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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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