How is class conflict portrayed in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and what are the wider implications of these depictions?

Published: 2020/09/09 Number of words: 3646

How is class conflict portrayed in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and what are the wider implications of these depictions?

There is a parallelism within Oliver Twist (1838), one presenting Rose and Nancy as doubles in which one represents the upper class and the other the working class. In North and South (1855), Gaskell uses the character of Margaret as a medium for experiencing and judging different societies and their life. This paper will explore the two texts and their portrayal of class conflict – considering the wider implications of the writers’ depictions.

Harrison and Fantina (2006) locate the psychological realism within Oliver Twist as exhibited in the murder of Nancy, a truly horrific crime. It is arguable that as the murder of Nancy, who is a prostitute, is committed by Bill Sykes, who is a thief, Dickens creates a crime of severe domestic violence as existing in the ‘lower orders-’ as if the lower orders have a certain propensity for violence. It is almost as if the violence is ‘quarantined’ amongst the lower classes, thus for the middle class readers of Victorian England the violence was seemingly detached from their own lives.[1] The murder does locate criminality and crime within the home, but it is not entirely true to say that Dickens only shows the poor as perpetrators of domestic disharmony. Elsewhere in Oliver Twist middle-class families are also shown to be in difficulty. An example of this would be the awful marriage of the Leefords, and Oliver’s very existence is the evidence of the fall of his mother (Agnes), as a married gentleman seduced her.

Harrison and Fantana locate in the fall of Agnes lasting implications for the novel as a whole. Her death is a direct result of her violation and this death also tears her family apart[2]. Rose is tainted by the implication, and it dooms her son Oliver to the misery and abuse that follow. The violence meted out to Nancy is even an end result of the death of Agnes, as Nancy is connected to the other characters, regardless of class, by her association with Oliver.

Turning to Nancy, in many respects she is an unorthodox young woman whose very character sits outside the normal patriarchal border. As a 16 year old, and a prostitute, Sikes’ mistress and a member of Fagin’s gang she is uneducated and in the underclass of society, on the edge of the law. However, Dickens makes her a sympathetic character, one we can connect with as although she is with those who have the worst of intents she decides to do the best for Oliver. Her decision to go and tell Rose about the plan that Fagin and Monks have for Oliver shows that her heart is in the right place.  When she meets Rose we are presented with two women of differing classes, yet they run parallel with their desire to do well for Oliver. In conversation, we can see how Nancy holds conversation in a detached manner:
Oh, lady, lady! ´she said, clasping her hands passionately before her face, ´if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me, -there would –there would!´ `Sit down´, said Rose, earnestly. `If you are in poverty of affliction I shall be truly glad to relieve you if I can, – I shall indeed. Sit down…[3]´

When Nancy refers to Rose as “lady” we see the deferential nod toward the class differential between the two women, it also indicates that through the class difference there remains a measure of respect. For Nancy it is possible that the passage above shows sincerity from Nancy, she appreciates Rose and feels that if there were more women like Rose then the world would be a far better place. The interesting remark that if there were more like her, then there would be less like me, possibly indicates that Nancy feels there is a great gap between them that could be helped if women of a higher class would help the working class women. Nancy is very much a victim of her own environment, she is the ‘possession’ of Sykes and finds it impossible to get away from him, even though his is an abusive and violent control over her, she cannot resist or get away as without friends or family she literally has nowhere else to turn. Although at one point Dickens describes her as ‘brass’ she really is extremely vulnerable, her class makes her vulnerable. She knows that Sykes is a bad man, and she probably wishes to be away from Fagin – but only the workhouse presents itself as an alternative.

One noted aspect of Nancy is how she acts much older than her years, presenting herself as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver,[4] but even this does not really make her belong. Due to the fact that she is neither a wife, nor a mother, she is aside from the patriarchal model of woman, and aside from the Victorian ideal of what a proper woman should be. To the modern reader however, the fact that she improves her character as the novel goes one, becoming more good than bad – she raises herself in the reader eye. However, the understanding that Nancy has of the way her world works is made clear in her telling Rose that she needs to get a man to help her save Oliver. [5] When Rose goes to Mr Brownlow, it is this action that seemingly makes her the heroine of the novel, and the credit that goes with saving Oliver[6].

Turning to Rose, whom Nancy calls “the angel lady” – she is also an orphan, but adopted by Mrs Maylie when a young girl – and has been fortunate to grow up with all the advantages denied to Nancy. Rose really acts as a foil to Nancy as she has all the attributes the Victorian reader would praise, she is beautiful, domestic, loyal and gentle. However, in being adopted she is given a last name – something singularly missing in Nancy. Fate has really decreed that the two women should be a class apart, and due to their class they have led totally different lives. We cannot condemn Nancy for being a prostitute, society has dealt her the cards that have made anything different very difficult for her, she does what she has to do to survive.

