Oliver Twist: a Story About Real Life
Literary Criticism of Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens shows notable amounts of originality and morality in his novels, making him one of the most renowned novelists of the Victorian Era and immortalizing him through his great novels and short stories. One of the reasons his work has been so popular is because his novels reflect the issues of the Victorian era, such as the great indifference of many Victorians to the plight of the poor. The reformation of the Poor Law 1834 brings even more unavoidable problems to the poor. The Poor Law of 1834 allows the poor to receive public assistance only through established workhouses, causing those in debt to be sent to prison. Unable to pay debts, new levels of poverty are created. Because of personal childhood experiences with debt, poverty, and child labor, Dickens recognizes these issues with a sympathetic yet critical eye. Dickens notices that England’s politicians and people of the upper class try to solve the growing problem of poverty through the Poor Laws and what they presume to be charitable causes, but Dickens knows that these things will not be successful; in fact they are often inhumane. Dickens’ view of poverty and the abuse of the poor can be seen in Oliver Twist, a novel about an orphan, brought up in a workhouse and poverty to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the upper class people. Oliver Twist shows Dickens’ perspective of society in a realistic, original manner, which hope to change society’s views by “combining a survey of the actual social scene with a metaphoric fiction designed to reveal the nature of such a society when exposed to a moral overview” (Gold 26). Dickens uses satire, humorous and biting, through pathos, and stock characters in Oliver Twist to protest what the English believe are charitable solutions to the increasing poverty rates, extensive child labor.
Dickens witnesses an injustice happening in England’s workhouses and works to make society’s views of the abuse of children change, but “by this time, the horrors of the workhouse were so established in the English scene that they were destined to become part of the British social legend…total degradation” (Gold 25). Because of the Poor Law of 1834, the young children suffered more than the able bodied benefited so through Dickens’ career, he becomes preoccupied with the use and abuse of the Poor Laws. Through biting satire, stock characters, humor and pathos, Dickens explores the relationships between the paupers and the masters of the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Satire is used to portray the cruelty, sufferings, and injustice in the workhouses especially through Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Corney, and Oliver, stock characters that play a significant role in the message of child abuse in the workhouses. Through these characters and their actions, Dickens is able to reveal how ordinary workhouse masters treat their paupers. Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney are stereotypes of the heartless employers who overuse their power on the workhouse children. Mr. Bumble is the corrupt representative of an evil, unjust system but in the novel, Dickens also shows humor through this character. Mr. Bumble brings humor through many petty actions such as the courtship between Mrs. Corney and him. That scene is a humorous interval, which contrasts with life in the workhouse, but Dickens believes that humor gives a more detached moral understanding that horror could not produce. This episode shows that the happenings in the workhouse and the actions of Mr. Bumble are not a laughing matter because while Mr. Bumble is frolicking and getting fat, the many young children at the workhouses are suffering and starving in the bitter cold. The humor sets off the darkness and despair of the workhouse, by showing the different lights of the situation; moreover, increasing the awareness of the circumstances that the children are in. Insight on the abuse of children is also shown through the matron of the workhouse, Mrs. Corney. As ordinary masters of the
workhouse will conduct themselves, Dickens shows how insignificant the paupers are thought of to be through Mrs. Corney as she thanks God that she has a warm home to go to and wishes the starving paupers to be put out of their misery. Mrs. Corney’s duty as the matron of a workhouse is to provide assistance to the poor but instead of doing her actual task, she sits in front of the fireplace not wanting to suffer like the poor. It is ironic how Mrs. Corney takes great care of her cats, like they are human but treats the paupers like animals. Because Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble are stock characters, they are used to mock the workhouse system while revealing the horrors of child abuse in workhouses. Dickens also shows biting satire of the actual workhouse and the duties that are preformed in it to further impart his message to end child abuse in workhouses. Mr. Bumble’s workhouse has young boys picking rope hemp for many excruciating hours until their fingers bleed, which is not uncommon. After a long day’s work, one is to expect a hearty meal to replenish energy but food is scarce to those living in the workhouses and only small portions of watery gruel are given to the growing boys. Meals are made insufficient to repel the paupers from wanting public assistance and Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney take great advantage of their power of being able to “aid” the paupers. On a generous day, Mrs. Corney gives away twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half to the entire workhouse expecting the paupers to be ecstatic. Because a bit of bread is given to starving children, the masters want to be put upon a pedestal but neither of them is willing to spare few cents to fill the paupers sufficiently, even though they live comfortably. Not only are the boys seriously hurt and malnutritioned, but they are also stunted in growth, physically and mentally. Dickens wanted to show that many of these children become severely ill and still, they have to work; numerous children often die because of this. Ill paupers are not cared for; instead, Mr. Bumble sends them away in open carts during rainy weather because it is cheaper to move them then it is to bury them. Mr. Bumble is always seeking new ways to cut costs in caring for the paupers. Because of his stingy, heartless actions, through Mr. Bumble, “all selfish dispensers of public charity stand condemned” (Neill 170). Because of the biting satire, Dickens is really able to get to the core of child abuse in the workhouse to eventually open all of society to the inhumane acts of the workhouses.. No other literary device or writing style can explain the horrors of the workhouse as Dickens does with biting satire.
