Oliver Twist is a work of literature that has had a far reaching influence on society. It had contributed pop-culture phenomena such as the titular, “please, sire, I want some more” (12). Stephen Gill (1999) writes in his introduction to Oliver Twist, “everyone knows, if they know nothing else about the novel, that little Oliver asked for more”. But what has made Oliver Twist such an influential piece of literature?
Oliver Twist is first-and-foremost a social critique; a work of fiction intended to bring to light the wrongs and wrongdoings of Victorian society. Charles Dickens critiques several social institutions, laws, and norms in Oliver Twist, which this essay will address. Through these critiques he demonstrates and highlights the problems in Victorian society.
The first theme identifiable in Oliver Twist is Dickens’ critique of Victorian charity. In Dickens’ time the poor could only receive government aid if they moved into workhouses. May (1987:122-123) cites an official whom complains that “in by far the greater number of cases” the old workhouse set-up was “a large almshouse, in which the young are trained in idleness, ignorance, and vice; the able-bodied maintained in sluggish sensual indolence; the aged and more respectable exposed to all the misery that is incident to dwelling in such a society”. This captures the general feeling of that time. People had to work hard to earn their keep; the young should work just as hard as the adults in order to be properly trained and educated in the mentality of hard work. There is also a sentiment that those who govern these houses, despite the abhorrent conditions and situations of those who find themselves there, are good Samaritans doing a public service out of the good of their heart.
It is this mentality, along with the charity and social care structures that emerged from it, and prevailed in Victorian society, that Dickens criticises. In the first couple of chapters Dickens explores and criticises this through the exchanges such as that between Mr. Bumble and ‘the undertaker’. The two discuss the sle of Oliver to the undertaker. It feels reminiscent of the exchanges immortalised in works such as Twelve Years a Slave, where people are bartered and sold like so many cattle. Through nodes and scenes like these Dickens brings to life the world of his childhood, a childhood he shares with Oliver, and characters from several of his other works.
Another facet of the Victorian charity system that Dickens explores is the way in which it disdains and de-humanises those that are caught in it. Not only is Oliver sold as though he were cattle, a slave, for a mere five pounds, but at one point he is forced to sleep amongst the coffins in the basement of his new abode.
The second major critique that Dickens levels at Victorian society is the inhumanity of its individualism. Rather than what modern readers might understand individualism as – the pursuit of self-expression and self-actualisation through the expression and ‘acting out’ of personal values and beliefs – Dickens characterises a very different kind of individualism, one where an individual doggedly pursues their own interests, and exploits others in any means necessary, regardless of whom they may be.
A perfect example of this characterisation can be found in the family-like unite of Fagin and those under his charge. He rears and trains the children in much the same way one might expect a father to. Some even choose to remain after having grown up, however this could hardly be considered a balanced, loving household. The spirit of his caring for those under his charge is completely out of self-interest. He seeks merely to exploit them for personal gain.
Through this comes the third main critique that Dickens levels at Victorian society: the failure of surrogate family bodies. Oliver passes through several such groups, each of which fail in a different way. The first, Mr. Bumble’s, is competely negrectful, Mr. Sowerberry, whilst slightly better, still has many shortcomings, and finally, Fagin’s group is completely self-centred and exploitary. These units fail mainly due to a lack of mutual interest. In no case do any of these individual take Oliver in purely because they wish to care for him; in all instances there is an ulterior motive, in Fagin’s case, that of financial gain through exploitation.
However, for all that Oliver Twist achieves and does brilliantly, it has several substantual shortcomings, several failures, as it where. The biggest of these is the convolution of the plot in the latter half of the novel. Dickens introduces a plot to which Oliver is wholesale unaware of, and one so intricate and confusing that one is hard pressed to follow it. This shortcoming, however sever, is not unique to Oliver Twist, works such as IShall Seal The Heavens (Er Gen, 2016), and Tales of Demons and Gods (Mad Snail, 2016) that are written and published in parts over an extended period of time also suffer from internal inconsistencies and plot elements that o little but confuse the reader. It reflects not so much on Dickens’ technical skill as a writer, than on the problem inherent with such extended writing: memory.
What emerges, thus, from this study of Oliver Twist is an image of an author that has written a detailed, fictional account of a part of society in which he grew up himself. From his personal experiences he draws knowledge and emotions which he imbues into his writing to give it a rare realism. His criticisms are clear and some would say quite severe. However, due to the nature of the publication, the fact that it is written and published in parts over an extended perior of time, it suffers from flaws and errors that, whilst far from unique to Oliver Twist, do make it hard to follow the story, especially in the latter half thereof.
Dickens, C. 2008. Oliver Twist. Oxford World’s Classics ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Er Gen. 2016. I shall seal the heavens. Translated from the Mandarin by Deathblade. http://www.wuxiaworld.com/issth-index/ Date of Access: 4 Sept. 2016.
Mad Snail. 2016. Tales of demons and gods. Translated from the Mandarin by Thyaeria. http://www.wuxiaworld.com/tdg-index/ Date of Access: 4 Sept. 2016.
May, T. 1987. An economic and social history of Britain 1760-1970. London: Longman.