Feminine Influence in Oliver Twist

Feminine Influence in Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a novel which bears the name of a male character, may appear to suggest a world of prominent male influence and power, but on closer examination, the female characters exert their own equally important power and influence. By closely examining the characters Mrs. Corney and Mrs. Maylie, it becomes clear that they have a different set of values by which they live their lives. These values mold their perception of Oliver and govern how their influence in his life affects him. Dickens uses these two distinct approaches in concert creating a balance between evil and good present in the female characters, with Mrs. Corney acting as the antagonist and Mrs. Maylie as the protagonist.

oliver_twist_1Mrs. Corney’s position of power and authority stems from her employment as the matron of the workhouse. Her association with this establishment, upon initial introduction of her character, immediately foreshadows her negative role in the story, aligning her with the authoritative men who have already imposed their tragic influence over Oliver. Like these men, Mrs. Corney has no compassion for the poor. This is evident as she sets down to tea on a bleak, bitter night, staring into her cheery fire. She reflects, in a nearly kind-hearted fashion, that “Im sure we have all on us a great deal to be grateful for” (Dickens 177) but immediately sours the readers impression of piety as she deplores “the mental blindness of those paupers who did not know it'” (Dickens 177). Her use of the term “mental blindness” illustrates how she, in her superior and short sighted opinion, believes her social status has endowed her with a wisdom and insight that the paupers are too poor and stupid to possess. Her disdain for the poor is reinforced when her tea is interrupted by a call to her matronly duty. At the request of her presence at the bedside of a poor, dying workhouse nurse, Old Sally Thingummy, Mrs. Corney heartlessly asks, “What’s that to me?” (Dickens 182) and furthers her complaint with “I can’t keep her alive, can I?” (Dickens 182). When Mrs. Corney does tend to Sally, she doesn’t offer a soft heart for the dying, but merely exhibits an indignant, authoritarian sense of duty believing there is no value to her in this situation. Through her first mutterings and actions, Dickens illustrates Mrs. Corney’s darkest traits, positioning her well within the narrative to inflict suffering upon Oliver.

Using her personal and professional power of manipulation, Mrs. Corney fails Oliver twice by harboring a crucial truth about his identity. When Old Sally confesses to Mrs. Corney that she stole a small bit of gold from an orphan’s dying mother who wished to give it to her child, Sally identifies that child as Oliver. Sally’s confession, in her final opportunity to right this wrong, bestows upon Mrs. Corney the implied responsibility to reveal this truth and return the gold to its rightful owner. Mrs. Corney, understanding that she is the sole witness to Sally’s confession, recognizes instead her own opportunity. As Sally’s two friends enter the room declaring Sally dead, Mrs. Corney replies, “And nothing left to tell after all,” (Dickens 190). She lies to the two women because, by harboring Sally’s secret, she is able to steal the gold for herself without the knowledge of any witness. Allowing her desires of personal gain to motivate her, she is able to twist the appearance of actual events and use them to steal. Her second failure occurs when she eventually shares this secret and tells of the gold, doing so with tarnished intensions unbecoming to a woman of her stature. Rather than enlightening Oliver, she selfishly sells the information and gold to Oliver’s foe, Monks, merely turning a quick profit and forcing Oliver to remain in the dark confines of his ignorance. Dickens uses her as a tool to further Oliver’s journey along the path of hardship, suffering and naivete by holding clues to Oliver’s identity without a care about who he is or what effect her actions will have on him.

oliver_twist_2Mrs. Maylie, as a woman of property and head of household in Chertsey, uses her stature and influence to further the greater good rather than her own. Dickens introduces us, at first glance, to her managerial style as a nurturing and mother-like influence. Mrs. Maylie’s “boy” Brittles is described as “a lad of all-work; who, having entered her service a mere child, was treated as a promising young boy still, even though he was something past thirty” (Dickens 218). Even when she is well within her rights as an employer to hire a more productive person, Mrs. Maylie sees Brittles as a child in need of understanding and gentle guidance. When Oliver arrives wounded at Mrs. Maylie’s door, Brittles journeys to Chertsey “to dispatch, with all good speed, a constable and a doctor” (Dickens 226). An hour and twelve minutes later, as Mrs. Maylie merely complains of his slowness without speaking of consequence, Rose humors her aunt with a smile saying, “It is very inexcusable in him if he stops to play with other boys” (Dickens 227). This comment from Rose underlines how Mrs. Maylie’s interpretation of family is understood by the household as a whole and all are treated kindly as members. Because Dickens demonstrates Mrs. Maylie’s compassion and humanity through her fondness of Brittles, he introduces the reader to the possibilities that Mrs. Maylie can also offer Oliver.

