The novel Oliver Twist is a vivid illustration of the literary connections that can be drawn between Dickens’ writings and the surrounding sociopolitical issues of his time; more importantly what some might speculate to be the driving force behind the very works themselves. One law specifically, the New Poor Law of 1834, irrevocably marred the already grim atmosphere that engulfed a poverty-stricken England in the 19th century. The middle and upper classes denounced the system of relief that was in place for the poor at the time, as, they believed, they were merely creating or perpetuating the cycle of further stagnancy amongst the lower classes, encouraging them to continue to avoid work rather than seek it. Despite the fact that these were mere speculations from the upper class, once the New Poor Law was established due to the complaints in 1834, over 500 workhouses were built throughout the course of the next 50 years, wherein the conditions were so deliberately horrendous that only those desperate enough to leave their homes and voluntarily enter the workhouses to receive help would—but they were far and few between. Therefore, many of those that genuinely required assistance, opted out of the only option available to them via the workhouses, because they refused to subject themselves to an even harsher setting then the ones they were already well accustomed to. Dickens’, like many others at the time, was repulsed by the enactment of the New Poor Law and first published his monthly installments of Oliver Twist in an attempt to portray the new relief system’s treatment of a child innocent of fault born and raised in the workhouse system. Dickens’ essentially paints Oliver as a “child of the workhouse” with no consolation or nourishment available to him—much like the empty system in place that set out to operate efficiently and charitably, of which it did neither. In Chapter I, titled “Treats of the Place Where Oliver Twist Was Born; And of the Circumstances Attending His Birth”, he immediately adopts a both a satirical tone and stance towards the workhouse when he refers to being born in one as, “in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being,” (Norton, 17). Given the description of the circumstances surrounding Oliver’s birth, it seems anything but fortuitous or what anyone would consider worth “envying”. The doctor who helped Oliver’s (nameless) mother through labor just before she passes away “talk[s] of hope and comfort,” the narrator recounts, who, “had been strangers [for] too long,” (Norton, 18). In this opening scene, both Oliver and his mother are emblematic figures of those affected by the poor laws of 19th century England, as, they are strangers to a world where any hope or comfort resides, further underscoring Dickens’ emphasis toward the newly implemented law’s lack of efficiency and charity. Furthermore, with his mother now gone and no “female in the ‘house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need” (Norton, 19), not only is hope and consolation inaccessible to him, but what was to be his sole source of nourishment, too. As a pale and thin child of the workhouse, “diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference” (Norton, 19), such a description illustrates the fact that this ‘system’ does not provide the appropriate climate through which anyone brought up in it can thrive and flourish—Oliver being a chief example of this, as both a literally and figuratively undernourished child of the English workhouse.
Online Post by: Audrey Buechel
Researchers: Lizzie Messana, Jenna Cecchini, Alexis Donahue, Amanda Trantel
How does Dickens say what he wants to say about the new poor law in such a way as to make it appeal to a wide audience (across social classes)?