[H]e should be despatched to a branch-workhouse . . . where 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[.]
The narrator explains how the system punishes Oliver and the other orphans for the “crime” of being born poor. Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens links poverty and criminality, but unfortunately, children like Oliver have virtually no opportunity to raise themselves and their station. The poor children who don’t die on the farms find themselves shipped to the workhouses, where they become entrenched in a cycle of hunger and poverty. As evidenced by boys like the Artful Dodger, few decent lines of work exist for poor, illegitimate children. Oliver can only improve himself through the kindness of others who react to his innate goodness.
What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.
After Oliver attacks Noah Claypole, Mr. Bumble blames the coffin-maker’s wife for feeding Oliver too well and giving him the energy to fight. His words highlight two key ideas about poverty. First, the sentiment justifies the decision to place orphans and other impoverished people on the farms and in the workhouses. The perverse logic follows that unless downtrodden people stay weak, they will revolt against their conditions. Secondly, the rationalization serves to keep poor people in such a state for their lifespans. Poor people unable to obtain proper nourishment will lack the energy to work hard enough to improve their situation.
Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, deprived of their situations, were gradually reduced to great indigence and misery, and finally became paupers in that very same workhouse in which they had once lorded it over others.
In an ironic turn, due to their role in hiding Oliver’s true identity, the narrator explains how the Bumbles lose their position at the workhouse and get sent there as inmates themselves. This reversal of fortune plays with the argument that poor people have done something to merit their bleak situation. While the Bumbles brought about their own sorry fate—their avarice leads them to sell information about Agnes’s locket for twenty-five pounds—most of the impoverished people in the novel, like Oliver and Nancy, are simply born into unfortunate circumstances. The Bumbles may be the only occupants in the workhouse who deserve to be there.