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In ”Oliver Twist” Dickens presents a powerful critique of Victorian society and its treatment of the poor. Paying particular attention to chapter two of the novel, explore the methods Dickens employs to achieve this. “Oliver Twist” was the second novel of Charles Dickens and the first one with the main protagonist a child.
It was initially published in monthly instalments in ‘Bentley’s Miscellan’ magazine that began in February of 1837 and ended in April of 1939.
Dickens based ‘Oliver Twist’ on his own childhood and wrote it as a way of expressing his views in how the rich treated the poor, Dickens wrote in instalments because it would have cost more to publish and buy the book, this means when the book was published every chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, the instalments were mainly read by the middle class to give them a perspective on the lifestyle of a working class person and show why not to treat them in a unsatisfactory manner.
The poor laws played a key part in chapter two of the novel because Oliver was forced to work in a workhouse where the poor laws came into play. The poor laws allowed the poor to receive public assistance only if they lived and worked in established workhouses. Beggars risked imprisonment. Debtors were sent to prison, often with their entire families, this is what happened to Charles Dickens’ father as he went bankrupt and Dickens was sent to work.
Workhouses were deliberately made to be as miserable as possible in order to deter the poor from relying on public assistance. In this essay I shall be writing about how Charles Dickens presents a powerful critique of Victorian society and the poor, paying attention to chapter two of Oliver Twist. Chapter two marks one of the turning points of the novel. Firstly Oliver is sent to a workhouse because ‘there was no female then domiciled on the house who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need.
‘ This enabled the poor laws to act on Oliver as he would live and work in an established workhouse which allowed him to receive assistance from the public if he needed it. Dickens made us sympathise for Oliver in chapter two because of how he is treated and because of his physical state, on Oliver’s ninth birthday he and ‘two other young gentlemen’ participate ‘with him in a sound thrashing. ‘ A birthday for a nine year old at the time would be a momentous occasion, but because Oliver is needy, he is treated as a second class citizen.
Mrs Mann does not feel he should have an adequate party but instead to mark the special event Oliver and some other innocent children should be beaten. Dickens makes us sympathise more for Oliver because of his lack of education, this happens when Oliver meets the board of ‘fat gentlemen’, they ask him ‘You know you’re an orphan I suppose? ‘ to which Oliver replies dumfounded ‘What’s that sir? ‘.
‘Oliver was frightened at the site of so many gentleman’ This tells us that Oliver is shy and he is not used to speaking to adults because he is scared they will beat him as the only adult he knows well is Mrs Mann who beats him on a regular basis, the experience changes Oliver’s view on adults as in his opinion they are mostly all bad, the reader feels mercy for Oliver at this point because they know Oliver doesn’t know that the board will decide on his future and if he does anything incorrect in the presence of the board the consequences will be dire.
Lack of empathy form the gentlemen is shown by the quotes and also Oliver’s lack of common education, everything bad the board notice about Oliver is what they have not taught him, their own faults are shown in him. Dickens shows inhumanity of others towards Oliver because he is sent to the workhouse, which is meant for ‘Juvenile offenders’. He is also treated inhumanly as Mr Bumble ‘gave the little wicket a tremendous shake’. Wicket is a metaphor for Oliver Twist, referring to him as a thin object; he is treated inhumanly as without warning he is shook.
Oliver’s only crime is being poor. At the time there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor due to industrialisation. This meant that the poor were left to survive in unpleasant, overcrowded conditions, and were treated harshly by the rich. Generally the upper and middle classes thought very little of the working class citizens in Victorian times. The English middle-class society saw those who could not support themselves as immoral and evil, Oliver is not immoral and evil he is the opposite, the immoral and evil are quite clearly the board, Mrs Mann and Mr Bumble.
Dickens displays this in chapter 2; the attitudes of the upper class are illustrated in the form of the board and ‘the beadle’. Oliver is treated like an animal by Mr Bumble. ‘Mr. Bumble gave him a tap on the head, with his cane, to wake him up: and another on the back to make him lively:’ Mr Bumble wakes Oliver up like a person would try and wake up a dog, he believes Oliver is not a real person but a dirty animal that should not be spoken or touched by his master and obey his master, the narrator gives his view of what the board think of the orphanage, ‘The board made periodical pilgrimages to the farm’ .
The narrator is implying that the board and upper classes refer to the orphanage as a ‘farm’ and the children are animals who don’t deserve to live. The board are described as ‘eight or ten fat gentleman’ who sit around a table, Dickens produces humour by making ‘a particularly fat gentleman’ in a higher position than the rest, Dickens ranks the gentleman in how overweight they are, so the most obese would have the highest authority.
Mrs Mann and Mr Bumble are the two people, who are supposed to take care of Oliver Twist, but instead Mrs Mann physically abuses Oliver and the other children in her care and Mr Bumble treats him like a worthless waste of life. Mrs Mann and Mr Bumble role play when they are around each other, Mrs Mann acts as a good Christian woman as she uses religious language like ‘bless-em’ but she is not a good Christian and Mr Bumble exaggerates his authority by using the method of repetition, he uses complicated language in his sentence like ‘here upon parochial business with the parochial orphans? Are you aweer, Mrs. Mann, that you are, as I may say, a parochial delegate, and a stipendiary?