Charles Dickens is possibly the first English novelist to deal with the connections between the damaging underprivileged childhood and society. Oliver Twist involves a reformist agenda. In his 1867 preface to the Queensway edition to his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens states that his purpose in writing Oliver Twist is to entertain his readers and at the same time expose the truths about the miserable lives and the criminal types and associations of the lower classes, and show how these conditions impacted on the poor children and were denied by the authorities of Victorian England. He said that do this “would be to attempt a something which was needed, and which would be a service to society” (Preface 13). Stephen Gill says that the legislators of the 1834 New Poor Laws recommended “the imposition of strictly controlled dietary regulations; the determination to make workhouses so forbidding that they became places of last resort” to satisfy “rate-payers in mutiny against the ever-increasing cost of the existing system of Poor Relief”; and he adds: “Dickens exposes them all through the simple device of showing how they bear upon a child” (xi). Fred Kaplan says that in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 “the burden to the state . . . of illegitimate children in one-parent households was an important aspect of the debate” (xi). Nancy K. Hill writes that in order “to bring about reform, Dickens knew he had to alter his readers’ perception and such alteration required visual imagery of considerable power” (2).
Ultimately, Oliver Twist is an experiment in writing about the damaging childhood from the point of view of an author who is at once a social reformist and a Victorian novelist whose unifying techniques in writing are based on this dichotomy—a paradox which is intrinsic to, and hence inseparable from, the writing of Oliver Twist. Dickens might not have succeeded in finding a realistic solution to Oliver’s problems, but for any writer who is writing about the damaging childhood Oliver Twist offers an impressive repertoire of novelistic approaches and devices.
Dickens follows several narrative voices, and hence ends up writing on a number of different levels. The first third of the novel is on one hand a satire on the 1834 Poor Laws from a reformist adult’s point of view in which he lambasts the ‘philosophers’ of the day, and on the other hand an absorbing story about Oliver and his damaging childhood in which the third person omniscient narrator speaks on behalf of the child, and takes the damaging childhood from an adult’s point of view. In the second third of the novel, Dickens continues with the story-line but focuses on the lower-class criminal elements by realistically and strongly portraying characters such as Nancy, Sikes, and Fagin. These characters are criminal by nature, and hence their stories have little to do with the 1834 New Poor Laws. From Oliver’s first meeting with Fagin there are shifts of focus within the narrative from Oliver to these criminal characters. Gill notes that “elements in the construction of the narrative are clearly awkward” and marks these shifts as structural flaws in the plot (vii-viii). These focal shifts are precipitated by Dickens’ attempts to portray the criminal associations of the lower classes, and translate Oliver’s damaging childhood into this wider picture of social horror in order to show how this element impacted on the poor children who lived on the streets of London. But Oliver really has nothing to do with the innate criminality of the other principal characters. For example, take Fagin on “death row”: “he began to think of all the men he had known who had died upon the scaffold, some of them through his means. They rose up in such quick succession that he could hardly count them” (366); or take the young prostitute, Nancy, whose refusal to abandon the criminal Bill Sykes results in her murder (280, 328). These other principal characters compete with Oliver as the focal point in the writing and hence could stand without Oliver—but that would require a different story. Kaplan says that “the novel pivots on an idealised vision of the possibility of virtue and beauty; but it also pivots on the powerful, almost pervasive horror of criminality, prostitution, child abuse, poverty, violence, and the brutalization that urbanization has made a fulcrum of modern life” (ix). In the last third of the novel the tone changes to sentimental Victorian idealism, and Oliver as a character becomes increasingly unrealistic. Thus, what begins as social reform propaganda grows into something entirely different and the child protagonist who begins the book as a victim of the system and carries the title of the book, fades away into Dickens’ ideas of virtue and mercy and hence does not develop into a strong character.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations London: Queensway, n. d.
—, Preface (dated 1867) Oliver Twist. By Dickens. London: Queensway, n.d. 13-16
—, Oliver Twist: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton, 1993.
—, Oliver Twist: With an Introduction and Notes by Stephen Gill. Ed. Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
—, Oliver Twist. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin, 2002.
—, “Oliver Twist: The Shorter Novels of Charles Dickens.” Ware: Wordsworth, 2005.
Gill, Stephen. Introduction. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. vii-xxix.
Hill, Nancy K. A Reformer’s Art: Dickens’ Picturesque and Grotesque Imagery. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1981.