Social class and the impact of the poor law

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

Discussion Question:

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)?


6 thoughts on “Social class and the impact of the poor law

  1. Angie Carson

    Group 4 Response:

    From the standpoint of a writer, Dickens chose to write this novel with the intention of making Oliver a familiar, sympathetic figure who the public would easily recognize. It would be easier to argue that conditions in the workhouse were unacceptable by using an “Oliver Twist” rather than making generalized statements about a group of anonymous people. It is easier to elicit sympathy in the form of a fictional character because audiences will be familiar with Oliver’s actions, problems, etc. If Dickens had tried to argue his case using real people the argument would fall on deaf ears because it is harder to sympathize with someone you don’t know.

  2. Kristen Druse

    Group 5

    Dickens uses the upper and lower class interactions in his writing to portray an optimistic view on the potential for progress in reforming the class system, which isn’t immediately apparent in the text of Oliver Twist. For example, the scene where Oliver is taken before a judge to decide whether or not be to be placed as a chimney sweep’s apprentice, Dickens provides a paradoxical portrayal of two authority figures. “But, as it chanced to be immediately under his nose, it followed, as a matter of course, that he looked all over his desk for it, without finding it; and happening in the course of his search to look straight before him, his gaze encountered the pale and terrified face of Oliver Twist: who, despite all the admonitory looks and pinches of Bumble, was regarding the impulsive countenance of his future master: with a mingled expression of horror and fear too palpable to be mistaken, even by a half-blind magistrate” (pg. 34). The judge is so old that he is almost blind, indicating his incompetence, but he still manages to recognize the injustice in the situation at the last possible moment. This indicates that Dickens gives room for the reader to realize that there is potential in the upper class. Dickens obviously appeals to the lower class by his critical portrayal of those in power, but this moment shows that the upper class has the potential to be part of the solution to the injustice present in Victorian England.

  3. John Panus

    Group 6

    Group 1 is undoubtedly correct that Dickens appeals to the upper class by his sympathetic characterization of the magistrate, however, by saying what he wants to say about the new poor law, Dickens does not appeal to all classes. When Oliver asks for more gruel, the master strikes at Oliver’s head with a ladle, and a look of “horror was depicted on every countenance” of the parish employees. The Parish does not offer any compassion or charity to Oliver after their revelation that he is “evil” enough to ask for more oats in water. The Parish doctor even goes so far as to claim: “That boy will be hung… I know that boy will be hung” (Norton 27). Dickens harshly criticizes the New Poor Law by his use of cruel, hypocritical, and quite despicable characters who represent the middle and upper classes (specifically the people of the parish like Mr. Bumble). In fact, his appalling and severe characterizations of the actions of the parish would surely repulse the middle and upper class divisions as opposed to allure them. However, this seems to be Dickens’ point: to repulse the people responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the inhumane treatment of the poor in order to cause a sense of introspection and to rouse them to make positive changes. As group 1 asserts that by appealing to the upper classes, Dickens portrays an optimistic view that the upper class can help diminish the suffering of the poor; in his callous depiction of the parish, he identifies the parish employees as the root of the problem, stressing that in order to help the poor, changes must be made to the parish.

  4. Nivedita Rajan

    Group 3

    Dickens uses dark humor as a tool, which can be manipulated in order to appeal to both the lower and upper classes. By using satirical language, Dickens appeals to the cynicism of the lower classes with regard to their perception of the upper class and its lack of sensitivity towards their plight. The scene in which the magistrate finally notices Oliver’s fear and reluctance (Norton 34-5) to go work as a chimney sweep is a good example of how humor is used to direct the actions of the characters. The humorously half-blind magistrate has to fumble around for all the documents that he needs to refer to. Yet, even in his half-blind state and slightly childish temperament, the magistrate does not fail to recognize the genuine terror on Oliver’s face as he becomes aware of the fact that Oliver is being coerced into the agreement. His lethargic actions and fortuitous fumbling do not render him blind to the true plight of children like Oliver who suffered in silence for most of their lives. This scene would have roused people’s curiosity and incited them to look around to see if there was someone who needed their help and whom they would not have noticed otherwise.
    To appeal to the upper classes, Dickens’ portrayal of the reactions during the scene where Oliver asks for more gruel is completely over-the-top (Norton 27-9). The sheer scandal that his timid request is met with could be construed as a commentary on the harshness of the Poor Laws and their absolute injustice towards the children who suffered in the workhouses. In the conclusion, by depicting Oliver’s new-found family as being benevolent and understanding, Dickens may have been appealing to any fragment of morality and justice within the members of the upper class, who had the means to rescue these children from their destitute lives, but not always the inclination.

