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  • Dickens's Wild Child:Nurture and Discipline after Peter the Wild Boy

This essay argues that Charles Dickens models Oliver Twist after popular wild child figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Peter the Wild Boy and Victor of Aveyron. My analysis of the scientific accounts of wild children written by physicians John Arbuthnot and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard illuminates the significance of wild children within Victorian popular culture. Nineteenth-century accounts about wild children were laden with anxieties surrounding the effectiveness of disciplinary systems. Wild child caretakers felt the need to civilize and train their charges, but the public records of their work suggest that their positivistic notions of such discipline were fraught with self-doubt. Exploring Dickens's portrayal of the "wild child" articulates his own ambivalence toward the development of his "wild child"-like protagonists.

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), John Jasper and the stonemason Durdles find themselves harassed by the figure of a small, wild boy who follows them through the crypts. Exasperated by the boy's barrage of stones and taunts, Jasper asks, "Do you know this thing, this child?" (73). Durdles replies with the boy's name, "Deputy," but he also clarifies that the child is the "[o]wn brother, sir … own brother to Peter the Wild Boy!" (73). Dickens's readers would have been very familiar with the reference to Peter the Wild Boy, a feral child who was found in the woodlands outside Hamelin, Germany in 1725 and very publicly brought [End Page 45] to the British royal court in 1726 as entertainment for Caroline of Ansbach, the Princess of Wales. After the discovery of Peter, popular newspapers, serials, and periodicals became rife with stories about other wild children like Peter: bear boys from Lithuanian caves, a sheep-boy from the Irish grasslands, a blood-drinking wild girl from the champagne regions of France, and scores of wolf-children from the jungles of colonial India.1 Dickens was also caught in the fervor for news of these half-mythical spectacles. He published stories on wild children like Peter over the next several decades in Household Words and incorporated them into his major novels.2 While The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Dickens's only novel to make direct reference to a specific wild child, this essay argues that Dickens's fascination with wild children like Peter suggests much more than a passing interest in the sensationally strange. By taking up the story of the "wild child," Dickens tapped into a charged narrative about nurture and discipline that is relevant to understanding his ambivalence toward the development of the "wild child"-like protagonists in his own bildungsromans.

I begin by positing Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837–39) as a "wild child" story and then reexamining the original scientific discourse surrounding historical wild children, such as Peter the Wild Child and Victor the Wild Boy, a wild child found in the southern province of Aveyron, France in 1800. Critics such as Laura C. Berry, Hugh Cunningham, and Katharina Boehm have studied historical representations of the London street child as wild or savage. Besides showing the ways in which such street children were compared to "savages," they attend to what Boehm calls the "medicalization of the children of the poor," or the ways in which middle-class social workers regarded poor or working class parents and environments as unfittingly brutish and savage, while advocating the salutary role and space of rescue institutions, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (153). While social workers and rescue institutions may have seen street children as wild and savage to validate their rescue work, the main focus of this essay specifically attends to the epistemological assumptions inherent in studies of "wild children" as a nineteenth-century phenomenon and how "wild child" narratives affected Dickens's works. His novels do not just suggest that the street child is wild; he particularly implies that children like Deputy are brothers to Peter the Wild Child, that the street child is a wild child and thus cannot be trained and disciplined by nineteenth-century institutions.

In studying the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century scientific accounts of wild children as they were recorded and publicly proliferated, I find that the actual focus of many wild child narratives concerns the wild child's assimilation into the civilized world. Such interest undermined the initial inquiries made by the child's benevolent caretakers into the effects of nature and nurture on the development of the child. Analysis of these accounts of assimilation illuminates an entirely different perspective on the significance of wild children within popular culture and study, since the wild children's caretakers and saviors expressed increasing anxiety and unease about their own roles and the ultimate effect of their [End Page 46] interventions. Dickens's taking up of this other narrative about the wild child in his text(s) emphasizes a critical reluctance to perform the role of the benefactor himself, which involves forcing his characters through a similar form of systemic discipline.

