Oliver Twist is born a sickly infant in a workhouse. The parish surgeon and a drunken nurse attend his birth. His mother kisses his forehead and dies, and the nurse announces that Oliver’s mother was found lying in the streets the night before. The surgeon notices that she is not wearing a wedding ring.
So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative . . . of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.
Authorities at the workhouse send Oliver to a branch-workhouse for “juvenile offenders against the poor-laws.” The overseer, Mrs. Mann, receives an adequate sum for each child’s upkeep, but she keeps most of the money and lets the children go hungry, sometimes even letting them die.
On Oliver’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, a minor church official known as the parish beadle, informs Mrs. Mann that Oliver is too old to stay at her establishment. Since no one has been able to discover his mother’s or father’s identity, he must return to the workhouse. Mrs. Mann asks how the boy came to have any name at all. Mr. Bumble tells her that he keeps a list of names in alphabetical order, naming the orphans from the list as they are born.
Mrs. Mann fetches Oliver. When Mr. Bumble is not looking, she glowers and shakes her fist at the boy, so he stays silent about the miserable conditions at her establishment. Before Oliver departs, Mrs. Mann gives him some bread and butter so that he will not seem too hungry at the workhouse.
The workhouse offers the poor the opportunity to starve slowly as opposed to quick starvation on the streets. For the workhouse, the undertaker’s bill is a major budget item due to the large number of deaths. Oliver and his young companions suffer the “tortures of slow starvation.” One night at dinner, one child tells the others that if he does not have another bowl of gruel he might eat one of them. Terrified, the children at the workhouse cast lots, determining that whoever loses shall be required to ask for more food for the boy. Oliver loses, and after dinner, the other children insist that Oliver ask for more food at supper. His request so shocks the authorities that they offer five pounds as a reward to anyone who will take Oliver off of their hands.
In the parish, Oliver has been flogged and then locked in a dark room as a public example. Mr. Gamfield, a brutish chimney sweep, offers to take Oliver on as an apprentice. Because several boys have died under his supervision, the board considers five pounds too large a reward, and they settle on just over three pounds. Mr. Bumble, Mr. Gamfield, and Oliver appear before a magistrate to seal the bargain. At the last minute, the magistrate notices Oliver’s pale, alarmed face. He asks the boy why he looks so terrified. Oliver falls on his knees and begs that he be locked in a room, beaten, killed, or any other punishment besides being apprenticed to Mr. Gamfield. The magistrate refuses to approve the apprenticeship, and the workhouse authorities again advertise Oliver’s availability.
The workhouse board considers sending Oliver out to sea as a cabin boy, expecting that he would die quickly in such miserable conditions. However, Mr. Sowerberry, the parish undertaker, takes Oliver on as his apprentice. Mr. Bumble informs Oliver that he will suffer dire consequences if he ever complains about his situation. Mrs. Sowerberry remarks that Oliver is rather small. Mr. Bumble assures her that he will grow, but she grumbles that he will only grow by eating their food. Mrs. Sowerberry serves Oliver the leftovers that the dog has declined to eat. Oliver devours the food as though it were a great feast. After he finishes, Mrs. Sowerberry leads him to his bed, worrying that his appetite seems so large.
Oliver Twist is an extreme criticism of Victorian society’s treatment of the poor. The workhouses that figure prominently in the first few chapters of the novel were institutions that the Victorian middle class established to raise poor children. Since it was believed that certain vices were inherent to the poor and that poor families fostered rather than discouraged such vices, poor husbands and wives were separated in order to prevent them from having children and expanding the lower class. Poor children were taken away from their parents in order to allow the state and the church to raise them in the manner they believed most appropriate.
In the narrative, the workhouse functions as a sign of the moral hypocrisy of the working class. Mrs. Mann steals from the children in her care, feeding and clothing them inadequately. The Victorian middle class saw cleanliness as a moral virtue, and the workhouse was supposed to rescue the poor from the immoral condition of filth. However, the workhouse in Dickens’s novel is a filthy place—Mrs. Mann never ensures that the children practice good hygiene except during an inspection. Workhouses were established to save the poor from starvation, disease, and filth, but in fact they end up visiting precisely those hardships on the poor. Furthermore, Mr. Bumble’s actions underscore middle-class hypocrisy, especially when he criticizes Oliver for not gratefully accepting his dire conditions. Bumble himself, however, is fat and well-dressed, and the entire workhouse board is full of fat gentlemen who preach the value of a meager diet for workhouse residents.
The assumption on the part of the middle-class characters that the lower classes are naturally base, criminal, and filthy serves to support their vision of themselves as a clean and morally upright social group. The gentlemen on the workhouse board call Oliver a “savage” who is destined for the gallows. After Oliver’s outrageous request for more food, the board schemes to apprentice him to a brutal master, hoping that he will soon die. Even when the upper classes claim to be alleviating the lower-class predicament, they only end up aggravating it. In order to save Oliver from what they believe to be his certain fate as a criminal, the board essentially ensures his early death by apprenticing him to a brutal employer.
The workhouse reproduces the vices it is supposed to erase. One workhouse boy, with a “wild, hungry” look, threatens in jest to eat another boy. The suggestion is that workhouses force their residents to become cannibals. The workhouse also mimics the institution of slavery: the residents are fed and clothed as little as possible and required to work at tasks assigned by the board, and they are required to put on a face of cheery, grateful acceptance of the miserable conditions that have been forced on them. When Oliver does not, he is sold rather than sent away freely.
Dickens achieves his biting criticism of social conditions through deep satire and hyperbolic statements. Throughout the novel, absurd characters and situations are presented as normal, and Dickens often says the opposite of what he really means. For example, in describing the men of the parish board, Dickens writes that “they were very sage, deep, philosophical men” who discover about the workhouse that “the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay. . . .” Of course, we know that Oliver’s experience with the workhouse is anything but entertaining and that the men of the parish board are anything but “sage, deep,” or “philosophical.” But by making statements such as these, Dickens highlights the comical extent to which the upper classes are willfully ignorant of the plight of the lower classes. Since paupers like Oliver stand no chance of defeating their tormenters, Dickens takes it upon himself to defeat them with sly humor that reveals their faults more sharply than a serious tone might have. Though Oliver himself will never have much of a sense of humor, we will eventually meet other boys in his situation who will join Dickens in using humor as a weapon in their woefully unequal struggle with the society that oppresses them.
This is my favourite ever book!
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Oh, Dickens, I expected much more from you: bad men go to prison or die, and good men live happily ever after with much money? I just... I don't know. I wanted something more.