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Have you ever thought about how it would be to live in a time of poverty? How

would life be if you were poor and did not know from where you would be getting your

next meal? What would it be like to be forced to live in a workhouse? These are some of

the questions you might ask yourself if you were living in early nineteenth century

England. Dickens addresses these issues in his timeless masterpiece Oliver Twist. In the

story of Oliver Twist, Dickens uses past experiences from his childhood and targets the

Poor Law of 1834 which renewed the importance of the workhouse as a means of relief

for the poor.

Dickens’ age was a period of industrial development marked by the rise of the

middle class (Wagenknecht 219). In the elections brought about by the accession of

William IV in 1830, the Tories lost control of the government. Assumption of power by

the Whigs opened the way to an era of accelerated progress (Kaste 8). In this time period

children worked just as much, if not more, than some of the adults. After 1833, an

increased amount of legislation was enacted to control the hours of labor and working

conditions for children and women in manufacturing plants. The Poor Law of 1834

provided that all able bodied paupers must reside in a workhouse (8). Widespread

hostility was felt to the new law; many believed that life was harder in a workhouse than in

prison (Rooke 22). The plan was successful from one standpoint, for within three years

the cost of poor relief was reduced by more than one-third. However, this system was

sharply censured. The increased prevalence of crime was attributed towards it. Inmates

of the workhouses became objects of public stigma, and to further heighten the

unpopularity of the institutions, living conditions were deliberately made harsh (Kaste 8).

Poverty was at it’s peak around this time in England. Houses were overcrowded, packed

together in narrow streets and courts which were often piled deep in rotting refuse (Rooke

33). New problems of food and public health were faced by a parliamentary and economic

system which was better suited to the eighteenth century. On June 20, 1837, Queen

Victoria came to the throne of England as the long period of middle class ascendancy was

gaining momentum (Kaste 8). The Victorian age, which this time period is often referred,

comes from “Queen Victoria.” In 1840, it was thought that only twenty percent of the

children of London had any form of schooling. The 1840s were years of crises. The

character on English life was being transformed by industrial expansion and by great

movements of population towards urban life.

Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea, on February 7, 1812. He was the

second son of John Dickens. John Dickens was a clerk in the Navy pay office. His

improvidence would eventually lead to imprisonment in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison

for debt (Hardy 41). As a child Charles Dickens explored London and the fascination that

he felt for this booming city remained with him throughout his life (Rooke 15). Dickens

received his first instruction from his mother and later attended regular schools in

Chatham. When John Dickens, his wife, and their four children went to the debtor’s

prison, Charles Dickens didn’t go. He soon became intimate with his father’s small

collection of literary classics. He also revealed early signs of genius. Dickens’

recollections of early life were centered in Kent and he often regarded himself as a member

of that region (Kaste 9). Dickens was sent to work at the age of twelve in Worren’s

Blacking Warehouse. After his father’s release he went back to school.. When school was

complete he went to work in an attorney’s office. He spent much of his time exploring the

busy and varied life of London and decided to become a journalist. He mastered a difficult

system of shorthand and by March 1832, at the age of twenty, he was a general and

parliamentary reporter. In 1829 he met and soon fell in love with Maria Bendnell, but her

parents found him socially inferior (Hardy 41). Not long after, in 1836, he fell in love with

and married Catherine Hogarth. They had ten children together. In 1858 Dickens fell in

love with Ellen Terron, an actress. This was soon after Dickens and his wife Catherine

separated, ending a long stream of marital difficulties. In1842, Dickens traveled to the

United States hoping to find an embodiment of his liberal political ideals. However, he

returned to England deeply disappointed. He was dismayed by America’s lack of support

for an international copyright law, acceptance of the inhumane practice of slavery, and the

basic vulgarity of the American people (”Charles Dickens”). Dickens became

distinguished by furious energy, determination to succeed, and an inflexible will (Kaste 9).

