The Issue of Child Labour in Selected Novels of Charles Dickens

Child labour remarks to the employment of children in any work that takes children far away from their childhood, disturbs their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally risky and injurious. This practice is considered as exploitation by many international organizations. Legislation across the world prohibits child labour. These laws do not consider all work by children as child labour; exceptions include work by child artists, family duties, supervised training, certain categories of work such as those by innocent children, some forms of child work is common among native American children and others.

Child labour has existed to varying extents, through most of history. Before 1940, numerous children aged 5–14 worked in Europe, the United States and various colonies of European powers. These children mainly worked in agriculture, home-based assembly operations, factories, mining and in services such as newsies. Some worked night shifts lasting 12 hours. With the rise of household income, availability of schools and passage of child labour laws, the incidence rates of child labour fell. (Child Labour Web)

In developing countries, with high poverty and poor schooling opportunities, child labour is still in force. In 2010, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest incidence rates of child labour; with several African nations witnessing over 50 percent of children aged 5–14 working. Worldwide agriculture is the largest employer of child labour. Most of child labour is found in rural settings and informal urban economy; children are forcefully employed by their parents, rather than factories. The primary cause of child labour is lack of schools and also poverty.

Globally, according to the World Bank, the incidence of child labour decreased from 25% to 10% between 1960 and 2003. Although, the total number of child labourers remains high, with “UNICEF and ILO acknowledging an estimated 168 million children aged 5–17 worldwide, were involved in child labour in 2013” (Child Labour Web).

Definitions of Child Labour:

Oxford Dictionary of English defines, “Child labour is the employment of children in an industry or business, especially when illegal or considered exploitative” (Oxford 302).
“Child Labour is the gainful employment of children below an age determined by law or custom” (Costello 235).
According to International labour Organization (ILO),
The term ‘child labour’ is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work. (Definition of Web)
UNICEF defines child labour differently,
A child, suggests UNICEF, is involved in child labour activities if between 5 to 11 years of age, he or she did at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 hours of domestic work in a week, and in case of children between 12 to 14 years of age, he or she did at least 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity and domestic work per week. (Definition of Web)
UNICEF in another report suggests,
Children’s work needs to be seen as happening along a continuum, with destructive or exploitative work at one end and beneficial work – promoting or enhancing children’s development without interfering with their schooling, recreation and rest – at the other. And between these two poles are vast areas of work that need not negatively affect a child’s development. (Definition of Web)

The Victorian Period: Industrial Revolution and Child Labour

The Victorian era is well known by the great development of the Industrial Revolution which had officially begun in 1750 in England. It marks the most basic transformation of human life in the history of the world. The industrial revolution created profound changes in the British society at that time because the growth of London and other cities in Great Britain marked a change from a way of life based on the land to a modern economy based on manufacturing and financial institution. Thus, the economy during that time was changing from agricultural to an industrial one. In addition to poverty, diseases and social problems, the European society at that time suffered from the economic depression following the Industrial Revolution.

One of the worst social effects of the industrial revolution was child labour, a phenomenon that culminated during this time. The increased number of families led to create the work houses and the growing of population made a world of children, the children of the poor who lived in the work house were expected to work by the age of six or seven, they were useful to factory owners because they were easy to discipline unlike adults they were cheap . (The Suffering Web)

In the nineteenth century the condition of poor children was to become a main area of social reform because it was a response to the fact that children were suffering and their sufferings were public. Thus, the living conditions of people were depending on their social status. Children from poor families were not usually lucky and they could not spend their time at school, they had to work to earn money. Because of poverty, children were forced into child labour. The law of 1834 provided help for them in the work houses because the small poor houses have no longer to do with the huge number of poor and unemployed.

Generally speaking, the conditions of children in Britain during the Victorian era was hard, because the way children lived depend on the family they came from, in this context Gorham states, “…childhood had great symbolic importance, but many Victorians suffered from an uncertainty about the nature of childhood and the proper relationship of children to the structure of the family and the wider society” (The Suffering Web). If children came from a poor family they were made to work from a very young age to earn money for the family. The working conditions of poor children were extremely hard because they had to work for a long hour in a terrible condition. Unlike poor children; children of wealthier families were always at school and they do not have to work. Therefore the Victorian era can be characterized by the use of children to help develop of economy. This situation inspired many Victorian writers who tried to depict a real picture of their society during the industrial revolution. Charles Dickens was one of them, the extreme poverty and its effect on children was an issue that Dickens presented in most of his work.

