T he world’s most popular author and novelist who belonged to the Victorian era requires no introduction. Charles Dickens is the man behind great novels like, ‘Oliver Twist,’ ‘Hard Times,’ ‘Great Expectations,’ and many other fascinating and insightful novels that are considered, and quite rightly so, works of true genius. The man, himself was a worker in a blacking factory during his childhood. His father was unable to pay off the family debts so young Dickens was left without a proper education and so spent his childhood and most of his youth in poverty.
This left an indelible wound on Dickens.
Needless to say, in each of his novels, we see that Dickens reflects on his own life and highlights the miseries of the Industrial Revolution because of which he was robed of the best years of his life. Dickens was a social critic. This is quite expected because of the life Dickens led and what he had experienced. He manages to portray society exactly how it was during the Industrial Revolution.
At the time many authors only portrayed the positive aspects of the Revolution but Dickens highlighted even the negative aspects of the changes that were taking place.
Dickens was not particularly moved by the changes caused by the Revolution. He claimed that the world he lived in was one of ‘sorrow and trouble. ‘ This is quite true because he lost his childhood helping out in factories, another ‘innovation’ of the Revolution. He was a life-long supporter of the poor.
Each of his novels involves some characters who belong to the lower branches of society so that when people read his novels, they realize what exactly society was like and how people lived at the time and not all people were happy and content.
This was also a popular way of drawing the reader’s attention and sympathy to the character and perhaps we might feel the same way about Dickens because the character in the novel shared the same experiences as Dickens himself, which makes his novels more of autobiographies than anything else. In his novels we can also distinguish people who have played a role in his own life. We can compare his own life to the life that David Copperfield led or Mr. Bumble can be compared to the workhouse or the factory in which he worked.
This makes his novels more personal and as a result his viewpoint becomes quite distinct. The Industrial Revolution had many significant changes on Victorian society. The Revolution led to the rapid growth of cities and this urbanisation was so rapid that that the quality of housing available to the poor was often appalling. Probably this was the key factor as to why Dickens’ novels seem to be supporting the poor. Each of his novels highlighted society in general, also. When we say ‘society’ we could mean a lot of different things.
It could mean family, the generation we live in, the people we meet and our experiences with them or living in our daily surroundings. It is, therefore essential that we understand the setting in which the novel has been written and how it influences the characters and our own understanding of the novel. Another important aspect of the novel is the use of language. Dickens has used sarcasm throughout most of the novel to make his points clear and effective. His language is a channel for the understanding of the novel. The language plays an important role in portraying the various themes of the novel.
These, in turn, help us to understand his characters in more depth with relation to society in the novel, ‘Oliver Twist. ‘ Since the beginning of the century when the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, workhouses came into existence. These workhouses were made to be as repugnant as possible so that people would detest going there even if they were poor. The inclusion of workhouses in society also angered Dickens. He sarcastically comments on their importance, ‘There is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse. ‘
It was in one of these workhouses that the story of Oliver Twist begins. The beginning itself highlights the ‘class’ into which Oliver was born. There is also an appropriate comparison made to the birth of a rich man, ‘surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses and doctors of profound wisdom,’ while Oliver was born in the presence of ‘a pauper, old woman,’ and ‘a parish surgeon. ‘ This tells us that there was matter of segregation even during the birth of a young, helpless child. Oliver was an orphan, destined to grow up in the workhouse. This was true for the rest of the orphans, too.
Although the fact that Oliver was a representative of all the other orphans cannot be justified, we are able to see that Oliver does seem to represent most of the orphans of the novel. Oliver was somewhat different from other orphans. Other orphans did not have ‘a good sturdy spirit,’ nor were they fortunate enough to find someone as loving and as caring as Mr. Brownlow later in their lives. In some ways Oliver had been treated the same as all other orphans, for example, Oliver was to be ‘cuffed and buffeted through the world-despised by all, pitied by none. ‘ This shows us that Oliver along with his friends was to be treated badly.
