To Be or Not to Be: The Deviance or Lack Thereof in the Characters of “Oliver Twist” and “Mrs. Dalloway”and an Analysis of the Ensuing Consequences
“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens and “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf both take place in London. However, at the same time, they take place in very different worlds. The characters in Oliver Twist are easily separated into good and evil just like all romantic novels. Particularly in this novel, the ‘good’ characters are essentially social deviants and the ‘bad’ characters are not. The characters in each groups reach fairly similar outcomes; the ‘good’ characters lead themselves to fates involving redemption and personal growth, while the ‘bad’ characters reach cruel fates such as death or deportation. On the other hand, Mrs. Dalloway’s characters have some separation between the protagonists and antagonists, there is no pattern to whom in these groups is socially deviant or conforming, and their social choices don’t lead them all to a consistent ending. As popular as more romantic novels as “Oliver Twist” are, as much as readers like the good guys getting the good ending and the bad guys getting the bad, Woolf paints a more realistic and nonpolarized portrait of her characters; neither deviants nor conformists are entirely happy at the end of the novel.
As a somewhat romantic novel “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens has a clear polarization of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. There is a strong pattern in which those who defy social expectations are considered good characters that get happy ending and those who give in to the expectations given to them are considered bad characters. Interestingly, it can be assumed that the expectations given to some of the lower class characters in Dicken’s novels are not what you’d call great expectations, but are instead created on the notion that the lower class citizens are inferior by nature will most likely meet a premature death to close practically worthless lives in which little good was done. This is the fate that the ‘bad’ characters received in the novel. The two most prominent examples are Bill Sikes and Fagin, the former of which accidentally hangs himself while trying to escape an angry mob, the other goes insanes and is executed for his crimes.
The deviants, on the other hand, are seen as heroes in the story. Oliver, for example, is expected to become a wicked and lazy person just because of who he was born to. However, he is described by the narrator as good and innocent by his very nature. In the beginning of the novel, those at the poorhouse expect him to be worthless and in time become unfit for society. As the gentleman in the white waistcoat proposed on page 29, “I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am, that that boy will come to be hung.” Later in the story, he is expected to just fall into line with the other pickpockets in Fagin’s entourage. However, when Oliver’s good nature proves to triumph over his undesirable situation, they try to work to place him into the mold made for him by society, but to no avail. Oliver constantly has to trailblaze a path throughout the story as he is forced down the path already chosen for him, and triumphs uncorrupted at the end.
Although Oliver is deviant by nature, he is not the only one in the novel willing to deviate from the expectations of their roles in society. For example, Nancy, is inspired by Oliver to resist the rut she has found herself in. This deviance, though characterized as heroic in the story, is subject to criticism by Sikes and Fagin. “Do you know who you are, and what you are?” Sikes says to her on page 116. He reminds her that she is a prostitute that is supposed to act a certain way; docile, quiet, and out of the way when not working. Though she may have once believed that she was merely destined to assume this role and the expectations to go with it, Oliver makes her think again. Although her change in behavior leads her to be struck down as a martyr in Oliver’s story, she is seen by the narrator and the audience as a heroine to the story and ultimately redeemed.
There are other deviants that get a happy ending along with Oliver, too, in the novel. For instance, Charley, retires from pickpocketing and becomes a farmer. Although British society, with the notion that thieves are wicked by nature and will always be criminals, would not expect a pickpocket to be inspired to work hard for an honest living, but this is exactly what Charley ended up doing. Another example is Rose. Rose lives a quiet life with her aunt. However, she is still a social deviant. Rose describes herself on page 235 as “a friendless, portionless girl, with a blight on my name.” She, like Oliver, was born of an illegitimate alliance. If the British theory remains constant, Rose would be expected to be a burden on society with little use. However, simply by being a respectable and caring woman with the ability to moralize, empathise, and sacrifice, she defies the expectations laid out for her in order to pursue a better path for herself.
In Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” however, Britain is more realistic; there are not two separate groups of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and fate is not determined by any recognizable pattern. However, two particular characters who deviate from societal expectations do not receive good endings at the end of the story, opposing the pattern in “Oliver Twist.” The first and most drastic of these examples is Septimus Warren Smith. Septimus has a mental illness, which is by its very definition deviant to societal norms and disturbing to others. However, Septimus’s illness will readily be forgiven by others if he recovers and returns to sanity. However, Septimus resists the pressures that doctors like Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw put on him, first by simply resisting treatment, and then finally taking drastic measures to escape the people who are essentially trying to steal his soul by forcing him to conform instead of treating his illness. On page 2239, as Septimus leaps from a balcony, he screams, “I’ll give it you!” These are his last words. Essentially, he would rather give up his life than surrender it to those who want to push him to submission. Although this can be interpreted as a heroic act by either Mrs. Dalloway and readers, it doesn’t change the fact that Septimus killed himself, tragically, and ironically, the only time in the novel he didn’t wish to.
The second of these characters is Miss Kilman. Most of Miss Kilman’s deviance has nothing to do with her life choices, she is unattractive and has a German name in a time where there was anti-german sentiment; even the fact that she is unmarried may not be her fault. Still, as an unmarried woman in post war England, she is considered a social deviant. Miss Kilman’s life is not characterized as anything to be jealous of in the novel. She was described as “bitter and burning” on page 2225, only soothed by turning to God. However, she does still show a disdain in her disposition, whether she would admit it or not. Also on page 2225, the narrator claims “she looked with steady and sinister serenity at Mrs. Dalloway.”
Readers are not fooled by Miss Kilman’s aura of religious superiority and arrogance. Although she claims “I don’t pity myself…I pity other people…” on page 2229, and her inner monologue reads, “Fool! Simpleton! You who have known neither sorrow nor pleasure, who have trifled your life away!” while in the presence of Mrs. Dalloway on page 2225, the guise can be pulled back to see a classic case of ‘sour grapes.’ No matter how much she pities people or boasts her own intelligence, the fact remains that Miss Kilman is unpopular and knows it. “I never go to parties,” she says on page 2229, ”People don’t ask me to parties.”
However, company does not always equal contentment,as the novel “Mrs. Dalloway” proves. Even though Clarissa is a respectable woman in society, married, has a child, is fairly wealthy, she still feels uneasy in her seemingly perfect life. When Peter criticized her for marrying Richard Dalloway, claiming she’d fall into the ‘perfect hostess’ role, she cried distressedly. The marriage between Richard and Clarissa is seen by several characters, including Clarissa at times, as a compromise.
This awareness can be seen through a recollection of Clarissa’s time with Sally Seton. Sally was seen a social deviant as well, but is not characterized very negatively in the book, although Clarissa recalls Sally as “completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado…Absurd, she was-very absurd” on page 2174. If anything, she’s characterized as a strong woman who breaks social boundaries. Whether the good or bad kind of social deviant, a relationship with Sally was deemed too dangerous for Clarissa, as characterized on page 2173 as “an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.” Clarissa’s inability to match Sally’s level of deviancy or be associated with it caused her to miss out on a romantic opportunity. Her adherence to social rules left her at a regrettable loss. “Had not that, after all, been love?” she also wondered on page 2173. Peter Welsh, too, mourns the marriage between Clarissa and Richard, considering it a death to Clarissa’s soul. However, he wasn’t upset that Clarissa didn’t end up with Sally; he was upset she didn’t end up with him.
Another woman finding unhappiness in adherence is Lady Bradshaw. Married to Dr. Bradshaw, Lady Bradshaw was subjected to a rigid regime of conformity by the doctor. It is clearly stated on page 2212 of the book by Woolf, “For Example, Lady Bradshaw. Fifteen years ago she had gone under.” Lady Bradshaw was described as an adamant fisher and generally carefree, which was considered deviant behavior for a woman. Upon marrying Dr. Bradshaw, Lady Bradshaw was put in a similar position as Septimus; one must surrender their soul to be accepted into the society that has norms. Instead of making the ultimate escape, however, Lady Bradshaw trades in her social deviance for the comfort of respectable husband and the respectability that comes with it. She survives to the end of the novel; she survives in body but arguably not in soul.
Thus, it can be seen that Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf had different ideas about deviance and conformity and different themes they wanted to present to their readers; Dickens’ novel shows the power of social deviance and the heroes getting the endings they deserve, while Woolf’s tale argues that one’s actions do not guarantee any success or failure in life.