Many aspiring novelists and poets of the Victorian Era included social criticisms in their works. Charles Dickens is one such novelist who observed and judged the class system. Many of his works are written in protest of the actions of the upper class towards the lower class. In Oliver Twist, Dickens expresses his feelings of bitterness and injustice on the differences in the social classes. He feels that there is a great prejudice in the way the poor are treated, which can be observed through the different characters and writing styles found within the novel. Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens describes his opinions of the rich taking advantage of the poor through his Gothic writing style, the expectations put onto the characters of the lower class, his personal history, and his moral conflicts with the rest of society. The New Poor Law was the cause for much of his resentment and was the start of Dickens’ anger towards the government at the time.
Gothic Writing Style
A common theme in Dickens’ works are his unique Gothic writing style and imagery to portray his darker feelings and to invite the reader to experience those same feelings. Dickens uses Gothic imagery to “draw attention to the dark shadows and hidden corners of modern society” (Buzwell). He also uses Gothic imagery to demonstrate the feelings of fear and anger towards the government, and disturbing imagery to show the problems in London at the time. An example of Gothic writing can be found in the actual storyline of Oliver Twist. “It deals with the story of an innocent orphan, Oliver, pursued by menacing figures such as Monks and Bill Sikes through decaying and shadowy London slums lit only by moonlight” (Buzwell). Through Dickens’ work in the novel, London can be described as a city of darkness, and peril. Many of the settings can be described as dark and gloomy which add to the effect of Gothic influence. The feelings involved in the setting can be seen in the descriptions of the thieves’ hideout, the surrounding streets, and neighborhoods (Dickens 58).
Dickens uses Gothic characters to highlight how society weighs heavily on people as they attempt to make a living in an unfair world. For example, Mr. Sowerberry’s grim practices in his mortuary and his actions regarding his patients. Instead of attempting to feel sympathy for the deceased’s relations, he casually tries to finish his job by measuring the body without asking (37), and is very rude to the families by not paying proper respect to the bodies that he works with (38). One of the reasons that Dickens uses this specific kind of imagery to emphasize his characters is partly to provoke shock at their actions, but also to provoke anger at the society that reduced the people to take part in these horrible actions. The sympathy gained through anger at the society as a whole added intensity to the plight of the characters in Oliver Twist, specifically Oliver’s plight (Buzwell).
Expectations of Society
In Dickens’ works, the upper class expects the lower class to be criminals and delinquents. Because of the way that the lower class is treated, both emotionally and economically (Baldridge 188), many of them turn to other means to gain money, like thievery and arson. Dickens is very careful in his novel not to directly mention that Oliver is from the upper class. He is ambiguous in any passage that references Oliver’s heritage (186). Dickens’ references towards Oliver’s heritage are purposefully vague because Oliver has different expectations placed on him than other characters. Because he was born into the lower class, especially in a workhouse, many people expect him to act the part of the lower class citizen; they expect him to be an ungrateful delinquent. Mr. Bumble, for example, the man in charge of the workhouse where Oliver was born and raised threatened to have Oliver maligned, hung, drawn and quartered, starved, flogged before an audience, solitary confinement in the dark, and cursed (Dickens 13-15). Mr. Bumble threatens Oliver with these punishments because he thinks that Oliver is ungrateful since he, an orphan boy, dares to ask for more food (13).
Mr. Bumble is not the only character to treat Oliver cruelly after assuming his class and status. The undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, to whom Oliver was once apprenticed, fed him on animal scraps that were meant for the dog, did not stop his other apprentice from taunting him, made him sleep with the coffins, and later beat him up because his wife had been insulted by the “dangerous pauper” (50). Mr. Sowerberry did not even try to form his own opinions about Oliver. Instead, he trusted the opinions of his wife, apprentice, and Mr. Bumble who classified him as a deadweight lower class orphan (25).
Fagin, the leader of the band of pickpockets, also treated Oliver poorly until it had been discovered that Oliver is actually from the upper class. When Oliver discovers that he is from the upper class, the people who had disrespected him suddenly turn into his best friends and want to know him better. Now, instead of the expectations to be part of the lower class, he is now under the scrutiny of the upper class, who expect him to know how to properly act and behave, even though they knew that he was from a workhouse. Inside of the novel, Dickens uses the expectations for Oliver in his different statuses to show the shallow feelings of the classes that are dominant in London. Dickens himself did not appreciate people who were shallow or hid behind others. He manifests his dislike in Oliver Twist as well as his distaste for the government in his reports on parliament.
Dickens has a very strong opinion towards the division among the social classes, partly because his early life and adulthood was influenced and shaped by them. When he was a young boy, his family had been put into a debtor’s prison, which “he knew that even though it was bad, it was nothing compared to the workhouse infamy” (Richardson). After his family was released from the debtor's prison, they lived only a block away from a workhouse, where he described that “he was able to hear many unpleasant things at every hour and see unwanted sights” (Richardson). At the age of twenty-five, he began to write Oliver Twist as a protest against what was happening in Parliament. He was working as a parliamentary reporter for a journal, which allowed him to observe the upper class debates on how to preserve resources by limiting the lower class’ intake through the New Poor Law (Richardson).
Many of these debates among the upper class during this time formed Dickens’ opinion of them. In his personal accounts later in life, he describes how the nobles would make new laws and regulations based on what would help them gain more money (Richardson). They did not care about the lower classes at all and only saw them as a way to increase their input and output of goods and services. These experiences shaped Dickens into a bitter man who is angry at the upper class, but had no way to show this publicly due to the dangers of going against the people in the government. This is one of the reasons why he wrote Oliver Twist; he saw an opportunity to not only write his opinions about the subject, but also to inform the public about what is going to happen to them if this behavior continued. He writes that he “will not, for his readers, abate one hole in the Dodger’s coat… he has no respect for their opinions, good or bad, … and does not write for their amusement” (Dickens xviii). By including these descriptions in his novel, he means that he will not hold back information from the public.
