'Oliver Twist' is a textbook of child abuse

November 21, 2001

Oliver Twist, the novel by Charles Dickens, is a textbook of abuse, finds an article in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The novel charts the progress of the eponymous hero, an orphaned boy who starts life in a workhouse, and after being part of the notorious Fagin's gang, is adopted by a middle class gent.

But according to a consultant paediatrician at Sheffield Children's Hospital, Dickens describes many categories of child abuse, and identifies risk factors which modern research has now classified as hallmarks of abusing parents.

Institutional abuse comes first, with Oliver's mother being attended by a drunk midwife and an uncaring doctor. Children in the workhouse to which Oliver is sent are neglected and practically starved, while being denied any shred of human love or affection. Oliver is locked in a small dark room after having the temerity to "ask for more" food. The workhouse children were also physically abused.

Dr Brennan says that the recognised consequences of abuse, including absconding, passivity, depression, poor self image and vulnerability to corruption by anyone showing them what appears to be love, are very well illustrated by the text.

Dickens also managed to identify all the now accepted parental risk factors for abuse: substance abuse, including alcohol, domestic violence, mental health problems and animal abuse. And he also describes the domestic abuse perpetrated against both sexes in the novel. Nancy is abused by Bill Sykes her pimp and Mr Bumble is abused by Mrs Coney, the superintendant of the female workhouse, two months after their marriage.

Child abuse and neglect weren't officially recognised until the 1960s and 1970s.

BMJ Specialty Journals

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