Criticism Of English Society: Oliver Twist

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Charles Dickens was a Victorian-era writer best known for his novels that criticized English society. Oliver Twist is a classic that puts the audience in an orphan’s shoes as he tries to survive in a society that is more focused on self-advancement and the people in power picking profit over people. This novel aimed to criticize that toxic individualistic Victorian outlook that helped justify the mistreatment of its lower class and promoted the collectivism of the main characters that helped them succeed in the end.

Dickens felt a moral obligation to seek reform for the lower class. Child labor was common in English society; Dickens himself endured child labor at age twelve when his father was imprisoned for his debts and young Dickens was torn from his family and sent to work at a shoe-blacking factory for a year. Facing those horrible, abusive working conditions resulted in him empathizing and advocating for the lower class. He once wrote to a friend, “Everything that happens…shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain”(Diniejko). His willingness to use his voice as a way to stand up for the disadvantaged instead of turning his back once he achieved fame proves that he wasn’t selfish but he wanted to empower those around him unlike the wealthy.

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Oliver Twist was written in 1837 as a monthly installment that is centered around an orphan, Oliver Twist and the misfortune that starts the moment he’s born when his unknown mother died shortly after childbirth leaving him with no traceable lineage, “Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder”(Dickens). Throughout most of the story, Oliver is taken advantage of by authority figures. Through using the first-person perspective and being able to provide credible situations due to the author’s past causes the audience to want to root for Oliver, the underdog, as the odds are stacked against him.

Later on, Oliver is sent to a workhouse at age nine, since he is too old to stay at the orphanage anymore and Dickens does not shy away from how the institution benefits the wealthy while the poor waste away in it. Welfare programs are made with the intent to help less fortunate citizens; Workhouses were made with the intent to help the poor once the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 was passed, “People with no means of support were sent to workhouses… It was thought that this would provide added incentive for people to be self-sufficient.”(Oliver Twist). Meals were rationed and when Oliver asks for a second serving he is called selfish and is then beaten in front of everyone to be used as an example and starved for weeks. Even though families couldn’t receive government assistance without residing at a workhouse many would try to avoid that fate because as soon as they would set foot in that institution they would be immediately be separated by gender and then the children from the adults and the infants would be sent off to “baby farms” which are similar to present-day foster care. The workhouses didn’t provide a path for economic and social improvement. They couldn’t get out of poverty due to the lack of programs that can help them find connections or learn a trade/skill that wasn’t provided to the poor back then.

Dickens continued to write about these unpopular taboo topics as the wealthy continued to turn a blind eye towards these social issues as it was more convenient to be blissful while ignorant. A man who reviewed Oliver Twist said that he’d rather not read of such terrible things, ”It is all among workhouses and pickpockets and coffeemakers. I do not like those things: I wish to avoid them. I do not like them in reality and therefore do not like to see them represented”(Oliver Twist). As England’s economy changed with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, “the rise of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution, individualism was very much in vogue as a philosophy. Victorian capitalists believed that society would run most smoothly if individuals looking out for their own interests”(Oliver Twist Themes). It was a form of social Darwinism; The rich who were well off blamed one’s success or failure on oneself when in reality there are many circumstances that can affect the outcome due to privilege. This individualism in bureaucracy leads to the lower class citizens to be seen as lazy and justified the mistreatment and the advantage the higher class would benefit from their privilege when the poor didn’t have the skills or mean to advance in society but to wither away. Throughout the book Dickens describes Twist’s frail figure and hunger, “I wish some well-fed philosopher…could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.”(Dickens).

Fagin, the antagonist, runs his business of stealing on prostitution by taking advantage of children and exploits them for his greed, and normalizes this behavior by telling others this is the only way to survive. When Oliver meets Fagin who trains children to pickpocket to benefit him. Fagin’s speech perfectly encapsulates the Victorian belief of fending for oneself rather than putting others first:

To keep my little business all snug, I depend upon you. The first is your number one, the second my number one. The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so we come at last to what I told you first – that a regard for number one holds us all together and must do so unless we would all go to pieces in the company (Schätz).

Eventually, this self-serving value causes Fagin’s group to disintegrate as the villains turn on each other and at times even kill others in an attempt to save their own skins. Many antagonists meet their demise at the end like Fagin’s execution while characters that stuck together like Oliver, Brownlow, and Rose Maylie look out for one another even when most of them grew up being taught to look after yourself first shows character development and it is this teamwork that results in the majority of them finding happiness and eventually retreat to the countryside together as their companionship is, “not by concerns of self-interest but by “strong affection and humanity of heart,” the selfless devotion to each other that Dickens sees as the prerequisite for “perfect happiness”(Oliver Twist Themes). Collectivism is described as when people, “might strive to sacrifice their own happiness for the greater good of the group. Those from individualistic cultures, on the other hand, may feel that their own well-being and goals carry greater weight.”(Cherry). Oliver and his friends showed altruistic actions throughout the book demonstrating their compassion towards others and are more satisfied than Fagin, who has nobody to count on.

Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to scrutinize the individualistic mentality wealthy Victorians adopted during the Industrial Revolution to favor profit over people. By placing the audience in the shoes of young orphan Oliver, who represented many of the children who were born into the unfair system it ideally persuades the audience to be more empathetic of people in similar situations. Oliver is able to find happiness when he and his friends develop a collectivist mindset to look out and care for another is praised and rewarded in the end.  


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