Satire in the Novel Oliver Twist

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Not Satisfied with the Prevalent Social Conditions

      Dickens has primarily used novels as a weapon to attack and express his fury on the corrupt social institutions. He was equally enthusiastic to reform the society and the prevailing law and justice. Oliver Twist is a satire on the inhumanity, cruelty and corruption pervading the workhouses. Through this novel Dickens has also scolded the system of law and other social institutions. Dickens' satire in Oliver Twist is pungent, shrill and thorny but occasionally it is mellowed by the subtle use of humor.

Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 is Satirized

      In the first eleven chapters of the novel Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 is satirized by the Dickens. The act was made to reform but situation had become worsened. This act had, on the one hand, abolished the generous Speenhamland system whereby Labourer's wages were supplemented to the subsistence level driving them to pauperism and finally to the workhouse. On the other hand it made the living conditions in the workhouse very hard because it had kept away capable men from them. The hardship was effected by the meager food given at the workhouses, the separation of families on entering it, want of exercise and the disgusting nature of the work done in the workhouse. Dickens has also attacked on the inadequate medical facilities and other common services offered at the workhouses.

Meager Food in the Workhouse

      The most callous 'economy' measures of the new Act was the sparse diet provided to the inhabitants of any workhouse. Dickens says that for the board, the workhouses had become a regular place for public amusement, thus they set few things rightly. They contracted with the water works to lay on supply of water without any limit and with the corn factory to provide periodically small quantities of oatmeal and gave three meals of thin gruel a day with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. In chapter two, when we go through the popular scene of Oliver's asking for more food, it is informed that the bowls in which food was served were never washed. "The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed, employing themselves meanwhile in sucking their fingers most assiduously..."

Branch Workhouses or Baby Farms

      In Baby farms children were kept from the most delicate age to the age of fifteen but the arrangements to look after them were very poor and insufficient. In the baby farm whose incharge was Mrs. Mann and where Oliver had lived for nine years, she received seven pence half penny per head and per week. Mrs. Mami is remarked as 'a very great practical philosopher'. She is a lady of 'wisdom and experience'. The children suffer from starvation and 'she appropriated the great part of the weekly stipend to her own use'.

Parish Doctors

      Dickens has also satirized the want of healthy exercise in the open air for the farm boys and the inexperienced doctors. There were several works in those baby farms like stone-breaking, bone-crushing or oakum picking. Dickens says that parish doctors were usually inexperienced and low-rated. Such doctors had attended upon Oliver's mother Agnes during her labor pain.

The House of Law and Justice

      Another social institution which is attacked by Dickens' satirical weapon is the court. Here satire is not pungent or sharp but blended in farce. In chapter (3) magistrate was least concerned with the boy and was about to sign the indenture but fortunately his eyes catch the glimpse of Oliver's pale and terrified face. But in later scenes Mr. Fang, the magistrate, serves the real purpose of Dickens. He was utterly heartless and cruel. Oliver got fainted in front of him but Mr. Fang took it as his pretension. He says that the boy is too cunning and wants to make them fool. He is not of belief to treat any convict leniently. Beside there is Mr. Bumble announcing 'the law is an ass-a idiot', and Artful Dodger firmly refuses to say anything to defend himself because the court 'ain't the shop for justice.'

The Police

      In Oliver Twist there is an indirect satire on the incompetence and inefficiency of police men also because Fagin and Sikes like criminals are functioning easily under their eyes but they (police) fail to catch them (criminals).

Satire, Not Suggesting any Effective Legislature

      Dickens satire reveals how conscious he was to the happenings in his society. The government had adopted an attitude of pathetic indifference towards reform during the period 1832-70. A Royal commission was appointed to observe the poor laws only in 1905. The department of Public Health was reformed in 1866 after another epidemic of cholera had made the city its victim; and civil service was revitalized in 1870. But in no way it lessens the value of Dickens' work. His novels created an atmosphere of public awareness. He made an appeal to the human heart and surely influenced the emotional attitudes of thousands of people towards the contemporary problems of society.

Want of Constructive Implications

      George Orwell has pointed out the utter lack of constructive suggestions ill the works of Dickens. Dickens has assaulted on law, government, police without apparently suggesting what should be the substitution. But this lack of suggestion should not make Dickens the target of any severe criticism. If any artist points out the problems related to humanity, it is his job to suggest remedy also. Besides, Dickens was not philosopher. He is not expected to formulate a philosophic system through which society could be cured. Bonamy Dobree and Miss Batho observe in their work The Victorians and After, "The pity is that this giant never grew up intellectually. Whenever he touches upon social reform or anywhere begins to think, he falls below the second rate. In that period he did not seem the adventurous and original as is today. Humphry House remarks in The Dickens World, "He was only giving wider publicity in 'inimitable' form to a number of social facts and social abuses which had already been organized if not explored before him."

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