Oliver all over again: Dickensian narratives of orphanhood in the Victorian novel

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This dissertation examines the trope of orphanhood in mid-nineteenth century novels and argues that the orphan emerges as a symbol of middle-class fears about legitimacy and survival. Though many critics concentrate their analysis upon orphaned street children, arguing that authors used these figures to elicit sympathy for various social and political causes, the majority of orphans in nineteenth-century novels are members of the middle-class. In my dissertation, I examine the origin of the orphan as a synecdoche of middle-class anxiety in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, a novel whose title character Dickens and other authors continue to revise throughout the early and mid-Victorian era. Analysis of Oliver and his many reincarnations shows the evolution of an eighteenth-century orphan prototype into a character distinctly Victorian. The orphan, taking on a specific trajectory of middle-class formation that would culminate in the cultivation of morality and authenticity, symbolized the middle-class desire to survive and legitimize itself in England. As the century progresses, male and female literary orphans, who came to embody the complex gendered behavior requirements of the nineteenth-century middle class, had to undertake different, though equally important, courses of formation in order to ensure middle-class survival. Male and female authors continually reproduced this character throughout the era, but by mid-century, the Dickensian orphan narrative shifted slightly to reveal a stable middle class no longer worried about its origin or long-term survival but instead concerned about its need to reform England as a whole, so that the country adhered to middle-class values and becomes moral and authentic. Chapters of the dissertation explore the evolving character of the orphan, including analysis of orphaned characters in Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, A Child's History of England, Bleak House, No Name, and The Small House at Allington. The latter two novels will show a distinct shift away from Dickens's use of the orphan as a middle-class symbol embodying fears about survival and explore how the orphan begins to evolve to emulate new class-based concerns about masculinity and professionalization. Always key, however, was the orphan's ability to cultivate and maintain a distinctly Victorian morality and authenticity.

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