By Nina S., guest blogger
If ever Charles Dickens is criticized, it is for his depiction of the angelic heroines that populate the majority of his novels. Always shy and shrinking, always utterly devoted, always silently suffering for the men who ignore them, these heroines are regularly blasted by critics.
However, the behaviors of these heroines may not be as unrealistic as they seem: in fact, Dickens carefully crafts their storylines so that even this behavior makes sense within the story's universe. For, despite all the perfect behavior of Amy Dorrit or Esther Summerson, Dickens' leading ladies live far-from-perfect lives, particularly in their relationships with their parents.
Take, for example, that most-maligned of Dickensian heroines, Agnes Wickfield, who exhibits key signs of the psychological disorder of "parentification," where children (often daughters) alter and suppress their behavior to cope with the actions of dependent parents.
Agnes Wickfield, the "better angel," (or "legless angel," according to G.K. Chesterton) of David Copperfield, is David's guiding light, patiently and eternally standing by him through all his trials, without a care for her own desires. Now this does seem a bit unreasonable -- doesn't Agnes ever have a thought for herself? Yet a careful reading of the text reveals that Agnes' personal and family life is so structured that she was not raised to have a thought for herself.
"I must have her near me. I must keep her near me," confesses Mr. Wickfield, the alcoholic lawyer whose beloved wife died bearing Agnes, in Chapter 16, and so he keeps Agnes within a certain radius, even playfully dubbing her his "little housekeeper" and entrusting her with all the matronly duties of the household.
However, according to Bryan Strong et al.'s The Marriage and Family Experience, "taking on caregiving responsibilities for a parent or parents while still a child or adolescent disrupts normal developmental processes" (415). There is some degree of parentification in many families, but when "the circumstances become extreme and long-term," it can be destructive, particularly when the process is emotional:
"it robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life....Parentified children have to suppress their own needs. This comes at the expense of having normal development " (de Victoria).
Some of the following behaviors are cited as "possible consequences of parentification" (Strong et al., 415), and Agnes embodies many of these characteristics:
- "Delayed entry into marriage," prompted by the already adult caretaking behaviors parentified children are responsible for. Agnes, though she would like to marry David, feels responsible for her father and so loses her chance at expressing her feelings. In the novel, she does not marry David until her late twenties.
- "Feelings of excessive responsibility for others that make it difficult to say 'no' to people, to set limits, or to concentrate on their own needs." Agnes rarely says no to anyone (except when targeted to be Uriah Heep's wife); on the contrary, she is usually excessively helpful and obliging, even accompanying David to visit his fiancee, Dora.
- "Relationship and intimacy problems": seeking "'dependent, needy people' who have been...emotionally 'wounded' by past experiences." Agnes is David's "better angel" because she watches out for him and bails him out of trouble. She fills his "needs," which have arisen out of his own battered past.
- Choice of career in which they can "take care of people": this includes teaching, and Agnes opens a school to help direct children and aid her father's floundering financial situation.
- "The acquisition of...'self-defeating' behavior because of having had to meet others' needs and suppress their own compulsive behavior, such as perfectionism." Agnes constantly places herself in situations where she feels inadequate or puts herself down, and blames herself for the tiniest of faults. She places all the blame for her father's alcohol dependency and control by Uriah Heep on her own shoulders: "I almost feel as if I had been papa's enemy, instead of his loving child. For I know how he has altered, in his devotion to me....If I could ever set this right! If I could ever work out his restoration, as I have so innocently been the cause of his decline!"
Agnes Wickfield, then, is no willing angel; she is an angel due to circumstances, to long-term and subtle emotional exploitation by her grieving father. And in Chapter 39 of the novel, even Wickfield himself admits this: "...my natural love for my child turned to disease. I have infected everything I touched. I have brought misery on what I dearly love..."
And Agnes is not alone -- nearly all of Charles Dickens' "saintly" heroines, such as Madeline Bray, Amy Dorrit, and Lucie Manette (and even, to a degree, Jenny Wren, who exhibits the intense anger that can arise from parentification), are the unfortunate daughters of emotionally unstable, if well-meaning, parents. Critics are still valid when complaining about the prevalence of such female figures in Dickens' work, but when we examine their behavior under the lens of parentified children, these girls may be among the most realistic of Dickens' myriad characters.
de Victoria, Samuel Lopez. "Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent." World of Psychology. Pscyh Central, 18 Aug. 2008. Web. 27 Aug. 2010.
Strong, Bryan et al. The Marriage and Family Experience: Intimate Relationships in a Changing Society. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008. Print.