Have you ever thought about how it would be to live in a time of poverty? Howwould life be if you were poor and did not know from where you would be getting yournext meal? What would it be like to be forced to live in a workhouse? These are some ofthe questions you might ask yourself if you were living in early nineteenth centuryEngland. Dickens addresses these issues in his timeless masterpiece Oliver Twist. In thestory of Oliver Twist, Dickens uses past experiences from his childhood and targets thePoor Law of 1834 which renewed the importance of the workhouse as a means of reliefDickens’ age was a period of industrial development marked by the rise of themiddle class (Wagenknecht 219).
In the elections brought about by the accession ofWilliam IV in 1830, the Tories lost control of the government. Assumption of power bythe Whigs opened the way to an era of accelerated progress (Kaste 8). In this time periodchildren worked just as much, if not more, than some of the adults.
After 1833, anincreased amount of legislation was enacted to control the hours of labor and workingconditions for children and women in manufacturing plants. The Poor Law of 1834provided that all able bodied paupers must reside in a workhouse (8). Widespreadhostility was felt to the new law; many believed that life was harder in a workhouse than inprison (Rooke 22). The plan was successful from one standpoint, for within three yearsthe cost of poor relief was reduced by more than one-third. However, this system wassharply censured. The increased prevalence of crime was attributed towards it. Inmatesof the workhouses became objects of public stigma, and to further heighten theunpopularity of the institutions, living conditions were deliberately made harsh (Kaste 8). Poverty was at it’s peak around this time in England. Houses were overcrowded, packedtogether in narrow streets and courts which were often piled deep in rotting refuse (Rooke33). New problems of food and public health were faced by a parliamentary and economicsystem which was better suited to the eighteenth century. On June 20, 1837, QueenVictoria came to the throne of England as the long period of middle class ascendancy wasgaining momentum (Kaste 8). The Victorian age, which this time period is often referred,comes from “Queen Victoria.” In 1840, it was thought that only twenty percent of thechildren of London had any form of schooling. The 1840s were years of crises. Thecharacter on English life was being transformed by industrial expansion and by greatmovements of population towards urban life.
Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea, on February 7, 1812. He was thesecond son of John Dickens. John Dickens was a clerk in the Navy pay office. Hisimprovidence would eventually lead to imprisonment in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prisonfor debt (Hardy 41). As a child Charles Dickens explored London and the fascination thathe felt for this booming city remained with him throughout his life (Rooke 15). Dickensreceived his first instruction from his mother and later attended regular schools inChatham. When John Dickens, his wife, and their four children went to the debtor’sprison, Charles Dickens didn’t go. He soon became intimate with his father’s smallcollection of literary classics. He also revealed early signs of genius. Dickens’recollections of early life were centered in Kent and he often regarded himself as a memberof that region (Kaste 9). Dickens was sent to work at the age of twelve in Worren’sBlacking Warehouse. After his father’s release he went back to school.. When school wascomplete he went to work in an attorney’s office. He spent much of his time exploring thebusy and varied life of London and decided to become a journalist. He mastered a difficultsystem of shorthand and by March 1832, at the age of twenty, he was a general andparliamentary reporter. In 1829 he met and soon fell in love with Maria Bendnell, but herparents found him socially inferior (Hardy 41). Not long after, in 1836, he fell in love withand married Catherine Hogarth. They had ten children together. In 1858 Dickens fell inlove with Ellen Terron, an actress. This was soon after Dickens and his wife Catherineseparated, ending a long stream of marital difficulties. In1842, Dickens traveled to theUnited States hoping to find an embodiment of his liberal political ideals. However, hereturned to England deeply disappointed. He was dismayed by America’s lack of supportfor an international copyright law, acceptance of the inhumane practice of slavery, and thebasic vulgarity of the American people (“Charles Dickens”). Dickens becamedistinguished by furious energy, determination to succeed, and an inflexible will (Kaste 9). It is likely that Dickens’ introduction to the consequences of poverty was a contributingfactor in shaping his life and literature. Dickens’ early short stories and sketches, whichwere published in various London