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.
Mrs. 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.
Mrs. 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.