The Miserable Conditions of ‘Oliver Twist’
Oliver Twist, a novel written by one of history’s most well known author, Charles Dickens, shows exactly how brutal life can be for a person without a proper place in society. Set during the Industrial Revolution era of Great Britain, Oliver Twist is a boy born with no place in society, and is cast off into one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Oliver frequently faces trials and tribulations that constantly buffet him in the stormy seas of life, causing him to regularly be in the midst of trouble. However, people with a sharp eye for detail might notice that there is a frequent pattern that could be found in Oliver Twist, and with that pattern, an understanding of the approximate direction of the novel is trying to go in. By taking a deeper look at the story through use of the structuralist lens, and by using tools such as binary oppositions to locate recurring patterns in text, specifically patterns about Oliver’s struggle with authority, it becomes clear that Oliver Twist is not only just a classic battle of good versus evil, but also an early analysis of the cruel conditions and struggles for poor people that resided in England at the time.
However, for one to find binary oppositions in the text, one must know what they are, as well as what exactly is structuralism. According to Scott Carpenter, author of Reading Lessons, An Introduction to Theory, structuralism can be defined as “a multifaceted group of theories with varied and disparate goals /…/ it tends not to focus on the author or reader, but rather on the construction of the “message”, or text, itself ”(Carpenter 27). To further elaborate on this, in the eyes of a structuralist, it is impossible to determine the exact meaning of the text that the author is trying to convey. Therefore, the person who is examining the text using a structuralist approach “lets go” of any hidden meaning that could be in the text, allowing people people, as Scott Carpenter puts it, “ to focus less on what a text means, and more on how it means it”(Carpenter 34). Simply put, by removing the so called “background noise” of constantly wondering if and what specifically is the hidden meaning behind a certain passage in a novel allows the person to logically analyse the main purpose/structure of the novel. In order to achieve this, structuralists use many literary tools and devices in order to find out the structure of the story, one of those tools being the previously mentioned binary oppositions. Binary oppositions, in short, are repeated plot sequences (such as new/ old and power/ weakness) in the text that help structure the overall narrative. Now with that out of the way, time to look at some examples. Towards the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that one of the main running themes throughout the book will be about the struggle and confusion Oliver Twist has with finding a place to belong. This can especially be seen when the narrator comments on Oliver’s confusing position (in the social hierarchy) after the death of Oliver’s mother, “he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society”(Dickens 6). This is further reinforced since Oliver would be going to an orphanage, and effectively become one of the lowest rungs of society, he would be “despised by all, and pitied by none” (Dickens 6).
In the second chapter, it is shown that Oliver has sadly fallen victim to harsh conditions that accompany one in such a cruel society. The mentality of “survival of the fittest” has taken over the minds of everyone, even including the authorities above Oliver Twist. The overseer of the workhouse at which Oliver resides, Mrs. Mann, reinforces this idea in the early chapters by requisitioning “ the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use”(Dickens 8), and allowing the other children of the workhouse to grow weak and ultimately parish over time due to malnutrition and starvation, following a philosophy that giving less food over time will result in a strong worker who is not dependable on subsistence(Dickens 8). This shows the audience that Mrs. Mann has her own problems to worry about, and doesn’t mind if she loses a couple of “fledglings” along the way. After all, nobody would miss some abandoned children anyways.
However, by overworking Oliver Twist, by the time he was of the ripe age of nine, as sickly and frail as he may seem, has gained a so called “sturdy spirit”(Dickens 9) and was ready for the tasks at hand that laid before him. Later on in the chapter, the iconic scene occurs that has been cemented into the minds of people whenever they hear the name “Oliver Twist”. Rather than face starvation and parish, Oliver twist drew the short end of the stick among his comrades, and had the task of asking for more gurel befallen on him. However, when he did ask for more, Oliver received a blow to the head and general shock for his question, one man even remarked that “ I know that boy will be hung.”(Dickens 21). This further reinforces the cruel conditions at the time for widens the gap between the Oliver and his place among people in society.
After this incident, Oliver was made a public examples to others by being flogged and thrown into solitary confinement, only being let out to be washed at a cold, outdoor pump under supervision. Again trapping Oliver away from society and separating him from the others. As Dickens puts it, “during the period of his solitary incarceration, Oliver was denied the benefit of exercise, the pleasure of society, or the advantages of religious consolation.”(Dickens 23). Later on in the chapter, Oliver was put on sale as if he were livestock for slaughter. However, after much debate it would later on be decided that Oliver would go under the apprenticeship of Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker and coffin maker. And so, Oliver Twist undergoes another change in domicile. When the Sowerberry’s give Oliver the scraps that the family dog had neglected to eat, Oliver devours them with such ferocity that a philosopher would turn on their head.
This shows just how miserable life was coming from the workhouses of England, how underfed the children were and the cruel conditions they were subjected to, resorting to eating even the smallest scraps for sustenance. The rich unknowingly lavished in luxury and enjoyed full and proper meals, without any knowledge (or care) of the cruelty that was occuring underneath them. After his meal, Oliver was told that “your bed’s under the counter. You don’t mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn’t much matter whether you do or don’t, for you can’t sleep anywhere else ”(Dickens 44).
Flashing forward to the near future, Oliver is runs away from the Sowerberry residence after he is beaten, battered, and bruised. Marching back to London, roughly 70 miles away, Oliver Twist is at his ends. However, just as all hope seems lost for Oliver, he meets a peculiar boy who says he knows a guy who can take Oliver in, a man who is known as “The Artful Dodger”(Dickens 88). Oliver has to resort to crime in order to make ends meet, a sad reality that even lives up to todays standards. So far the conditions Oliver Twist has been in have been ruthless to the bone, and the sad fact that not only Oliver Twist is going through these events, but so are other people and children who have nowhere to go in society. However, even when taking up a life of crime as a pickpocket, Oliver Twist gets framed for something he did not do, and after many more trials and tribulations, from being locked a prison cell, to being locked in a room without any human contact for days by Fagin, to being sent to live with Bill Sikes, a murderer and a general monster of a man.
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