Oliver Twisted: the origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian orphan.

James Washick

James Washick is Associate Professor in the Department of English, North Greenville University, Tigerville, SC, USA where he teaches courses in Victorian Literature, C. S. Lewis, the British Novel, and the History of the English Language.  In addition to his work on Rowling and Dickens, he has published on Robert Louis Stevenson, George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis, and Katherine Paterson.

When Roman Polanski directed a new film version of Oliver Twist in 2005, he explained his reasons for doing so, saying, “[I]t was time to film […] something [his children] could watch without saying [. . .] ‘Harry Potter’ is much better” (Benjamin B). The popularity of the Harry Potter films makes such a comparison with Oliver Twist seem a natural one, since Polanski was targeting the same audience. However, Polanski is not alone in his making this association; the connection between Harry Potter and Oliver Twist, the titular protagonists of their stories, is made by writers again and again. In discussing Polanski’s work, one reviewer describes the film’s happy ending, saying that “[g]oodness triumphs, and [the] proto-Harry Potter minus the magic finds himself at the hands of kind souls” (JM), suggesting that Oliver is in some way the template for Harry. Additionally, those who discuss the theme of the abandoned or orphaned child repeatedly link the two figures. In her reviews in Booklist, Hazel Rochman discusses the “enduring appeal in orphan stories, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter” (Rochman Home; Rochman Ghosts), a perspective shared by a theater review in the Buffalo News and Elizabeth Wesseling’s discussion of Dutch-language colonial children’s book, published in a South African literary journal. In all four cases, Harry and Oliver are presented as primary examples of the orphan child.

Considering the tendency of readers and reviewers to make such associations, we would expect some similarities between the Victorian waif and the boy wizard, to the point that we might reasonably trace Harry’s origins to his literary predecessor. Sadly, while such an attempt might uncover places where Rowling’s creation in some ways faces similar circumstances as Dickens’, for the most part, Rowling gives a backstory and characterization to Harry which diverge so greatly from Oliver and his workhouse experiences that other similarities seem largely superficial. Instead, if we seek to find the influence of Oliver Twist, we find the most convincing comparison not with the protagonist of Rowling’s series but with the villain, for in Tom Riddle, the boy who will become Lord Voldemort, we find the true inheritor of the Dickensian model.

Clearly, we cannot ignore that Harry and Oliver, as perhaps the most famous orphans in British literature, share certain qualities which would link them. The loss of their parents place them at the mercy of those who do not care for them, Oliver with the workhouse and Mr. Bumble, and Harry with the Dursleys, and as a result of such a disadvantage, both are forced to overcome their caretakers’ prejudice to prove themselves. As Angela Xiayavong notes, they are both the examples of the motif of the “abused and abandoned child who is really someone very important in disguise” (15). However, the similarities that we find between Harry and Oliver are so common to the orphan story (Jane Eyre, the Baudelaires, and Little Orphan Annie, for example) that ultimately they do not seem particularly significant.

However, when we turn our attention to the origins of Lord Voldemeort, to the time when he was merely Tom Riddle, we find not the commonalities found in many stories but strong echoes of the description of Oliver Twist. In some ways, Tom Riddle’s story seems lifted directly from Dickens. In others, we find Dickens’s depiction of genetic morality to be crucial to understanding the boy who will become The Dark Lord.

First, we can consider the description of the means by which both children are orphaned. Dickens begins his novel with an account of Oliver’s birth. Oliver’s mother Agnes (whose identity is not revealed until nearly fifty chapters later) comes to the workhouse, having been “found lying in the street – she had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces” (47). After giving birth to Oliver, she raises her head and says, “Let me see the child, and die.” She lasts barely long enough to kiss the child, and then expires. After her death, the parish doctor notes that she has no wedding ring, commenting that it is “the old story” (47).

Tom Riddle’s birth story is not given until roughly midway through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, told through Albus Dumbledore’s memories, but the details closely resemble those surrounding Oliver’s birth. Riddle’s mother, covered in rags when she pawns her only possession roughly a week before, staggers up the steps of the orphanage. She gives birth to a boy, speaks only once (to name the child Tom Marvolo Riddle), and dies an hour later. While not explicitly stated, the assumption of Mrs. Cole seems to be that the mother is unwed, as she says of the pregnant girl, “She wasn’t the first.” Indeed, Merope had been abandoned by her husband. While we might argue that her married state distinguishes her from Agnes, we cannot forget that her marriage was founded upon the love potion Amortentia, so Tom’s birth seems little more legitimate than Oliver’s. As Laura Peters notes, “The distrust of unknown familial origins, combined with a suspicion of illegitimacy, was an experience shared by both orphans of the poor and those of the middle class” (16), leading to an alienation not shared by Harry Potter, whose origins are well-known in the wizarding world.

