickens’ social activism are present in Oliver Twist through Nancy who is, in the end, portrayed as a positive character despite her status of a “fallen woman.” Fallen women “illustrate and express what Dickens condemns in society: the role of money and commercial value [and] the brutality of manners in the underworld” (Basch 228). Dickens “really did sympathize with every sort of victim of every sort of tyrant” (Chesterton 52). However, although Dickens was wholly sympathetic to victimized and fallen women, and believed that they could be saved – which can be confirmed with his involvement in the rehabilitation of prostitutes at Urania Cottage – he ultimately does not allow Nancy to have a good life and rise above her condition. In the novel, she is given a choice to join one of the asylums that were supposed to give her an opportunity to live a better life, far away from the corrupted city, but because Nancy rejects this opportunity, she ultimately cannot be saved. Her redemption lies in gruesome death. In comparing the female characters in these two novels it can be argued that Dickens held views typical of the Victorian era and that “in all his tales there is a latent desire to improve and strengthen the charities of life, raise the trampled upon, soften intolerance, diffuse knowledge, [and] promote happiness” (Armstrong 44). In these novels, he parodies aristocratic pretentions and greediness, praises purity and morality, and condemns the victimization of women. He also condemns the harsh living conditions of the lower classes, especially women, and the societal circumstances that lead to crime and prostitution. However, by not allowing his fallen character to rise above her condition unless she joins one of the asylums for fallen women and rewarding only the ones who remain pure and quiet, he subtly affirms the rules of the patriarchal Victorian society and relegates women to the domestic sphere.

Item Type: Diploma Thesis
Subjects: English language and literature
Departments: Department of English Language and Literature
Supervisor: Jukić Gregurić, Tatjana
Date Deposited: 21 Oct 2016 09:37
Last Modified: 21 Oct 2016 09:37

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