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Oliver Twist is a criticism of the society in which Charles Dickens lived. The book directly criticized the Poor Laws and attempted to inspire readers of the middle and upper classes to improve the intolerable conditions in which Dickens himself had been raised. Through the novel’s unforgettable characters, Dickens humanized a marginalized social class, shedding light on the grim nature of their lives. In the descriptions of the workhouses and slums of London, Dickens forced his readers to acknowledge the sordid living conditions of the poor. Finally, Dickens uses the plot of Oliver Twist to reveal the flaws of a system that kept the poor trapped in a seemingly permanent state of squalor.
Charles Dickens learned about the dark and difficult lives of the poor through his own childhood experience. This experiential knowledge put him in the perfect position to become an advocate for the poor years later via Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other well known novels. According to the article “Bentham, Dickens, and the Uses of the Workhouse,” The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 attempted to make poverty relief entirely dependent on dwelling in the workhouse, therefore distinguishing between the worthier poor who were willing to work and the lazier, undeserving people (Stokes 711). Unfortunately, even those who worked in factories and workhouses had their living on very difficult terms. The preface to the Norton Critical Edition of Oliver Twist notes that “The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834…like much ‘welfare reform,’ made living conditions for the poor worse than they had ever been and made it even more difficult for the working poor to get assistance” (Kaplan vi). The workhouses were deliberately made quite miserable by employing workhouse masters to treat the workers very harshly.
The Dickens family was in such a desperate situation that young Charles became a victim of child labor at age twelve. The long and strenuous days that he spent in the workhouse while his father was in a debtor’s prison left a lasting impression on Dickens that haunted him through his entire adult life, and served as the inspiration for his efforts towards labor condition reforms. Peter Stokes says, “By way of protest against the Act, Dickens published Oliver Twist…” (711). While the misfortune of being poor was often looked upon as a natural and unchangeable position, Dickens held that poverty did not have to be permanent. Hence “Oliver Twist is the first and perhaps most powerful work of fiction to attempt to bring to the attention of those who read such books the misery that daily life is for the large numbers of people caught up in generational cycles of poverty and despair and in the selfishness and stupidity of government and its agencies” (Kaplan iv). By weaving fact and fiction together in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens creates a masterpiece novel that combines a compelling story with an effective social and political agenda.
One of the most remarkable traits of Oliver Twist is the manner in which Dickens molds stereotyped members of the lower social classes into genuine, feeling people. Orphans, prostitutes, and juvenile delinquents make up some of the most important characters of Oliver Twist. The article “The Social and Political Issues” states that “In all his fiction, there was a purpose in his portraits of the poor” (Engel 495). George Gissing claims that Oliver Twist had two moral purposes: the first being to expose the injustice of the Poor Law Act, and the second to accurately portray the lives of thieves in London. These two views went hand in hand for Dickens, who believed that the high crime rate was a direct result of the Poor Law system (421). While the social outcasts of Oliver Twist are not all presented in glamorous ways, Dickens brings a level of humanity to these characters that make them unforgettable.
Oliver, the protagonist of Oliver Twist, is the most constant and unchanging character of anyone else in the story. He is unrelentingly pure of heart and practically immune to the influences of his surrounding environments. With such a strong and unyielding spirit, it is interesting that Oliver happens to be an orphan– the bane of society. When Oliver’s mother dies only minutes after his birth, he “was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by no one” (Dickens 19). As a young child with little control over his own destiny, Oliver is very much at the mercy of those around him, “like an object that is taken up, handled, and put in place rather than an individual who controls his own movement” (Duffy 405). The unfortunate circumstances of Oliver’s life make him entirely pitiable.