newspapers and magazines, were later collected to formhis first book, Sketches by Boz in 1836. Dickens’ “early period” includes his work OliverTwist in 1838. By 1837, Dickens was the most popular author in England. His fame soonspread throughout the rest of the English-speaking world and eventually throughout thecontinent. It still has not diminished (“Charles Dickens”). For many readers, Dickens isnot only a great novelist but also a history book. Although he is a great entertainer andcomic genius, we have come to know him as a famous example of the wounded artist,whose sicknesses were shed in great art, whose very grudges against family and societylinked him throughout personal pains with larger public sufferings. Charles Dickens’ longand illustrious life came to an end on June 18, 1870 at Gad’s Hill, Kent due to a paralyticstroke. He is buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey (Blount; “”CharlesA frequent early criticism that Dickens’ works are “formless” is not accepted bymost modern critics. Many now see Dickens’ novels as vast and complex denunciations ofthe bourgeois society that corrupt it’s members. Even as the structure of his novels grewmore intricate, Dickens never abandoned this method of publication, for he cherished theconstant contact with his readers through monthly or weekly installments (“CharlesDickens”). Dickens was also a novelist who loved to devise plots that hinged on secretsand disclosure and succeeded in keeping secret his own private life (Hardy 43). Dickens’fictions are packed with social information and social passion. Dickens bitterly attacks thedefects of existing institutions: government, law, education, and penal systems. He alsomercilessly exposes the injustice and wretchedness inflicted by them. However, Dickenswas not a propagandist exposing utopian panaceas for the ills of the world. Dickens wasfascinated by the grotesque and had a particular talent for exaggeration. His exuberancecarried him beyond the bounds of moderation, but he seldom lost sight of his intentions(Kaste 15). Charles Dickens is frequently charged with offering a view of the world thatdoes violence to reality. However, he really was able to just create a fictive world thatwas a mirror in which the truths of the real world were reflected. Almost all of his novelsdisplay, to varying degrees, his comic gift, his deep social concerns, and his extraordinarytalent for creating unforgettable characters (“Charles Dickens”). Dickens was primarilyconcerned with external behavior of people and little occupied with the exploration ofpsychological depths. Dickens caricatures may seem overdrawn, but they usuallydischarge a serious function in the fictional milieu. He is often accused of being deficientin character portrayal. His characters do not often develop, but remain unchangedthrough the course of events and interaction with other characters. Charles Dickens had arelish for melodrama and his characters reflect this. Dickens secondary characters areoften the most memorable. Subordinate characters regularly are given identity upon firstintroduction by being labeled with some idiosyncrasy (Kaste 14). Dickens firmly maintainsthat the nature and behavior of his depraved characters reflect truth without distortion,however, implausible they may seem.. The serious characters between whom the conflictusually takes place usually embody the extremes of virtue and viciousness (14). Dickensnever endows a character with that imaginative sensibility and energy which gives weightand truth to the characters in his stories (Price 40). Though he has sometimes beencriticized for creating caricatures rather than characters, he has been defended as a masterof imaginative vision by forging whole character types out of tiny eccentricities. All of theafore mentioned writing traits make Dickens one of the most original writers of all time.
Critics have always been challenged by his art though from the start it containedenough easily acceptable ingredients of evident skill and gusto to ensure popularity. Dickens has entered into the art and consciousness of modern writers such as JamesJoyce, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Angus Wilson. Modern criticsbelieve that Dickens is second only to Shakespeare in English Literature (“Dickens” 274). James Joyce claimed that Dickens has entered into the language more than any writersince Shakespeare. Surprisingly, these two authors have a lot in common. They bothbrim with originality, but express and address human nature at large. Like Shakespeare,Dickens creates a unique and independent seeming world, allowing us to use that timeworn term “world” with precision. They are both fully in possession of themselvescreating an art that is powerfully personal and generously accessible. They both create aflexible language for self-oppression and imaginative creativity that commands admirationfor it’s brilliance and virtuosity (Hardy 41).
