Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsea, England. His parents were middle-class, but they suffered financially as a result of living beyond their means. When Dickens was twelve years old, his family’s dire straits forced him to quit school and work in a blacking factory, a place where shoe polish is made. Within weeks, his father was put in debtor’s prison, where Dickens’s mother and siblings eventually joined him. At this point, Dickens lived on his own and continued to work at the factory for several months. The horrific conditions in the factory haunted him for the rest of his life, as did the experience of temporary orphanhood. Apparently, Dickens never forgot the day when a more senior boy in the warehouse took it upon himself to instruct Dickens in how to do his work more efficiently. For Dickens, that instruction may have represented the first step toward his full integration into the misery and tedium of working-class life. The more senior boy’s name was Bob Fagin. Dickens’s residual resentment of him reached a fevered pitch in the characterization of the villain Fagin in Oliver Twist.
After inheriting some money, Dickens’s father got out of prison and Charles returned to school. As a young adult, he worked as a law clerk and later as a journalist. His experience as a journalist kept him in close contact with the darker social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, and he grew disillusioned with the attempts of lawmakers to alleviate those conditions. A collection of semi-fictional sketches entitled Sketches by Boz earned him recognition as a writer. Dickens became famous and began to make money from his writing when he published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, which was serialized in 1836 and published in book form the following year.
In 1837, the first installment of Oliver Twist appeared in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, which Dickens was then editing. It was accompanied by illustrations by George Cruikshank, which still accompany many editions of the novel today. Even at this early date, some critics accused Dickens of writing too quickly and too prolifically, since he was paid by the word for his serialized novels. Yet the passion behind Oliver Twist, animated in part by Dickens’s own childhood experiences and in part by his outrage at the living conditions of the poor that he had witnessed as a journalist, touched his contemporary readers. Greatly successful, the novel was a thinly veiled protest against the Poor Law of 1834, which dictated that all public charity must be channeled through workhouses.
In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, but after twenty years of marriage and ten children, he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, an actress many years his junior. Soon after, Dickens and his wife separated, ending a long series of marital difficulties. Dickens remained a prolific writer to the end of his life, and his novels—among them Great Expectations,A Tale of Two Cities,A Christmas Carol,David Copperfield, and Bleak House—continued to earn critical and popular acclaim. He died of a stroke in 1870, at the age of 58, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished.
The Poor Laws: Oliver Twist’s Social Commentary
Oliver Twist opens with a bitter invective directed at the nineteenth-century English Poor Laws. These laws were a distorted manifestation of the Victorian middle class’s emphasis on the virtues of hard work. England in the 1830s was rapidly undergoing a transformation from an agricultural, rural economy to an urban, industrial nation. The growing middle class had achieved an economic influence equal to, if not greater than, that of the British aristocracy.
In the 1830s, the middle class clamored for a share of political power with the landed gentry, bringing about a restructuring of the voting system. Parliament passed the Reform Act, which granted the right to vote to previously disenfranchised middle-class citizens. The middle class was eager to gain social legitimacy. This desire gave rise to the Evangelical religious movement and inspired sweeping economic and political change.
In the extremely stratified English class structure, the highest social class belonged to the “gentleman,” an aristocrat who did not have to work for his living. The middle class was stigmatized for having to work, and so, to alleviate the stigma attached to middle-class wealth, the middle class promoted work as a moral virtue. But the resulting moral value attached to work, along with the middle class’s insecurity about its own social legitimacy, led English society to subject the poor to hatred and cruelty. Many members of the middle class were anxious to be differentiated from the lower classes, and one way to do so was to stigmatize the lower classes as lazy good-for-nothings. The middle class’s value system transformed earned wealth into a sign of moral virtue. Victorian society interpreted economic success as a sign that God favored the honest, moral virtue of the successful individual’s efforts, and, thus, interpreted the condition of poverty as a sign of the weakness of the poor individual.
The sentiment behind the Poor Law of 1834 reflected these beliefs. The law allowed the poor to receive public assistance only if they lived and worked in established workhouses. Beggars risked imprisonment. Debtors were sent to prison, often with their entire families, which virtually ensured that they could not repay their debts. Workhouses were deliberately made to be as miserable as possible in order to deter the poor from relying on public assistance. The philosophy was that the miserable conditions would prevent able-bodied paupers from being lazy and idle bums.
In the eyes of middle-class English society, those who could not support themselves were considered immoral and evil. Therefore, such individuals should enjoy no comforts or luxuries in their reliance on public assistance. In order to create the misery needed to deter immoral idleness, families were split apart upon entering the workhouse. Husbands were permitted no contact with their wives, lest they breed more paupers. Mothers were separated from children, lest they impart their immoral ways to their children. Brothers were separated from their sisters because the middle-class patrons of workhouses feared the lower class’s “natural” inclination toward incest. In short, the state undertook to become the surrogate parents of workhouse children, whether or not they were orphans. Meals served to workhouse residents were deliberately inadequate, so as to encourage the residents to find work and support themselves.
Because of the great stigma attached to workhouse relief, many poor people chose to die in the streets rather than seek public aid. The workhouse was supposed to demonstrate the virtue of gainful employment to the poor. In order to receive public assistance, they had to pay in suffering and misery. Victorian values stressed the moral virtue of suffering and privation, and the workhouse residents were made to experience these virtues many times over.
Rather than improving what the middle class saw as the questionable morals of the able-bodied poor, the Poor Laws punished the most defenseless and helpless members of the lower class. The old, the sick, and the very young suffered more than the able-bodied benefited from these laws. Dickens meant to demonstrate this incongruity through the figure of Oliver Twist, an orphan born and raised in a workhouse for the first ten years of his life. His story demonstrates the hypocrisy of the petty middle-class bureaucrats, who treat a small child cruelly while voicing their belief in the Christian virtue of giving charity to the less fortunate.
Dickens was a lifelong champion of the poor. He himself suffered the harsh abuse visited upon the poor by the English legal system. In England in the 1830s, the poor truly had no voice, political or economic. In Oliver Twist, Dickens presents the everyday existence of the lowest members of English society. He goes far beyond the experiences of the workhouse, extending his depiction of poverty to London’s squalid streets, dark alehouses, and thieves’ dens. He gives voice to those who had no voice, establishing a link between politics and literature with his social commentary.