Historical Background of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second novel, the first being Pickwick Papers.Pickwick Paper was a hilarious comedy, bordering on farce, written primarily with the aim of entertaining the readers. However, in Dickens the reformatory instinct was very strong and in the very next novel, his readers were surprised to see him ruthlessly attacking the social evils, in particular the wretched conditions in the workhouse. In his later novels he carried on a crusade against other evils like the miserable conditions in the debtor’s prison in the factories and shops, the corruption prevalent in the election system and certain other evils caused by the rapid industrialisation of the country. In order to understand these novels, including Oliver Twist, it is important to have a fair idea of the historical background in which they were written. In this chapter as much of this background is being discussed as is relevant to Oliver Twist.

Poor Laws

The first few chapters of Oliver Twist are a very strong protest against the workhouse life that virtually dehumanized human beings. Certain systems that initiated to bring relief to the poor people had gradually been so corrupted that instead of giving them any solace, they had actually made their life miserable. It was under Queen Elizabeth I, that laws were made to provide relief to those poor people who could not support them-selves.There was a twofold arrangement. The old, the sick, the lame and the blind were relieved at home; orphans were boarded out and then apprenticed to a trade. The vagabonds were sent to the houses of correction.The theory behind this arrangement was to provide work to the able bodied poor and to offer relief to the disabled. Special buildings were set up to provide work to the poor people under supervision. These buildings were known as work-houses. By an Act passed in 1722, the poor could be compelled to live and work in these buildings in order to be eligible to get relief. In other words, either a poor man was to live in the workhouse or he was to be denied any relief. This was known as the workhouse test. At first there wereseparate institutions for the different needs of children, old people or those who were mentally or physically sick. But gradually the workhouse conditions deteriorated; workhouse came to contain a mixture of able and disabled alike and by the end of 19th century they became symbols of utter degradation.In most workhouse husbands were separated from wives, children lacked proper care, diseases were rife and food was inadequate.

In the late 18th century, laws were passed to allow outdoor relief to theab1eBodied so that the workhouses could house only the old or disabled.The original plan was to offer minimum wage for the laborers. But later a system known as ‘Speenhamland System’ was devised. According to it relief based on the current prices of bread was given in addition to wages.Once again the intention was to make the life of the poor people worth living, but in practice it led to a general weakening of independence and self-respect of laborers and to an increase of pauperism in the long run. In the early 19th century, therefore, the need was felt to effect reforms in the poor laws. It was felt that a more suitable alternative solution was needed for the practice of outdoor relief which had become both useless and corrupt.Besides, the system of administering relief also needed to be overhauled.

The administration of relief

At this stage it would be useful to make a note of the system of administering relief to the poor. Basically it was the responsibility of the parish which was the main unit of local government in ruling it. Apart from other officials, the parish had the ‘Justice of the Peace’ whose duty was to impose the compulsory rates (the poor rate) and to appoint local overseers to administer actual relief. Another petty official was the beadle. Originally the beadle was almost, but a town crier. His main function was to proclaim meetings but he was also expected to keep order in Church and to punish petty offenders. Gradually the beagle came to yield considerable power on small scale. In Oliver Twist there is one such beadle,Mr . Bumble.

Most of the parish officials were unfit for their jobs because of their own lack of education, experience, and responsibility. Their positions were both unpaid and compulsory. Therefore, it was rarely that really good people ever got elected to them.

Poor law reforms

In 1832 a Commission was appointed to study the entire issue of the Poor Law Reform. On the basis of the proposals put forward by this Commission, the New Poor Law of 1834 came into being.According to it a Central Authority was created, the Prior Law Commissions,were given full powers to control local administration. One of the most important changes made by the new poor laws was the replacement of the Parish officers by elected local bodies known as Boards of Guardians.These Boards were required to supervise petty officials such as the Matron of the workhouse.

The inefficacy of the reforms

There is no doubt that the 1834 measures were excellent in intention but they failed to prove effective. The poor people continued to suffer . Howsoever humane might be the laws, it is actually their efficient administration which can ultimately bring any benefit. A corrupt administration will make a mockery of the best possible laws. Therefore,Dickens has directed his criticism as much against the system as against the individuals; if he is critical of the system that degraded human beings, he is equally critical of the people who were responsible for evolving or running such a system. In Oliver Twist we find that the workhouse incharge, Mrs Mann, appropriates the greater part of the stipend given for the food of the children and the children are mostly starved. Here it is Mrs Mann who is at fault.

It should be noted that Dicken’s main concern was the individual as an integral part of the system. A system without human beings would be lifeless and even meaningless. Human beings without a system would tend to be confused. So Dickens felt the need of basically good human beings working under a system that was designed to serve the society. Of these two also,he gave greater importance to the human beings. It is Mr Brownlow as an individual who ultimately rescues Oliver from this system. Laws were pad,the underworld, where people like Fagin ruled was also a dark world but noble people like Mr Brownlow and the Maylies could rise above these systems and do some good to the society.

Therefore, Dickens makes a very selective criticism in Oliver Twist. He attacks the harsh regime of the workhouse with special regard to diet and the utter neglect of the needs of the pauper children but more than that the inefficiency and inhumanity of such officials as Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney.These officials not only physical1y starved the children but often made them emotional wrecks.

There has been a good deal of discussion among scholars as to whether Dickens was attacking the Old Poor Laws or the New. But this discussion is almost irrelevant. We should remember that the novel is more an attack on the way the laws are administered rather than on the intention of the laws. On paper most of the laws are just, but in practice they prove to be injurious. As K.J. Fielding points out, the novel was never intended as an attack on mere institutions, but on the spirit behind them, which remains largely unchanged.

It is hard to say if any reforms were really carried out as a result of Dickens’s attack on these laws. In fact the protests made by writers are never so quickly effective. But one thing is certain, this novel as well as the others to follow definitely prepared a climate in which a genuine need was felt to have a second look at the entire administrative setup and to change it.

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