Dickens also widely uses pathos in his novels to create a flow of emotions to get into the feeling of the event occurring. Pathos is shown in Oliver to increase the emotion and feelings that this young character has to endure, his unknown identity and harsh childhood. Diane Yancey says, “Dickens never hesitates to exaggerate society’s shortcomings and play on people’s emotions in order to gain sorrow, sympathy and support for his views” (95). Oliver’s most emotional scene, asking for a little more gruel in the workhouse but getting a harsh beating for his courageous act exemplifies the horrors of working in that place. Dickens uses Oliver’s actions to create pity and with this, he is better able to show the reality of workhouses in the Victorian scene. Oliver challenges in his desperation all the inhuman repression and cruelty of a great force. This scene is a symbol of all the poignant cries of the starved and unloved in the cruel world. Dickens use of pathos explains the situation of the workhouse in a more intimate, emotional manner because the feelings that Oliver shows can be pitied. Dickens’ message of child abuse in the workhouses is greatly shown through pathos because there is a connection of sympathy to Oliver. For this reason Dickens is able to get across his views on the mistreatment of children in the workhouses.
Apprenticeships are supposedly good opportunities to learn a trade while escaping the horrors of the workhouse life but it is another scenario of child abuse. Through stock characters such as Mr. Gamfield, an employer who exploits those under his care, and Oliver, Dickens portrays the harm of being under the care and custody of a stranger. Mr. Gamfield, a chimneysweep, is a nasty, cold-hearted man who has killed many of his apprentices by them being smothered in the chimney. This cruel man wants to obtain Oliver as his new apprentice and through the brief relationship between these two stock characters, Dickens is able to show some of the lowly things that employers are willing to stoop to for money. The parish board members know that Oliver will be most likely sent to his death if he leaves with the chimneysweep because Mr. Gamfield has already lost four apprentices. Rather than keeping another troublesome boy in the parish, they give Mr. Gamfield a lesser amount of money to take Oliver into his care. Mr. Gamfield searches for apprentices out of workhouses because he knows that he will not have to spend much money caring for their necessities such as food. Because of the actions of Mr. Gamfield towards Oliver, Dickens shows the inhumane treatments that Oliver may have had to face. These stock characters gives understanding to the terrible consequences of being under the care of a ruthless employer and through the characters, Dickens is able to satirize the actions of employers preying on children to be apprenticed to them.
In the apprenticeship, Dickens uses Oliver to give actions of pathos to escape being apprenticed to Mr. Gamfield. Oliver’s incessant pleading, desperate look, and courage to approach the board gives light to how terrible Oliver would be treated. The pathos of Oliver standing up to the parish board pleading not to be sent to Mr. Gamfield is a powerful scene because not wanting to be apprenticed to such a terrible man presents great feeling of pity and sorrow. Knowing that a poor, innocent boy will most likely go to his death because of the faulty judgement of those in power shows the difficulties of the children trying to survive in an uncompassionate world. Pathos is also used to give readers a sense of pity to the children that are not as fortunate as Oliver is to escape being sent to an employer to be worked to death.
Dickens wants to show how horrendous it is to be working to your death and as Norman Page,
says the significance of this scene is to “allude to the plight of the climbing boys, another contemporary scandal” (88). Because of pathos, Dickens illustrates an image of sadness and sympathy for the children under harmful apprenticeships hoping that this will open the eyes of those who do not see how inhumane being under the custody of someone like Mr. Gamfield will be.
