Dickens’ and Bronte’s Definition of Class
Dickens’ and Bronte’s Definition of Class
People of the lower classes in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre have no way of achieving higher status unless they come across a miracle, such as receiving a previously unknown inheritance. This is shown in both the novels of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist. Both of the main characters grow up in similar situations; they are both orphans and because of that fact they are treated like they were criminals from birth. Although Jane is better off than Oliver in the places that she lives, they both go through some of the same emotions throughout the novels. Both Dickens and Bronte lived in the same time period and their novels were published within ten years of each other.
In their novels they show the England they perceived as one that is overly obsessed with class. Neither of the authors agreed with this obsession and criticized it in their own ways. Dickens showed this by using sarcastic remarks when describing the rich, and (as well as Bronte) characterized almost all of the upper class as being immoral in one way or another. They put the point across that just because a person is born poor doesn’t make them any less intelligent, polite, or morally inapt.
In the novel of Oliver Twist, Dickens describes that poor people are just as intelligent and good as the rich, it’s the way the rich treat them that forces the poor to steal. Through out the novel he sets examples of how intelligent and good Oliver Twist is treated like an animal just because he is an orphan. One of many examples of this is Mrs. Sowerberry’s reaction when her husband gets Oliver to come over to help with the undertaking business and to live with them. She talks about Oliver as though he is an animal, “I see no saving in parish children, not I; for they always cost more to keep than they are worth.” (p30)
This theme is similar in Jane Eyre. Bronte shows that orphans, unless they have money, are viewed as the lowest class of a house hold. Jane encounters this throughout her childhood, it was first brought to her attention by Mrs. Reed who says, “…you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep.” (p69) Like Oliver, Jane does nothing to deserve such a harsh classification, except for being born. They both try their best to follow the rules and to be good people.
Poor people basically have two choices to live in 19th century England as shown in Oliver Twist they could live on the streets by begging and/or stealing, eventually being put into jail or to death because of the anti begging laws and harsh penalties for stealing. The other choice the poor have is to work in the workhouses for no money, scarce food, and poor treatment. Upper class England created these workhouses to better the lower class by teaching them to be humble, have discipline and good morals. Ironically the workhouses created just the same thing they intended to get rid of, criminals. The food was so scarce that it forced them to steal and fight, and the treatment of the children were so bad it made them alienated from normal society. Bronte describes the same attitude of the upper class while Jane is at Lowood, though it is not as extreme as the workhouses Dickens talks of.
The girls of Lowood were all orphans and because of that they obviously had to be corrected for they were naturally going to turn into bad people. So Mr. Brockelhurst thought that good morals come from no food, plainness, lack of necessities and constant humiliation. This produced an “every man for themselves” society among the girls when the faculty was gone. The older girls got to be the closest to the fire when it was cold, and when ever they had a chance they would take food from the younger, weaker girls. “From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: when ever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.” (JE BV p122) If things had not changed for the better in that school Jane may have become a very different person than she turned out to be.
Though both Jane and Oliver are supposed to be immoral and no good orphans in 19th century England’s eyes, they have the highest set of morals than any other person in their stories. Oliver never wants to steal from anybody and never starts a fight unless his family is concerned. Even though all of the people he hung out with were thieves he just couldn’t do it, stealing horrified him and he wanted no part in it. Jane refuses to marry Rochester because she believes it to be wrong to stoop herself down to a mistress. She also thinks it is wrong to marry for money and not love. Jane displays this by turning down St James although he has a high standing in society, she feels he is a wicked man and would not be happy if she were to marry such a man.
The immoral people in both novels, are the upper class who believe themselves to be better than the main characters. Mr. Bumble, for example, marries Mrs. Corney because of her wealth and nothing to do with her as a person. When he came to flirt with her he checked around her apartment for expensive things that would distinguish her as wealthy. “He opened the closet, counted the tea-spoons, weighed the sugar-tongs, closely inspected a silver milk-pot to ascertain that it was of the genuine metal…and spreading himself before the fire with his back towards it, seemed to be mentally engaged in taking an exact inventory of the furniture” (p185) To make the situation even more ironic, Mrs. Corney is only wealthy because she stole the money for the poor people’s food and clothing and kept it for herself.
She jokes about how the cats have a better life than those of the people she looks after. By the end of the story the couple is described as miserable. In the novel of Jane Eyre, Mr. Brockelhurst is supposed to be a religious and moral man, but he deprives the children of food and clothing to benefit his own pocket. He is a hypocrite also for example, he tells a girl with curly hair to get it cut off, when his own daughter has the same kind of curly hair. His attitude and the attitudes of other middle upper class people are all the same of that time. They think that they deserve to have the curly hair and the extra money at the expense of the poor, because they are physically and divinely better than them.
Though all of this injustice is happening to the poor, they have no way to fight back. They don’t even have rights in court houses. When Oliver is brought to trial for pick pocketing, the judge, Mr. Fang, sentences Oliver even though there is no hard evidence and a testimony saying he is innocent. Oliver can not even talk in his own defense, partly because he is so tired and hungry and party because the magistrate wouldn’t give him the chance to. If the book keeper had not demanded to speak in Oliver’s defense, Oliver would have surely died. When Jane was living with her aunt she had no say at all in what was done with her. She could be beat by John Reed and tormented by her aunt Reed and she would had to take it.
Marriage and class is a subject that both Bronte and Dickens speak of. They both believe that the English tradition of marrying for money and status were absurd and that marrying for love was the true way to happieness. This is exhibited in many examples in Oliver Twist. For one, Oliver is born out of true love and he turns out to be a good boy and always makes moral decisions. Oliver’s half brother, Monks was born of a fixed, loveless, financial marriage, and he turned out to be evil and mischievous his whole life. Dickens also describes the love between Rose and Harry.
The people of England were so critical on who one married, that Rose didn’t want to marry Harry because she felt that people would think that she slept with him before marriage just to get his money and that Harry would be shunned by his peers for marrying her. When they finally did marry, they were very happy with each other. As opposed to Bumble’s marriage which turned out to be miserable for him and his wife. Jane ends up marrying Rochester out of love rather than St James for money and status. But she was more comfortable in marrying him when that she got her money because she felt like an equal to him, rather than a servant.
Dickens and Bronte touch on the same subjects through out their novels and have a lot of the same view points. The time that they wrote was one of extreme pettiness and cruelty. It would be safe to say that both authors wrote for different reasons than just to entertain. Points were made about the absurdity of marriage, of being “born” into divine upper or lower class, and of horrible ways humans treated each other just because they thought they were better. Both novels had the few good people that helped out Oliver and Jane so that they could get by in life long enough to receive their long lost inheritance. These books show that poor people are equal to the rich ones in intelligence, moral values, and politeness. They also made evident that the way society was running in those days was hurting way too many good people of England.