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How Charles Dickens’ Life Influenced Oliver Twist Essay, Research Paper

How Charles Dickens’ Life Influenced Oliver Twist

“The range of his creative activity is, in the first place, limited to the world of his youth” (Cecil 169). This quote explains many people. What has previously happened to a person has a tremendous impact on them. It can affect their decisions, emotions, and life. The life of a person can sometimes be seen quite easily through what they do. Artists often reveal what their life has been like through the works that they create. The same can be said about writers. Events in authors past often show up in his works. The above quote is, in fact, made in regard to Charles Dickens.

Dickens had several real life experiences of poverty and abandonment in his life that influenced his work, Oliver Twist. The times of poverty and abandonment in Charles Dickens’ life instilled a political belief in Dickens’ mind against the new poor laws of Great Britain. Dickens’ felt the new poor laws victimized the poor, failed to give the poor a voice, and were in need of change. These points are shown in Oliver Twist through the characters, scenes, and narration Dickens’ uses throughout the book.

Dickens lived a life full of events that would later influence his novels. Dickens grew up during a time of change for Great Britain. By the time he was born in 1812, the Industrial Revolution was in full force. Dickens grew up as a normal middle-class child in Portsmouth, Great Britain. It was around the age of twelve that his life took a drastic turn. Dickens was still a child when his father was imprisoned for debt. Families, at this time, lived with the father in prison. Charles did not live in prison, though. Instead, he was sent to live alone and become a laborer at Warren’s Blacking Factory. After several months, Charles’ dad received an inheritance and was freed from prison. Much to Charles Dickens’ dismay, his family did not rush to get him. Eventually, they saved him from the factory. Charles grew up and put himself through the education he could manage to find. He got a job as a lawyer’s apprentice, and then he worked as a parliamentary reporter. Dickens began to do some freelance writings for several magazines. He eventually became the editor of a magazine and an author of his own novels.

Throughout Dickens journey through life, the poor laws of Great Britain were closely intertwined. The first major impact that his childhood experiences had on him was his exposure to the factory system. The Industrial Revolution created large urban areas with a central factory that employed most of the area’s people. The factory was full of lower-class people in unsanitary conditions. In the days of Dickens’ factory experience the old poor laws were in effect. This helped Dickens’ situation greatly. His father lived in a fairly nice and sanitary prison, and was given time to find the money he owed. The old poor law system of giving aid to the poor helped to save the Dickens family. When Dickens grew up and was a parliamentary reporter, the new poor laws were about to be passed. Dickens realized that the new poor laws would bring doom to many families. The new poor laws did not help the poor but worsened their condition in order to drive them to work.

Dickens’ experiences of living in abandonment and working in Warren’s Blacking Factory, coupled with his later occupation as a parliamentary reporter, helped to mold his political beliefs. The first political belief he held was that the new poor laws victimized the poor. Dickens felt that diminishing the already low standards of the lower class would break them. He felt that it would lead to crime and anarchy. He also felt that the lower class would become helpless. He thought they would lose their voice. The most powerful political urge Dickens felt was the need of these laws to change. Throughout Dickens whole literary career he tried to make people aware of the political problems of Great Britain. He tried to inspire change in every way he could, including novels.

The political beliefs of Charles Dickens show up through the characters in Oliver Twist. The characters in Oliver Twist are unique. Dickens created the characters to show his political belief that the new poor laws victimized the poor and forced them into a life of crime. His characters capture the feelings and views of the actual classes of England (Taine 155). The main character that Dickens political beliefs can be seen in is Oliver. Since Dickens believed that the poor were victims, he created Oliver to be a noble orphan. It is important to remember that Dickens believed his characters were the same as the real people they portrayed (Gissing 423). Dickens tried to make the readers feel so much sorrow and pity for Oliver that they would be inspired to help the cause of the poor. “Oliver, after all, seeks nothing more than food, shelter, and consoling love. Key concerns of Oliver Twist are more primal than topical” (Murray 80). Dickens created a character that just wanted food, shelter and love. When Oliver did not receive these things, the readers were to feel angry and upset. They were to realize that those three things were all the poor really wanted, and what they had been denied. Another political belief can be found in the characters of Oliver Twist. This political belief is that the new poor laws would lead to crime. The new poor law would try to force people towards work and away from education. An important theme in Oliver Twist is the relationship between criminality and lack of education. Dickens provides an example of this when pauper children have no education. They fall into the hands of those such as Mrs. Mann and Fagin. This is a bad situation in which the uneducated can be easily manipulated. Dickens provides an ideal example in Mr. Brownlow as an educator. “Dickens created his characters to get you to ask ‘who are the real criminals…Fagin and Bill Sikes or Oliver’s workhouse persecutors, Beadle Bumble and Mrs. Mann?” (Wills 60). That is the real question Dickens wants the reader to figure out. Does being thieves outweigh the egregious error being made by the philosophers of Great Britain? The characters in Dickens book are forced into being thieves. “The characters of Oliver Twist find themselves in a world in which they are from the first moment and every moment in extreme danger. Not how to ‘succeed,’ how to ‘rise in the world,’ but how to live in this world at all, is their problem.” (Miller 37) Dickens tried to portray through his characters his belief that the new poor laws victimized the poor and forced them to become criminals.

