Dickens' Portrayal of 19th Century London Society in "Oliver Twist"

Categories: Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens, one of the most renowned novelists in the history of English literature, created a timeless masterpiece in "Oliver Twist." This novel is not only a captivating narrative but also a profound social commentary that sheds light on the complexities of Victorian England in the 19th century. Dickens employs a rich tapestry of language, vivid characters, and a meticulously crafted setting to provide readers with a profound understanding of 19th-century London society.

The Dickensian Themes: Poverty, Desperation, and Triumph of Good

At its core, "Oliver Twist" explores several quintessentially Dickensian themes, including grinding poverty, desperation, fear, temptation, and the ultimate triumph of good in the face of overwhelming adversity.

These themes are not merely literary devices but reflections of Dickens' own life experiences and deeply held convictions. As a child who suffered through the harsh realities of the English legal system, Dickens became a lifelong advocate for the impoverished and voiceless.

Dickens himself endured a difficult childhood marked by poverty, and this personal history fueled his commitment to championing the cause of the underprivileged.

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At the tender age of twelve, he found himself working in a factory to support his family, an experience that haunted him throughout his life. "Oliver Twist" echoes the humiliation and resentment Dickens felt as a young victim of child labor, serving as a poignant reminder of the hardships faced by countless others in similar circumstances.

A Cry Against Hypocrisy and Injustice

Although "Oliver Twist" is replete with satirical humor, it carries a profound undercurrent of bitter criticism aimed at the prevailing attitudes of Victorian middle and lower classes toward the poor.

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Dickens, having experienced firsthand the hypocrisy of a society that abandoned him and his family to financial ruin, unleashed his literary prowess to denounce the legal system, the workhouses, and the moral values of 19th-century England's middle class.

The novel serves as a powerful indictment of the legal system's hypocrisy, portraying the stark contrast between the letter of the law and its practical application. Dickens highlights the dehumanizing treatment of orphans and the destitute, a treatment that he, as a child laborer, knew all too well. In "Oliver Twist," he brilliantly exposes the cruelty of a society that, rather than extending a helping hand to those in need, chose to look away, indifferent to the suffering of its most vulnerable citizens.

Oliver Twist: A Symbol of Orphaned Despair

Oliver Twist, the novel's eponymous protagonist, serves as a poignant symbol of orphaned despair in Victorian society. His journey through the heart of 19th-century London mirrors the fortunes and misfortunes of countless orphans subjected to the callous whims of the era. Oliver confronts not only the indifference of state institutions but also the malevolence of ruthless criminals, embodying the struggles of the forsaken.

The novel resounds with Charles Dickens' heartfelt outcry against a society that condemned orphans to the shadows of the underworld. Oliver becomes the voice of these voiceless children, articulating their sentiments in a subtle and touching manner through the narrative's events and encounters.

Exploring the Cruelty Towards Children

Charles Dickens penned "Oliver Twist" with a primary aim: to expose the inhumane treatment of children at the hands of society. The novel's opening scene, the birth of Oliver in a workhouse near London, is a poignant portrayal of despair and tragedy. It marks the beginning of Oliver's arduous life, marked by abandonment and loss, as his mother dies shortly after his birth.

The grim description of Oliver's mother's death is haunting: "She imprinted her cold, white lips on the baby's forehead, passed her hands over her face, gazed widely round, shuddered, fell back, and died." This tragic event sets the stage for Oliver's early years in the workhouse, a place where he must navigate a harsh and unforgiving world from the very start.

Oliver's identity is shrouded in mystery, his mother's background and identity unknown. He is an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, a fact that highlights the moral judgments of the Victorian era. The absence of a wedding ring upon his mother's hand serves as a stark reminder of society's judgment upon Oliver's birth, a birth considered the product of low morality.

The indifferent parish surgeon, who inspects Oliver's mother's body and comments on the absence of a wedding ring, embodies society's callousness toward those in need. This moment crystallizes the societal norms that dictated that children like Oliver, born into circumstances deemed undesirable, were to be abandoned to their fate. The surgeon's dismissive "Goodnight" reflects a society unwilling to accept responsibility for the welfare of such children.

The Workhouse: A Harsh and Unforgiving Reality

Oliver Twist's tragic journey continues as he is left at the mercy of society following his mother's death. The workhouse, a place designed to provide for the destitute, becomes Oliver's new home—a place where he is introduced to the harsh realities of life. Dickens paints a bleak picture of the workhouse environment, characterized by squalor and unhygienic conditions.

