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The Characterization of the Females in Oliver Twist: Breaking the Gender Stereotypes


The Characterization of the Females in Oliver Twist: Breaking the Gender Stereotypes

Swagata Chowdhury

Ph. D. Research Scholar


Santiniketan, West Bengal, India.



Oliver Twist is a very popular novel by Charles Dickens. The novel overtly criticizes various important social issues of mid-nineteenth century England. This paper reads the portrayal of women characters by Dickens using the ecofeminist perspective of Val Plumwood. Dickens presented various women characters with individual characteristics. Few were oppressive, selfish, and greedy. The girl from the marginalized section suffered a moral dilemma and tried to retain her humanity. Other women were presented as caring, compassionate, and loving. The paper argues that Dickens in the characterization of women subtly go beyond the Victorian concept of femininity: ‘the angel in the house’and the established gender stereotypes.

Keywords: Victorian, Femininity, Gender, Stereotype, Ecofeminist

Oliver Twist is a very popular novel by Charles Dickens. It was published as a serial from 1837 to 1839. In this novel Dickens criticized multiple important issues of Victorian society. The novel is a vehement criticism against the workhouse system, New Poor Law and the hierarchical oppression of the poor, marginal sections in the hands of the dominants. Using the ecofeminist perspectives of Val Plumwood, this paper will argue that Dickens went beyond the gender stereotypes in the characterization of the females in the novel.


There is ample research on this novel that concentrates on various socio-political and moral issues. They discussed how Dickens criticized the socio-economic condition of that period in the novel. There are scholars who emphasized the portrayal of the Jew in the novel like Susan Meyer in “Antisemitism and Social Critique in Dickens’s Oliver Twist” and Jonathan H. Grossman in “The Absent Jew in Dickens: Narrators in Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, and A Christmas Carol”. K.J Fielding in “Benthamite Utilitarianism and Oliver Twist: A Novel of Ideas” argued that “Oliver Twist is not just about crime but about right and wrong – the basis of our moral principles – and, in particular, that is against the rationalistic Utilitarianism of its particular time (the 1830s)”. Larry Wolf discussed juvenile criminality in the presentation of boys and girls in Oliver Twist. Susan Zlotnick discussed how the novel criticized New Poor law and its one clause the bastardy clause that gave privilege to English bachelors. But there is no such work that concentrated on the characterization of the females using the ecofeminist lens.


Plumwood in the introduction of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature discussed about the Victorian times when women’s moral goodness- purity, patience, self -sacrifice were thought to be the qualities that would redeem fallen social and political life (Plumwood, Feminism 9). Plumwood criticized the attribution of the humane qualities or rather “feminine” qualities like patience, virtue, self- sacrifice to women directly and universally. Accroding to her, such universal attribution of humane qualities to women actually neglects realities of society. It is because not every woman is empathetic, nurturant and co-operative. She argued that “women are capable of conflict, of domination and …violence” (Plumwood, Feminism 9). Plumwood found that sometimes women are the symbols of consumer culture enjoying all the luxuries. So, she wanted to go beyond such gender stereotypes and invited all the human beings irrespective of gender to foster in their minds the humane qualities of care, compassion, and love to make a sustainable society and a safe earth with healthy ecology (Plumwood, Feminism 160-61).


In Oliver Twist, Dickens introduced to the reader the character of Mrs. Mann with utmost irony. After the birth of Oliver, he spent the first eight or ten months in the workhouse. Then the authorities decided that he should be sent to the care and guidance of Mrs. Mann. She was


a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children: and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them: thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher (Oliver 12).


Mrs. Mann was portrayed by the author as a very self centred, greedy, hypocrite and cruel woman who had no sympathy or motherly affection for the poor little babies and children that she “farmed”(Oliver 12) in her workhouse. ‘Farmed’ is a very important word that is used by Dickens here to establish the image of cultivating crops or animals. Little children were farmed by Mrs. Mann as a profitable business. The poor babies grew up with utmost negligence without proper food and care. They suffered malnutrition and remained sickly. Sometimes fatal accidents took their lives. She used to beat the children often. Oliver Twist was afraid at the gesture of Mrs. Mann showing her fist at him. Oliver was scared “for the fist had been too often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”(Oliver 16). So, Mrs. Mann is the extreme contrast to the motherly image of woman.


Oliver met Mrs. Sowerberry in his next phase of life when he became apprenticed with the coffin maker Mr. Sowerberry. The lady with “a vixenish countenance” (Oliver 34) saw no profit in Oliver. She was afraid that Oliver was very small and would grow “on our victuals and our drink. I see no saving in parish children, not I; for they always cost more to keep than they’re worth” (Oliver 35). She offered the cold meat to Oliver that was kept for the dog and Oliver got the damp, dirty place where coffins were kept as a place to live and sleep. She never showed any sympathy or care, not even the least humanity towards Oliver. She was also very rude to her maid Charlotte. Mrs. Sowerberry was another example of a selfish, oppressive woman in the novel.


Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse, who later became Mrs. Bumble was another woman portrayed by Dickens as greedy and selfish. Mrs. Bumble’s character was also portrayed with extreme irony. She was a greedy, selfish, and shrewd woman who behaved very harshly with others in the workhouse.  Readers enjoyed her character more when she married Mr. Bumble. Mrs. Bumble became a very dominating wife who used to bully Mr. Bumble, scolding him for everything. Dickens made Mrs. Bumble bethe punishment for Mr. Bumble for all his sins: his selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy towards Oliver and all the other children. He got tamed by Mrs. Bumble and remained scared and mute in front of her.


