Beginning Oliver Twist

Mention the title Oliver Twist and even people who've never read the book will instantly begin to reenact this scene: the young orphan boy, approaching with an empty bowl in hand, to ask for more gruel with a polite, "Please sir, I want some more?" 

When I first read Dickens' second published novel years ago. orphans and orphanages were an abstraction. I knew they existed but they did not really enter into my daily thoughts or concerns. As I am re-reading this novel now, I come with the experience of being a father to an adopted child and having hosted an orphan in our home with the hopes of adopting her. I've seen orphanages first-hand and have become far more aware of the neglect and abuse that goes on within their walls. The reality can be far darker and grimmer than what even Charles Dickens imagined. 

Outside it was cold, rainy and dark. I sat in bed, under the covers, with the book on my lap. As I read about the birth of Oliver, I found my heart broken by his descriptions of how his mother is treated by the doctor and nurse who see that the young woman is not wearing a wedding ring and immediately pass judgment on her situation. "The old story," he said, shaking his head. I know all too well how many children end up in orphanages due to poverty, due to young unwed mothers who cannot afford to keep and raise their own child, and who believe an orphanage is the best and only option. 

What truly broke my heart were these words, "Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan. left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder." If Oliver had known the reality of his fate, he would cry out in despair. His fate is one of neglect, cruelty, hardship, and coldness. He will grow up without affection, without the care and loving nurture of a mother or father. In the very next chapter, we are given the images of infants in what would have been the foster care system of the time, in which an old woman allows these orphans to be brought to her home where she takes most of the money for their care and uses it on herself and her own needs. 

Oliver is one of those "farmed" infants; meaning that he was dispatched "to a branch workhouse . . . where twenty or thirty juvenile offenders against the poor laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week." With that small pittance, she uses most for herself and little for the infants. Most of the infants die from illness, malnutrition, neglect, or "fell into the fire." 

Certainly, there are news stories in this day and age of people who become foster parents and take the money for themselves and then neglect or abuse those children in their care. Yet what made Charles Dickens care so much that such conditions for orphans would spark him to write a novel about a child who has to survive in cold, cruel circumstances of the orphanage and workhouse system of his day?

In his preface to the novel, Dickens writes, "I wrote this book . . . to show, in little Oliver, the principle Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last . . ." After it was published, it became well-known in London that Oliver Twist was Dickens attack on the New Poor Law of 1834 which had been passed by the Whig government of Earl Grey. From this second novel, we begin to see an author who not only wants to entertain his readers but inform them. Having suffered extreme poverty as a child, when his father was put into debtor's prison, Dickens used his art to shine a spotlight on the problems that arose with industrialization: including the poor working conditions of the workhouses, including child labor. He also used Oliver Twist to confront the snobbery and its prejudices to the poor and working class. By making an orphan the protagonist and hero of his novel, he was confronting the preconceptions and misconceptions of what the society of his day viewed orphans. We get that in the way the doctor coldly views Oliver's unwed mother and passes harsh criticism over her corpse once she has died.

Through Oliver Twist, he sought to entertain and educate his readers. He wanted his readers to have sympathy for young Oliver and his plight. By making an orphan in the workhouse system his main character, his readers would now see the world through this boy's eyes and, as the reader roots for Oliver to overcome the obstacles that are before him, find themselves identifying with him and his suffering. Dickens takes his readers into a world that they tried to ignore or dismiss as the moral failings of the poor. Having suffered poverty himself and seen what can happen to families because of what had happened to his own, Dickens had a compassion and empathy for the poor that carried over and deeply shaped and formed his novels. By making the main character Oliver Twist, he forces his reader to reconsider what they think about orphans and the poor. Oliver is sensitive and good. By writing him in this fashion and, as the reader learns about his true background, they begin to wonder, "What if this happened to me? What if I ended up in one of these workhouses or out on the street as Oliver did?" Dickens is skillfully shaping how the prosperous and wealthy of England saw the conditions that poor Oliver was forced to live in and how he ended up there through no fault of his own.

Workhouses were an obvious staple of Victorian England. All knew they existed.  The house that Dickens and his own family lived in was just a block over from the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which was the inspiration for Oliver Twist. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, Dickens understood those who were forced into such horrid working conditions and suffered the shames of poverty because he had been there himself. Now he wanted others to see. He wanted those who could change things to be drawn in by his novels and find themselves identifying with characters like Oliver Twist in the hopes that they would then go and work to change things for the better. Dickens' hope was that by writing these novels they could be the catalyst for change.

As I read Oliver Twist now, all these years later from my first reading of it, I am more aware. Aware of the plight of the poor around the world and in my own country. Aware of the trauma that children who grow up in orphanage systems suffer (studies have shown that they suffer the same PTSD as soldiers back from war). How much more my own experience now reshapes and informs my second reading of this novel. Now I cannot have distance from the material but find myself but am well aware of the harshness or neglect children face at the hands of "caregivers."

To go along with my reading of the novel, I have also begun Dickens & The Workhouse: Oliver Twist & the London Poor by Ruth Richardson.

As I read Oliver Twist, it will be interesting to see how much the work affects me now and how I will notice things in this classic that I failed to see before because I was too young to grasp what Dickens was truly doing. I look forward to delving more into how Charles Dickens was writing about poverty, human nature, society, and class. 


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