The workhouse officials and administrators are portrayed as hypocrites, offering only minimal provisions to the orphans and paupers under their care. In Dickens' scathing critique of charity, the term "parish" becomes synonymous with "poor," "wretched," and "miserable." Society at large viewed its meager support for these individuals as a sufficient act of charity, turning a blind eye to their suffering.

One of the most vivid examples of the workhouse's cruelty is the branch run by Mrs. Mann, an elderly woman in charge of dozens of orphaned children. Dickens illustrates the arbitrary and capricious nature of her rule, leaving the children on the brink of starvation. Even physical punishment is not spared, as the "juvenile offenders" endure harsh treatment from a young age.

Throughout their infancy, these children are deprived of the basic human need for care and affection. They are left to "roll about the floor all day" without the comfort of warmth or nourishment. Dickens uses biting satire to underscore the complete neglect and abandonment suffered by these vulnerable children, highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the society that tolerated such conditions.

The Fight for Survival

Despite the odds stacked against them, Oliver and his companions in the workhouse somehow manage to cheat nature and society's indifference. No ordinary child, let alone a creature, could survive without adequate sustenance and warmth. Yet Oliver and the other paupers, through sheer resilience and tenacity, defy the expectations set by a heartless society.

Charles Dickens masterfully portrays the extensive corruption within society during this period, exposing the stark disparities between the privileged and the destitute. "Oliver Twist" remains a powerful testament to his enduring commitment to championing the cause of the oppressed and underscoring the need for reform in a society that had lost its compassion.

Dickens paints a stark picture of the workhouse system, suggesting that it may not be solely to blame for the suffering of orphans like Oliver. He acknowledges the presence of poorhouses and government allocations for the care of these children, such as the "Seven pence half-penny a week for each small head." However, he highlights how individuals like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann in Victorian society had their own twisted interpretations of what was "good" for these children, which translated to providing them with the bare minimum or nothing at all.

For instance, Mrs. Mann, despite her role in caring for orphans, was primarily concerned with her own well-being, diverting a significant portion of the meager allowance meant for the orphans into her own pockets. This exemplifies the moral corruption prevalent in the society of the time, where individuals entrusted with the welfare of the destitute exploited their positions for personal gain.

Furthermore, Dickens satirizes the middle-class values represented by figures like Mrs. Mann and Mr. Bumble. They believed that keeping orphans on the brink of starvation would instill in them a supposed "proper appreciation of life" and serve as a lesson about their dependence on society. This attitude exposes the callousness and uncaring nature of the middle class towards those in their charge.

Dickens effectively mocks these middle-class figures who, despite their well-fed appearances, preached the virtues of a meager diet to the workhouse residents. The author highlights the glaring hypocrisy of individuals like Mr. Bumble, who outwardly espoused middle-class values but lived a life of comfort and indulgence. These individuals, along with the entire Board of the workhouse, were characterized by their obesity, a physical manifestation of their gluttony.

The image conveyed by Dickens is one of a society in which the affluent fed off the misery of the poor and destitute. This depiction underscores the moral corruption inherent in Victorian society, where people like Mr. Bumble exerted their authority and believed it was their religious duty to impose their values on the inmates of the workhouse, all while enriching themselves at the expense of those they were supposed to care for.

The Deception of "Kind and Blessed" Benefactors

As the story unfolds, Dickens introduces Mr. Gamfield, who arrives to purchase Oliver. Mr. Bumble presents him as a "kind and blessed gentleman" willing to take Oliver under his wing and mold him into a productive member of society. This portrayal, however, is deceptive, as Mr. Gamfield's true intentions become apparent.

Mr. Bumble describes Mr. Gamfield as someone who acts as a surrogate parent to children like Oliver when their own parents are absent. This characterization seeks to paint Mr. Gamfield as a selfless benefactor. However, the reality is far from noble. Mr. Gamfield's interest in Oliver is purely utilitarian—he sees the orphan as a working machine, a "robot" to toil for him day and night at minimal cost.

Oliver's simple request for more food is vilified and condemned as a heinous act. Mr. Bumble labels Oliver as "a naughty child whom nobody can love," portraying him as irredeemable for the simple act of asking for sustenance. This psychological manipulation, common among amoral figures like Mr. Bumble, serves to further dehumanize and break the spirits of innocent, young, and vulnerable orphans.

The middle-class members of the Board, described as "deep philosophical men," institute a rule to offer workhouse residents a choice between gradual starvation within the institution or a swift demise outside of it. This callous decision reflects the indifference and cruelty inherent in the workhouse system. The workhouses themselves are depicted as rancid and pungent, deliberately designed to be as uninviting as possible.

