Dickens as a Social Reformer with eference to Oliver Twist

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      At the beginning of nineteenth century, the rural poor in England confronted the danger of utter starvation on account of war prices and low wages. To avoid the danger of probable riots, few magistrates worked to bring out the New Poor Law of 1834. Though Workhouses and charitable institutions provided food and shelter to orphans, poors and down-trodden people yet the conditions worsened in place of improving. They tried to see that life in workhouse was made less impressive than employment in fields and factories. They bellowed the level of happiness inside the workhouses by lessening the diet and making some manual labor essential for good built inmates. To check the birth rate, the female lodges were separated from the male, and divorce laws for inmates of the workhouse were made much generous.

      It was assumed that the new innovation would achieve two useful results: it would stop the pauper from producing children in leisure and force the strong-built poors to work and look for work. It would increase the supply of labor that is the primary requirement of any industry. The strong indictment of the Poor Law of 1834 and satirical attack on the workhouse in the beginning of Oliver Twist highly impressed the Victorian audience. The mismanagement of workhouse when Oliver takes birth, his first cry, his life at the baby farm, where so many boys like him rolled about the floor all day; without the inconvenience of too much food and too much clothing under the parental superabundance of an elderly female." and where the tender child either "sickened from the want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half smothered by accident" are masterly depicted with making public aware of the reality. In making the New Poor Law of 1834 the target of satirical attack, Dickens choosed the most violently disputed issue of contemporary age and in making fun of it he stood against the liberal opinion. Many critics have taken exception to Dickens’ portrayal of conditions under the New Poor Law—attacking on the grounds of obscurity, inaccuracy, confusion and lack of fixed historical time.

      In the study of New Poor Law, G.M. Trevelyan, the most famous social historian, takes the side of Dickens and says: "The working class in town and country regarded the New Poor Law as an odious tyranny, as indeed it often was." But the poor law has been intellectually honest within its limit and had the points of its own reform. The famous "workhouse test" was basically a restraint. The 'philosophers' were intended to discourage vagrancy and encourage the diligent by making work more profitable than indolence. Commissioners were under the fear of population explosion and they sought to discourage child rate. The men who were in favor of new poor law looked to the future; there might be some trouble in the law diet recommended to intimidate pauperism or in a parting male and female to reduce birth rate, but they said, we must act according to the mind not by the heart; out of this short lived hardship will come order and eventually human civility. For Dickens such discussion was disgusting especially when it concerned children — Oliver Twist deals with specially the exploitation of a child; he experiences only hypocrisy in this civilized society. Humphrey House says that Dickens does not "discuss the wisdom of the general policy" of the reformers; "he concentrates mainly on the bad workhouse feeding, the absurdity of such officers as Bumbles and the utter failure to make any proper provision for the pauper children." With Dickens, there was educated section of general public that though accepted the new law as "just in its principle," believed, as Dr. Arnold Rugby wrote in a letter, that it had "done more harm by exasperating the minds of the poor, than it can possibly have done good." (1836-1837). For two years The Times has scolded this highly controversial measure and it said in one article; "that an appalling machine .... for wringing the hearts of forlorn widowhood, for refusing the crust to famished age, for imprisoning the orphan in workhouse dungeons, and for driving to prostitution the friendless and unprotected girl."

      In observing Oliver Twist in his Introduction to the English Novel, Vol. I Dr. Kettle regards the first eleven chapters of the novel as an "evocation of misery and horror,... a world of the most appalling poverty and ugliness, a world of brutality and insolence in which life is cheap, stuttering general and death welcome." The workhouse, the baby farm, Mr. Sowerberry's shop, the burial-they all are haunting. When Oliver asks for more gruel, Dr. Kettle says, "issues are at stake which make the whole world of Jane Austen tremble....because every starved orphan in the world and indeed everyone who is poor and oppressed and hungry is involved, and the master of the workhouse (his name has not been revealed) is not anyone in particular but very agent of an oppressive system everywhere." Mr: Angus Wilson was not fully convinced by this Marxist criticism of the novel and feels that Dr. Kettle's own social exasperation makes him overestimate the point. But then after he consents that the issues at stake in the rebuke of the New Poor Law are such as to make bourgeois society shake at its very foundations. ("Introduction" to the Penguin Edition of Oliver Twist).

      It is in contradiction to these monstrous conditions of the poor depicted in the early chapters of Oliver Twist that we have to set Dickens' opinion of the criminal classes which is elaborated in other three quarters of the novel.

      The main background of Oliver Twist is of London slums. With utter realism, Dickens has exposed in the novel the dirty and wretched scenes of Saffron Hill and St Giles, and the slums of Whitechapel, Rotherhithe and Bethnal Green. R.J. Cruikshank, observes in his book Charles Dickens and Early Victorian England that the description of the criminal world is so authentic and realistic that he regards it “crime-reporting" and says that in the police-court columns of the Morning Chronicle there are several passages dealing with crime and murder very much like that of Fagin-Sikes chapters in theme and treatment. Then he continues to remarks that the murders in low-life of that time are so sickening butcheries that the scene of Nancy's murder seems petty in front of them.

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