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.
Who can describe the pleasure and delight, the peace of mind and soft tranquility, the sickly boy felt in the balmy air and among the green hills and rich woods of an inland village! Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change—men to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks—even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face, and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being.
In Dickens’s time, England was rapidly becoming an industrial, urban society. Dickens’s works are overwhelmingly concerned with the social and psychological conditions that city life fostered, and he is known as one of the first great urban European authors. Yet, in this passage from Chapter 32, describing Oliver’s sojourn to the countryside with Mrs. Maylie and Rose, the author reveals his profound skepticism about the influence of urban life on the human character. This passage praises the purity and health of the rural environment and claims outright that even a lifelong city-dweller has in his blood a faint longing for the “new state of being” to which nature can elevate him. Dickens goes on to note that, in the country, even “the poor people” are “neat and clean.” The squalor and starvation that characterize urban poverty are not present in rural England. Given the eagerness of England’s rural poor to migrate to the city, it seems unlikely that this assessment is realistic. In many ways, Dickens’s idealized vision marks him all the more clearly as an urban writer, since his gritty portraits of city life are based on real experience, while his blissful portrait of rural life seems more the product of wistful fantasy.
“Stay another moment,” interposed Rose. . . . “Will you return to this gang of robbers, and to this man, when a word can save you? What fascination is it that can take you back, and make you cling to wickedness and misery?” “When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are,” replied the girl [Nancy] steadily, “give away your hearts, love will carry you all lengths—even such as you, who have home, friends, other admirers, everything, to fill them. When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady—pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride into a new means of violence and suffering.”
This exchange takes place between Rose and Nancy in Chapter 40. It is one of the most emotionally heightened conversations in the novel, and it represents a sophisticated treatment of the moral and social issues that dominate the story. Nancy, a prostitute, embodies for Dickens all the degradation into which poverty can force otherwise good people. Rose, on the other hand, represents all the purity that comes from good breeding. Both women embody the feminine compassion that compels them to help Oliver. That feminine compassion, maternal and sisterly when directed toward Oliver, is also what binds Nancy to her vice-ridden lover Sikes. In this passage, Dickens emphasizes the key role that environment plays in distinguishing vice from virtue: the same loyalty to a loved one that would be a virtue in Rose is a self-destructive force for Nancy. Though Nancy is compassionate and intelligent, she deflects Rose’s attempts to save her from her life of crime, thus proving that the damage done by a bad upbringing is irrevocable. Yet Nancy’s decision to return to a life of “vice” is arguably the most noble—if foolhardy—act in the entire novel. Her love for Sikes and her compassion for Oliver together compel her to sacrifice her own life. Though Dickens clearly approves of the second emotion far more than the first, it is likely that they stem from the same impulse in Nancy’s character.
At times he [Sikes] turned with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now—always. He leaned his back against a bank, and felt that it stood above him, visibly out against the cold night sky. He threw himself upon the road—on his back upon the road. At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still—a living grave-stone, with its epitaph in blood. Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.
After murdering Nancy, Sikes flees London, only to find that his conscience will not let him escape. This passage, from Chapter 48, embodies an idea that has fascinated many great authors—the idea that a guilty conscience is its own punishment, worse than any that the law can assign. The entire account of Sikes’s flight is also among the most psychologically sophisticated passages in the novel. Up until this point, Sikes has been a pure villain. In his guilt, however, he becomes more realistically human. We probably cannot sympathize with Sikes, but, in this chapter, we do see the world through his wretched eyes. Moreover, Dickens’s vivid descriptions allow us to experience Sikes’s sensation of being hunted, by both external and more horrifying internal pursuers.
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. Within the altar of the old village church there stands a white marble tablet which bears as yet but one word: “Agnes”. . . . I believe that the shade of Agnes sometimes hovers round the solemn nook. I believe it none the less because that nook is in a Church, and she was weak and erring.
The final passage of the novel sums up Dickens’s moral and religious vision. On the one hand, Dickens considers a firm and true belief in God to be an essential prerequisite of both moral rectitude and earthly happiness. On the other hand, the novel has not been kind to characters such as Mr. Bumble, who prattle on about Christian values, but whose behavior is notably lacking in “Benevolence” and who are quick to condemn others as sinners. The description of Agnes’s grave is an attack on puritanical religion, which would consider adultery to be an unforgivable sin. The novel’s faith in Christian values is as wholehearted as its attacks on Christian hypocrisy are biting.
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