Mrs. Maylie, a loving, matriarchal figure to her legitimate son, her adopted niece and her staff, extends her affectionate role to Oliver as well, even after he is identified as the thief that entered her house. When Rose asks her aunt to “think how young he is; think that he may never have known a mother’s love, or the comfort of a home” (Dickens 231), Mrs. Maylie replies, “my days are drawing to their close; and may mercy be shown to me as I shew it to others! What can I do to save him, sir?” (Dickens 231) As it is within her power to offer that mother’s love and comfort of a home, she opens herself up to Oliver, in part because she is a kind and gentle soul, and in part because she is nearing the end of her life and hopes for mercy from her God in return for her generosity. Offering all the protections and kindnesses Oliver never experienced growing up, she cares for his health, provides him with shelter and food, and most importantly, she provides him with a healthier family structure than he had ever known. Mrs. Maylie continues to believe in this boy by looking beyond what had once appeared to be a thief, and by seeing the child before her in need. Dickens creates this heroine to illustrate to Oliver the world every human being deserves.

Mrs. Corney’s self serving character is as blind as she believes the paupers to be, unable to see Oliver for who he is, even as she holds clues to the truth. Her vile and selfish personality undermines Oliver’s transcendence from the streets of the poor to his rightful social placement by focusing on her own personal gain. Mrs. Maylie approaches Oliver as a mother does her child, seeing who he is by observing his actions and listening to his story, paying enough attention to discover his demonstrated true being. She knows who the boy is in his heart, without the proof of social credentials. Her compassionate nature nurtures his soul and allows him to flourish as a young boy should. Dickens uses his female characters to mold and shape the story with their power and influence and goes so far as to pit their influences against each other, thus creating a force and counter force to move Oliver along through the novel.

Twisting Plot and Turning Pages

Twisting Plot and Turning Pages

oliver twistA response to Charle’s Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist thus far:

As the old woman in the workhouse, Sally, dies in Chapter XXIV, she reveals a small bit of Oliver’s true identity to Mrs. Corney. She confesses that, as she was the nurse on hand the day of Oliver?s birth, she stole a piece of gold intended for Oliver, one his mother hoped would lessen any disgrace if the child were “to hear his mother named.”

How could Oliver’s mother possess something so valuable as gold? Could the gold piece have been a wedding ring? More than likely it was, although we have yet to find out. The old woman died before revealing the object in question. Prior to this event we see Oliver descend from a possible prostitute, certainly a woman who bears no wedding ring and who has far greater stamina than any lady of stature. Without concrete proof of Oliver’s legitimacy beyond a partial dying confession, we can still consider the possibility by examining how Dickens allows Oliver’s character to unfold.

When thrown into the lowest social class by way of fate, Oliver repeatedly displays the actions of one who doesn’t belong amid England’s poor. From his earliest moments, born among the starving and dying of the workhouse, Oliver’s first difficulty is battling for his first breath. His will to live lies in direct contrast to those dying around him. When he finally cries, he is described as giving “this first proof of free and proper action of his lungs.” Dickens ensures that the words “free and proper” are carefully placed. If Oliver’s lungs are operating with free and proper action as an innate part of Oliver’s body, does that not imply that Oliver, as a being, is acting free and proper as well? Another example is when Oliver asks for more food at the workhouse during his ninth year of life, as thought it is his right. The board found this behavior shocking, unacceptable, and completely out of character for the workhouse poor.

In many ways, Oliver is a quality human being over and above those of an assumed higher breeding. He possesses a sense of integrity that defies the devastation of starvation, continuing his fight against the influences of evil and threats of his many elders. When Fagin impresses upon him that thievery is what is expected of him in London to survive, Oliver is chilled to the core, sickened by the mere thought of something so vile, even in his sleep when rest should erase such anxieties. After being forced at gunpoint by Sikes to participate in a robbery, and threatened with a beating when the gun would be too loud, Oliver, in a cold sweat and with misty eyes, fell to his knees in horror at the prospect of participating in the events to follow, of which he assumed would include thievery and maybe even murder.

Oliver is not only ethically sound, his driving spirit to survive perpetually moves him forward. He not only endures a troublesome birth, but continues to defy death throughout the tale. Each time, his spirit brings him back to consciousness while circumstance delivers him, perhaps as a rebirth, to higher ground. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that he may belong in higher society as he moves into to better circumstances, these being relative to his prior experience and not indicative of pleasant situations. When Oliver faced such intense starvation on his journey to London, with no roof over his head and a loneliness that ate as his heart, he was discovered by the Artful Dodger who provided nourishment, a roof, friendship and a job through Fagin, the old Jew. Again, when Oliver came out of the fever he suffered in front of the magistrate when accused of theft, he is welcomed into the home of Mr. Brownlow where care, food, new clothes (equivalent to new social identity), and an opportunity to educate himself with books is offered. Again, when shot during a house robbery and left to die in a ditch, Oliver rises once more, defying the odds and finding the unlikely care of an angelic young woman in the very house in which he was shot.

By these examples, it very well may be true that Oliver is not as illegitimate as first presented. Oliver often finds his way naturally and unexpectedly, dragged back into the depths of despair only by the actions of those who misunderstand him.