This even shows the attitude of the upper classes towards helpless, innocent children. Another time we see that Oliver was brandished as an ‘idle young ruffian,’ and so was Noah Claypole, another boy belonging to the slums of the city, ‘the shop-boys in the neighbourhood had long been in the habit of branding Noah. ‘ We can see that this shows the attitude of other children, besides adults, towards children who dwelled in the dirtier parts of the city. This comparison is quite significant because it shows us that Oliver was not the only one who suffering from the abuse of being an orphan.
We also learn that Dickens compares certain characters at certain times during the novel so that we can get a more rounded look at the character and can form a proper opinion of both the characters compared. The attitudes of the wardens of the workhouse are further highlighted when we are told that Oliver had been ‘left to the tender mercies of the churchwardens. ‘ We can see that this statement is quite true when we are told that when Oliver was nine years old he was, ‘a pale, thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference.
‘ Thus we get the very essence of Dickens’ language right in the beginning-sarcasm. The attitude of society has been influential all throughout the novel. It was not only the wardens of the workhouse that have been so ‘tender,’ it was also the rest of the characters of the novel, including Mrs. Sowerberry. This is not quite surprising. At the time, people thought that beggars and the lower classes were poor due to their own laziness and were cursed by God. All throughout his novel, Dickens has used extremities to achieve the desired effect, as we already know Dickens kept the interest in the reader sustained while delivering the message.
The extremity of Oliver’s hunger can be shown when we read that he was, ‘desperate with hunger and reckless with misery. ‘ The words ‘desperate’ and ‘reckless’ show us the extent of his hunger. The same can be said about the rest of the orphans. This can be compared to the fact that every child was a ‘new burden being imposed upon the parish. ‘ The irony is here that since the parish never provided anything, the question of the children being a burden would be automatically removed. It would not even be a burden to check if all the children went hungry because there was no exception to that case.
When we read the novel we see that Dickens tries to show us how the upper classes treated the lower classes and thus portraying the way they thought and acted. The way they treated the orphans has been summed up in one line, ‘Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. ‘ This shows us that Oliver was to be treated like this all throughout his life because children like him were to grow up to be murderers, thieves and criminals. He highlights the section of society in which the children were treated badly. His mere description and actions are enough to portray this fact.
The system by which he was brought up, ‘he was brought up by the hand. ‘ This shows us that Oliver was beaten and scolded and treated very harshly as we later see, ‘after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up therein for atrociously presuming to be hungry. ‘ This shows us that Oliver was not allowed to voice his opinions and ‘the sound thrashing’ tells us that he has committed a grave mistake by saying he was hungry. The words ‘ presuming to be hungry,’ show us that the author tells us that Mrs. Mann thought she had fed him more than enough and that he was only presuming he was hungry.
This also shows us the attitude of the middle class people towards orphans and how they went about doing their job. By highlighting Oliver’s own reaction to all these events, the author manages to draw our sympathy and get more out of the fact that Oliver was ill treated. The line that tells us this is, ‘Hunger and recent ill-usage are great assistants if you want to cry, and Oliver cried very naturally indeed. ‘ This tells us something of what Oliver thought about his life. The use emotive language makes the reader just sit back for a while thinking about the cruelties of these people.
This line can also be compared to the line in the very beginning, when the writer tells us what Oliver would have done if he knew of the people who were to look after him, ‘If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of churchwardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder. ‘ The upper classes even thought the orphans and lower class people did not have to be fed too much and if they did they would get ‘out of hand. ‘ This we can see when Dickens uses irony when Mr. Bumble tells Mrs. Sowerberry, ‘you’ve over-fed him ma’am.
‘ We can see that Dickens has used irony to prove his point. He has told us that the upper classes did not feed the orphans too much and when the orphans got out of hand, was a sign of them being ‘overfed. ‘ We learn that the upper classes also did not trust the lower classes. The same point can be made concerning young orphans as well. Mr. Grimwig is one of those people. He says, ‘I see no difference in boys. ‘ He even says ‘he may have worse,’ concerning Oliver’s characteristics. This shows us the negative attitude of the upper classes. This even shows us they way Dickens has portrayed this idea.