Even the women attending the births, Mrs. Thingummy in Oliver Twist and Mrs. Cole in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, are drawn from the same pattern. When Mrs. Thingummy, is introduced, she is described as “rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer” (45) and is seen “hastily depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of which she had been tasting in a corner” (46) “picking up the cork of the green bottle which had fallen out on the pillow as she stooped to take up the child” (46), and a short time later “having once more applied herself to the green bottle” (47). Other than her poverty, little else is given about Mrs. Thingummy apart from her green bottle. Mrs. Cole is painted in a like manner. When her eyes fall upon a bottle of gin that Dumbledore has made appear, she offers him a glass. Rowling writes, “It soon became clear that Mrs. Cole was no novice when it came to drinking gin. Pouring both of them a generous measure, she drained her own glass in one gulp” (265). In the course of their interview, she downs four more glasses of gin, yet Harry is “impressed to see that she was quite steady, even though two-thirds of the gin was now gone” (268). Both women are given little physical description and are chiefly identified by their association with a bottle of alcohol.

The similarity between Oliver Twist and Tom Riddle continues in the objects which link the orphans to their families. For Oliver, they are the two items which had belonged to his mother. Upon her deathbed, Sally Thingummy confesses that she “stole from the corpse [of Agnes . . .] that which the dead mother had prayed her, with her dying breath, to keep for the infant’s sake” (340), the mother’s last words then, like Merope Gaunt’s, tying the child to his ancestry. Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse where Oliver was born, then pulls from Mrs. Thingummy’s hand a pawnbroker’s receipt and redeems the items: “a little gold locket [. . .] and a plain gold wedding ring” (341). Much is made of the two items later in the novel, for they are the only means by which Oliver can by linked to his past, “the only proofs of the boy’s identity” (363) as Monks calls them. The ring and locket are important because they show that Oliver is not just any orphan but the child, though illegitimate, of middle class respectability.

Again, when we look at Tom Riddle and consider the means by which he forges his links to his past, we find two items which take on such significance that that they are made Horcruxes: a gold locket and a ring. While Rowling uses the same two items as Dickens, she does employ somewhat different incarnations of the heirlooms. In Oliver Twist, the ring and the locket are representations of the love between Oliver’s parents, for the locket contains locks of the lovers’ hair, and the ring is a wedding ring in which Agnes’s name is engraved. Rowling, on the other hand, emphasizes the purity of lineage in the two objects. Marvolo Gaunt shows the ring to Bob Ogden and tells him, “Centuries it’s been in our family, that’s how far back we go, and pure-blood all the way” (207). Likewise, Gaunt proclaims that the locket was Salazar Slytherin’s and that the Gaunts are “his last living descendents” (208). Both ring and locket thus become a means by which Riddle can prove his own significance though his link to this wizarding line. While they are lost to Oliver, Monks having thrown them in the river, the ring and locket are reclaimed by Riddle. He takes the ring from Morfin Gaunt and frames him for the murders of Riddle’s father and grandparents which he does to eliminate the unworthy line, the human side. The locket, which had been pawned just as the locket and ring in Oliver Twist had, Riddle steals from Hepzibah Smith, reclaiming that which ties him to Slytherin.

Although we can make such comparisons between the two works and suggest that Rowling is borrowing a few details from Dickens for her work, the comparison seems to end there, for who could suggest that Dickens’s exemplum of unspoiled goodness could share anything else with Rowling’s characterization of evil? Oddly, it is these depictions which make them so similar, for both characterizations depend upon the innate goodness or wickedness of the character, tying such depictions to a natural inclination toward that morality or lack thereof. Meanwhile, Harry Potter – if we can reintroduce him to our discussion – is much better characterized by a moral ambiguity which is more common to the rest of us, a blending of virtue and vice rather than a totality of one side or the other. The depiction of Harry in the novels is of a boy who lies, steals, flouts rules, takes revenge, and such – not much different than any other hero in literature. He shows the appropriate amount of courage, loyalty, honesty, and virtue to make him the protagonist and enough vice to make him realistic.

Unlike Harry, Oliver Twist remains pure and innocent, virtuous even in the midst of vice. When we attempt to discover a sign of wickedness in Oliver, we find again and again that he has none. As Anny Sadrin notes, “Ill usage at the workhouse fails to turn him into the ‘hardened young rascal’ that […] he is pronounced to be” (34). Mistreated as Sowerberry’s apprentice, abused by Noah Claypole, immersed in the criminal underworld in Fagin’s gang, forced to break into Mrs. Maylie’s house – Oliver’s experiences do nothing to change his innate goodness. Despite many who predict that Oliver will come to no good, “as the embodiment of good, Oliver is, of course, incorruptible” (Sadrin 34). Indeed, when Oliver is brought before the magistrate for the theft of a book he did not steal, and is asked his name, the officer christens him “Tom White” when Oliver cannot answer, suggesting his purity (Sadrin 35). Those who look upon him see his innocence. Mr. Brownlow, reflecting upon the theft of the book, says of Oliver, “There is something in that boy’s face [….] Can he be innocent?” suggesting that even his face shows his guiltlessness. This innocence results, it seems, from a genetic heritage. Much is made of his resemblance to his mother; indeed this likeness spurs Mr. Brownlow on to discover Oliver’s true background. Without any environmental influence to lead Oliver to good rather than evil, we must assume that Nature has created the paragon rather than Nurture.