For Rose, it is the fact that she is within the family that gives her a security that Nancy cannot have, it also means that unlike Nancy she does not need to lean upon a man, there is no Sykes that is controlling Rose. With Rose and her situation she has the ability to resist marriage, but no-one would marry Nancy as she has ‘fallen[7].’ Rose is almost an artificial character in some respects, which is possibly why Nancy has a higher recognition for the modern reader. Rose is within the home, she has good advice and supportive family around her – people who love her, and these are people who have nurtured her to keep her within the domestic sphere.[8] Where Nancy is being ‘used,’ Rose is nurtured and advised. Nancy has a body that belongs to the men around her that control her, her youth and sexuality is abused – but Rose is with people who wish her to remain sexually pure. In this regard we can see that the physical environment is very important to the characters within Dickens, and the novel certainly is presented as having zones in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ events happen. Where the working class characters inhabit, there is trouble.
Where Nancy is in a situation in which there is no-one to propose to her, Rose receives a proposal from a young man (Harry) who is concerned for her reputation. He looks to protect her from any fears for her reputation that going out into the public sphere may bring. She in her turn looks for a man who can protect her from the ills in life, but she rejects Harry – in part because Mrs Maylie worries that her family reputation will be damaged if Rose marries him. The fact that Harry then actually removes his wealth so that he can be within the same social group as Rose shows both that he would do anything for her, but also the sheer power that she can hold – as a woman with an angelic disposition and an object of such admiration.

Within Oliver Twist there is clear class conflict, the tragic events of Agnes, who dies in a workhouse, and the miserable life this decrees to her son Oliver is a tragedy of class in itself, but the real tale of Nancy – and so many girls of her ilk – is that her position is so heavily condemned by the fact that her environment pulls her down, she has no chance due to the fact that she is controlled by the men around her.

Moving to another female, Margaret, in North and South, we can see Gaskill exploring themes such as class fluidity in Margaret’s changing attitudes to class.
Gaskell garnered praise for focussing on the condition of the working classes, she drew criticism for offering personal rather than systemic solutions to class conflict[9]. 
North and South is in many respects a romance, but it is also a novel about attitudes to class and differing perspectives of people who come from a society in which any movement between the class boundaries is virtually impossible. Rigidity in the class structure came from a society in which your birth was everything, it dictated whom you married and it decided what access you had to education. It was a manifestly unfair society:
Critics speak of the book as an industrial novel that narrows into a romance…But North and South in fact moves in the opposite direction: from the ‘romance’ of the heroine’s life and her progress towards marriage into the density of industrial England and its economic and sexual politics, and into an understanding of the complexity of any ‘resolution,’ whether romantic, social, or ‘fictional[10].’

In a Victorian society where there is great inequality of wealth, Thornton (a millowner who loves Margaret) is faced with a strike, as he has looked to cut wages during a time when he is faced with increasing competition from America. Due to the fact that he makes no effort to explain anything to his workers, the situation deteriorates. He does, however, tell Margaret and there is an ensuing dialogue between the two that shows Margaret has a greater social understanding than him, Thornton says:
Do you give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the use of your own money? We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it…[11]
Margaret, who is also a capital owner, gives a different perspective:
Mr Thornton”, says Margaret, “go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly[12]
What is seen here is that Margaret portrays more of a caring face of capitalism, one that shows that those in power have some duty to those they employ. There is a feeling that helping the workers, and explaining things to them is a good thing – whereas the alternate view is that those in power need offer no explanation at all for anything they do.

The argument is a capital one, that those in power are inherently greedy, and through their exploitation of the workers they can make more profit off their misery, [13] it is a Marxist argument and one that can be fruitfully looked at in regard to North and South. On one hand, Margaret is aware of the difficulties suffered by the working classes; on the other she leads a life of some privilege. She has times when she thinks about the poor and feels guilty abut them, but she also goes out to the dining parties and wears rich and beautiful clothes. So she wears the silk clothes, and then feels a measure of shame for wearing them: (to Bessy) “You’ll make me feel wicked and guilty going to this dinner…[14]”.  Moving as she does with Thornton, Margaret’s life and beliefs are complex, and one critic notes that:
Class struggle is always aggressive.  Their (Thornton & Margaret’s) mutual partial emancipation from gender ideology is offered not as a resolution of class conflict but as a necessary step in a political reorientation which would give higher priority to human need[15]

Where Margaret feels concerns and raises them, Bessy is in many respects a foil to these views, she refers instead to the divine order of things and essentially accepts the way things are as the will of God.
Some’s pre-elected to sumptuous feasts, and purple and fine linen,-
may be yo’re on’em. Others toil and moil all their lives long[16]
There is something almost out dated in this remark, even for the mid nineteenth century, as it seemingly harks backwards to the divine rights of Kings in the era of Charles 1st. In Victorian England this was not so entrenched, although the nature of class superiority was certainly one that held considerable pull on society.