It is likely that Dickens’ introduction to the consequences of poverty was a contributing

factor in shaping his life and literature. Dickens’ early short stories and sketches, which

were published in various London newspapers and magazines, were later collected to form

his first book, Sketches by Boz in 1836. Dickens’ “early period” includes his work Oliver

Twist in 1838. By 1837, Dickens was the most popular author in England. His fame soon

spread throughout the rest of the English-speaking world and eventually throughout the

continent. It still has not diminished (”Charles Dickens”). For many readers, Dickens is

not only a great novelist but also a history book. Although he is a great entertainer and

comic genius, we have come to know him as a famous example of the wounded artist,

whose sicknesses were shed in great art, whose very grudges against family and society

linked him throughout personal pains with larger public sufferings. Charles Dickens’ long

and illustrious life came to an end on June 18, 1870 at Gad’s Hill, Kent due to a paralytic

stroke. He is buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey (Blount; “”Charles


A frequent early criticism that Dickens’ works are “formless” is not accepted by

most modern critics. Many now see Dickens’ novels as vast and complex denunciations of

the bourgeois society that corrupt it’s members. Even as the structure of his novels grew

more intricate, Dickens never abandoned this method of publication, for he cherished the

constant contact with his readers through monthly or weekly installments (”Charles

Dickens”). Dickens was also a novelist who loved to devise plots that hinged on secrets

and disclosure and succeeded in keeping secret his own private life (Hardy 43). Dickens’

fictions are packed with social information and social passion. Dickens bitterly attacks the

defects of existing institutions: government, law, education, and penal systems. He also

mercilessly exposes the injustice and wretchedness inflicted by them. However, Dickens

was not a propagandist exposing utopian panaceas for the ills of the world. Dickens was

fascinated by the grotesque and had a particular talent for exaggeration. His exuberance

carried him beyond the bounds of moderation, but he seldom lost sight of his intentions

(Kaste 15). Charles Dickens is frequently charged with offering a view of the world that

does violence to reality. However, he really was able to just create a fictive world that

was a mirror in which the truths of the real world were reflected. Almost all of his novels

display, to varying degrees, his comic gift, his deep social concerns, and his extraordinary

talent for creating unforgettable characters (”Charles Dickens”). Dickens was primarily

concerned with external behavior of people and little occupied with the exploration of

psychological depths. Dickens caricatures may seem overdrawn, but they usually

discharge a serious function in the fictional milieu. He is often accused of being deficient

in character portrayal. His characters do not often develop, but remain unchanged

through the course of events and interaction with other characters. Charles Dickens had a

relish for melodrama and his characters reflect this. Dickens secondary characters are

often the most memorable. Subordinate characters regularly are given identity upon first

introduction by being labeled with some idiosyncrasy (Kaste 14). Dickens firmly maintains

that the nature and behavior of his depraved characters reflect truth without distortion,

however, implausible they may seem.. The serious characters between whom the conflict

usually takes place usually embody the extremes of virtue and viciousness (14). Dickens

never endows a character with that imaginative sensibility and energy which gives weight

and truth to the characters in his stories (Price 40). Though he has sometimes been

criticized for creating caricatures rather than characters, he has been defended as a master

of imaginative vision by forging whole character types out of tiny eccentricities. All of the

afore mentioned writing traits make Dickens one of the most original writers of all time.

Critics have always been challenged by his art though from the start it contained

enough easily acceptable ingredients of evident skill and gusto to ensure popularity.

Dickens has entered into the art and consciousness of modern writers such as James

Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Angus Wilson. Modern critics

believe that Dickens is second only to Shakespeare in English Literature (”Dickens” 274).

James Joyce claimed that Dickens has entered into the language more than any writer

since Shakespeare. Surprisingly, these two authors have a lot in common. They both

brim with originality, but express and address human nature at large. Like Shakespeare,

Dickens creates a unique and independent seeming world, allowing us to use that time

worn term “world” with precision. They are both fully in possession of themselves

creating an art that is powerfully personal and generously accessible. They both create a

flexible language for self-oppression and imaginative creativity that commands admiration

for it’s brilliance and virtuosity (Hardy 41).

Oliver Twist was a great example of a British literary masterpiece. Here is what

happens. Oliver Twist’s mother dies after giving birth to him in a workhouse. No one

knows who the father is, so Oliver is placed in a juvenile home. After roughly nine years

of mistreatment, Oliver is returned to the workhouse for more of the same. Oliver is then

apprenticed to Sowerberry, an undertaker. Then Noah Claypole guides Oliver towards

rebellion, for which he is whipped. So Oliver heads for London. Near the city, Oliver

joins up with John Dawkins, who conducts Oliver to Fagin, the ringleader of an infamous

gang of criminals. Oliver then learns how to pick pockets. When Oliver, John, and

Charlie Bates go out, Oliver’s companions pick an old man’s pocket and run off, allowing

Oliver to be seized for their offense. He is cleared of the charges and is then taken home

by Mr. Brownlow, the victim of the crime. While Oliver recovers at Brownlow’s home,

Brownlow is puzzled by how much Oliver looks like a portrait he has of a young woman.

