Magazine article The World and I

Oliver Twist, Parish Boy: Charles Dickens' Glance at the Misery of England's Poor Laws and Workhouses

Magazine article The World and I

Oliver Twist, Parish Boy: Charles Dickens' Glance at the Misery of England's Poor Laws and Workhouses

Article excerpt

One of the best-known novels by Charles Dickens is Oliver Twist, published in serial form in Bentley's Miscellany from February 1837 to March 1839 and published in three volumes in October 1838. While it is one of his more famous works, and has been made into many movies and plays (including a much-celebrated musical) too little has been said and written about Dickens' grim approach to the problems of his time in this novel.

One of Dickens' "early novels," Oliver Twist is often cited as an entertaining story published before his later, more "serious" novels. The fact is, however, that Dickens meant for Oliver Twist to be taken very seriously, a novel that addressed several important matters of his day: child labor, anti-Semitism, the criminal underworld, and, especially, the poor law and workhouses. One commentator, Norrie Epstein, wrote that while doing research for the novel, Dickens consulted a "statistical Magazine" that included tables about juvenile delinquency. He also asked a friend if he could be smuggled into court to watch a certain city magistrate. "In my next number," Dickens wrote, "I must have a magistrate whose harshness and insolence would render him a fit subject to be 'shewn up.'" Another critic, K.J. Fielding, has summed up Dickens' purpose in this way: "There is a case for reading it [OT] as one of Dickens's 'dark' novels, as if it were a terrifying nightmare in which Oliver searches for his own identity and for hope and purpose in life, and yet one in which all the most forceful scenes are of guilt, loneliness, and betrayal. Oliver is born into a world in which survival is exceptional."

A brief summary of the novel illustrates what Fielding had in mind when he wrote these words. Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse. An orphan, he spends the first nine years at a baby farm; when he is nine, he is moved to the main workhouse and put to work picking oakum. One of the memorable scenes in the novel ensues when the boys draw lots and Oliver, the loser, has to ask for another portion of the foul-tasking gruel. Oliver approached the head table and makes his famous request: "Please, sir, I want some more." Eventually, Oliver goes to work for Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker, who uses Oliver as a mourner at children's funerals. Noah Claypole, another employee, makes the mistake of calling Oliver's mother "a regular right-down bad 'un". Oliver pummels him and is punished, in turn, by Mrs. Sowerberry. Oliver finally decides to run away to London; there he meets Jack Dawkins, one of Fagin's boys.

The rest of the novel tells of Oliver's life with Fagin's gang, his "adoption" by Mr. Brownlow, his return to Fagin, Nancy, and Bill Sikes, his second "adoption" by Miss Rose and her guardian, Mrs. Maylie, and the revelation of Oliver's real father. We learn that Monks, who has been trying to have Oliver murdered, is really a Mr. Edward Leeford, Oliver's paternal half-brother. Mr. Brownlow, has had a portrait of Agnes, Oliver's mother, and has noticed the close resemblance between her and Oliver. Oliver receives a small inheritance, Monks moves to America, Sikes, who has murdered Nancy, dies as he is being chased by the police, and Fagin is arrested and condemned to the gallows. Dickens then ties up all the knots in typical Dickensian fashion: Rose Maylie turns out to be Oliver's aunt, and Oliver lives happily ever after with Mr. Brownlow.

One aspect of the novel needs elaboration, for it is Oliver's early years that illustrate Dickens' major intention in writing this novel; his concern was, as he wrote, "to show the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance and triumphing at last." While much has been made of Oliver's overcoming the effects of living with Fagin's gang, too little has been said and written of his early years. Dickens clearly wanted the reader to see and feel the way Oliver is able to overcome his early life in the workhouse and as an apprentice. …

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