Although Charles Dickens died almost 150 years ago, he was also born 206 years ago on this day! We celebrate his special day by continuing to value and appreciate his masterpieces all of these years later. A Dickens novel is typically fraught with poverty, destitution, and misery, but they highlight a world and a London that very much existed during the 19th century. A very important characteristic of a Dickensian novel is his tendency to obsessively include orphaned children throughout. Again, these children help to showcase a dark and seedy land where children run amuck without a parental figure to help guide them along. These children grow up fast, but they learn invaluable lessons along their path to early adulthood. Here’s seven of the most invaluable Dickensian waifs.
1. Pip, Great Expectations
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In his 1861 novel, Great Expectations, Dickens introduces us to the protagonist and narrator, Pip. Pip is, of course, an orphan, raised by his cold sister and her kind-hearted, simple-minded husband. Pip becomes the playmate of Estella, a girl raised by the agoraphobic and depressive Miss Havisham who never recovered from being left at the alter by her fiance many years ago. Pip falls in love with Estella, but due to her upbringing and Miss Havisham’s negative influence concerning the male sex, she jilts the poor kid every chance she has. Pip eventually helps save a fugitive on the run, lives a life of glamour, and returns home to visit his beloved brother-in-law, but he never quite does recover from his love for Estella.
2. David Copperfield, David Copperfield
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Published in 1850, David Copperfield tells the story of the titular character and narrator, David Copperfield. Born six months after the death of his father, he is raised by his young, widowed mother and their housekeeper, Peggotty. Between the two women, David is given a relatively beautiful childhood up until his seventh year. It is at this stage in his life when his mother decides to marry a tyrannical and wicked man named Edward Murdstone. The newlyweds give birth to another baby boy and, eventually, Murdstone has David sent to boarding school after a particularly nasty fight the two have together. It is at this boarding school that David learns of the deaths of both his mother and baby brother. Young David’s world becomes even more topsy-turvy after this point, and he spends the rest of the novel attempting to find a place for himself in the world.
3. Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities
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Despite the fact that Sydney Carton is, in every sense of the word, an adult throughout Dickens’s 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, the fact remains that he is a character whose childhood was characterized by not having a family to call his own. A Tale of Two Cities is a piece of historical fiction that Dickens wrote recounting the French Revolution, and spans the course of decades; constantly skipping between events taking place in London and ones taking place in Paris. Carton is a drunkard and a lawyer, and while his brain is first-rate, his ability to prove his worth to people constantly falls short. Carton works alongside a man named Mr. Stryver who takes credit for his partner’s work, and thus Dickens terms the duo as The Jackal and The Lion, as in nature it is always the jackal who hunts the prey, while the lion finds the carcass and saves it for itself. In the end, Carton finds redemption through love and a surrogate family that he would, and inevitably does, do anything for.
4. Martin Chuzzlewit, Martin Chuzzlewit
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The title character, Martin, of the 1844 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, is a boy raised by his wealthy grandfather and namesake. Years earlier Martin Chuzzlewit Sr. had also taken in a young girl to take care of him saying that she would be well-provided for as long as he remained healthy and well. The girl, Mary, does everything in her power to keep her benefactor in good health, but the younger Martin goes against his grandfather’s wishes and falls in love with her. Refusing to let his infatuation go, the elder Martin Chuzzlewit disinherits his young grandson, and he is soon left to his own devices. Upon leaving his grandfather’s supervision, Martin takes up an architecture job under a very greedy and malicious man named Pecksniff. Pecksniff is using young Martin in an effort to cozy up to his grandfather and be included in his will. The story continues in this fashion for some time: Martin Chuzzlewit Jr. befriends people, both good and bad, and the rest of the greedy Chuzzlewit family continue backstabbing each other at every turn for the sake of wealth.
5. Nell Trent, The Old Curiosity Shop
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In The Old Curiosity Shop which was published in 1841, we meet the fourteen-year-old Nell Trent who lives with her unnamed grandfather in a shop where doodads and thingamabobs are the products he primarily sells. She’s a beautiful and sweet girl, but she is also quite lonely. Her grandfather is desperate that his sweet granddaughter does not die as her parents did: in poverty, but he becomes so desperate that he develops a nighttime gambling habit. He keeps his habit a secret, but inevitably must borrow money from the dastardly moneylender, Daniel Quilp. Eventually, Nell’s grandfather gambles away all of their money, and this causes him to have a terrible breakdown which leaves his mind in shambles. Nell whisks her grandfather away to another part of England where the two are to live as beggars. Funnily enough, many credit the character of Little Nell as being the first Harry Potter whose life and story mattered so much to American readers that they stormed the harbors, shouting, “Is Little Nell alive?” when British ships pulled in, bearing the latest edition of the story.
6. Esther Summerson, Bleak House
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Charles Dickens published Bleak House in 1853, and it’s his only novel that uses a dual-narrative throughout the extensive piece of literature. Esther is one of the two key narrators in this novel, and it is surmised that Dickens may have been influenced by the idea of a female narrator after the publication of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847. Esther was left as an orphaned baby to the care of a woman named Miss Barbary who she believes to be her godmother, but is really the sister of Esther’s unmarried mother. Esther’s aunt eventually dies, but she is entrusted to the care of a man named John Jarndyce who attempts to help the girl, and find her a suitable situation as a governess. Her life, like all children in Dickens novels, is not what one might call ideal, but throughout it all she remains affectionate, kind, loving, and open-minded to all new characters she encounters. Without a doubt, however, she is also very capable of standing up for herself and for what she believes is right and what is wrong.
7. Oliver Twist, Oliver Twist
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I bet you thought I would never get to this one. That I might not even end up touching upon 1839’s Oliver Twist, but how could I possibly omit he who is probably the single best-known Dickens orphan? They made a musical out of this one for goodness sake! Oliver is an orphaned child who finds himself wandering the crowded London streets after escaping his employment at a factory. He is attempting to scrape by in a world so utterly not suited for a young boy to no avail. Eventually, Oliver meets the Artful Dodger, another destitute young boy who has found a home with the criminal, Fagin. Fagin exploits his team of children and uses them as pickpockets and thieves, unbeknownst to young Oliver. In the end, Oliver discovers proper accommodations and love with a lost set of kin he happened upon by chance. While other characters (such as the criminal, Fagin) find their lives ending in pain and sorrow, the orphan Oliver is finally given his chance at a real home filled with real love.
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