Dickens portrayed other female characters like Nancy, Mrs. Maylie, and Rose with positive humane qualities like care, compassion and love which are thought to be ‘feminine’ qualities. Nancy was a very important character in the novel who tried to help Oliver regain his identity. Nancy was abducted in her childhood, and she worked under Fagin, the Jew. Though Dickens never clearly mentioned it was evident in the novel that Nancy was a prostitute. Nancy was sexually exploited and oppressed. Her physical oppression was clear when she showed to Oliver “some livid bruises on her neck and arms” (Oliver 150). Nancy was a sensitive girl who felt empathy towards Oliver. Nancy abducted Oliver when he fled and took him to the Jew again. She had a sense of guilt. She understood that Oliver’s fate would also be like hers, and her other friends lost in the darkness of criminality. She cried in remorse and told Sikes and Fagin: “I wish I had been struck dead in the street, or had changed places with them we passed so near tonight, before I had lent a hand in bringing him here. He’s a thief, a liar, a Devil! All that’s bad, from this night forth.” (Oliver 120). Nancy tried to be caring towards Oliver and advised him to remain silent and obedient when taking him to Sikes. She could not deny her conscience and went to Rose to reveal the conversation between Fagin and Monks. Nancy suffered a moral dilemma as she had deep love for Bill Sikes. That was why she could not leave him and the dark world. Ironically, she got death in the hands of Sikes. So, Nancy was portrayed by Dickens as a woman who had a humane heart that she nurtured even when she was in a most negative, dark environment of crime.


Rose and Mrs. Maylie are the two important female characters in the novel. Rose was a very compassionate, forgiving, and soft-hearted girl. She was affectionately attached to Mrs. Maylie and had deep respect for her. She loved Harry Maylie deeply. When she met Oliver, she became very caring, compassionate, and loving towards him. Gradually she had a strong bond of love for Oliver. Ultimately their family relation was revealed. When Rose met Nancy, the way she treated Nancy proved her to be compassionate and caring. As a woman, Rose felt the helpless situation of Nancy. Rose showed care, sympathy, and respect towards Nancy, though Nancy was socially far inferior to her. Rose offered Nancy a safe life to live. So Rose was portrayed by Dickens as a sensible human being who had care, sympathy, and a sense of respect for others. Mrs. Maylie had a kind, caring heart. She adopted Rose and raised her with all motherly affection and care. She and Rose did not hesitate to give shelter to an unknown boy (Oliver) in their home and they tried to be very caring for him. Mrs. Bedwin, the kindhearted housekeeper of Mr. Brownlow nursed Oliver with motherly love and care. She did not believe a word of Mr. Bumble regarding Oliver.


Susan Meyer thought that Mrs. Mann and other Christian characters were presented by Dickens as worse than Fagin. Fagin was presented as a man who cooked food for his workers, and he gave shelter to Oliver whatever his purpose was:


in some respects, the treatment Oliver receives at Fagin’s hand is far better than what he received at the hands of the nominal Christians of the novel’s opening chapters, and this contrast conveys an implicit rebuke to Dickens’s fellow Englishmen and women: Christians though they are, Oliver Twist implies, they have become worse than the Jew (Oliver 244).


So, in Oliver Twist, Dickens portrayed the women characters like Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Sowerberry and Mrs. Bumble as very greedy, selfish and had no humane heart for little children like Oliver. They dominated others and remained concerned only to fulfill their greed. They became the part of dominant patriarchy who enjoyed their position and profit like other male characters of the novels. On the other hand, there are women like Nancy who belonged to the marginalized section and lived in a vulnerable, helpless condition. Yet her conscience remained awake amidst all the situations. There were women like Rose Maylie, Mrs. Maylie and Mrs. Bedwin who had a comfortable life. They had money and societal status and if they wanted, they could remain ignorant of the lives of others. Yet they tried wholeheartedly to give Oliver all the care and kindness and the bonding of love a family could give and did their best to find his identity. Dickens presented different women characters with different social status and background. He presented individual characteristics of different women. In his presentation he went beyond the universal gendered concept of women and the Victorian concept of feminine: “the angel in the house” (Plumwood, Feminism 9) considering women as naturally virtuous, caring, and compassionate. Dickens broke the established gender stereotypes subtly when he presented women as oppressive, dominant, greedy and self-centered without any motherly affection, care and kindness towards others not even the little children.


Val Plumwood thought that humane qualities should be nurtured by all irrespective of gender. In Oliver Twist, there are men like Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Losberne and Harry Maylie who had caring attitudes and sympathetic hearts. Dickens ultimately made the humane qualities like love, care, kindness win over selfishness, oppression, and dominance. It is because ultimately Oliver got a happy life with his loved ones and the oppressive villains of his life got punishment.


Works Cited


Primary Text


Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Noida: Om Books International, 2021.


Secondary Texts


Fielding, K.J. “Benthamite Utilitarianism and “Oliver Twist”: A Novel of Ideas.” Dickens Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1987, pp. 49-65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45291188


Grossman, Jonathan H. “The Absent Jew in Dickens: Narrators in “Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend””, and “A Christmas Carol.”Dickens Studies Annual,Vol. 241996, pp. 37-57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44372455


Meyer, Susan. “Antisemitism and Social Critique in Dicken’s “Oliver Twist”.”Victorian Literature and Culture, 2005, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2005, pp. 239-252.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/25058705


Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London and New York: Routledge,1993. Print.


Wolff, Larry. ““The Boys Are Pickpockets, and the Girl Is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from “Oliver Twist to LondonLabour.””New Literary History, Spring, 1996, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1996, pp. 227-249. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20057349


Zlotnick, Susan. “The Law's a Bachelor”: “Oliver Twist,” Bastardy, and the New Poor Law.” Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2006, pp. 131-146. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25058740