Dickens created scenes in Oliver Twist to show the ill effects of the new poor laws and to reemphasize his political beliefs. Dickens used scenes in his book to show the effects of the poor laws. The poor laws made huge workhouses. The men and women were split and families were broken apart. Food was rationed to the bare bones for everyone (Murray 79). Dickens felt this system took advantage of the poor. Dickens disliked the harsh treatment of a class he felt was helpless (Gissing 421). Dickens showed these effects in his work, Oliver Twist. Dickens used the death of Oliver’s mother in the workhouse to symbolize the fact that he thought women with illegitimate children would die working (Dunn 11). Dickens knew that mothers needed a way to support their children. The new poor laws would throw them in the workhouses to die, or to live life away from their child. Another scene he includes is that of Oliver being sold. A major problem with the new poor laws was that paupers were being sold into apprenticing jobs, much like slaves (Dunn 75). The description in which Dickens uses is prevalent. Dickens tries to take the reader to the slums of London.

The most important part of Oliver Twist that shows Charles Dickens’ political beliefs is his narration. Dickens does several things in his narration. First, he makes reference to the new poor laws. “Since the new system of feeding has come in, the coffins are something narrower and more shallow then they use to be” (Dickens Ch. 4). The next thing Dickens does in his narration is to describe the pain of being poor. “Bleak, dark, and piercing cold.” ”It was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving, wretch to lay him down and die” (Dickens Ch. 23.) The last part of Dickens narration that is a good tool for explaining his political beliefs was to show the reader that the law makers had never experienced poverty before. “There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish” (Dickens Ch. 4). Dickens narration is the easiest way to see his political beliefs incorporated into Oliver Twist.

Besides incorporating his political beliefs into Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens put some of his own experiences in the book. “If you look at the book as Olivers ‘descent’ from orphan to criminal you can see parallel lines of Dickens’ own ‘fall’ from middle-class to laborer” (Paroissien np). Many critics are skeptical on whether or not Oliver Twist was based upon his childhood. Many feel that although Dickens’ troubles were not as harsh as those of Oliver, the book was still written to show Dickens’ escape from pain (MacKenzie 56).

Oliver Twist made a major impact on English society. The first major impact was the subject of the book. As Steven Marccus has said of Dickens, “confronted injustices so directly and without equivocation, that he was able to bring before a large and extremely partisan public on of the most sensitive problems of the time, the problem of the poor” (qtd. in Dunn 10). The book caused heightened awareness of the problems with the poor and the new poor laws. The story became more and more important as a severe winter hit. The cold forced food shortages and unemployment. Many felt themselves sinking into the grip of the new poor laws. (MacKenzie 56).

Oliver Twist was greatly influenced by Dickens real life experiences of poverty and abandonment. The subject matter was the poor. He wrote of an orphan reflecting on the time he spent living alone working at Warren’s Blacking Factory. Dickens then created a story from this orphan to show his thoughts on the poor laws. Dickens believed the poor laws made victims of the poor, denied the poor voice, and needed to be changed. The poor laws had become the second most important thing in Dickens life, behind writing. Dickens combined his real life and his writing to create one of the greatest novels ever, Oliver Twist.

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Cecil, David. “Charles Dickens.” Essays on Revaluation. Canada: The Bobbs-

Merrill Company Inc., 1962. Pg. 37-74. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century

Literature Criticism, Vol. 3. Ed. Laurie L. Harris. Detroit, Michigan: Gale

Research Company, 1983. Pg 168-71.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Norton & Company, 1993.

Dube, Micheal. A division of Labor: How Charles Dickens’ Fiction and Journalism

work together. 28 Sep 1999. 20 Feb 2000.


Fleishman, Aurom. “Dickens.” The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World

Biographies Vol. 3. 1973 ed. Pg 367-68.

Gissing, George. “Oliver Twist” The Immortal Dickens. London, 1925. 63-87. Rpt

in Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton & Company, 1993. Skim

Greene, Graham. “The Young Dickens.” Collected Essays. 1969. Rpt. in

Nineteenth Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 3. Ed. Laurie L. Harris. Detroit:

Gale Research Company, 1983. Pg. 176.

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Publication, 1979. Skim.

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Paroissien, David. Letter to Noah Laible, 15 Feb 2000.

Taine, Hippolyte A. History of English Literature, Vol 4. New York: Frederick

Ungar Publishing Co., 1965. Pg. 117-163.

Wall, Stephan. “The Letters of Charles Dickens, 1856-1858.” Essays in Criticism

47.1 (1997): 78-87.

Wills, Garry. “Love in the lower depths.” The New York Review of Books 26 Oct

1989: 60-68.

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