When we meet Oliver in chapter two, he is nine years old, raised without the affection of a mother or any other form of family. He longs for connections with others, as Dickens reveals Oliver’s thoughts at leaving for another workhouse: “Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world sank into his heart for the first time” (Dickens 24). Throughout the novel, the forces of good and evil seem to be battling over Oliver’s destiny, but “what threatens Oliver seems more powerful and real than what saves him” (Kaplan iv). For example, it is certainly a fortunate chance that Oliver meets Mr. Brownlow—an encounter which sets in motion the discovery of Oliver’s true identity. However, whatever rare benevolence Oliver receives from kind strangers is tirelessly contested by the schemes of Fagin, Sikes, and Monks, who are determined to keep Oliver from any better life than that of a common criminal. By creating Oliver, the hero of the story, as an orphan, Dickens insisted that his readers consider the wretched lives that these children endured.
One minor orphan character is little Dick, Oliver’s dearest friend. Though he plays a very small role in the story, his character serves to deliver another blow against the notion of orphans as an inconvenient scourge on society. In his parting words to Oliver, Dick states that he will not be happy before his own death delivers him to a better place. He states “I dream so much of Heaven and Angels; and kind faces that I never see when I am awake” (Dickens 59). Dick and Oliver’s relationship is possibly the purest and most beautiful portrayal of love in the whole story as two young boys who have never been shown love still love one another. Oliver remembers Dick’s blessing upon him his entire life, and Dick’s dying wish is to let Oliver know that “I was glad to die when I was very young for, perhaps, if I had lived to be a man, and had grown old, my little sister, who is in Heaven, might forget me or be unlike me, and it would be so much happier if we were both children there together” (121). Although he does not feature prominently in the novel, Dick impresses upon the reader that this orphan is a victim of a very unlucky hand of fate, and was a better child than his world deserved.
While the choice of an orphan as the hero of the story may be unconventional, even more surprising is the supporting character Nancy, the ruined mistress of the despicable Bill Sikes. She is described as having “free and agreeable manners” (Dickens 70) and a rather disheveled appearance, indirectly identifying her as a prostitute. According to Robert R. Garnett, “Prostitution thrived in Britain’s growing cities…offering a lurid, low life allure” (497) and was one of the few ways a destitute young woman could make a living.
From Nancy’s own words we learn that she was once one of Fagin’s subjects, trained in the art of making her living off the streets. Nancy exclaims to Fagin “It is my living; and the cold, wet dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago; and that’ll keep me there, day and night, day and night, till I die” (Dickens 116). In the same way that Oliver faintly regrets leaving behind the urchins that had been his friends at the workhouse, Nancy cannot pull herself away from her life of crime and abuse, even when she recognizes the depravity of her position. Nancy realizes that,
“vile as those schemes were, desperate as were their originators, and bitter as were her feelings towards the Jew, who had led her, step by step, deeper and deeper down into an abyss of crime and misery, whence was no escape; still there were times when, even towards him, she felt some relenting…but these were the mere wanderings of a mind unable wholly to detach itself from old companions and associations…she had refused a refuge from all the guilt and wretchedness that encompassed her” (296).
Despite Nancy’s associations, profession, or past actions, she becomes relatable and sympathetic in her sheer incapacity to free herself from the only life she has ever known. More importantly, Nancy becomes Oliver’s savior, and the novel’s heroine, when she sacrifices her own life that Oliver may have a better one. William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, once said of Nancy, “No one has read that remarkable tale of Oliver Twist without being interested in poor Nancy and her murderer” (Thackeray 408). Richard Ford furthermore poses the question what sort of woman Nancy might have been, had she been born into better circumstances (Ford 407). Thackeray and Ford’s words are a testament to Dickens’ success in making the character Nancy a woman with a name and a heart, instead of just another loathed prostitute, prowling the dirty streets of London.
The London of Oliver Twist is not the grand city where royalty live and progress thrives as in other stories. It is dark and ominous, a breeding ground for the scum and villainy. Young Oliver, who has been in and around horrible places his entire life, ponders that “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours” (Dickens 64). This is the sort of place that no respectable person would ever want to be seen in, yet these same people had no qualms in hiding those they were ashamed of in such an environment. Characters such as Fagin and Sikes would be expected to make an appearance in such a place and be quite at home in it.
