Characterization in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Why does Henry Mayhew compare the sweeper-boy’s features to that of an Indian? Describing the young sweeper he interviews, Henry Mayhew writes, “his face, from a roundness of feature and the complexion of dirt, had an almost Indian look about it; the colour of his hands, too, was such that you could imagine he had been shelling walnuts.” What does Mayhew accomplish (or endeavor to accomplish) with this description? If Mayhew wrote the piece to bring awareness to the plight of poor children in London, the description seems almost glamorous—exotic. The Indian reference highlights the boys “otherness” and associates it with the “good-looking lad”. It gives the boy a sort of earthy quality. The “roundness” of his features takes away from the preconceived notion of poor boys as malnourished. This association with Indian features could be used to highlight the poor boy’s wildness—he is uncivilized, migrant, tumbling to make a living. Or, rather, his Indian features could be used to highlight his separation from middle-class culture. The boys have created a distinct subculture complete with slang, a particular argot, and hierarchy. Mayhew could be characterizing the boy’s life as something completely foreign with different ways of living and surviving. I suppose a more pertinent question is do these depictions do justice to the plight of the chimney-sweepers? Or does it further separate them from middle-class culture and decrease liability?

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