Throughout his career, Charles Dickens was fascinated by the figure of the child as signifier of tentative selves and unstable social identities. This interest is already manifest during the early stages of his journalistic and literary career. As Boz, and specifically in Oliver Twist (book publication 1838), Dickens uses the blank child’s susceptibility to alternative social labels as a powerful narrative device that allows for a series of psychological and socio-political dilemmas to rise to the surface. These dilemmas are worked out through Dickens’s choice of generic forms, or rather through his inconsistent use of such forms. Interestingly, his representation of the child tends to involve a leaning toward fairy tale and fantasy. The inclination to abandon realism in favour of fantasy, replacing direct social critique with melodramatic plot devices and fairy-tale solutions, has led certain critics to view Dickens’s early work as relatively naïve and less politically sophisticated than his later novels. I suggest, however, that in his depiction of the child’s susceptibility to shifting social definitions it is this generic inconsistency that enables Dickens to voice a particularly pointed and effective critique of social structures.
Bibliographical notePublisher Copyright:
© Peter Merchant, Catherine Waters and contributors 2015.