  5. Amanda Trantel

    Group #1
    Posted by: Amanda Trantel
    Members: Lizzie Messana, Alexis Donahue, Audrey Buechel, and Jenna Cecchini

    As a group, we feel that Dickens juxtaposes the innocence of Oliver with the harshness of the wealthy upper class in order to provide a voice for the lower, underprivileged class and to incite societal change in their favor. To begin, Dickens writes about the birth and upbringing of Oliver Twist in great length. By using a baby as the protagonist, who cannot be anything but innocent from the womb, Dickens draws upon the sympathies of his readers. Of Oliver’s birth, Dickens writes, “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.” (pg. 19) He wants them to realize, just as he has, that you have no choice into which socioeconomic class you are born; therefore, the rich should not blame the poor for being poor. No one would willingly choose Oliver’s hard-knock life. Dickens’ fosters an environment in which his readers can form intimate bonds with Oliver, as they are watching his development; we believe that this was also done to inspire sympathy in Dickens’ wealthy audience.
    Juxtaposed with the innocence of Oliver, Dickens also uses satire to depict the mannerisms of the wealthy figures in his novel in order to convey to his wealthy audience the absurdity of their actions, specifically neglecting the needs of the poor, by placing them into cruel and negligent environments that don’t foster positive development, mentally, physically, or economically. He explicitly writes the board members as egotistical and greedy: “It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase of undertakers’ bills… but the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers and the board were in ecstacies” (pg. 26) In this way, Dickens wants to convey to his upper-class readers the foolishness of their views on the poorer class.
    Of Oliver’s departure from the workhouse Dickens writes: “Oliver was then led away by Mr. Bumble from the wretched home where one kind word or look had never lighted the gloom of his infant years.” (24) This is a prime example of how Dickens juxtaposes the innocence of Oliver, a disadvantaged boy through no fault of his own, and the cruelty of the wealthy through the implementation of the dreadful workhouses.

  6. Michael Adams

    Group 2-

    We believe that Dickens’ work was not necessarily meant to appeal to all the strata of Victorian society as much as it was meant to spread awareness and spearhead the cause of social change. Published as it was in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany, Oliver Twist reached every level of society that might be associated with the phrase “common man,” from the factory workers who could empathize with Oliver’s travails to the gentry seeking office in the House of Commons.
    Oliver Twist works on two levels as it follows its titular orphan through a caricature of Victorian England. On the first, it provides a cathartic outlet for the lower-class members of society by presenting a story in which a boy as badly off as they are eventually gets his happy ending, all the while encountering people in positions of authority at whom Dickens pokes endless fun. This is particularly evident in the scene in which Oliver meets The Board (a group of virtually identical “sage, deep, and philosophical men”) and, unsure exactly what “the Board” is, bows to a table behind which the Board members only reside by happy coincidence.
    The poor English workers were not the only ones reading Oliver Twist, and that is where the satirical elements of the novel come in. Good satire, to quote myself, is a presentation of the truth with a slight garnish of hyperbole. The pompous and bumbling (I’m really not sure if that pun was intentional) figures of authority into whom Oliver runs throughout the narrative, as well as the flaws in society which they represented, were clear enough to bring the issues they embody to the attention of Dickens’ more affluent readers. As some of those readers might have been seeking elected office, it would have behooved them to take note of the issues presented in Oliver Twist, concerns that could gain or lose them a working-class constituency.
    So although not all of Dickens’ readers may have liked the issues he wrote on, though some certainly did, none of them could ignore the importance of his subjects after he used his writing to thrust them into the spotlight.

    Posted by: Michael Adams
    Special thanks to: Hannah Glaser, Kevin O’Connor, Colin Peartree, and Michael Stoianoff

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