Like the narratives of other wild children, Oliver's story seems to represent a conflict about the effects of nature and nurture in human development. The doctors John Arbuthnot (1667–1735) and Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1774–1838), who closely studied the characteristics and habits of Peter and Victor, their respective wild child charges, are not dissimilar to Oliver's own caretakers, Fagin and Brownlow, who eagerly observe Oliver for indications of his tendency toward wildness or civility, violence or innocence. However, an examination of the scientific studies of wild children reveals that the wild child's caretakers made few conclusion about the child's arrested development. The same could be said of Oliver's own story. For a novel nominally about a parish boy's progress, Oliver Twist features one of the few Dickensian boy protagonists who does not get a chance to grow up and become a young man. The reason for his arrested development has become a significant formal concern within critical work about the text.

Patrick Brantlinger, for example, suggests that Oliver's arrested development is a result of his role as a sort of archetypal hero of melodrama, folklore, and fairy tales; Oliver represents a Lockean tabula rasa whose unchanged purity and ascension to middle-class bliss with Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie is a singular miracle (45). Brantlinger argues that Dickens's novel symbolizes the Benthamite theory that institutions determine conduct, despite a "deeper pessimism" within the work that "[t]he reformer must always feel the urge to make a specific evil seem important, dangerous, universally threatening, and he must always feel the contrary urge as well—to make it seem inorganic, unnecessary, and correctible by obvious, practical measures" (46, 48). In such readings of Dickens' work, heavy emphasis is laid upon the role of institutions—not just workhouses, but the middle-class itself as an institution of correction, nurture, and control, as a determinant and producer of change, participating in rhetoric about the need for the right kind of education and progress that Dickens seems reluctant to prescribe. Moreover, the idea of Oliver as unchanging because he is an innocent archetype discounts an aspect of the "deeper pessimism" to which Brantlinger alludes regarding the "unnecessary" role of the institution and also Dickens's more ambivalent attitude toward the "corrective" nature of institutions and the people who run them. The idea of Oliver as archetypical of folklore or fairy tales seems an incomplete interpretation of Dickens's response to child developmental theory during the era and to the bildungsroman as a genre.

Dickens may depict Oliver as a tabula rasa, angelic and meek, capable of speaking clearly-enunciated Queen's English as an indicator of his goodness and bourgeois bloodline, but he also strikingly marks Oliver as a wild child by showing his paradoxical robustness and ferocity. Oliver's lamblike innocence is juxtaposed with a surprising, almost preternatural hardiness that allows him—weak, [End Page 47] barely fed, and improperly clothed—to survive a several days' journey by foot from the small parish of his birth to London. Even before this trying journey, however, Oliver and his workhouse peers are depicted as having animalistic strength and tendencies. The boys' starvation and neglect in the workhouse make them "so voracious and wild with hunger … that one boy … hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he should some night eat the boy who slept next him" (26–27). Like Mary-Angélique Leblanc, the French wild girl found in 1732 who allegedly consumed rabbit blood and raw frogs, the boys' bloodthirstiness renders them just as hardily monstrous as they are supposedly innocent (Douthwaite 29). In his early life, Oliver is able to survive despite "a systematic course of treachery and deception" in being brought up "by hand," a systematic course that, at Dickens remarks, ironically lacks any hands to supervise, nurture, or protect (OT 19). Dickens's descriptions of Oliver's early life in this institutional system repeatedly present the institution as another form of wilderness.

Oliver's ability to thrive despite accidental scalding and starvation, Dickens hints, is due to the fact that his novel's protagonist is "voracious and wild," and very much brother to Peter the Wild Boy. Like Peter, who survived the cold winters of the German mountain terrain before being brought to the courts of George I, Oliver too is configured as animalistically hardy and wild. The boy who "had looked the quiet child, mild, dejected creature that harsh treatment had made him" also has the capability of fiercely rebelling against his tormentors:

Crimson with fury, Oliver started up, overthrew chair and table, seized Noah [Claypole] by the throat, shook him in the violence of his rage till his teeth chattered in his head, and collecting his whole force into one heavy blow, felled him to the ground. … His breast heaved, his attitude was erect, his eye bright and vivid, and his whole person changed, as he stood glaring over the cowardly tormentor that lay crouching at his feet, and defied him with an energy he had never known before.