Dickens’ talented command of the English language allowed him to vividly portray the nastiness of London’s most disreputable areas. His descriptions of what Oliver sees evoke images of vermin rather than people: “Children…were crawling in and out at the doors or screaming from the inside…the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main…where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth” (Dickens 64). The novel, like the public view, initially implies that Oliver simply wanders into a bad area of town, but Dickens masterfully notes later in the novel that “Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse: the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness: the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child: midnight was upon them all” (305). By painting London this way, Dickens discreetly asserts that for villains such as Fagin or gentleman like Mr. Brownlow, London is still essentially one place, inaccurately perceived if the mansions and great houses are not portrayed with the slums and bars. Dickens understood that London as a whole included the less desirable areas with the more fashionable parts of town. Similarly, humanity consists of both rich and poor, kind and treacherous, but alienating undesirable company only overlooks the problem rather than solving it. Dickens’ description of the London slums forced his readers to acknowledge the conditions they had been overlooking right under their very noses.
The conditions in London that bred crime and wickedness were under attack in Oliver Twist, but Dickens took his criticism far beyond the boundaries of London. In Oliver’s estimation, London was certainly the most awful place he had ever seen, but it was not the only objectionable place in which Oliver had resided. Early on, Oliver is to be transferred from the workhouse where he was born to a branch-workhouse where “twenty or thirty juvenile offenders against the poor laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too little clothing” (20). The mortality rates in workhouses were appalling, and Dickens revealed the atrocious neglect that orphans suffered from at the hands of churchwardens and overseers in chapter two:
“At the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident…or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing” (20).
The horrors of Oliver’s early life are likely drawn from Dickens’ own memories in the workhouse. Steven Marcus writes that in Oliver Twist, “Dickens was returning to his first and most intense representations of the crisis of his young boyhood…” (Marcus 494). Dickens’ memories from the workhouse were especially sensitive to him, and his interest in the poor from that time onward was fervent and consistent (Engel 495). Young Charles was traumatized by his period in the workhouse, but an older wiser Dickens used his experience as a tool to expose the terror that children were enduring in such places.
In the complex plot of Oliver Twist, a reader cannot deny the discrimination practiced against Oliver at every turn based solely on his position as an orphan. From the moment that Oliver is born and promptly labeled an orphan, the author acknowledges that the infant had good reason to cry loudly for his situation. No matter what sort of effort Oliver puts forth or what misunderstanding he finds himself in the middle of, the people that handle his future seem determined to keep the rascal in his proper position, and to teach him to be grateful for their generosity in sending him to a workhouse where he had food and shelter. Such employment would ensure that the little urchin who had the nerve to impose his existence upon the world would forever remain in his proper station, while amply convincing the board of their own liberality and discharging them of any further responsibility for the child.
The attitude towards a helpless Oliver from the beginning of the novel reflects the absolute insensitivity to the plight of the poor. When Oliver is interrogated by the board, one member condescendingly asks Oliver to affirm that he has no father or mother. The admission of the fact combined with the intimidation of the entire ordeal causes Oliver to break down in tears, prompting the gentleman to ask incredulously, “What are you crying for?” (Dickens 25). Although the men that handle Oliver’s future have at least enough sense not to apprentice him to the chimney sweep Mr. Gamfield, it has taken the deaths of three or four other boys for them to arrive at the conclusion that Oliver needs another form of work. None of their plans for the boy involve any sort of decent upbringing or the slightest degree of education, further sealing his place in the lower class.
The point that Dickens seems to make in the early chapters of the novel is that Oliver’s chances of surviving the frequently fatal professions that the board or the beadle intend him for are relatively low. The determination against him also certainly increases the probability that he will die young; the gentleman in the white waistcoat declares that Oliver will be hung for his severe offense of asking for more gruel. But the powers that be express no real concern as it would be one less mouth to feed on their part, and in the event of the child’s demise they can comfort themselves that they did try to help him by providing employment.
