The novel Oliver Twist has become the latest recipient of a ‘trigger warning’ amid fears its depictions of poverty and crime-ridden London could cause ‘anxiety’ or ‘distress’.
Staff at Royal Holloway, the University of London, have issued a content note for the book, alerting its readers to themes of ‘child abuse’, ‘domestic violence’ and ‘racial prejudice’.
One chapter deemed to be upsetting for some is the workhouse scene, where the orphan Oliver delivers the infamous line, ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ – only to be hit with a ladle by the master, Mr. Bumble.
The details of the warning on the Victorian Literature, Art and Culture MA course emerged in a Freedom of Information request by The Daily Mail on Sunday.
Royal Holloway last night defended the content note, saying it was sometimes necessary to alert students to ‘potentially sensitive topics’ which could cause them ‘anxiety or distress, perhaps as a consequence of past experience’.
Set against the backdrop of London’s criminal underworld, the novel – published in 1838 – features some of English literature’s most colorful characters including the master thief Fagin, the young pickpocket the Artful Dodger, and violent robber Bill Sikes.
Royal Holloway’s trigger warning is the latest in a series introduced by universities across the country.
The MoS last week revealed staff at the University of Northampton had issued an alert about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – a classic that warns against the dangers of censorship.
Salford University has issued warnings for Dickens’s Great Expectations and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
A spokesman for Royal Holloway, University of London said: ‘We recognise our responsibility to support the mental health and wellbeing of our students and content warnings are part of this.
‘Their use is a standard and accepted practice within academia, and they exist to educate and inform students in advance around potentially sensitive topics which could cause them anxiety or distress, perhaps as a consequence of past experience.’
Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter and the author of England In The Age Of Dickens, said: ‘All novels share the characteristics of life itself. They can disturb, but that is an aspect of maturity.
‘Oliver Twist is a moral tale that along the way throws light on the need for family and the dynamics of gang life. It is also part of our literary heritage.’