Representations of the marginalised in Dickens’s novels

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

9 Pages


Representations of the marginalised in Dickens’s novels

This paper will examine Charles Dickens’ depiction of the marginalised in the Victorian society namely in his three selected text; The old curiosity shop, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. It will mainly deal with homelessness, heroism and forms of unemployment with a focus on The Poor Law. I will look into the problem of poverty in context of first phase of industrialization which brought radical insecurity to more working class than middle class people. Dickens’ novels expose the slums and dirt of London and its surroundings by realistically depicting the corruption of its society. Thus the Industrial Revolution evoked sympathy and a desire for social change in Charles Dickens. Industrial Revolution in Britain transformed social economic structure of the country to a very great extent. New industries sprang offering new goods to satisfy the demand of the market. There was an enormous increase in individual and national wealth. Large scale production resulted in greater profits to owners whose wealth swelled day by day. This resulted in wealth and rise of capitalism, which led to the elimination of small producers because they could not compete with the capitalists. Thus small class grew up and dominated the economic life of England. As production for profit in a free market replaced production for use and as innovation of newer methods upset the balance in established industries. The phenomenon of large scale boom and depression introduced a new element into the economic life. It threatened the life of middle class people as they reduced into working class. Thus poor were unable to cope with the changing economy which marginalized them and pushed them into crime and other illegal work to survive. The gap between rich and poor was visible in the Victorian society, nothing was done except enactment of The New Poor Law of 1834, leading to the establishment of work houses. The authorities took measures to enact the new law effectively, with full awareness of the corruption in the society. Royal Commission report substantiates, “though its name, the New Poor Law’s aim was not to eradicate poverty, rather to clearly demarcate the emerging middle classes from those either unwilling or unable to work, intended to produce rather negative than positive effects.”[1] There were many criticism of the law in terms of public and private charity. Poor law official believed that outdoor relief was futile as it led to the further degradation of working people. It increased idleness as they lost their ambition to earn; since the poor law commissioners assumed that the poor aspired to be fed without working. The children lived in very difficult conditions, forced to work in factories and workhouses under unhealthy condition. My paper will focus on the anxieties and insecurities generated by early industrial revolution.

The Old Curiosity Shop depicts a new form of earning through illegitimate means such as gambling. Dickens’ protagonist Nell is a thirteen year old girl living with her grandfather in London to support him. Later she becomes a homeless girl wandering the countryside of England with her grandfather. The lifestyle and difficulties during their wanderings become very difficult for Nell. She dies in a village where she and her grandfather gained employment. I will examine the life of Nell to provide an idea about how the poor young people lived. I shall particularly focus on the life of Nell in times when she was wandering with her grandfather through England escaping Mr. Quilp–escaping from London. Nell is not a typical homeless girl, similar to those homeless people who lived in London streets and had much more difficult lives. Nell used to have her home. When Nell finds him in trouble due to debt, she helps her grandfather to escape London, a gesture of filial love that saves him from Quilp - the money lender. Nell is shown a caring, deserving, homeless girl with desires of a stable and rooted life though deprived of her childhood privileges because of her grandfather indulgence in illegal practices. Nell caring nature can be seen clearly at the very beginning of the novel. She returns and starts cooking food. The poor young people had to deal with many difficulties in Victorian era. Nell had to be very responsible and had to take care of almost everything despite of her youth. This is clearly reflected in Chapter Fifteen in the beginning of their escape from London – “although they got up and left very early, she still did not forget to prepare a basket with some food for their way. “She had the precaution to furnish her basket with some slices of bread and meat, and here they made their frugal breakfast.”[2] This was very common in those days and the children were expected not to say single word against it. Nell does not want to live London as she felt;

“...the child trembled with a mingled sensation of hope and fear as in some far–off figure imperfectly seen in the clear distance, her fancy traced a likeness to honest Kit. ... if she had not dreaded the effect, which the sight of him might have wrought upon her fellow traveller, she felt that to bid farewell to anybody now, and most of all to him who had been so faithful and so true, was more than she could bear. It was enough to leave dumb things behind, and objects that were insensible both to her love and sorrow.”[3]

Nell stood by her grandfather and obeyed him without uttering any words. This moment brought great change in her life. She becomes a homeless girl. She followed her grandfather and did her best to support him as much as possible. We find typical feature of Nell behaviour towards her grandfather. When they were on their way away from London Nell sprayed the water on her grandfather with her hands, and dried it with her simple dress. During the first day of their journey, when they stopped up to have a rest, they were very tired and needed rest. But Nell’s grandfather decided to continue. Nell was tired and would have preferred to stay longer. The mental agony of Nell can be seen, following her grandfather to help him with the core of her heart. Although she was tired but had to continue for grandfather, she says, ‘‘We must go on, indeed’, said Nell, yielding to his restless wish”[4]

Nell and her grandfather as well as other travelling people had to rely on the help of other people. Although they were poor, they were willing to help each other. Thus families living out of London and out other big cities as well were much happier and also healthier, although definitely neither their living conditions were satisfactory enough. In comparison with other families living in London, they lived quite good life. Dickens showed such families in The Old Curiosity Shop. When Nell with her grandfather wander through England and they visited many poor families in their houses. One of them was described in The Old Curiosity Shop in Chapter Fifteen:

“The furniture of the room was very homely of course–– a few rough chairs and a table, a corner cupboard with their little stock of crockery and self, a gaudy tea–tray, representing a lady in bright red, walking out with a very blue parasol, a few common, coloured scripture subjects in frames upon the wall and chimney, an old dwarf clothes–press and an eight–day clock, with a few bright saucepans and a kettle, comprised the whole. But everything was clean and neat, and as the child glanced round, she felt a tranquil air of comfort and content”[5]


[1] S. G. Checkland, Great Britain Poor Law Commission, et al. (1974). The Poor Law Report of 1834 Harmondsworth, Penguin, p395

[2] Charles Dickens, The old curiosity shop, London: Everyman publishers,1995,p116

[3] ibid,p113

[4] ibid p,120

[5] ibid p,119

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Representations of the marginalised in Dickens’s novels
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Pankaj Kumar (Author), 2013, Representations of the marginalised in Dickens’s novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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