Apprenticeships, even in the care of a good-hearted master is inhumane. Another set of stock characters and biting satire against apprenticeships show that even the best apprenticeships are cruel. At the kind Mr. Sowerberry’s undertaking business, it seems as if Oliver can have a better start at life but all children are treated with no dignity or respect. Dickens uses biting satire against apprenticeships when Mr. Gamfield feeds Oliver scraps of meat that the dog refused to eat to get into the feel of an inhumane apprenticeship. The child abuse in these cases can go far beyond that to being forced to sleep in the damp cellar with a coffin in the center of the room as a bed. Oliver, without any other choices, is impelled to live like an animal, sleeping in the damp darkness, eating leftovers. The dog is living better than Oliver is and through this biting satire, Dickens effectively portrays the devastating life that an apprentice has to withstand. Beatings at Mr. Sowerberry’s often happen because of false accusations that others place on this poor boy which shows that he is treated harshly. Oliver, as the scapegoat of many situations repeatedly has his clothes torn and faced bruised and scratched, giving him an angry flush. This cruel taunting and treatment forces Oliver to run away into the cold, bitter world with no one to protect him. This is common behavior of masters and children of apprenticeships because child labor is efficient and cheap. Dickens, through biting satire, wants to show that when getting into an apprenticeship, the child is susceptible to horrendous acts. In a way, this scene shows pathos because it brings forth many emotions that add to Dickens’ message of reform. Knowing that anyone has to endure what Oliver has gone through will arouse pity and even anger. Dickens gets to the heart and reality of the apprenticeships to show what goes through the mind of an employer. This quality of exactness in the novel further exemplifies the hardships of children growing up in poverty. Apprenticeships are targeted a great deal in Oliver Twist because it is one of the inhumane systems to have more work done for less money. Unfortunately, “Victorian employers not as sensitive as Dickens to the physical and emotional damage child labor could inflict sees only the benefits to be had in hiring children” (Yancey 103). Child abuse is apparent in the apprenticeships despite the fact that the master may have a kind heart. This goes to show that child labor is thought to be a money saving way to expand business, but also this expresses the need for Dickens’ message of social reform. Through his exact accounts of what actually goes on in those places, Dickens is able to satirize the conditions of apprenticeships.
Through biting and humorous satire, Dickens is able reveal his thoughts against the abuse of children in the work places. Dickens “made his mark in 19th century England with humor, creating a cast of characters that exemplified all that he loved, satirized, and hated about society” (Bender 15). Charles Dickens is able to observe the abuse of child labor without being blinded by the laws that are made to justify abuse. Through Oliver Twist, Dickens presents the reality of the happenings to children in workhouses and apprenticeships where “some are killed off in the name of charity and others grow fat in the name of parish service and those who survive the workhouse are made slaves to assist in the burying the one group and fattening the other…great many birds…killed by one stony law” (Gold 41). Dickens observes the system of child labor and rather than taking a subtle stand, he works though his novels to open the eyes of society on issues pertaining to the poor. Dickens spends much of his creative life trying to reprimand society’s treatment of children and does so by showing the existence of child labor in his novel. Because of his great use of satire, Dickens goes far beyond the surface of child labor to extending his depiction of poverty to the abuse in workhouses and apprenticeships. He gives voice to the many children who have gone through life unheard, opening society’s eyes to the inhumane conditions that the poor children are forced to live through. Dickens does so by writing a “story of the routine cruelty exercised upon the nameless, almost faceless submerged of Victorian society” (Wilson 129). Dickens’ work of social reform is not limited to Oliver Twist for “a great and universal pity for the poor and downtrodden has been awaken in him which is to provide the
driving power behind his pen in book after book” (Neill 168). Much of Dickens’ literary career is devoted to create awareness of the reality that is being overlooked by many. He attempts to enlighten everyone with how the world should be, a place in perfect harmony. Truly, Dickens did not write his novel in a dream world, but rather showed the inevitable truth if society does not change.
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Literary Criticism of Oliver Twist Charles Dickens shows notable amounts of originality and morality in his novels, making him one of the most renowned novelists of the Victorian Era and […]