In a similar way, Tom Riddle is depicted as being innately who he is. He seems from the beginning to be unlike other children. Mrs. Cole comments that he was a “funny baby [….] He hardly ever cried…” While most caretakers would consider this trait desirable, Mrs. Cole’s mention of it suggests that there is something not right about Riddle. Later, once assured that Dumbledore will take away Riddle regardless of what she says, Mrs. Cole reveals that Riddle was odd when he grew older, saying that he frightened the other children though no one could catch him at it. The incidents she provides as examples are “nasty things,” as she calls them, Billy’s Stubbs rabbit hanged from the rafters and then Amy Benson and Dennis Bishop not being quite right after going exploring in a cave with Riddle. While these appear to be the actions of a mere bully, Rowling seems to suggest something inherent about Riddle’s demeanor. Indeed, Dumbledore expresses his uneasiness at Riddle’s “obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy, and domination” (276), after first meeting him.

Described by Rowling as “the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years” (Rehm), Riddle/Voldemort lacks the virtue to ameliorate the vice within him. One might counter such a claim by looking at incidents where he shows reserve or self-control, shows courtesy or politeness to professors, but in these cases the restriction of action serves a purpose for Riddle. For example, when Dumbledore requires that Riddle address him “Professor” or “sir,” Riddle does so not because he recognizes the need for showing respect. Rather, he sees the outward show to serve his purpose. As Rowling describes him, “Riddle’s expression hardened for the most fleeting moment before he said, in an unrecognizably polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir.” Rowling describes Riddle’s voice as “expressionless” and “colorless,” his face as “blank,” staring “coldly and appraisingly” at Dumbledore. As Dumbledore notes later, Riddle never showed signs of outward arrogance or aggression while at Hogwarts, but Dumbledore also notes that “in the thrill of discovering his true identity [as a wizard] he had told me a little too much. He was careful never to reveal as much again” (361). Only in retrospect do those taken in by him, like Horace Slughorn, see the charade for what it is. Rather than a mixture of virtue and vice, Tom Riddle appears to be given to wickedness from the beginning but able to hide such traits when necessary.

On many occasions, authors have drawn parallels between J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. As Colin Duriez notes, Rowling works do not exist “in a vacuum” (91): they are influenced by the works that she has read. Duriez comments upon the “facility for naming” she shares with Dickens (140). Connie Kirk claims a similarity in the authors’ “vivid characterization, […] theme of young orphans improving themselves through the kindness of others, and use of humor” (93), while M. Katherine Grimes draws connections between Rowling and Dickens in their presentation of father figures. We then find it not unusual that such a connection between the two authors is revealed in the creations of the artists. That Rowling uses the archetypal Victorian orphan as her template can be expected. However, the surprise is that she uses Dickens’s protagonist not as the model for her hero but for the villain – creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted.

Works Cited

Benjamin B. “A Boy’s Will: Pawel Edelman, PSC reteams with Roman Polanski on Oliver Twist, an atmospheric take on the famous Dickens novel.” American Cinematographer 86.9 (September 2005): n.p. American Society of Cinematographers. 29 May 2009 http://www.theasc.com/magazine/sept05index.htm.

Dabkowski, Colin. “Theater Preview: Few bells and whistles in ‘The Secret Garden’ from the Theater of Youth: Lessons of life conveyed in dialogue, not action.” Buffalo News. 18 January 2008: n.p. General OneFile. Gale. North Greenville University Library.
29 May 2009.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. 1838. London: Penguin, 1985.

Duriez, Colin. Field Guide to Harry Potter. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press: 2007.

Grimes, M. Katherine. “Harry Potter: Fairy Tale Prince, Real Boy, or Archetypal Hero.” The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon. Ed. Lana A. Whited. Columbia, MO, and London: U of Missouri Press, 2002. 89-122.

JM. “Oliver Twist: Return of the Orphan.” Dance With Shadows. 1 September 2005. 29 May 2009 http://www.dancewithshadows.com/media/roman-polanski-oliver-twist.asp.

Kirk, Connie Ann, ed. “Dickens, Charles (1812-1870).” The J. K. Rowling Encyclopedia. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 2006. 93.

Peters, Laura. Orphan Texts: Victorian orphans, culture and empire. Machester and New York: Manchester UP, 2000.

Rochman, Hazel. Rev. of Ghosts in the Gallery by Barbara Brooks Wallace. Booklist. 96.15 (1 April 2000): 1475.

---. Rev. of A Home for Foundlings by Marthe Jocelyn. Booklist 101.13 (1 March 2005): 1151.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2005.

---. Radio Interview. The Diane Rehm Show. WAMU-FM. Washington, DC. 20 October 1999.

Sadrin, Anny. Parentage and Inheritance in the Novels of Charles Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Wesseling, Elizabeth. “In loco parentis: The adoption plot in Dutch-language colonial children’s books.” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde 46.1 (Autumn 2009): 139-150.

Xiayavong, Angela. “Letter.” Clinical Psychiatry News 31.3 (March 2003): 12-15.


James Washick

Volume 13, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September/October 2009

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