He has said, ‘no difference in boys. ‘ The term ‘boys’ would, at the time, be used for outcasts and pickpockets. For children belonging to the higher class, the words used would be ‘young gentleman’. We can see that Dickens has described Oliver, as he was seen in the eyes of the higher class. He was like all the other ‘boys,’ destined to be a pickpocket and thief, as the surgeon who delivered Oliver said, ‘It will be likely it will be troublesome. ‘ This reiterates the belief that the upper class was negative towards the people who resided in the workhouse.
They were not even ready to trust the orphans, who had no idea of what life was like outside the workhouse. To every rule there are exceptions and in this case the exceptions were Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie. Mr. Brownlow gave Oliver a home to stay in and Mrs. Maylie also looked after him when a bullet wounded him. Mr. Brownlow cared for Oliver like he was his own son. His feelings for him are well aroused when he says ‘poor boy, poor boy. ‘ We might be of the opinion that Dickens might be using sarcasm again, but when we see that Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver to his home, we are made to reconsider this opinion.
Mrs. Bedwin, his housekeeper loved Oliver and looked after him particularly well during his illness. The way she handled Oliver is highlighted when she says, ‘Hush, my dear, you must be very quiet, or you will be ill again. ‘ The use of the word, ‘dear,’ is more than sufficient to tell us that Mrs. Bedwin really loved Oliver and treated him well. Mrs. Maylie even adopted Rose and gave her a good upbringing. This shows us that there were still some good-hearted people at the time that still thought that even if people were poor they were still humans and like the rest of us needed love and acceptance.
Mr. Grimwig was not too impressed with the way Mr. Brownlow showed his confidence in Oliver when he says, ‘ he is deceiving you, my good friend. ‘ This shows us that people of the society did not appreciate it even if somebody else, even if they belonged to the higher class, treated the orphans well. We can understand Mr. Grimwig’s point of view because Dickens portrays Mr. Brownlow and Mr. Grimwig as close friends, which makes it easier for the reader to understand and compare both viewpoints simultaneously. This shows us that Dickens cared about the reader.
This has already been proved by the fact that he chooses to indulge into London society so much. This is quite important as it makes us appreciate his work even more. The other characteristic that Oliver has been told to have is deceit. Dickens shows us what the people thought of the orphans by telling us of their popular actions like stealing, turning to crime and all the other wrong habits. This style is quite unique. Dickens manages to tell us a lot through this method and conveys to us effectively what society was like. It was full of hostile people who did not care even for a child.
It even goes to show why Dickens hated the society he lived in and this point can be justified if we look to their callous attitude. The words that the upper classes have used to describe the orphans tell us about their way of thinking. The words, ‘idle young ruffian,’ ‘troublesome,’ tell us that the orphans were bound to become like this no matter what. We will continue to see that the novel is full of heavy criticism directed towards the people of Victorian society. Attitudes of the people of society has, no doubt, played a significant role in telling us of the hypocrisy of the middle class people and also of the upper class.
Another segment of society that has been highlighted is the underworld. This section of society is quite different from the upper class or the lower class of society. This was a class that consisted of wanted men, filthy boys and women of ill repute or in Dickens’ words, ‘where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth’ This is quite effective because the people are ‘drunk’ with crime and also can be seen to be dirty and filthy. The setting of this branch of society has been well described to tell the reader which part of the society he is entering.
When the Artful Dodger takes Oliver to Fain’s den, the opinion Oliver forms of the place is quite rightly linked with the activities that take place around it. ‘A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. ‘ This shows us the gist of the place in which Fagin and his gang dwelled. The place has been described as ‘dirty’ and ‘wretched. ‘ These words also tell us quite effectively about the characters that resided there. The word ‘dirty’ can be used to describe their appearances and the word, ‘wretched,’ can be used to describe their activities.
Here Dickens tell us directly about the people of the society by using descriptive language. He forms a picture in our mind when he says; ‘the street was narrow and muddy,’ which helps us imagine what exactly the place looked like. The language is also sensual as it appeals to our sense of smell. Dickens tells us, ‘the air was impregnated with filthy odours. ‘ We can see the repetition of the negative adjectives like ‘filthy,’ ‘wretched,’ so that Dickens can tell us what he himself felt about the place and uses it, as we have already seen, to describe the people who live in this place.