Oliver's "changed" person seems inured to abuse, both physical and verbal, and in his rage seems wholly inhuman. Far from a sacrificial lamb, Oliver, Dickens suggests, is actually much more the "wicious" lion than readers would expect. Reading Oliver as only a lamb instantiates a view of his character that does not account for his violent capabilities and an underlying strength that reemerges in his successors David Copperfield and Pip, who, like Oliver, successfully assail their childhood nemeses. Despite putting the accusation of such boys' "naterally wicious"-ness in the mouths of fools like Mr. Hubble, Dickens's stark depiction of his wild boys' violent capabilities underscores a real fear. Assuming that Oliver is merely a pawn of his environment also assumes that neglect only produces weakness in the body. However, as Louisa Gradgrind of Hard Times typifies, overabundant nurturing can create men and women emotionally and socially [End Page 48] underdeveloped. If Oliver has a wild child's hardiness and sanguinity, the reason Dickens arrests his development may have as much to do with the discourse on wild child bodies as with institutional ones.

Reading about wild children in the records that were popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sheds some light on a much more nuanced discourse about human development. The scientific investigators who believed in the significance of nurture in human development were the first to attempt to nurture the wild child—with notably disheartening results. In 1726, when the physician John Arbuthnot came to be Peter the Wild Child's primary physician and caretaker, those at court half-expected that Arbuthnot would normalize the child: teach him not only how to talk with his fellow men, but to live civilly with them, possibly even mate or marry among them. As Julia Douthwaite suggests, Peter's arrival at court was not only fodder for sensational gossip, but a site for reflecting on what defined the civilized British man that the court so wanted Peter to become (Douthwaite 22–23). Contemporaneous pamphlets about Peter, such as "It Cannot Rain But It Pours" (1726),3 and "Mere Nature Delineated: or a Body Without a Soul" (1726), attributed, respectively, to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, emphasized court interaction with Peter as indicative of the court's own worst dissipations. In "It Cannot Rain," the writer comments that "[Peter's] being so young was the Occasion of the great Disappointment of the Ladies, who came to the Drawing Room in full Expectation of some attempt at their Chastity," only to meet a much shyer creature altogether (Arbuthnot 5). The court ladies' disappointment over Peter's relative lack of interest in the female sex is not only presented as a means of satirizing the licentiousness and corruption of court life during that period, but also prompts the writer to attend closely to a more general anxiety among Peter's caretakers about the child's lack of interest in other people. According to Defoe, Peter "looks on the infinite Variety, with a kind of equal Unconcernedness, as if every Object were alike" (Defoe 27). While Peter climbs all over the courtiers for various treats in their pockets, he does not communicate directly with them, and treats his human handlers with equal or even less reverence than he does flocks of sheep, horses, and even sows, to whom he bleats, neighs, and bows (Arbuthnot 7). For the writers of these satirical pamphlets, Peter flattens or challenges supposed norms of human sexuality or hierarchies of authority, even species.

The accounts of Peter, however, are incomplete, as the actual project of nurturing the boy unequivocally failed. Study of and interaction with Peter came to a halt following Arbuthnot's resignation of his post as Peter's physician and caretaker only two months into the boy's education at court. Though known as a gentlemanly and kind man, Arbuthnot was "uncharacteristically strict with the boy; restraining his 'Passions of Mind' by fear, and correcting him by striking his legs with a broad leather strap," though ultimately for naught (Newton 32–33). As Michael Newton notes, the fact that Arbuthnot burned his papers relating to his experiments as well as his ultimate rejection of his work in educating the Wild Boy, is a telling sign of the physician's own discomfort with his role and with [End Page 49] the underlying assumptions of his original experiment in taming the wild boy (32). Arbuthnot's unexpected violence and ultimate rejection of his failed experiment has particular significance given his philosophy on wellness and the ways in which that philosophy impacted the formation of nineteenth-century workhouse institutions. Vladimir Janković suggests that, leading up to the nineteenth century, questions of identity were reflected in "ideas on how to feel safe, live well, or stay healthy" that "derived in part from one's ability to manage the boundaries between the two domains—public and private—and, more specifically, protect vulnerable insides from hazardous outsides" (9). Thus, disease prevention and issues of health, both mental and physical, were considered contingent on good governance and containment. These ideas would carry into the nineteenth century and dominate the social work model of the 1830s, evidenced in Oliver Twist as the desire to contain and "nurture" the poor and the working class within institutions rather than out on the streets.

