Orphans, Abandonment, Self-Pity, and Fairy-Tale Plotting

For more than a half century, students of Dickens have emphasized the crucial importance of the traumatic period in his life when his parents suddenly removed him from school and their middle-class, more-or-less genteel environment, made him live apart from the family, and forced him to work at Warren's Shoeblacking factory and warehouse. As Walter Allen points out, this experience had crucial influence on (1) the writer's emphasis upon orphans and abandoned children, (2) the self-pity that permeates many of his works, and (3) their fairy-tale plots:

The blacking factory episode does not account for Dickens's genius, but it does, I believe, explain some of the forms his genius took, and it throws light on much that is otherwise baffling both in his art and his life. It explains why we so often find at the centre of his novels the figure of the lost, persecuted, or helpless child: Oliver Twist, Little Nell, David, Paul Dombey, Pip, and their near relations, Smirke and Jo, in Bleak House. It explains, too, why their rescue, when there is a rescue, so often has the appearance of a fairy-story ending, the result of what is sometimes called wishful thinking, just as the deaths of Little Nell, Paul Dombey, and Jo are dramatizations of his own self-pity. And it explains the dominant mood in which his world is created. It was not at all one of good- humoured acceptance of things, but a mood of nightmare compounded of lurid melodrama and savage comedy, relieved from time to time by unreflecting joy in the absurd and the comic for their own sakes'." [Allen, 166]

Alexander Welsh similarly argues

The secret memory of the blacking warehouse explains a great deal in Dickens's life and fiction. It partially explains why, in the midst of his success with Pickwick, he should begin a fairy tale of the workhouse child, Oliver Twist. It explains the vein of self-pity that crops up again and again in the novels, and particularly the childlike sentiment that if he had died or turned bad, it would have served the grown-ups right. [4].

The Warrens Episode and the Dark Side of Dickens's Works

Drawing upon the insights of psychoanalysis, Welsh further explains that this episode also illuminates the darker side of Dickens's novels, including his use of the Doppelgänger figure: According to Freud, "suffering calls forth agression in the subject, which in turn induces guilt," and in the autobiographical fragment, Dickens reveals his agressive feelings towards his parents by denying them:

"I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know all these things have worked together to make me what I am: I but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back." . . the guilt of harboring so much indignation becaomes a kind of tertiary result of the episode. Aggression and guilt, usually unconscious, fuel the so-called dark side of Dickens's fiction. [4-5]

Why Did Dickens Write about the Warrens Episode When He Did?

The psychoanalytic critic Albert D. Hutter makes the crucial point that we should not take the blacking-warehouse episode in isolation but place it within the developmental framework of the writer's life and career. In other words, it is not the traumatic evens by themselves that count; it is what Dickens the writer did with them. Following Hutter, Welsh therefore asks the crucial questions

As it turns out, Dickens wrote his account of abandonment when he was working on Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, and Welsh argues convincingly,

At this time of life, Dickens wanted someone to know about the blacking warehouse, because from his current point of view the episode did him some credit. . . . There was almost a boast in Dickens's complaint that, "but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been for, for all the the care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond." I am not and never have been a vagabond, he is saying, but that is to my credit and no one else's. [6]

Suggested Readings

Allen, Walter. The English Novel. First Published . Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, .

Horsman, Alan. "Introduction." Dombey and Son. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974.

Hutter, Albert D. "Psychoanalysis and Biography: Dickens Experience at Warren's Blacking." Hartford Studies in literature 8 (1976): 23-37.

Patten, Robert L. " Autobiography into Autobiography: The Evolution of David Copperfield." Approaches to Victorian Autobiography. Ed. George P. Landow. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1979. 269-291.

Pratt, Branwen Bailey. "Dickens and Father: Notes and Family Romance." Hartford Studies in literature 8 (1976): 4-22.

Welsh, Alexander. From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens

Last modified 14 October 2002