Academic Writing

Gender and Wealth in Dickens: A Reclassification of Social Binaries

The Victorian era brought with it the traditions of the past and adapted them to the modernity of the times, setting up new roles for each of its inhabitants to which they were expected to adhere strictly. This was especially true for Victorian women, who were required to remain within a specific domestic realm or else face classification as a dangerous woman. In most of his novels, Charles Dickens applies this binary of female behavior, a trope long played out in literature and social discussions over the centuries—the Virgin Mary and Eve, the virgin and the whore, the frigid wife and the seductive mistress, all examples of the bipolar categorizations of women. Dickens’s depictions of his female characters also mirror the binary present between the rich and the poor at this time, creating arbitrary markers for good and bad, deserving and not. For the most part, Dickens’s female characters fall into these dichotomous categories; however, more ambiguous characters such as Nancy in Oliver Twist and Miss Wade in Little Dorrit blur the lines between gender roles and class hierarchy. Both characters cast off traditional typecasting within the binary and offer insight on the socioeconomic dynamics of Victorian women. Nancy and Miss Wade, as a prostitute and a social rebel, respectively, embody characteristics from both sides of the angel-prostitute binary, confusing the typical connotations of good and bad and the associated assumptions of wealth and poverty.

            The primary basis for the dichotomy of angel and prostitute comes from the Victorian conception of the “Angel in the House,” a term coined by Coventry Patmore in an epic poem of the same title in 1854. Essentially, the Angel in the House should be a submissive, domestic wife, with qualities including being “loving, good and pure, always gentle, pious, submissive, and above all, selfless and self-sacrificing” (Bode 55). The Victorian woman was expected to follow etiquette rules and maintain the house as a sanctuary for morality as well as a physical demonstration of the family’s station in society (Yildirim 117). The contrast to this figure is the “Fallen Woman,” or, even more generally, any woman who transgresses the social boundaries set up under the expectations for a Victorian wife. In fact, the fallen woman, or prostitute, is seen nearly as another suitable role for a woman at the opposite end of the scale. In England, especially London, at the time, prostitution was extremely common and there was “no real effort to make it illegal, as the majority of men had the belief that prostitution was a necessary evil” to counteract the balance of wrong and right (Yildirim 119). With this acceptance of the two extremes, it is rather the women that fall in between, composed of both angelic and fallen characteristics, that receive the harshest prosecution from society. Dickens’s novels are full of examples of both the Angel in the House and the Fallen Woman, yet his select outliers offer a better view at the intricacies of gender hierarchies in Victorian England.

            Nancy and Miss Wade both obviously reject the Victorian angelic mold, with Nancy working as a prostitute and Miss Wade always acting the contrarian, living and working independently. At first glance, it seems simple to classify Nancy as yet another stock character in Dickens’s repertoire of fallen women, yet she and Miss Wade share certain similarities that further alienate them from their society and ultimately lead to their downfall. Though Nancy first appears as a part of Fagin’s criminal gang, when she retrieves Oliver for Fagin, she protects him from a beating, saying, “I wish I had been struck dead in the street, or had changed places with them we passed so near to-night, before I had lent a hand in bringing him here” (Dickens, Oliver 132). Indeed, Nancy becomes a motherly figure for Oliver, eventually sacrificing her life for his. With her maternal instincts, Nancy’s behavior crosses into the classification of the Angel in the House, placing her in a position of permeable power that threatens the men around her. For as much as Victorian etiquette codes stress submission, a woman’s control over the household establishes her economic position as much closer to that of a man as she must “perform the ideological work of managing the class question and displaying the signs of the family’s status” (Langland 291). Thus, as long as Nancy can wield power on both sides of the angel-prostitute binary, she poses a threat to Sikes and Fagin who seek to retain control over her, ending in her murder at the hands of Sikes. It is Nancy’s deviancy from one of the prescribed social roles available to women that determines her death, just as Miss Wade’s peculiarities alienate her from society.