Despite Arbuthnot's promotion of careful nurture, his treatment of Peter reflected the more disturbing relationship between notions of self-care and discipline that Dickens suggests in Oliver Twist: that, despite even the best of intentions, institutions are meant to constrain and discipline the body, to harm instead of to heal it. This follows Michel Foucault's own interpretation of institutions like the asylum and the prison in both Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975). According to Foucault, "imprisonment has always involved a certain degree of physical pain," and thus Peter's own punishment reflects Foucault's sense of the connections between old and new disciplinary systems (Discipline and Punish 16). Peter's training to meet the norms of court was still linked to a history of disciplinary violence. Arbuthnot's failed attempts to discipline Peter's body into his idea of wellness had broader social implications for the philosophy of wellness that were indicative of the failings of nineteenth-century welfare institutions. According to Arbuthnot, staying healthy was also a matter of managing oneself, of "medical self-care" (qtd. in Janković 21). Peter foiled Arbuthnot's ideas about self-care and governance, of the significance of containing the body. Although the boy was exceptionally hardy of body and lived well into old age, he did not manage himself in the least, having neither the capacity nor interest in the forms of self-governance and containment necessary at court. Indeed, it was only when he was contained that his body actually suffered, suggesting troubling implications regarding the actual benefits for the London poor of containment within the allegedly safe walls of the workhouse institution.

Despite the lack of information recorded about Peter, attempts similar to Arbuthnot's to answer questions about the wild child and to civilize him would be repeated and better recorded by a promising young French doctor of the National Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, in his account The Wild Boy of Aveyron (1807). News of the equally sensational wild child named Victor of Aveyron reached the British shores by 1800. A report entitled "Child Found in a Savage State" from the Scottish newspaper The Caledonian Mercury [End Page 50] excitedly relates the news of "[a]nother instance of a wild individual of the human species." Itard's book originally appeared as two reports about Victor published in 1801 and 1806, and included a richly detailed experiment made so widely available that it became well known among British literary writers. Both Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth found the story of a savage from Aveyron inspirational, the subject of literary as well as scientific concern.4 After his initial capture in 1799, the savage child was brought to Paris for a period of time as a marvel for citizens to gawk at, though voyeurs quickly became disenchanted with the sight of "[a] disgustingly dirty child affected with spasmodic movements and often convulsions who swayed back and forth ceaselessly like certain animals in the menagerie, who bit and scratched those who opposed him; and who was in short, indifferent to everything and attentive to nothing" (Itard 10). Itard became obsessed with how the boy had no great attention, was apathetic to odors, touch, sights, and sounds, his life a "completely animal existence" (6).

Victor's desensitized body was most troubling to Itard because it represented a body that disregarded danger. In his records of Victor's actions, he exclaims with wonder at finding his charge "squatting half naked upon the wet ground, remaining thus exposed for hours on end to a cold and wet wind. It was not only to cold but also intense heat that the organ of the skin and touch showed no sensitivity" (14–15). Victor was able to roll around in the snow, unclothed, without fear of frostbite. He could plunge his hand into fire without seeming to feel the sensation of burning. He did not appear susceptible to any sort of disease. Though the scientific trials that Itard endured with Victor nominally aimed to advance what Itard termed Victor's "mental and moral education," much of Itard's experimentation actually reflected his anxiety about Victor's bodily indifference. Itard heavily emphasized the "awaken[ing] of [Victor's] nervous sensibility by the most energetic stimulation, and occasionally intense emotion"; the French physician's aim in developing the senses was to make the wild child body into a civilized body, "to prepare the mind for attention by preparing the senses to receive keener"—more civilized—"impressions" (15–16). He hoped that by making the child more bodily sensitive, he could shake the wild child from insensibility and indifference to the civilized world.

