Echoes of Victorian Era in Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens, one of the most venerated writers of the Victorian Era, described in his novels, especially in Oliver Twist, Hard Times and Great Expectations, the poverty and large masses who suffered from griefs during the Industrial Revolution from the realistic and liberal point of view. Dickens lived between 1812 and 1870; in other words, the time he lived corresponded to the period called “Victorian Era” in England. In spite of the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s most brilliant age, just as William Wordsworth narrated the pathetic plight in his poem London 1802, the Victorian Era had inevitably dragged Britain into a miserable stage, as well.
During the Victorian Era, great economic, social and political changes took place in England. Industry and commerce had expanded rapidly, and advanced railways, roads and canals carried the revolution a step further. In terms of colonialism, Britain had reached its climax, and it is not surprising that it was called as “The Empire on which the sun never sets.” In addition, science and technology had made great progress. The size of the middle class grew enormously. Further, the government launched some reforms, such as the right to vote for an increasing number of people (Reform Act of 1832) and the Poor Law of 1834 aiming to help poor. However, on the other side of the coin we see that after the Industrial Revolution, the poor became poorer and the rich became richer. While rich factory owners had reduced production costs and increased profits, many workers replaced by machines became unemployed. Indeed, it also led to some dramatic consequences: Cities such as London became overcrowded; crime rate increased enormously; poor and unsanitary living conditions emerged; slums and tenements developed due to low wages paid workers in the new capitalist system; abusive child labor ran rampant; and women were seen as second-class citizens and were inferior to men. Afore mentioned were the reasons that made Dickens write Oliver Twist, one of his magnum opuses, in which Dickens reveals the grim realities of the Victorian Era, while he satirically criticizes the damaging characteristics of the period such as corruption of society, capitalism, the poor laws, poverty, and so on.
In Oliver Twist, first of all, Dickens presents a portrait of the childhood of a considerable number of Victorian orphans. One of the most important issues brought by the Industrial Revolution is child labor. At that time the child labours were employed at the expense of nothing by factory owners. What is more, poverty-stricken families were forced to sell their children to wealthy people who earned money by employing them on heavy conditions. These children, including Oliver, the title character and protagonist in the novel, worked in workhouses where they were treated dreadfully and fed very little. Indeed, Oliver’s famous sentence “Please sir, I want some more.” dramatically resonates the starvation and children’s desire for love. For instance, regardless of its hazardous consequences, most of the children were forced to work as chimney sweeper as long as their owners benefited from them. In a nutshell, the lives of these juveniles were none other than the lives of slaves; therefore, this is one of the topics that Dickens criticizes at the most and wants to draw attention to.
Another reflection of poverty in society is that hunger and misery had pushed the poor into thievery, and during 18th and 19th century it naturally became a challenge to prevent theft crimes in Britain. Those who had been replaced by machines in factories or those who lived from hand to mouth were forced to be thieves, pickpockets or prostitutes, and so on. Thus, Oliver Twist is considered as Dickens’ best criticism on this subject, without doubt. Throughout the novel, Oliver’s travels, environments he appeared and people he met, show us how the epidemic of theft was spreading and how it could not be avoided. Therefore, when Oliver traveled to London, he fell into the hands of men like Artful Dodger, a pickpocket, and Fagin, ringleader of the pickpockets, and he was pushed into crime of stealing. Indeed, in the 19th century these kind of crimes ran rampant so excessively that Robert Peel, the prime minister at that time, created Metropolitan Police to prevent such crimes. Nevertheless, at the end of the novel, Dickens shows readers why villains such as Jewish Fagin and the Artful Dodger were in such circumstances or why they were robbing, thus suggesting the main reason of the wrongness in society is poverty.
Another outstanding point of the Era is status of the women. During this period, women were obviously treated as second-class citizens in society and were considered as inferior to men. There was a strong presence of male dominance in the society. Besides, they were to obey what men told them to do. They were deprived of many rights such as inheritance and voting. Even education was not allowed to the women in general. They did not have the right of choice just like their children, as well. Because of the afore-mentioned occasions, many women ended up being prostitutes. For example, in Oliver Twist, particularly Nancy, a young prostitute and one of Fagin’s former child pickpockets, suffered from almost all of these terrible conditions and had to obey to her lover, Bill Sikes, who eventually led her death. She tried to act against the man, Bill, who had power over her, so she and other women in general were powerless at the hands of society. On the other hand, Rose Maylie, Agnes Fleming’s sister, raised by Mrs. Maylie after the death of Rose’s father, was quintessentially the feminine model of the Victorian Era. In contrast to hypocritical, callous, and materialistic Mrs Corney, the matron of the workhouse where Oliver was born, Rose Maylie, a beautiful, compassionate, and forgiving young woman, was exactly considered as the feminine model of virtue; moreover, Rose loved and protected Oliver all the time even before learning Oliver’s true identity.
Once for all, Dickens highly criticizes the government and its institutions in Oliver Twist. In the Victorian Era, the government had supposedly passed a Poor Law of 1834 to feed and shelter the poor in workhouses, yet it was not like that at all. On the contrary, it made the poor poorer and actually led Britain’s own citizens become slaves even though they, ironically, had a national song “…Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Furthermore, the Church, too, was corrupted in this period, and it did not act as it seemed to be. For instance, showy and self-loving, Mr.Bumble was a minor church official. Although he was supposed to preach Christian morality and gospel, Mr.Bumble acted vice versa, and he mercilessly behaved toward the paupers under his care. Accordingly, Dickens again satirizes his folly, greed and hypocrisy to the fullest extent just like he does to other institutions like courts.
In conclusion, although with the Industrial Revolution England experienced its most brilliant age, aka the Victorian Era, it also led to dire consequences for the poor as they became poorer. While the novelist, Charles Dickens, who was born into this age and also experienced the era since he was also compelled to work as a child labor, reveals the unknown face of the Era, he satirically criticizes variable social strata, the government’s mistakes, the society’s wicked situation and the abusive of children. Thus, Oliver Twist, which describes the hypocrisy of the rich and miserable conditions of the poor in an extremely impressive style, turned to social criticism based upon London life of the period. On the other hand, an adventure novel, which both defends consistently those who are snored and does not lose its fluent from beginning to the end, Oliver Twist literally mirrors the Victorian Era.