Social Criticism in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Fierce protest against the contemporary world In Pickwick Papers triumphs over the world in which Charles Dickens was born. Oliver Twist is his fierce and indignant protest against it. Dickens showed himself a master of luminous humour in the first book. Oliver Twist is the most gloomy book that he ever wrote. It is a blazing melodrama where horror is fused with angry pathos.Throughout there is an oppressive, lurid intensity of a claustrophobic world of darkness The progression from the callous, cruel world of the workhouse to the jeering Dodger, the insidious Fagin and the brutal Sikes is not fortuitous;it comes from Dickens’s angry and bitter conviction that the world of the workhouse brings forth its dreadful harvest of crime and vice. Oliver Twist is a remarkable book revealing the stern side of the author here; if ever anywhere else is angry Dickens, the fierce Satirist and the Social Reformer.

The Workhouse World

The workhouse world is full of a bitter and pitiful comedy. Here Dickens’s irony serves him as a sharp edged sword with which he attacks the demons of cruelty and callousness. In the babyfarm under the care of Mrs Mann twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at end for the consideration of seven pence half penny per small head per week. She appropriated the greater part of weekly stipend to her use and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them, thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still, and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher. Here children suffer unimaginable cruelties a child dies as he is overlooked in turning up a bedstead, another is scalded to death when there happened to be a washing. The philosophers managing the workhouse were very sage, deep, philosophical men and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once,what ordinary folks would never have discovered the poor people like it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar Elysium, where it was all play and no work”. The board, looking very knowing, established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. And so the diet was given with so much munificence and prodigality that the bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation,which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls),they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed ; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast there on. And so naturally, when Mrs Sowerberry offers Oliver the cold bits of meat which were left for the dog. Trip and when his eyes glisten at the mention of meat, the angry Dickens burst out bitterly: “I wish some well fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood isice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which, Oliver tore it asunder with all the ferocity of famine there is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to seethe philosopher making the same sort of meal himself with the same relish”.

Indifference

The description of the slum and the funeral scene are deeply moving. A poor woman has died of starvation. Her old father and mother rave dementedly the funeral is arranged by Mr Sowerberry the priest is late the bier is on the brink of the grave the ragged boys attracted by the spectacle play a noisy game at hide and seek and jump backwards and forwards over the coffin. Mr. Sowerberry and Bumble sit by the fire with the clerk and read the paper the old man and woman wait in the damp clay, with a cold rain drizzling down the clergyman comes after an hour, reads as much of the burial service as he can compress in four minutes and walks away the old man falls down in a swoon they throw a can of cold water over him and after some time turn him out of the churchyard. The undertaker asks Oliver how he likes all this. The boy replies, “Not very much, sir.” “Ah, you’ll get used to it in time, Oliver”,said Sowerberry. “Nothing when you are used to it”

The World of Fagin and Sikes

What a pitiful comedy! Wouldn’t the world be better if men behaved more humanely and decently? And since they don’t, what do they make of the unprotected, neglected, starved and beaten children? The jeering Dodger, the reptile like Fagin and the ferocious bully Sikes are the answers. The intensity of imagination with which Dickens endows life to these criminals and the nightmarish vividness that bathes the slum world, is the measure of the anger of the otherwise most jovial and laughing humanist. Dickens here creates a dark and confined world in which lurks the smoky fetid thieves kitchen where the Artful Dodger leers and Fagin grins in mirth through the greasy air. Almost all its interiors are bleak and gloomy; the workhouse where half starved boys whimper with hunger in the bare stone hall and scrawny hags hang over the beds of the dying, the peep holed back room of the Three Cripples, the ruined warehouse where Monks terrifies Bumble by night. Even when Oliver rests asleep at Mrs Maylie’s, just beyond the window loom Fagin and Monks, darkening the sunlight like two monstrous demons. Nancy lurks in black shadows on the slimy steps of the London Bridge. Sikes wanders in horror haunted flight away from and back to the city, the waving torches glimmer on the mud of Folly Ditch while the murderer clambers over the tiles of the barricaded house. And the end narrows in relentlessly with Fagin cowered in the condemned cell, gnawing his nails and glaring at the close wall. In creating all this Dickens seems to be bursting out the horrified protest; “What man has made of man”.

Mr. Fang’s court

The scene of Mr.Fang’s court is a fine specimen of Dickens’s rudimentary criticism of the social abuses of his times. Here the‘insolence of office’ is subjected to an indignant attack. The insolent magistrate is presented in his utmost impoliteness, haughtiness and callousness to the sufferings of the wretches who have the misfortune of coming to his ‘dispensary of summary justice’.

An Angry Protest on the Moral Plane

Oliver Twist is an angry warning that any society that does not take care of its unfortunate children must face the dismal problems of its Fagins and Sikes. It is an angry protest on the moral plane. No concrete suggestions are offered to fight out the evils described in the book. If there is any obvious lesson, Dickens the moralist points it in these words at the end of the book:

I have said that they were truly happy ; and without strong affection and humanity of heart; and gratitude to that Being whose code is Mercy, and whose great attribute is Benevolence to all things that breathe, happiness can never be attained.

Surely this is no answer to any social problem from any political angle ; it is purely Christian morality.

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