Oliver Twist By: Charles Dickens Oliver Twist provides insight into the experience of the poor in 1830 s England. Beneath the novel's raucous humor and flights of fancy runs an undertone of bitter criticism of the Victorian middle class's attitudes toward the poor. Oliver is a near perfect example of the hypocrisy and venality of the legal system, workhouses, and middle class moral values and marriage practices of 1830 s England. As a child, Dickens endured the harsh conditions of poverty. His family was imprisoned for debt, and Dickens was forced to work in a factory at age twelve. These experiences haunted him for the rest of his life.
The misery of his childhood is a recurrent theme in his novels. Oliver Twist expresses the unfortunate situation of the orphaned child. Oliver suffers the cruelty of hypocritical workhouse officials, prejudiced judges, and hardened criminals. Throughout the novel, his virtuous nature survives the unbelievable misery of his situation. Oliver's experiences demonstrate the legal silence and invisibility of the poor. In 1830 s England, wealth determined voting rights.
Therefore, the poor had no say in the laws that governed their lives, and the Poor Laws strictly regulated the ability to seek relief. Since begging was illegal, workhouses were the only sources of relief. The workhouses were made to be deliberately unpleasant in order to discourage the poor from seeking their relief. The Victorian middle class assumed that the poor were uncontrollable due to their state of nature and immorality. Since the poor had no voting rights, the State chose to recognize their existence only when they committed crimes, died, or entered the workhouses.
Dickens' Oliver Twist is one sympathetic portrayal among dozens of vicious, stereotypical portrayals of the poor. However, Dickens himself exhibits middle class prejudice. He reproduces the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes in Fagin, the 'villainous old Jew.' The portrayal of Noah Clay pole, the dirty charity boy, reveals some of the stereotypes of the poor that Dickens criticizes. Monks, Oliver's evil half-brother, is 'bad from birth,' although Dickens clearly satirizes the middle class's belief that the poor are born criminals.
These inconsistencies weaken the larger impact of Dickens' crusade against the abuses leveled against the poor. Oliver Twist is not considered one of Dickens's best novels. The plot is misleading and often ridiculous. However, it merits study for its scathing critique of Victorian middle class attitudes towards poverty.