Perhaps that was what ultimately ended Itard's own experiments, which became increasingly disturbing to Itard as he reflected on the child's reactions to the underlying sadism of his experiments. His attempts at nurture were tinged through with violence not dissimilar to that inflicted upon Dickens's own workhouse children. Bothered by Victor's "motions of impatience and rage," Itard felt obligated to threaten to throw his charge out a window, which caused the boy to become "pale, covered with a cold sweat, his eyes were rather tearful, and he still trembled a little" (42, 44). Giving the boy a blow, Itard reports "it was with a mixture of pleasure and pain that I saw in the lad's clouded expression how the pain of the blow was lost in the feeling of insult" (59). After a time Itard noted that "our young savage showed himself sensitive to the action of cold" and would [End Page 51] voluntarily put on clothes to go outside, supposedly no longer inured to the chill of the region (16). With relish, Itard relates how he delighted in the continued success of his sensitization training when "[f]inally disease itself, that irrefutable and troublesome witness of the characteristic sensitiveness of civilized man, came at this point to attest the development of this principle of life. Towards the first days of spring, our young savage had a violent cold in the head and some weeks later two catarrhal affections [sic], one almost immediately succeeding the other" (19). Itard reported that Victor became more sensitive, but also more susceptible to pain. Recounting the succession of sicknesses, Itard fails to mention his concern or care for the child. Rather, he seems enthusiastic about the consequential bodily weakening of his charge. In attempting to make his boy civilized, Itard diluted the bodily hardiness that so fascinated him to begin with.

What the scientific investigation of the wild child ultimately revealed, in both Arbuthnot's and Itard's cases, was the deep and abiding guilt and sense of failure on the part of the supposedly kindly benefactor about transforming the wild child into something that could not fit anywhere. Roger Shattuck, in an examination of the ethical consequences of Itard's experiment, argues, as Itard himself suggests, that Itard rendered a child "adjusted to the milieu" of a life in the wild into one that could not participate in any milieu (174–75). In his last 1806 report to the French Minister of the Interior about his experiments on Victor, Itard's work comes to end in pathos-ridden reflections. Trying to recount the experiments he conducted on the functions of the senses, Itard recalls that he hit his charge, causing the boy to cry. He writes bitterly, "Oh! how ready I was on this occasion, as on many others, to give up my self-imposed task and regard as wasted the time that I had already given to it! How many times did I regret ever having known this child, and freely condemn the sterile and inhuman curiosity of the men who first tore him from his innocent and happy life!" (59). In another instance, watching Victor fail and fail again to recount his lessons, Itard writes that he

went and sat at the end of the room and considered bitterly this unfortunate creature reduced by the strangeness of his lot to such sad alternatives. Either he must be relegated as an unmistakable idiot to one of our asylums, or he must, by unheard-of labor, procure a little education which would be just as little conducive to his happiness. "Unhappy creature," I cried, as if he could hear me, and with real anguish of heart, "since my labors are wasted and your efforts fruitless, take again the road to your forests and the taste for your primitive life. Or if your new needs make you dependent on a society in which you have no place, go, expiate your misfortune, die of misery and boredom at Bicêtre."


Itard's laments notably recognize his own culpability in the formation of a young man incapable of surviving in either the natural or the civilized world. He recognizes and fully admits that his attempts were merely "self-imposed" [End Page 52] tasks, that the child would have been happier without his interference. Itard's condemnation of Victor's captors as motivated by "sterile and inhuman curiosity" also condemns the observer or thrill-seeker as another would-be benefactor, one who ends up harming the wild child by forever reattempting an experiment to see change, to observe the power of bodily transformation that discipline can force. In his recognition that a life in an institution would result in death from "misery and boredom," Itard finally confirms the Foucauldian notion that observation and training are not far from punishment and torture.