Dickens’ opinions on society greatly influence his work, Oliver Twist. We observe his views through his portrayals of moral conflicts in his characters. By setting his novel in London, he not only includes many descriptions of how London is at this time, but he also incorporates his own style to not make it seem obvious (Dickens 36). He is trying to “dim the false glitter surrounding something that did not exist, by shewing it in all its unattractive and repulsive truth” (Lankford 20). Because he uses the real city of London as a model, the emotions and styles put into describing the wrongs happening in the city help to turn the reader’s attention to the city’s actual problems.
His emphasis on the wrongs happening to the lower class brings attention to the major issues that are being overlooked by society. Oliver Twist, the main protagonist in Oliver Twist, is depicted as an innocent character through his actions and thoughts. Dickens uses Oliver’s moral conflicts and innocence to make the shady parts of London seem even worse. For example, when Oliver joins the band of thieves in London, he is excited to be able to help the people who had rescued him from being homeless and hungry (Dickens 60). He has no idea what is going on when he first meets them. He thinks that the thieves are just playing a game when in reality, they are practicing how to steal (65). When Oliver finally finds out that they are actually stealing, the realization happens too late to do anything about the problem. Oliver finds himself being caught by the police and thrown into a court (70).
Due to Oliver’s childhood of having no parents, Dickens uses him to emphasize moral conflicts because Oliver does not know the differences between right and wrong. Oliver has been born and raised in a workhouse (1) and since the caretakers are not the best examples for morals or character (4), Oliver does not know how to respond to certain situations, such as dealing with a society that makes their living through crime and preying on society (Lankford 20). Dickens includes scenes like this to show the moral issues situated in London. The people are starving, resorting to thievery and crime, but no one is trying to solve the problem or bring awareness. Dickens is angry and bitter at the inaction that the government is showing to the situation where the people in the lower class of London need help. However, instead of helping or even trying to fix the problem, the government made the problem worse by inflicting new laws, like the New Poor Law.
The New Poor Law
The New Poor Law received harsh criticism from Dickens. In Oliver Twist, Dickens brings awareness to the law when Mr. Bumble is found guilty of hiding Oliver’s parentage. After Mr. Brownlow rebukes Mr. Bumble’s claims of blaming the situation on his wife, Mr. Bumble says, “If that is the eye of the law, the law’s a bachelor,” (Dickens 420). Many readers overlook this statement of Oliver Twist’s involvement in this law. The law mentioned is one of the guidelines from the New Poor Law that favored Britain’s bachelors. Oliver Twist is a protest against the 1834 Poor Law reform that made life in the workhouse system ‘less eligible’ than life outside of the house (Zlotnick 131).
The Old Poor Law states that if the impoverished mother of an illegitimate child can identify the father and report him to the parish authorities, then the father will be forced into marriage with the woman no matter what class she is in. Most of the time, these marriages are not advantageous to the families involved and bring shame to their names. Because the man is the head of the household, the blame for the children being on the streets is placed on the father. A father’s job is to take care of everyone in the family, even if they are born illegitimately. But, that is the thinking of the Old Poor Law. The New Poor Law is meant to discourage pauper marriages and ensure that working men marry only when they are capable of supporting their families without state aid. The fathers of illegitimate children are not responsible for them financially; raising the children was left to the responsibility of the mother (131).
The government was trying to decrease the amount of children that are born on the streets when in reality, the situation was made worse. However, once the New Poor Law was passed, the blame and responsibility for the children was placed onto the mothers, forcing them to take care of themselves and the children. Dickens intended his novel Oliver Twist to show the system’s treatment of an innocent child born and raised in the workhouse system (Richardson). And we see in the beginning of Oliver Twist, Oliver being taken care of by the workhouse system and mistreated to the point that he runs away from Mr. Sowerberry. Dickens did not appreciate the fact that the New Poor Law is becoming part of his reality. He is appalled at the audacity of the upper class—making laws that treat the lower class worse than animals.
By including opinions in his novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens expresses his feelings of bitterness and injustice on the differences in the social classes. He recounts his moral conflicts with the rest of society by setting his novel in the real London to emphasize on the wrongs that are happening around him. Dickens also places emphasis on the expectations placed on the characters of the lower class to act the part of lower class citizens, instead of like “decent people”. Dickens recounts his own personal history in his novel because his own life had been shaped by the prejudice of the classes. He also uses a Gothic writing style to help portray the darker feelings in his novel and to “draw attention to the dark shadows and hidden corners of society” (Buzwell). Finally, Dickens did not approve of the reforms under the New Poor Law and felt great injustice towards them.
Baldridge, Cates. “The Instabilities of Inheritance in ‘Oliver Twist.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 184–195.
Buzwell, Greg. "Charles Dickens, Victorian Gothic, and Bleak House." British Library. Dangoor Education, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Boston: Ticknor Fields, 1866. Print.
Dugger, William M. “Three Modes of Income Distribution: Market, Hierarchy, and Industry.” Journal of Economic Issues, vol. 21, no. 2, 1987, pp. 723–731.
Lankford, William T. “‘The Parish Boy's Progress’: The Evolving Form of Oliver Twist.” PMLA, vol. 93, no. 1, 1978, pp. 20–32.
Richardson, Ruth. "Oliver Twist and the Workhouse." British Library. Dangoor Education, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Zlotnick, Susan. “‘The Law's a Bachelor’: ‘Oliver Twist," Bastardy, and the New Poor Law.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 131–146.