Child Labour in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield

Dickens writes novels which criticize Victorian society in a general way. The common theme of his writing is about the suffering of the Victorians, particularly children. He sets out to attack specific on child labour during the Victorian time. Dickens interest in the social picture of his age is due to his childhood experience. The experience of rising from poverty to affluence put feeling into Dickens’s indignant attack on the cruel exploitation of the poor and children especially. Within this context George Gissing in his book Charles Dickens: A Critical Study asserts, “Dickens, if any writer, has associated himself with the thought of suffering childhood. The circumstances of his life confined him, for the most part, to London in his choice of matter for artistic use, and it is especially the London child whose sorrows are made so vivid to us by the master's pen." (The Suffering Web)

In David Copperfield Little David is abused by Mr. Murdstone, he frightened David by showing him a cane, David forgets his lessons and Murdstone beats him, “He Walked me up to my room slowly, and when we got there, suddenly twisted my head under his arm. Then he cut me heavily with the cane, and in the same instant I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through...would have beaten me to death...My imprisonment lasted five days.” (Dickens David 10)

In Oliver Twist Charles Dickens describes the life in the workhouses. Oliver was born in a workhouse. His mother, whose name no one knows is found on the street and dies just after Oliver's birth. Oliver spends the first nine years of his life in a badly run home for young orphans and then is transferred to a workhouse for adults. Here Oliver and other children are employed with hard considerably in factory. They are given very little food to eat and treaded very bad.

Oliver Twist had the serious purpose of mitigating the evils under which the poor were suffering. Its hero was a poor child, the unfortunate victim of society; and, in order to draw attention to the real need, Dickens exaggerated the woeful condition of the poor, and filled his pages with sentiment which easily slipped over into sentimentality. (Long 492)

Dickens draws attention to child labour in his book with the example of David Copperfield. After the death of his mother, his step father sees no longer any reason for sending him to school, and as he wants to get rid of him anyway, he sends him to work in his own warehouse called “Murdstone and Grinby”. Here we find another reason for sending children to work: to get rid of them and have them out of one’s way. Dickens very clearly expresses his attitude towards child labour, when young David says, “How can I so easily be thrown away at such an age” (David Copperfield Web).This is an unambiguous statement against child labour and explains how useless and senseless it is to send young children to work, a mere waste of human beings.

Bernard Shaw writes, “Dickens never regarded himself as a revolutionist, though he certainly was one” (Greenblatt 1238). The situation of children at workhouses presented in Dickens novel, “at meal – times…a quarter of bread besides. The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; …Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months” (Dickens Oliver 35).

This darker side to Dickens’s imagination is also reflected in Oliver Twist, “…His attack on the effects of the work house system is confined to the novel’s opening chapters, succeeded in damning workhouse abuses in the popular imagination, if not in eliminating them from physical reality”(Abraham 86).The scene of Oliver asking for more, “child as he was, he was desperate with hunger… basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: “Please sir, I want some more”(Dickens Oliver 36). So graphically caught by Dickens’s illustrator, George Cruikshank has remained the most familiar incident in any English novel. In David Copperfield, Charles devoted himself to the novel of social conditions with a reforming purpose. The overriding focus of the analyses in this novel is a literary one, although it also includes a series of reflections on aspects of Victorian society and culture: Prisons, workhouse, schools, money, poverty, fallen women, orphans, crowds.

“Towards the middle of the century novelists began to be absorbed in the presentation of social problems rather than in analysis of personal emotion. Dickens had given the initial impulse to this movement with Oliver Twist in 1838, in which he attacked the wretched lot of foundling children ill- treated in the workhouses” (Boyson 330). When Oliver runs away from workhouse he thinks that he will live without burden and labour but the experience of Fagin at London is very opposite. “He says, practicing the art of picking pockets for many days. When the boy returns from their trips, without any pickings they are either beaten or not given any food to eat” (Dickens Oliver 489).

In David Copperfield, when David’s mother died his step father Mr. Mudstone says to little David, “I am not rich and education is costly… it would not be good for you to be kept at school” and this sentence suggests starting of the child labour of David in this novel and Murdstone introduces the warehouse to him, “You have heard the business of Murdstone and Grinby in the wine trade… Mr Quinion, who manages that business, suggests that it gives employment to some other boys, and could, on the same terms, give employment to you. So you are now going to London,…own account”(Dickens David 27).

We also note that most of Dickens’s novels belong decidedly to the class of purpose or problem novels, the abuses of charity schools and brutal school masters, he says,
Mr. Creakle came to where I sat, and told me that if I were famous for biting, he was famous for biting, too. He then showed me the cane, and asked me what I thought of that, for a tooth? Was it a sharp tooth, hey? Was it a double tooth, hey? Had it a deep prong, hey? Did it bite, hey? Did it bite? at every question he gave me a fleshy cut with it that made me writhe; so I was very soon made free of Salem house and very soon in tears also. (Dickens David 17)

In English Literature, Long remarks about Dickens’s novel, “Oliver Twist, the unnecessary degradation and suffering of the poor in English workhouses. Dickens’s serious purpose was to make the novel the instrument of morality and justice” (Long 493).

