Charles Dickens wrote “Oliver Twist” in 1849 with the zeal of a reformer in order to expose the ugliness of material of the Victorian Age. He was a ruthless critic of the Victorian Society. A note of social satire runs through almost all his novels.
“Pickwick Papers” was hilarious comedy still it exposed the corruption rampant in the election system and the general law, moral climate of the society. But with “Oliver Twist” Dickens almost emerged as a crusader against the social evils of his times. In “Oliver Twist”, “Nicholas Nickleby”, “Bleak House”, “Hard Times” and “Little Dorrit”, he flayed (highly criticized) the social institutions with devastating force. Edmund Wilson remarks that Dickens was “of all the great Victorian writers probably most antagonist to the Victorian Age itself.” Along with giving poetic shape to the better characteristics of English life, he also attacked the abuses in the society “especially in the workhouse (poor and beggar’s dwelling), educational system, pawn-broken (shroff) shops, slums, delay in law offices, all the London Haunts of crime and pain. Dickens was the advocate of the downtrodden and the oppressed. He aroused the conscience of the public and he became the heart and conscience of England. “He is the master of our sunniest smiles and our most unselfish tears”, Lord Carlisle remarked. His age was an age of transition. The Industrial Revolution was rapid gaining power and England was changing from a country that was mainly agricultural to a country that was mainly industrial. Dickens criticizes the society in almost exclusively moral way. His criticism reminds us of the grave folds common more or less to all mankind. He was truly a Victorian and yet he is for all ages.
In “Oliver Twist”, Dickens has presented the pathos of innocent childhood and protest against the abuses of powers, especially on the part of the governmental institution. He throws light on the workhouse system of those days in England.
As the same time he has exposed the defects of the Poor Law of 1834 which aimed at abolishing begging and unemployment. The novel deals with the sad story of sorrows and struggles of an orphan boy and his ultimate union with well-deserved happiness. The first part of the novel presents the early childhood of Oliver in the workhouse and about his days of service as an apprentice. The later part of the novel deals with Oliver’s experience in London where he is caught in the net of a master criminal named Fagin. Dickens wants to show how crime is bred (brought up). The story describes how Oliver keeps his honesty and purity in the midst of sinful ways and how he finally finds the happy home amongst good and kind people.
Through the story of Oliver, Dickens has exposed the corrupt class system prevalent in the 17th Century England. His zeal for social reform lag him to satirize the social institutions. The novel is an attack on the inhuman conditions of subsistence in the work houses, the idiocy of law and the unsatisfactory medical facilities. Dickens has also shown what it was meant to be a charity child. The indifference of the government and the people towards the welfare of children, specially orphans is epitomized in Oliver’s sufferings. The workhouse world is full of a bitter and pitiful comedy. The novelist attacks the demons of cruelty and callousness (kathortha). The workhouses were meant for helping the poor but in fact Oliver and other boys had to suffer slow starvation. The philosophers ‘Managing the work house’ were very sage, deep, philosophical men’. In their eyes the workhouse had become a regular place for public entertainment so they decided to set things right. They contacted with the waterworks to lay on unlimited supply of water and with a corn factory to supply small quantities of oatmeal and issued 3 meals of thin gruel (soup like) a day with an onion twice a week. The diet was given in such small quantity that the bowls never ‘wanted washing’. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone (of shine) again. Oliver’s demand for more food was considered as a crime and as a punishment he was sent away to the undertaker’s (coffin seller) house. The sick and dying were not properly cared. This can be seen in the example of Oliver’s dying mother.
The novel presents cruelty and meanness of Parish (jurisdiction) authorities. This can be seen in the portrayal of Mrs. Mann, Mr. Corney, Mr. Bumble, Mr. & Mrs. sowerberry (undertaker) Mrs. Man, was incharge of Baby farm. Being ‘a very great practical philosopher’ and a woman of wisdom and experience, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use. The parish doctors were usually the cheapest and most inexperienced Doctors. This Parish authorities starved and ill treated poor under their care in order to make money for themselves. Mr. & Mrs. Sowerberry ill treat Oliver so much that Oliver eventually runs away from their house. The death of the power is neglected. A poor woman dies of starvation and the clergymen comes after an hour, reads as much of the burial services as he can compress in 4 minutes and walks away.
The unprotected, neglected, starved and beaten children were led to enter the world of crime. Fagin is the leader of a gang of young pickpockets who also deals in stolen goods. The young victims are The Dodger, Charle Bades, Tom Chitling and later Noah Claypole worked for him. All these boys are engaged in pick pocketing. Young boys of streets were trained by giving them tobacco and wine, and was making them think that the life of a criminal was something romantic. In the novel crime is shown to be ugly as well as miserable. Dickens has lighted up the dark places that his well-to-do readers did no exists or had not troubled to know. Social parasite like Fagin is the breader of the criminals he makes young thieves work for him and if they are caught, they suffer imprisonment and even death while he gets off scot-free. The description of the criminal activities of Fagin and his band is a realistic picture of the underworld of London of those days.
People in general were addicted to smoking and drinking. In cities there were public houses which serves beer to the public and which were the breeding place of crimes and gathering places of criminals. We have the ‘Three Cripples (hotel)’ as the specimen. Oliver had a drink at one such house while on hi sway to London from his native place. Sikes too had his food and drink at another house during the course of his flight. The residential quarters of the people of the lower strata of the society were shame for a government of the days. Those houses had practically no ventilations, they were dark and almost cell-like. The streets surrounding them were narrow, muddy and foul-smelling – quiet favourable for outbreaks of epidemics. Fagin’s den illustrates this. There was a system of apprenticeship in trades. Boys were engaged as apprentices by traders. The workhouse authorities gave 5 pounds to Sowerberry for engaging Oliver as an apprentice. The traders used to treat the young apprentices most cruelly. We see Oliver running away from his master into the wide wicked world for the cruel treatment that he received at the Sowerberry household.
Thus “Oliver Twist” serves as a mirror that shows the social condition of England of the early 19th century. In writing the novel Dickens’s aim was not only to amuse the public but also to lightup the dark places that is well to do readers did not know exists or had not troubled to know. The life in London as revealed in this book opens the eyes of thousands born and bread in the same city. Dickens did not want that the one half of mankind should like in happy ignorance of how the other half dies.