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The Purloined Handkerchief. By Ian Palmer Nick Rowe Ethan Long. John O. Jordan. The Handkerchief Motif. In the 1820’s and 1830’s handkerchiefs: Determined social status Common among all people Were considered to be an article of luxury Can be seen as a 19 th Century Rolex.

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The purloined handkerchief l.jpg

The Purloined Handkerchief


Ian Palmer

Nick Rowe

Ethan Long

John O. Jordan

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The Handkerchief Motif

  • In the 1820’s and 1830’s handkerchiefs:

    • Determined social status

    • Common among all people

    • Were considered to be an article of luxury

      • Can be seen as a 19th Century Rolex

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The Purloined Letter

  • Jordan offers that Dickens was attempting to parallel the Purloin Letter by Edgar Allen Poe.

    • Oliver’s missing father is marked in the novel by both letters and written documents that were kept secret by Monks such as:

      • The will

      • The letter

      • And the unnamed proofs

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The Handkerchief Class System

  • Lower class handkerchiefs were:

    • Cotton

    • Worn around the neck

      • They were weary of the gallows.

    • Used for shielding the sun and for wiping sweat

    • Stole handkerchiefs from the wealthy

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Class System (cont.)

  • Middle class handkerchiefs were:

    • Cotton

    • Worn in trouser pockets (we concluded in modern day they could be worn around the head also)

    • Usually solid colored

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Class System (cont. again)

  • Upper class handkerchiefs were:

    • Silk

    • Worn in lapel pockets

    • Patterned

    • Stitched with the owner’s name

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Bumble’s ‘Kercheifs

  • Mr. Bumble had one handkerchief in his hat and one in his pocket.

    • This can be seen as an attempt to gain a higher social status.

  • He removed the ‘kerchief from his hat to wipe his brow.

    • Symbolizes poverty

  • He removed the other ‘kerchief from his pocket when having tea.

    • Symbolizes wealth

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Dickens’ Key Points

  • “Clothes are a powerful way of marking social distinction in a class society…”

  • “Power itself is often vested in clothing or social roles rather than the person.”

  • “Dress codes function not just as a differential system of classification, but as a means of social control; whereby institutions like the workhouse identify and regulate members of the lower class.”

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Handkerchiefs and Hangings

  • Neckerchiefs were worn by thieves and criminals.

    • They served as a form of protection for a sensitive area.

    • They also served as a reminder of the “figurative noose” that was around their necks.

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Examples of Criminal Use

  • On several instances Sikes attacked people’s throats.

  • Sikes attempts to drown his dog by tying a handkerchief around its neck.

  • The man in the white waistcoat says Oliver was predestined to be hanged.

    • As a result Oliver wants to hang himself with a handkerchief; however was too poor to afford one.

  • Fagin is seen with a bare throat.

    • Because of his great vulnerability to the present danger.

      • He also ties up his “booty” or jewels with a handkerchief.

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Other Connections

  • The search was marked by woven materials.

  • A “patchwork coverlet” was put over a dead woman’s body.

  • There is an “old blanket” that covers the dead body of the old lady when Mr. Sowerberry goes to retrieve the body.

  • At the Brownlow’s home Oliver sees Miss Bedwin appear through the curtains.

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Other Other Connections

  • Dickens describes a “dusky curtain” that hangs over Brownlow’s memory that prevents him from recognizing Oliver from the portrait of his mother.

    • The portrait itself is painted on canvas.

  • Sikes throws a rug over Nancy’s body after he murders her.

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  • Nancy’s handkerchief is white.

    • Suggests purity despite the terrible conditions she lives in

  • Her handkerchief was given to her by Rose.

    • Signifies the sisterly bond between their different social classes.

      • They were still equal in their devotion to Oliver.

    • Suggests that it has story value

      • It was traded for information about Oliver.

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More Nancy

  • Nancy’s handkerchief contained religious significance.

    • She holds it in front of her face before Sikes kills her.

      • “She lifts it towards Heaven and breathes on prayer of mercy to her Maker.”

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  • Jordan suggests that Oliver is a purloin handkerchief throughout the text, simply waiting to be claimed.

  • He is a blank handkerchief however. Others like Fagin try to inscribe on him.

  • Fagin starts him by picking the marks out of handkerchiefs.

    • This signifies Oliver’s abandonment of himself and his heritage.

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  • Jordan, John O. “The Purloin Handkerchief” Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton, 1993. 580-93.