The main concern of the Board members is their own wealth and welfare, viewing each new inmate as an added burden on the parish. Dickens uses sarcasm to criticize the supposed benevolence of England's "tender laws." The fact that paupers were allowed to sleep in the workhouse is presented as an ironic gesture, as the conditions were hardly conducive to rest and comfort.

Dickens goes on to depict the appalling conditions endured by the boys, who were constantly underfed and forced to use their spoons to polish their bowls until they shone. These descriptions serve to expose the cruelty of the workhouse and the callousness of the individuals responsible for its administration.

The orphans, including Oliver, were portrayed as desperate and reckless with hunger, a stark contrast to the well-fed and round-faced members of the Board. This dichotomy underscores the hypocrisy of the Victorian society, which assigned all the lower qualities to the poor and marginalized them as "criminals," "filthy," and "savage."

Ultimately, Dickens reveals a society that systematically rejected, starved, tortured, and humiliated orphans, leading them to believe that they deserved such treatment. The workhouses, far from offering refuge, subjected the children to inhumane conditions and punishments, perpetuating the cycle of suffering.

The Voracious Hunger of the Helpless

One poignant scene in the narrative illustrates Oliver's desperate hunger as he devours meager scraps of food intended for the dog. Dickens portrays Oliver's ravenous appetite in vivid detail, describing how he tore at the food with the ferocity of a starving soul. This image serves as a powerful indictment of a society that allowed such deprivation to persist.

Oliver's act of requesting more food, viewed as villainous and unforgivable, earns him condemnation and derision. Mr. Bumble's declaration that Oliver is "whom nobody can't love" reflects the society's perception of orphans from impoverished backgrounds as unlovable and undeserving of compassion.

This psychological manipulation inflicted on innocent, young, and helpless orphans aimed to make them believe that they were inherently wicked and deserving of the suffering society imposed upon them. The Board's decision to establish the choice between gradual starvation within the workhouse or a quick death outside further illustrates their heartless approach to the destitute.

Oliver's sale to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, exposes the prejudice against orphans from poor backgrounds. Mrs. Sowerberry's immediate judgment of Oliver as an unnecessary burden reveals the widespread bias against these children, who were often stereotyped and dismissed as unworthy of care.

The public flogging and physical punishment Oliver endures for his simple request for more food serve as a chilling reminder of the brutal discipline imposed upon these vulnerable orphans. They were denied exercise, social interaction, and religious solace, further isolating them from the world and perpetuating their suffering.

The Victorian middle class, represented by the Board members, treated Oliver and his companions with insensitivity and callousness. Their well-fed appearances stood in stark contrast to the emaciated and desperate orphans, emphasizing the glaring inequality and moral bankruptcy of the society they lived in.


In conclusion, Charles Dickens' literary masterpiece, "Oliver Twist," stands as an enduring testament to his unparalleled ability to wield language as a tool of social critique. Through the vivid characters, meticulously crafted setting, and poignant narrative, Dickens skillfully portrays the harsh realities of 19th-century London society. His portrayal of the workhouse system and the moral corruption within the Victorian middle class unveils a society marked by cruelty, indifference, and hypocrisy.

"Oliver Twist" serves not only as a work of fiction but also as a mirror reflecting the stark inequalities and injustices of its time. Dickens draws from his personal experiences and unwavering commitment to social justice to shed light on the plight of the destitute and voiceless, calling for empathy, compassion, and reform.

As we journeyed through the pages of this literary classic, we encountered Oliver Twist, a symbol of orphaned despair, navigating a world that seemed determined to break his spirit. Dickens' portrayal of Oliver's hardships and the callous treatment of orphans within the workhouse system struck a chord with readers, prompting reflection on the enduring struggle for a more just and compassionate society.

"Oliver Twist" continues to resonate today, a powerful reminder that literature has the power to transcend time and illuminate the darkest corners of society. Charles Dickens' use of language and storytelling not only entertained but also challenged the status quo, making him a champion for social reform. In a world where the echoes of his words continue to reverberate, "Oliver Twist" remains an enduring call to action, urging us to strive for a world where the voiceless are heard, the vulnerable are protected, and compassion prevails over cruelty.

Updated: Nov 15, 2023
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Dickens' Portrayal of 19th Century London Society in "Oliver Twist". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/fat-well-fed-8655-new-essay

Dickens' Portrayal of 19th Century London Society in "Oliver Twist" essay
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