Mr. Grimwig, one of Brownlow’s friends, does not trust Oliver, so he is sent on an errand

to test him. Oliver is then recaptured by Nancy, one of Fagin’s retainers, and Bill Sikes,

her friend. Fagin holds Oliver in strict captivity for awhile. Fagin wants to get Oliver

completely involved in some crime. So he convinces Sikes to use Oliver in a major

burglary. Sikes takes Oliver to Chertsey to meet Toby Crackit. At the house they are

going to rob, Oliver goes through a window. The occupants wake up. Then Oliver gets

shot. The robbers run off with Oliver but abandon him in a ditch. Back in the workhouse

Sally is dying. Mrs. Corney, a matron, and Bumble agree to marry. Fagin is upset when

Toby returns alone. Fagin has a meeting with Monks. Monks is angry with Fagin, who he

says has failed in an attempt to ruin Oliver. Oliver stumbles to the nearest house, which is

actuallythe place of the attempted burglary. There, Ms. Maylie and a doctor help Oliver

recover. Monks meets the Bumbles and purchases a locket that Mrs. Bumbles had. The

trinket contained a ring inscribed with “Agnes.” Monk drops it in the river. Nancy tells

Ms. Maylie everything that she has learned by listening to Fagin and Monks. The two are

plotting to destroy Oliver, who is actually Monks’ brother. Fagin finds Noah and

Charlotte hiding out in London. Fagin sends Noah to spy on Nancy. She has a meeting

with Rose and Brownlow. Nancy says how she can corner Monks. Noah reports all of

this to Fagin. Fagin waits up for Sikes and discloses Nancy’s double dealings. Sikes then

goes home and bludgeons Nancy to death. He then returns to London. Brownlow

captured Monks and took him home. Brownlow had been engaged to Monks’ aunt.

Monks father was forced into marriage. The two had only one child, Monks. They then

separated. Monks’ father then became attached to Agnes Fleming. He died suddenly in

Rome while Agnes was pregnant with Oliver Twist. Before leaving, Monks’ father had

left her picture with Brownlow. Brownlow fnally realized all about the destruction of

Monks’ father’s will, the disposal of the identity trinket that Oliver’s mother possessed, and

Monks’ conspiracy with Fagin to destroy Oliver. Monks comes to terms in return for

immunity. Brownlow’s exaction is that Monks make restitution to his brother in

accordance with the original will. Toby Crackit and Tom Chitling were hiding on Jacob’s

Island. Fagin was arrested along with Noah. Sikes was running from pursuers who

Charley Bates has helped. Sikes, attemting to escape from a gouse top, falls and is hanged

by his own noose. Oliver returns with Mrs. Maylie, Rose, and Mr. Losberne to the town

of his birth. Their father’s will left the bulk of his fortune to Agnes Fleming and her child,

Oliver. Rose s found to be Agnes’s sister. Fagin gets sentenced to be hanged. While in

prison Fagin tells Oliver where he can find some important papers. Claypole is pardoned

for testifying against Fagin. Bates becomes a herdsman. Other members of Fagin’s gang

are transported out of England. Oliver shares his fortune with Monks, who happens to do

later die in prison, destitute. Rose and Harry Maylie are married. The Bumbles lose their

positions and become inmates of the workhouse where Agnes Fleming died after giving

birth to Oliver. Oliver Twist is adopted by Brownlow. The two settled near the

parsonage. That is “Oliver Twist” in a nutshell. It was packed full of suspense and action.

This piece of literature will never be forgotten.

In Conclusion, Dickens had a rough childhood which helped prompt him to write

many classic novels. Dickens wrote to make people think about how the government was

being run. He wrote Oliver Twist to almost protest the Poor Law of 1834 and the use of

the workhouses. Since Dickens was such an original writer his presence in literature will

be forever appreciated.


Blount, Trevor. Dickens: The Early Novels. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1968.

?Dickens, Charles? Discovering Authors. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993.

?Dickens.? Encyclopedia Brittanica. 1998 ed.

Hardy, Barbara. ?Charles Dickens.? British Writers. Ian Scott-Kilvert. vol. 5. 12 vols.

New York: Charles Scribner?s Son?s, 1982.

Kaste, Harry, M.A. Cliff?s Notes on Oliver Twist. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes Inc., 1997.


Price, Martin. Dickens. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

Rooke, Patrick. The Age of Dickens. New York: G.P. Putnam?s Sons, 1978.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Cavalcade of the English Novel. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart, and

Winston Inc., 1967.



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