Margaret herself rejects the ideas of Betty in regard to some God given place in the world, she says:
It won’t be division enough, in that awful day, that some of us have been beggars here, and some of us have been rich,-we shall not be judged by that poor accident, but by our faithful following of Christ[17]
A faithful following of Christ would presumably include an acceptance of poverty and the fact that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor rather than the rich man. This is a position it could be remarked that Margaret makes from a position of wealth herself, she is in a lucky position of being able to change things for the better – a sense of the philanthropist. Due to her position Margaret is also able to be able to speak with authority toward men, she is not in thrall of them, and certainly is not in the position of Nancy where older patriarchy places Nancy with no voice. Margaret is influential for the good, and where Thornton previously is shown to be a man of pride and want of feeling, the influence of Margaret converts him to philanthropy.

At the end, Thornton’s and Margaret’s union in the shape of marriage indicates that there are no longer the two polarized classes but one united classless Britain[18].
North and South as a title could be seen as the two divides in class and society, opposite ends of the spectrum. But North needs South and in turn the clash of ideas that are seen in the novel are seemingly needed so that greater understanding is reached. Whereas in Oliver Twist there seems to be far less hope that the different classes will come to any greater understanding of each other, this does seem to be a factor for North and South, but the upper classes seem to be the ones understanding things more. Where progress is made it gives hope for a better future. This could be exemplified by the talk between Thornton and Mr Bell, as these two men from very different classes do begin to discuss together their ideas of living and the cultural differences they feel come through their class:
becoming acquainted with each other’s characters and persons, and even tricks of tempers and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more[19]
In a way this could be seen as an idealistic presentation of the relationship between the classes, it is certainly one that looks to give hope, but perhaps Gaskell is showing that clashes between workers and bosses, between the upper classes and their workers, is natural – but that they can be overcome by dialogue and working to listen to each other. There is the message that talking and explanation is the way forward, through this type of conflict resolution there is a hope for a better future.

In both the books presented here there is a Victorian society that is patriarchal and exists in class boundaries where every character has a place. Women in particular require a supportive environment and money in order to have a voice, without that the consequence for them is a dire one. In North and South although there are class differences, the people do all try to communicate, and through this communication there is hope. In Oliver Twist, when Nancy is able to go to Rose, their communication offers hope to Oliver, his saving is really the work of Nancy and Rose – but Nancy can only pass the problem forward, by herself she is powerless – and her intervention for good is to cost her her life. There is also the sad feeling that Nancy’s life is somehow worth less because of the life she leads, that there are many such as her and because she is not within the Victorian home she somehow is always heading toward her fate. Although neither book suggests that the class boundaries can be extinguished, North and South seemingly does offer up more hope that the ‘softening’ of the class divisions may open up more possibilities for change and that is a positive thing. It is a novel of hope. Oliver Twist, being far from its saccharine presentation in the musical version, is rather more grim in its message, and we do not really get the feeling that there will be enough done by those in a position to help to really find the Nancy’s of Victorian society and give them a chance.

Ayres, B (1998) Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels- The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. London: Greenwood press.

Dickens, C. (1994) Oliver Twist. London: Penguin popular classics.

Gaskell, E (1994). North and South. London: Everyman.

Harrison, K & Fantina, R (2006) Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, Ohio, Ohio State University.

Holbrook, D. (1993) Charles Dickens and the Image of Women. New York: New York University Press.

Kalpakli, L (2010) Gaskills Questioning of the Victorian Class System in North and South, The Black Sea Journal of Social Sciences, Vol, 2 (2) pp.1-16.

Matus, J (2007) ‘Introduction’, The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell. Ed. Jill Matus.  Cambridge: CUP,

Page, N. (1984) A Dickens companion. London: Macmillan.

Schor, H.M. (1992) Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. Oxford: OUP

Stoneman, P (1987) Elizabeth Gaskell. Brighton: Harvester Press.
[1] K. Harrison,  & R. Fantina, (2006) Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, Ohio, Ohio State University, p.55.
[2] K. Harrison,  & R. Fantina, (2006) Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, (Ohio, Ohio State University, 2006), p.55.
[3] C. Dickens, Oliver Twist, London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, p.371
[4] B. Ayres, Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels- The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. London: Greenwood press, 1998. p.120.
[5] Ayres, op.cit. p.120.
[6] N. Page. A Dickens companion. London: Macmillan, 1984

[7] Ayres, op cit, p.117.
[8] D. Holbrook. Charles Dickens and the Image of Women. New York: New York University Press, 1993, p.168.

[9] Matus, J ‘Introduction’, The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell. Ed. Jill Matus.  Cambridge: CUP, 2007. p.2
[10] H. M. Schor, Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. Oxford: OUP, 1992. 120
[11] Gaskell, p.468.
[12] Gaskell, p.465.
[13] L. Kalpakli, Gaskills Questioning of the Victorian Class System in North and South, The Black Sea Journal of Social Sciences, 2010, 2 (2) p.4.
[14] Gaskell, p.149.
[15] P. Stoneman, Elizabeth Gaskell. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987. 120
[16] Gaskell, p.149
[17] Gaskell, p.149
[18] L. Kalpakli, Gaskills Questioning of the Victorian Class System in North and South, The Black Sea Journal of Social Sciences, 2010, 2 (2) p.12.
[19] Gaskell, p.435.

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