This flaw in Itard's experiment with Victor exposes the very problem at the heart of eighteenth- and later nineteenth-century child development theories that purportedly attempted to understand the effects of nature and nurture. That is, from the beginning, discourse regarding the impact of nature or nurture in the maturation or development of the child was undercut by an obsession with dependence and obedience. Dickens picks up on this in his own work. By the time he writes Hard Times, the cramming of the child's mind and the exercises of his body are depicted as disciplines meant to keep him subject to the powers that control such knowledge, producing stunted and sickly children like Tom Gradgrind and Bitzer. Likewise, Oliver and his fellows are literally imagined as cogs in the larger machine. Studying concepts of child development, Monica Flegel suggests nineteenth-century Britons were critical of children "who display[ed] 'savagery,' violence, independence, or ignorance of religion," believing that such children, "require[d] rescue, and after that rescue, proper training to ensure that child-like innocence, dependence, and purity [could] be maintained" (56). Proper training entailed, specifically, a training of the body into a model of goodness. Yet good Victorian children, "the children of god," were bodily "marked by weakness, by a mysterious 'feebleness' that makes [them] more prey to pain and death and sorrow than are the infants of the 'lower creatures'" (Flegel 60). A wild child, in contrast, was not "a mute, feeling victim," like the "child of god," but a creature "hardy—as if formed by God to be able to cope without humanity's aid or assistance" (Flegel 60). The wild child was, in a way, a throwback to earlier models of madmen and idiots. Foucault in his study of "classical" representations of madness or insensibility notes that the madman or idiot was not presented as sick, per se, but rather his animality "protected the lunatic from whatever might be fragile, precarious, or sickly in man. … It was common knowledge until the end of the eighteenth century that the insane could support the miseries of existence indefinitely" as beings ultimately "unnatural," in the sense that they were not beholden to the effects of nature (Madness and Civilization 69–70). Foucault suggests that by the nineteenth century, such notions disappeared as sensibility became detached from nature and determined by social structures and habits, as normalization entered into configurations of illness and disease (Madness and Civilization 207).

Thus, when Louisa Gradgrind explosively tells her father Thomas Gradgrind, "if you had only neglected me, what a much better and much happier creature I should have been this day!" she articulates Dickens's impressions of the fatal [End Page 53] work underlying the training of a child into a "child of god" (161). Dickens depicts the irrelevance of institutional discipline for the benefit of the body, as well as his relative ambivalence towards the actual study of the effects of nature versus nurture in the development of the child. In thinking about these attitudes in terms of an early work like Oliver Twist, we may consider whether the wild child narrative perhaps accounts for the novel's uneasy denouement. In his study of the conceit of an "innocent" Oliver, Richard Dellamora notes the awkwardness of the revelation of Oliver's middle-class parentage, which though often seen as complying with the expectations of the middle-class, actually perverts the truth of such purity given the real illegitimacy and scandal of his parents' relations (60, 74). The "child of god" may be "good," but Dickens complicates the idea of goodness as an innate trait, exploring the ways in which goodness is constructed as discipline to authority. What are innate and of interest to Dickens are concepts of health and bodily vigor, traits that are influenced greatly by the discipline and control imposed on the individual. The climaxes of novels like Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Great Expectations (though there are many more examples) center on these moments of sickness when the protagonist confronts and acknowledges the systems of discipline that restrict and control him. In a way, the wild child is a creature already perfectly formed outside of human society, and his existence is a challenge to ideas of child development that supposedly focused on producing good children. The failures to make docile the wild child emphasize not a debate of the actual culpability of nature or nurture in his production, but the positivistic notions surrounding the effectiveness of discipline as an epistemological system.

