These questions were originally created for English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, at the University of British Columbia, Summer Session Two, 1989. They have been augmented with pertinent excerpts from Tillotson's seminal criticism of the early Victorian novel for English 3412 (Victorian Fiction), Lakehead University, January through May 2004. For additional questions click on the "Contexts" icon at the foot of the screen.

Question 12. Part Twelve: Introductory (pp. 50-51)

Left: Fred Barnard's Household Edition sombre scene emphasizes the effect of Paul's death in Dickens's Dombey and Son: All this time, the bereaved father has not been seen even by his attendant; for he sits in a corner of his own dark room (Ch. XVIII). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Dickens suffered from his imitators; he was initiating, not continuing a tradition. To put a child at the centre of a novel was virtually unknown when Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop. Further, the sufferings of children at this time have social relevance. Many of his readers had read the five reports on Child Labour which appeared between 1831 and 1843. Part of Gissing's defence is on these lines:

Such pathos is called 'cheap' . . . in Dickens's day, the lives, the happiness of children were very cheap indeed, and . . . he had his purpose in insisting on their claims to attention. 1

Some writers of the mid-nineteenth century considered the age unduly sensitive — Bagehot, for example: "The unfeeling obtuseness of the earlier part of this century was to be corrected by an extreme, perhaps an excessive, sensibility to human suffering." 2 Dickens's pathos had its social purpose. Nell, Smike, Jo, even Paul are all in different ways social victims: as much as the Wilson twins in Mary Barton. With the pathos of their deaths is combined apportionment of particular blame:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen . . . . And dying thus around us, every day. 3

Left: Harry Furniss's Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910) sombre scene anticipates Paul's death in Dickens's Dombey and Son: Mr. Dombey at Paul's sick-bed (Ch. XVI). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

As it happens, in the case of Paul Dombey the historical grounds for defence are not the only ones to appeal to. There are also aesthetic grounds; stronger here than in The Old Curiosity Shop. Gissing was understating the case when he said "If the situation is to be presented at all, it might be much worse done." 1 The pathos is in control because the scene is given from a limiting angle. We see with Paul's eyes, and not, until the close, with those of the author or the stricken onlookers. We see what Paul sees, the faces of friends appearing and disappearing through the more urgent visions of delirium; he is not self-conscious about his own death, he says goodbye, but — in contrast to Tennyson's 'May Queen' and Charlotte Bronte's Helen Burns — he makes no farewell speeches 1. . . . . The death of a child represents the extreme of pathos, but incapable of treatment as tragedy; its expression, therefore, is found most appropriately in lyric . . . . [Tillotson, "Introductory," pp. 50-51]

Notes, Page 50

1 Charles Dickens, A Critical Study (1898), p. 176.

2 Literary Studies, ii, 190 ('Charles Dickens', 1858)

3 Bleak House, ch. xlvii.

Notes, Page 51

1 Loc. Cit.

2 Dickens's one instance of sentimental piety in a sick child's speech is in Oliver Twist, ch. vii (Dick's farewell to Oliver).

Question Twelve: Victorian Readers' Responses to a Suffering Child in Fiction

What personal and societal considerations led Dickens to place a suffering child at the centre of so many of his stories?


Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955, rpt. 1983.

Created 25 December 2004

Last modified 22 January 2024