In the novel Oliver Twist, Dickens tries to make people realize the gravity of child labour and it should be appreciated as he criticized society that he lived in. We found the situation of child labour through the mouthpiece of the characters of the novel as,
“What a fine thing capital punishment is!
Dead men never repent, dead men
Never bring awkward stories to light
The prospect of the gallows, too
Makes them hardy and bold as, it’s
A thing for the trade! Five of
Them strung up in a row and none
Left to play booty or turn white
Livered! ” (Child Labour in Oliver Web)

Furthermore, in David Copperfield Dickens presents the conditions under which the children had to work. This is also expressed in the novel, when David describes his place of employment as a “crazy old house … abutting with water… and … mud, and … overrun with rats” (Dickens David 28). The children often suffered not only from physical but also from mental destruction and psychological damage because of the horrible conditions they were exposed to. Dickens even intensifies this criticism with sentences like “No word can express the secret agony of my soul” (David Copperfield Web).

“Dickens’s novels are multifarious, digressive and generous. In an important way, they reflect the nature of Victorian urban society with all its conflicts and disharmonies, its eccentricities and its constrictions, its energy and its extraordinary fertility, both physical and intellectual” (Sanders 405). Fagin’s reaction on capital punishment shows another way that the system of institutionalized control just permeates society.

“Stop thief! Stop thief! There is a
Human passion for hunting something
Deeply implanted in the human
Breast one wretched breathless
Child, panting with exhaustion,
Terror in his looks, agony in his
Eye, large drops of perspiration
Streaming down in his face, strains
Every nerve to make head up on
His pusuers, and as they follow
On his track, and gain up on
Him every instant, they hail his
Decreasing strength with still
Louder shouts, and whoop and
Scream with joy “stop thief”?
Ay stop him for god’s sake,
Were it only in mercy!”
(Child Labour in Oliver Web)

In David Copperfield, Little David is sent in a warehouse in London by his step father Mr. Murdstone. Here the condition of David is described by David himself, “My work to examine empty bottles against the light and reject those that were flawed, and to rinse and wash them. When the empty bottles ran short, there were labels to be pasted on full ones, or corks to be fitted to them, or finished bottles to be packed” (Dickens David 28).

In a vast number of Dickens novel the lost, neglect or ill treated children are the central figures. Dickens used the figure of children in order to reveal his views on society. According to Dickens, “childhood was a long time filled with agony, abuse and suffering, for him it is a crime against children to rob them from their childhood” (The Suffering Web). Moreover, Dickens stands as the first novelist to give children a central role in his stories. In his several works he focused on the exploration of moral, social and psychological themes upon the image of the children, and in all of his fictions, as a number of critics has demonstrated, he makes a child’s outlook integral to his artistic vision. With the description of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip and many other orphans, Dickens reveals his crusade against the labour inflicted on Victorian children. “Dickens successfully portrays the child labour in nineteenth century Britain evokes reader's sympathy to the deplorable and drab conditions of the children”(The Suffering Web).

Thus at the end researchers find child labour at the centre of Dickens’s both novels Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Child labour is an effect of Industrial Revolution during Victorian era and the indication of child labour in his novels for reforming purpose. In Both novels the protagonists -Oliver and David are the victims of child labour. In Oliver Twist, little Oliver an orphan boy brings in workhouse and then transferred to a private asylum where his birthday is regularly celebrated with a beating and punishment of inadequate food. And in David Copperfield, David’s step-father sent him to workhouse, London, after death of his mother. He works in a wine factory but the money of his earning is sent to his step father, Mr. Murdstone. Dickens’s both novels attacked on the ill-treatment of children in the workhouses and ultimately Dickens attacked on child labour. It is the horrified abuse to children, whose crime was to take birth as a poor or an orphan. These novels show us the cruel effect of industrialism in 19th century and because of poor condition children were forced to work in workhouses. At the end we can say that Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are realistic novels, and presents real scenes of child labour in contemporary society and these novels also reflect Charles Dickens himself as a victim of child labour.

Works Cited

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Dr. Narendra K. Patel, Assi. Professor , Shri P. K. Chaudhari Mahila Arts College, Sector-7, Gandhinagar
Nikita Mansukhlal Sondarva, M. A. (Sem-4), Shri P. K. Chaudhari Mahila Arts College, Sector-7, Gandhinagar