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Title:The Ambivalent Attitude Toward The Orphan in The Early Victorian Novel
Author(s):Suchan, James Edward
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Literature, English
Abstract:In early Victorian fiction, orphans are seen as nurturing angels and as depraved beasts. This study analyzes why orphans are treated so ambivalently. It also explains how angelic waifs give serious-minded Victorians a way of contending with destructive change and moral breakdown and why depraved orphans served as scapegoats for authority figures.
Conflicting attitudes toward the orphan did not originate with the Victorians; they were inherited from some long-standing beliefs about the child's disposition. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the metaphorical equation of children with animals, madmen, and religious enthusiasts and the brutal child-rearing practices of most classes clearly show that children were considered depraved and that childhood was a dangerous stage of development. However, by the end of the seventeenth century, rapid philosophical, social, and scientific changes swept across England and the Continent, causing extensive change in attitude toward children. The new importance given to the autonomous family, the rapid decrease in the infant mortality rate, and the assignment of special rooms to children indicate that, at least among the upper classes, children were beginning to be considered important.
Despite the new concern about children and the belief that they were innocent, many Victorian evangelical reformers and most members of the lower and middle classes retained the old belief that children were depraved and wilful. This cultural ambivalence can be clearly seen by analyzing the treatment of orphans in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Oliver Twist and Sissy Jupe are innately innocent. Both are associated with the maternal and both serve as moral touchstones for a society that is turning its members into husks. Furthermore, these waifs are asexual or have skipped several stages of development to become angelic figures. They have quietly turned away from urban life and regressed to a pastoral world where they ultimately find a safe haven seemingly outside of time. Because of their otherworldly character, these orphans lack the aggressiveness to alter society's industrial values.
Aggressive orphans reject authority figures who check their spontaneity and will, and search for a community able to accept their non-conforming beliefs. Jane Eyre flees from various homes whose values she finds reprehensible, until she settles at Ferndean, where she can retain her hard-won identity. Cathy and Heathcliff seek an asocial love capable of breaking down the separateness between individuals. Their journey, primarily metaphysical, is different from Jane's because their goal--complete union--is an implicit rejection of all seemingly progressive social values. Alice's pursuit of the White Rabbit turns into a meta-fictional quest. Her attempt to redefine her identity through the construction of the Wonderland world fails because she has brought corrupting, adult values into Wonderland. Her only moral choice is to destroy her "dystopia."
In the world of early Victorian fiction, orphans are kept from being integrated into society because of its ambivalent attitude toward them. These orphans remain outsiders forced to set up alternate ways of living on the fringes of the social structure.
Issue Date:1981
Description:235 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1981.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8127710
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-12
Date Deposited:1981

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