Oliver Twist was a great example of a British literary masterpiece. Here is whathappens. Oliver Twist’s mother dies after giving birth to him in a workhouse. No oneknows who the father is, so Oliver is placed in a juvenile home. After roughly nine yearsof mistreatment, Oliver is returned to the workhouse for more of the same. Oliver is thenapprenticed to Sowerberry, an undertaker. Then Noah Claypole guides Oliver towardsrebellion, for which he is whipped. So Oliver heads for London. Near the city, Oliverjoins up with John Dawkins, who conducts Oliver to Fagin, the ringleader of an infamousgang of criminals. Oliver then learns how to pick pockets. When Oliver, John, andCharlie Bates go out, Oliver’s companions pick an old man’s pocket and run off, allowingOliver to be seized for their offense. He is cleared of the charges and is then taken homeby Mr. Brownlow, the victim of the crime. While Oliver recovers at Brownlow’s home,Brownlow is puzzled by how much Oliver looks like a portrait he has of a young woman. Mr. Grimwig, one of Brownlow’s friends, does not trust Oliver, so he is sent on an errandto test him. Oliver is then recaptured by Nancy, one of Fagin’s retainers, and Bill Sikes,her friend. Fagin holds Oliver in strict captivity for awhile. Fagin wants to get Olivercompletely involved in some crime. So he convinces Sikes to use Oliver in a majorburglary. Sikes takes Oliver to Chertsey to meet Toby Crackit. At the house they aregoing to rob, Oliver goes through a window. The occupants wake up. Then Oliver getsshot. The robbers run off with Oliver but abandon him in a ditch. Back in the workhouseSally is dying. Mrs. Corney, a matron, and Bumble agree to marry. Fagin is upset whenToby returns alone. Fagin has a meeting with Monks. Monks is angry with Fagin, who hesays has failed in an attempt to ruin Oliver. Oliver stumbles to the nearest house, which isactuallythe place of the attempted burglary. There, Ms. Maylie and a doctor help Oliverrecover. Monks meets the Bumbles and purchases a locket that Mrs. Bumbles had. Thetrinket contained a ring inscribed with “Agnes.” Monk drops it in the river. Nancy tellsMs. Maylie everything that she has learned by listening to Fagin and Monks. The two areplotting to destroy Oliver, who is actually Monks’ brother. Fagin finds Noah andCharlotte hiding out in London. Fagin sends Noah to spy on Nancy. She has a meetingwith Rose and Brownlow. Nancy says how she can corner Monks. Noah reports all ofthis to Fagin. Fagin waits up for Sikes and discloses Nancy’s double dealings. Sikes thengoes home and bludgeons Nancy to death. He then returns to London. Brownlowcaptured Monks and took him home. Brownlow had been engaged to Monks’ aunt. Monks father was forced into marriage. The two had only one child, Monks. They thenseparated. Monks’ father then became attached to Agnes Fleming. He died suddenly inRome while Agnes was pregnant with Oliver Twist. Before leaving, Monks’ father hadleft her picture with Brownlow. Brownlow fnally realized all about the destruction ofMonks’ father’s will, the disposal of the identity trinket that Oliver’s mother possessed, andMonks’ conspiracy with Fagin to destroy Oliver. Monks comes to terms in return forimmunity. Brownlow’s exaction is that Monks make restitution to his brother inaccordance with the original will. Toby Crackit and Tom Chitling were hiding on Jacob’sIsland. Fagin was arrested along with Noah. Sikes was running from pursuers whoCharley Bates has helped. Sikes, attemting to escape from a gouse top, falls and is hangedby his own noose. Oliver returns with Mrs. Maylie, Rose, and Mr. Losberne to the townof his birth. Their father’s will left the bulk of his fortune to Agnes Fleming and her child,Oliver. Rose s found to be Agnes’s sister. Fagin gets sentenced to be hanged. While inprison Fagin tells Oliver where he can find some important papers. Claypole is pardonedfor testifying against Fagin. Bates becomes a herdsman. Other members of Fagin’s gangare transported out of England. Oliver shares his fortune with Monks, who happens to dolater die in prison, destitute. Rose and Harry Maylie are married. The Bumbles lose theirpositions and become inmates of the workhouse where Agnes Fleming died after givingbirth to Oliver. Oliver Twist is adopted by Brownlow. The two settled near theparsonage. That is “Oliver Twist” in a nutshell. It was packed full of suspense and action.
This piece of literature will never be forgotten.
In Conclusion, Dickens had a rough childhood which helped prompt him to writemany classic novels. Dickens wrote to make people think about how the government wasbeing run. He wrote Oliver Twist to almost protest the Poor Law of 1834 and the use ofthe workhouses. Since Dickens was such an original writer his presence in literature willBibliography:Blount, Trevor. Dickens: The Early Novels. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1968.
Dickens, Charles Discovering Authors. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993.
Dickens. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 1998 ed.
Hardy, Barbara. Charles Dickens. British Writers. Ian Scott-Kilvert. vol. 5. 12 vols.
New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1982.
Kaste, Harry, M.A. Cliffs Notes on Oliver Twist. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes Inc., 1997.
landow.stg.brown.eduPrice, Martin. Dickens. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
Rooke, Patrick. The Age of Dickens. New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1978.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Cavalcade of the English Novel. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart, andWinston Inc., 1967.
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