It is not merely the men of the board, the crotchety old women that run the workhouses or the beadle that treat Oliver with such disdain. When Oliver is accused of stealing a handkerchief, and is chased down, one bystander declares in response to the cry to give him some air, that he does not deserve it (74). Shortly thereafter, the magistrate believes easily that Oliver is the offender, but is hesitant to allow Mr. Brownlow to doubt Oliver’s guilt.
When Oliver is finally met with kindness from Mr. Brownlow, Brownlow’s friend Mr. Grimwig has a decided opinion against Oliver on no particular basis, and swiftly accuses Oliver of leaving orange peels in the streets with the express of purpose of causing someone’s death (100). With some effort, “Grimwig was strongly disposed to admit that Oliver’s appearance and manner were unusually prepossessing, but he had a strong appetite for contradiction” (101), insisting that appearances aside, Oliver could not possibly be completely blameless. He maintains that “the boy has a new suit of clothes on his back; a set of valuable books under his arm; and a five-pound note in his pocket. He’ll join his old friends the thieves; and laugh at you” (103). When circumstances prevent Oliver from returning, Grimwig immediately assumes the worst.
In the entire course of the novel, Oliver never acts maliciously towards anyone, other than when excessively provoked, and never displays signs of rebellion, wickedness, or mischief. Contrarily, despite Oliver’s constant immersion in a culture of deception and lies, “jostled as he is in this miserable crowd, he is preserved from the vice of its pollution” (Forster 401). Oliver proves himself to be a good and compliant boy many times over, but the general prejudice against him as an orphan complicates his every attempt to escape his status.
In the plot of Oliver Twist, Dickens accurately and sharply reveals that the barrier to the poor rising above their circumstances is the unforgiving nature of their own fellow men who esteem themselves higher than the other. Through Oliver Twist Dickens was able to communicate the difficulties that attend a life of poverty, and tactfully point out society’s flawed worldview which materially damaged any hopes of true social reform. Dickens says of his motives in Monroe Engel’s article, “I have great faith in the Poor; to the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming” (Engel 495). True to his word, Dickens continued writing novels with a sociopolitical agenda, refusing to dilute their graphic nature.
Oliver Twist is widely celebrated as classic literature involving a heartwarming rags to riches story, but Oliver Twist is first and foremost a social commentary meant to inspire change. Dickens life had shown him the hardship of poverty and exactly what laws needed to be amended in order for change to occur. Using his talents as an author, Dickens took characters that were defined by their labels, and turned them into authentic people that had names, faces, and feelings. Through Oliver Twist, he forced his readers to walk through the muck of London’s slums and experience all the filth they went to great lengths to avoid, and he depicted the hard truth that society’s own bigotry prevented even pioneering individuals from helping themselves. For Oliver, it was a twist of fate and a little help from a few kind individuals that changed the course of his life. Charles Dickens knew that the interference of others was the key to affecting change, and that is the challenge he presented to his readers – and that remains sharply relevant even now.
Bentham, Dickens, and the Uses of the Workhouse. Peter M. Stokes. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 41, No. 4, The Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 2001), pp. 711-727
Joseph M. Duffy, Jr. Another Version of Pastoral: Oliver Twist ELH, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep.1968), pp. 403-421
Garnett, Robert R OLIVER TWIST’S NANCY: THE ANGEL IN CHAINS.. Religion & the Arts;
Dec2000, Vol. 4 Issue 4, p491-516, 26p
Kaplan, Fred. Preface. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Ed. Fred Kaplan. Norton Critical
Edition. New York: Norton, 1993. iv-vii.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1993.
Engel, Monroe. The Social and Political Issues
Marcus, Steven. Who is Fagin?
Gissing, George. Oliver Twist
Thackeray, William Makepeace. On Oliver Twist
Ford, Richard. From Quarterly Review, 1839.
Forster, John. From The Examiner.
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