Social Criticism in the Novel Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist: Dickens' Relentless Protest against Contemporary Society

      Dickens' Piauick Papers reflects his triumph over the society in which he was born but Oliver Twist is his indignant protest against the same world. Dickens' mastery in implying luminous humor is well shown in Pickwick Papers. Instead, Oliver Twist is full of darkness, gloominess and grim reality. It is a kind of melodrama in which horror is blended with angry pathos. From beginning to the end there is an oppressive, lurid intensity of a catastrophic world of darkness The development from the cruel world of the workhouse to the jeering J. Dodger, the ugly Fagin and insolvent Sikes is not something fortunate and felicitous; it originates from Dicken's furry and bitter conviction that the workhouse brings forth its fearful harvest of crime and corruption. Oliver Twist is expressing the severity and grimness of the author.

The World of Workhouse

      The atmosphere of workhouse is infused with bitter comedy. Here Dickens' irony takes the form of sharp-edged weapon with which he tears out the cruelty and inhumanity. In the baby farm under the charge of Mrs. Mann "twenty or thirty other 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 seven pence half-penny per small head per week. She appropriated the greater part of weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them; thereby fixing in the lowest depth a deeper still, and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher. Here children suffer from starvation and other crudities beyond imagination. For example a child dies as he is 'overlooked in turning up a bedstead' another is 'scalded to death when there happened to be a washing.' The 'philosophers' looking after the workhouse ’were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they: came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered-the poor people like it ! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poor classes;
a tavern where there was nothing to pay; public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar Elysium, where it was all play and no work. 'Oho'! said the board, looking very knowing, we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time. So they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. And so the diet was given with so much munificence and prodigality that the bowls never "wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shine 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, with the view of catching up and any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. And so naturally, when Mrs. Sowerberry gives Oliver the cold scraps of meat left by the dog and when Oliver's eyes glisten at the reference of meat, Dickens bursts out in anger". 'I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bit asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself with the same relish.

The Immunity of Parish Official to the Death of Poor

      "A poor woman has died of starvation. Her old father and mother rave dementedly, the funeral is arranged by Mr. Sowerberry — the priest is late—the beer is on the brink of the grave-the ragged boys attracted by the spectacle play a noisy game at hiding and seek and jump backward and forwards over the coffin—Mr. Sowerberry and Bumble sit by the fire with the clerk and read paper drizzling down - the clergyman comes after an hour, reads as much of the burial service as he can compress in four minutes and walks away—the old man galls down in a swoon—they throw a cane of cold water, over him and after some time turn him out of the churchyard. The undertaker asks Oliver how he likes all this. The boy replies, 'Not very much, sir' 'Ah, you'll get used to it in time, Oliver', said Sowerberry. 'Nothing when you are used to it, my boy.'

The Criminal World of Fagin and Sikes

      "What a pitiful comedy ! Wouldn't the world be better if men behaved more humanely and decently ? And since they don't, what do they make of the unprotected, neglected, starved and beaten children ? The jeering Dodger, the reptile-like Fagin and the ferocious bully Sikes are the answers. The intensity of imagination with which Dickens endows life to those criminals and the nightmarish vividness that bathes the slum world, is the measure of the anger of the otherwise most jovial humanist. Dickens here creates a dark and confined world in which lurks the smoky fetid thieve' kitchen where the Artful Dodger jeers and Fagin grins in mirth through the greasy air. Almost all its interiors are hleak and gloomy; the workhouse where half-starved boys whimper with hunger in the bare stone hall and scrawny hags hang over the beds of the dying, the peep holed back room of the Three Cripples, the ruined warehouse where Monks terrifies Bumble by night. Even when Oliver rests asleep at Mrs. Maylie's, just beyond the window loom Fagin and Monks, darkening the sunlight like two monstrous demons. Nancy lurks in black shadow on the slimy steps of London Bridge. Sikes wanders in horror-haunted flight away from and back to the city, the waving torches glimmer on the mud of Folly Ditch while the murderer clambers over the tiles of the barricaded house. And the end narrows in relentlessly with Fagin cowered in the condemned cell, gnawing his nails and glaring at the close wall. In creating all this Dickens seems to be bursting out the horrified power; 'What man has made of man.'

Mr. Fang: the Magistrate

      The sight of Mr. Fangs' court is a fine example of Dickens' criticism of the social evils of his times. Here an indignant attack is made on the insolence of office'. The sinful magistrate is presented in his extreme impoliteness, callousness to the miseries of the wretched people who have the misfortune of coming to his "dispensary of summary justice.'


      Oliver Twist produces a moral also that if any society has not taken care of its paupers and poors they would face the horrible problems of the men like Fagin and Sikes, though no concrete suggestion is given to fight out the evil forces described in the book. Dickens has mentioned towards the end of his book that "I have said that they were truly happy, and without strong affection and humanity of heart, and gratitude to that being whose code is Mercy, and whose great attribute is benevolence to all things that breathe happiness can never be attained." Indeed, it is Christian morality.

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