Dickens's works need to be read not just for their depiction of systems of discipline, but also as epistemologies of discipline. Arguably, in attending to narratives of wild children, Dickens emphasizes the double identity of the philanthropist as discipliner and possible torturer. The obvious villains in Dickens's works are the beadles and chairmen and institutions of the world who badge and ticket the poor, producing those "humble, half-starved drudge[s]—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none" (OT 19). Though judges and chairmen of societies are presented as overtly threatening or dangerous embodiments of justice and power, in this early work Dickens also makes culpable the obviously good or benevolent individuals in the text—the Brownlows of the world. Dickens positions Brownlow as Oliver's savior, but his language surrounding the gentleman paradoxically implies something unsavory in the old gentleman's relationship to the young boy. When Oliver first lays eyes upon "the old gentleman" he sees "a very respectable-looking personage," just as Rose Maylie sees "an elderly gentleman of benevolent appearance" when first introduced to him (85, 273). But that gentlemanliness, as emphasized throughout the text, is deceiving because Fagin, too, appears as an "old gentleman" when he wants to, mimicking with ease the motions and attitudes of the middle class (71). Dickens creates a categorical link between the two old gentlemen—Brownlow and the [End Page 54] villain Fagin—that emphasizes the performance that underlies gentlemanliness. He does so with more gusto in later works such as Hard Times with the blustering Mr. Bounderby, who always emphasizes the significance of gentility, and as a thematic focus in Great Expectations where the making of a gentleman is linked to criminal work and criminal intentions.

Despite Dickens's continual and frequent insistence on Brownlow's goodness, his representation of Brownlow's actions further complicates Brownlow's depiction. In Oliver Twist, Brownlow's interactions with Oliver often suggest the influences of Arbuthnot and Itard. Like the two scientists, Brownlow too has a system for training his charge. When Brownlow and his equally old and gentlemanly friend Grimwig set out a watch between them as they wait for the kidnapped Oliver to return, they attempt to measure and evaluate in much the same way gentlemen like Arbuthnot and Itard did, and in much the same way that Foucault argues methods of docility-utility worked during the eighteenth century. In Foucault's reading of discipline that produced "subjected and practiced bodies, 'docile' bodies," the body is subjected to normalizing judgment and an observing hierarchy that qualifies, classifies, and punishes simultaneously (Discipline and Punish 138, 172). Though Brownlow sincerely tries to improve the life of the unfortunate, especially the life of the pitiable Oliver, Dickens often undermines this sincerity with hints of subtle violence inherent in these systems of discipline that are much more characteristic of his villains.

When "the old gentleman kindly" tells Oliver that "you shall read them [the books of Brownlow's library],'" he adds the condition "'if you behave well" (97). Similarly, when Brownlow asks Oliver to tell him his life story, he almost ŧhreatens the boy when he says, "you will be more careful, perhaps, not to wound me. … Speak the truth; and if I find you have committed no crime, you will never be friendless while I live" (98). The underlying implications are: if Oliver does not "behave well," he will not be given education; if Oliver commits a crime, he will be friendless. Like Fagin, who also has his boys and girls learn the art of pick-pocketing through systems of rewards and punishments, Brownlow adopts a system of discipline suggestive of the "humanitarian" systems of Samuel Tuke or Phillipe Pinel as described by Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic. Dickens undergirds all Brownlow's words with subtle threats to control the possibly wild boy, reconfiguring the relationship, as Tuke did between caregiver and madman, so that the wild boy "must feel morally responsible for everything within him that may disturb morality and society" (Madness and Civilization 234). While the kindly gentleman, Brownlow, has absolved a wild boy like Oliver from essential wrong—the crime of being born poor, and thus morally suspect—he has tried to lock him into another form of confinement.