            The most cohesive information Dickens gives about Miss Wade comes in the form of a letter addressed to Arthur Clennam in which she tells her life story, which is full of social disappointment and paranoia. Miss Wade is an orphan, just as many of Dickens’s social misfits are, but she is also independently wealthy and self-sufficient thanks to Mr. Casby’s trust fund and her work as a governess. This independence is one of her primary divergences from the ascribed role of wife and mother. In fact, in most scenes of Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, Dickens describes her in rather masculine terms. Dickens writes of her hosting Mr. Meagles and Arthur Clennam, “She manifested no surprise in seeing them, nor any other emotion. She requested them to be seated; and declining to take a seat herself, at once anticipated any introduction of their business” (Dickens, Little 1.27). Especially as the “practice of visiting” is such an integral part of Victorian life and novels that is now inverted, Miss Wade’s masculine characterization sets her even further apart from simply transgressing from the angel-prostitute binary and makes a complementary though opposite comparison to Nancy, who faints at nearly every excitement or crisis in typical feminine fashion (Langland 297). Additionally, Miss Wade mirrors Nancy’s sexual liberalization. Though not in the public knowledge, she admits to a sexual relationship with Henry Gowan which ruins her previous engagement. The most unifying characteristic between Nancy and Miss Wade is in fact their maternal instincts. Just as Nancy tries to protect Oliver from the situation she ends up in, Miss Wade identifies Tattycoram on a similar path to her own, and rescues her from the Meagles. However, this is just another act that serves to alienate Miss Wade from her society, as “when women are too passionate, they go completely crazy,” and she antagonizes the family to no end, threatening the status quo (Scheckner). Unable to fit within the constraints of either the Angel in the House or the Fallen Woman, Miss Wade and Nancy find themselves primary targets for social criticism and ostracism. Nevertheless, they both maintain considerable agency, demonstrating the role that their transcendence of the gender hierarchy applies to that of class as well.

            Throughout his novels, Dickens clearly makes an association between inherently good characters and wealth as compared to malevolent characters and poverty. Despite the vacillations of plot throughout Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, the conclusions see a sort of fulfillment of fate, with each character getting what they deserve by merit of their ancestry or personal character. These are not connotations fabricated solely by Dickens, however, as wealth was a common suggestion of good breeding and thus an important social connection. As a prostitute and part of Fagin’s criminal gang, Nancy is rather poor and is seen as a bad person because of her profession, yet she proves her compassion and humanity through her interactions with Oliver, and seems comparatively better off next to many of the children on the streets of London at the time. Similarly, Miss Wade’s social isolation would logically prompt the conflation of an outsider and poverty, but due to the trust fund Mr. Casby leaves her, she defies yet another categorical stereotype. Whereas Dickens seems to adhere to this general delineation of wealth and character for his main characters in Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, he doesn’t include Nancy and Miss Wade in the codification, rendering them unbound by the dichotomies both of gender and of class. The idea of Nancy and Miss Wade being in between the clashing poles of socioeconomic status prompts an interesting discussion in the role of the middle class and Victorian conceptions of womanhood, as they were inextricably linked.

            The concept of the Angel of the House was primarily geared towards middle-class women, and the gendered aspect of these middle-class families was an important part of their understanding of their socioeconomic role in the community. That gender roles become tied up in class distinction is not an isolated phenomenon. Even in modern times the stereotypical housewife is evidence of a family’s status as they are able to subsist on only one salary. Indeed, a proper Victorian family dynamic—composed of a mother, father, and their children all living together—indicated and depended on a certain level of wealth. Just as the role of the Angel of the House is to create a pristine moral sanctum, the idealized Victorian family had dedicated positions to create a “harmonious domestic atmosphere” (Pintilii 220). As the home is such an important figure in Victorian communities, both as a social and economic utility, it is here that the binaries of angel-prostitute and rich-poor condense and lose a bit of their meanings. With the responsibilities of the domicile, women became the “rulers of their homes, in spite of the fact that they were supposed to be subordinate, dependent and obedient to their husbands” (Pintilii 223). Precisely this inversion of power dynamics frightened Sikes into violence against Nancy, as he saw the threat of her growing agency and disapproval of his actions. Miss Wade, however, has a household of her own, yet without the complete idealized middle-class family, it means very little, and serves as another point of difference between her and the rest of society.

            An accomplished author, Charles Dickens imbues his works with historical markers, illustrating the social environment of the time in which he writes. His adept dabbling with conventions such as gender roles and class hierarchy balance with conclusive resolutions that still cohere with what a Victorian reading public expects from their novels. In Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, Dickens is able to use female characters outside of the traditional binary of angelic martyrs and prostitutes to disturb the balance of such dichotomies, collapsing the gulf between the rich and the poor with the importance of the domestic middle-class, and reorganizing the association of morality and wealth. Further examination of these patterns in Dickens’s other works would surely prove useful in identifying trends of characterization. The idea of defining something by its diametric opposite is common, and analyzing how literature deals with this form of social categorization may illuminate much about the way society engages with art, history, and its communities.

EnglishSarah Burk