So they 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. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations . . . kindly undertook to divorce poor married people . . . instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel, and that frightened people.
This passage, from Chapter 2, describes the conditions in the workhouse to which the orphan Oliver has just been sent. The function of this description is twofold: first, to provoke our sympathies for young Oliver and his fellow unfortunates, and second, to register Dickens’s protest against the welfare policy and practice of charity in the England of his time. Three years before the publication of Oliver Twist, the British Parliament passed a controversial amendment to the nation’s “poor-laws.” This amendment stipulated that the poor could receive public assistance only if they took up residence in official workhouses and abided by their regulations. In these workhouses, husbands were separated from wives, and living conditions were often abysmal. Lurking behind the establishment of workhouses were the assumptions that moral virtue lay in work, that work led necessarily to success, that economic failure was the result of laziness, and that, therefore, poverty was a sign of moral degeneracy. In Dickens’s opinion, charity based on this kind of premise did far more harm than good to the material and moral situations of its recipients. In this passage, and throughout the early chapters of the novel, he adopts a sarcastic, harshly satirical tone to make this point. Dickens, in fact, says the exact opposite of what he really means and does no more than state the truth. All of the conditions he describes did actually exist. Rather than exaggerating to make his point, Dickens relies on the inherent absurdity of the way English society treated the poor to manifest itself through his description.