For Foucault, these disciplinary methods expose an underlying positivistic assumption: that there is a "linear time whose moments are integrated, one upon another, and which is oriented towards a terminal, stable point; in short, an [End Page 55] 'evolutive' time" (Discipline and Punish 160). Oliver's body is put under similar strain by Brownlow and Grimwig, who in their measuring of Oliver's actions and reactions are continually measuring him against their assumptions that discipline and experience shape development. However, many of Dickens's novels work against this assumption. As Jeremy Tambling notes in his study of Great Expectations, another Dickens bildungsroman, Pip's accumulated experiences, lessons, and punishments seem to all come to nothing: "As the recidivist, [Pip] wishes to be given Biddy's child, which would start again the whole cycle of oppression, and self-oppressive to the end, he writes out his autobiography—one that remains remarkably terse as to its intentions and its status as writing and which rolls out as though automatically, the product of consciousness that remains fixed" (26). Dickens's novels, even in this first great bildungsroman, tackle the very assumption of human development: that the human develops and it is necessary for him to develop, that there is an evolution in the individual being. And perhaps this is why Dickens's novel about the progress of a parish boy does not actually attend to the issue of progress: because, like the disciplinary systems which he presents, these are not only ineffective means of evaluation but also systems of control that Dickens does not put much faith in.

Brownlow may send Oliver away to the countryside, as Peter and Victor were sent, but the discrepancy of his arrested development compared to so many other boys of Dickens's oeuvre still haunts readings of the text, forever putting into question the ethicality of the novels' supposed benefactors and the ultimate fate of the children of his works. If Oliver Twist is an early representation of Dickens's wild child, the boy's arrested development would suggest Dickens's unwillingness to believe the validity of the course that Brownlow takes at novel's end. Perhaps there is no true way to train a wild child; one can only hide him, push him away, or kill him. If Smike of Nicholas Nickleby, as McKnight suggests, is "an inept Oliver who dies," then perhaps it is best that those like Smike die, if only to escape further torment (74). Yet I would like to suggest that the novel's apathy towards Oliver's adult life suggests Dickens's, like Arbuthnot's and Itard's, reluctance to continue the experiment. Such apathy does not come from the experiment's failure, but might come from a reluctance to instrumentalize the child as an archetype of a folktale or fairy tale. Rather, the wild child is invested with the position of being very much a part of the real world that challenges all efforts to be deemed archetypical, supernatural, and unique. Oliver is no model specimen, though treated as such, and neither are Peter or Victor. They are only one of many, one of a type that had been attempted to be categorized within a narrative of progressivism but revealed to be incapable of being contained by such neat stories of education, discipline, and control. When Dickens turns away from directly studying the wild child among the street children of London, he invites his readers to look for them where they have always lived—at the very edge of our perception, ready to startle us. [End Page 56]

Rae X. Yan

Rae X. Yan is a Royster Fellow and PhD candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is completing a dissertation on the subject of philosophical anatomy and Victorian fiction. Her research interests include the Victorian novel, literature and science, digital humanities, and Sino-British exchange.


1. See Lucien Malson 70. Malson's book serves as a taxonomy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wild children, though sometimes apocryphal.

2. See John Lang's "Wolf Nurses" and "Wanderings in India." Natalie McKnight refers Sophy in "Doctor Marigold" as a classic example of one of Dickens's "other prisoners" (52–53). Sophy is presented as an animalistic subhuman and displayed as if she were in a wild beast show, entirely evocative of other wild children depicted in Malson's history.

3. Although the frontispiece of the pamphlet "It Cannot Rain But It Pours" lists the author as John Arbuthnot, convincing scholarly investigation has attributed the work to Swift. See "Did Swift Write It Cannot Rain But Pour?"

4. Newton has argued that aspects of Victor's character study reappear in such works as Wordsworth's unfinished poem The Recluse (123–24). Additionally, in studying Coleridge's notebooks, Alan Richardson finds a significant debate between Coleridge and Wordsworth about how to interpret the wild child.

5. The Bicêtre or Bicêtre Hospital was famous at various stages as an orphanage, prison, lunatic asylum, and hospital. Its most famous occupant was the Marquis de Sade, though the Bicêtre would have been more relevant to Itard as the home institution of Philippe Pinel (1745–1826), a French physician who favored a humane way of treating psychiatric patients.


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