Essay, 8 pages (1900 words)

Dickens’s criticisms of commerce

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In writing Oliver Twist, it is clear that Charles Dickens’s main literary objective was to expose the plight of the poor in Victorian London. The story of Oliver is comparable to other Victorian novels, such as Jane Eyre, in its strong didactic message regarding the oppression of a certain demographic. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte pleaded for the rights of women to be recognized, while in Oliver Twist Dickens gives a voice to the poverty-stricken. Through difficult yet realistic scenes, the author reveals what was truly happening to the poor and who was responsible for this grim reality. The theme that pervades the novel is that the poor continue to be destitute not because of the nature of their birth, but because the upper classes fail to appropriate the aid for which their positions have made them responsible. Dickens suggests that those blessed with wealth have a duty to the poor. This duty, through most of the novel, is shirked, thus perpetuating the troubles of the poor – Oliver Twist included. It is not until the affluent use their resources to care for those who have none that the plot is resolved. Through this conclusion, Dickens speaks to his readers, boldly declaring that the poor will remain so until the rich change their ways. Though the affluent are his main target, Dickens also places the blame for the existence of poverty on capitalism. He portrays free commerce as an entity that, though kind to some, leaves many destitute through no fault of their own. It also allows – and even encourages through a fostering of ambition – the poor to be left in poverty, despite the plenty of others. In the novel, when Oliver accompanies his first master, an undertaker, to a poor part of town to retrieve the body of a woman who has died, it is noted that the place is filled with closed shops. “ A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast-closed, and mouldering away: only the upper rooms being inhabited” (Dickens 30). The woman has died of starvation, a fact that leaves her bereaved husband (who views her death as unjust and unnecessary) angry and bitter. Dickens uses this situation to suggest, again, that poverty is not something to be blamed on those who endure it. It can be safely assumed that the couple’s livelihood was injured by the coming of the Industrial Revolution, leaving them with little option beside starvation. Dickens uses characters as a primary means of representing the harsh reality of class relations. Dark imagery and vivid descriptions of physical places as well as his characters help to create a strong dichotomy between both evil and good, and poverty and affluence. In an article discussing domestic themes within Oliver Twist, K. C. Frederick notes that “ imagery of deprivation, misery, and malevolence extend across most of the novel, while goodness is subordinated until the closing sections…His only contacts with gentleness and peace provide no real antithesis to Oliver’s homelessness” (Frederick). By using such strong and vivid language in his descriptions of the poor and the evil, Dickens demands the attention of the reader. The pleasant scenes seem surreal, while the difficult scenes that comprise the majority of the novel appear all too real. The scene at the workhouse is particularly grim and serves as a shocking elucidation of the hypocrisy of the middle class in their false efforts to help the poor. The workhouse is intended to be a place of aid and relief for the poor, but instead it visits upon them all of the maladies from which it claims to protect them. Before they enter the house, the families are divided according to the belief that mean and uncouth characteristics are inherently possessed by the poor and passed onto their children. The children are taken from their parents to be raised by the state in hopes of salvaging their souls. It is not difficult to see the harm in this practice, as it creates orphans and obliterates any sense of identity the children may have had. Filth is something from which workhouse inhabitants are supposed to be protected when they are taken off the streets, but in Oliver’s workhouse, those in power show no concern for the hygiene of the workers (unless of course there is an inspection that may jeopardize their employment). Along with unclean living conditions, the poor living at the workhouse suffer from starvation akin to that which they suffered from on the streets. While people are dying from starvation every day, those receiving the money for the missing food are living well – a distressing irony. Also, the corpulent and self-satisfied members of the board, who are responsible for the condition of the workhouse, preach about the value in the meager diet. This picture is reminiscent of the proprietor of the Lowood School in Jane Eyre, as he often sermonizes about how the girls in the school should have as little as possible in order to keep them from becoming materialistic. The girls, as a result, must make do with inadequate clothing and food, while the wife and daughter of the proprietor dress quite excessively. Another ironic scene depicts the board members discussing what to do with the little boy who asked for more, Oliver Twist. They consider sending him to serve in places where they know he will not survive long. This is ironic because the death to which they consider sending Oliver is exactly the fate from which they are paid to protect him. In general, the workhouse, supposedly a place of freedom, bears a greater resemblance to slavery: the workers are under-clothed, under-fed, forced to perform difficult tasks, and punished if they do not appear happy and grateful. “ Don’t make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food and be thankful,’ said Mr. Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity” (Dickens 17). To add insult to injury, Dickens presents the board of the workhouse as a group of men who truly believe, or as least have convinced themselves, that the workhouse is a pleasant place. “ It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, teas, and supper all year round; a brick-and-mortar Elysium, where it was all play and no work” (Dickens 9). It is this conclusion that leads the board to decrease the rations allowed within the workhouse, making them personally responsible for each and every case of starvation. This is a clear representation of the upper class’s willful ignorance of the conditions the poor must endure. The reason Dickens offers for the hostility that the upper class display towards the lower class is personified in Noah Claypole, a fellow-apprentice in the employment of the undertaker. The young man abuses Oliver out of insecurity, making himself feel more important as he darkens the line separating himself from those beneath him. Dickens even notes the irony in the fact that Noah’s behavior causes him to exhibit qualities similar to those of noble lords. The statement is, of course, delivered in a sarcastic fashion, but is meant to draw a parallel between the way that Oliver is treated by Noah and the way that the lower class is treated by those better off. Dickens suggests that it is out of insecurity and pride that the wealthy abuse the poor. In a conversation between Mr. Bumble and Ms. Corney, yet another instance of uncompassionate sentiment towards the poor occurs. The couple, in the warm and pleasant environment of Ms. Corney’s home, make light of the fact that her kittens live a better life than the people in the workhouse for which the two are partly responsible. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Corney is offended at a hyperbolic comment Mr. Bumble makes about drowning an ungrateful cat. This conversation represents the clear misplacement of priorities within the middle class, as this couple seems to value the lives of the kittens above the lives of the poor. The worth of the poor, something Mr. Bumble and Ms. Corney clearly dismiss, is an idea that Dickens addresses through some of the poorer characters in the novel. For example, the ‘ Artful Dodger,’ as his name suggests, is an intelligent fellow whose intuition has brought him success in the world of petty theft. Through the Artful Dodger, Dickens implies that there are many among the poor who, if given the opportunity, could use their natural gifts to benefit society. This principle is also seen in the comparison between the characters of Rose and Nancy. The two women are examples of Dickens’ belief that a person’s character is more a result of his environment than of his birth. Both Rose and Nancy were penniless orphans, but have grown into two different types of people as a result of their fortune. Rose was taken into the upper class by a compassionate gentlewoman and has become a beautiful, accomplished young woman who will ultimately marry a man of high social status. Nancy, in contrast, has been forced to survive on the streets, turning to prostitution and other illegal activities in order to sustain herself. Though Nancy, like the Dodger, has good qualities to offer, she will never be allowed into society because of her background. Just as Nancy’s life has been perverted by her economic status, so has the blessed institution of marriage been perverted by economics. A comparison between Monks and Oliver, the two half-brothers, serves as a critique of the economically-motivated marriage (as opposed to a union inspired by love). Monks is the product of a marriage for the sake of economic gain, and ultimately becomes a criminal who squanders his ill-gotten fortune. Oliver, in contrast, is the child of two people who, though unmarried and separated by class differences, were passionately in love. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth, Oliver has grown to become morally good and kind: two characteristics he rarely sees before his confrontation with Mr. Brownlow. The two sons provide a clear picture of Dickens’ view of marriage. Mr. Brownlow recalls about the two forced into marriage “ the slow torture, the protracted anguish of that ill-assorted union. I know listlessly and wearily each of that wretched pair dragged their heavy chain through a world that was poisoned to them both” (Dickens 315). This scene is also similar to the situation in Jane Eyre between Mr. Rochester and his mad wife Bertha: a marriage contrived for economic gain, ending in misery for all those involved. Though Oliver Twist is first and foremost an exposition of the evils of class struggles and the real-life effects of economics, it nevertheless provides the reader with a small message of hope. Dickens does not propose grand institutional changes, but rather a simple change in attitude. The story ends in happiness for all those who are either rich and stoop to help the poor out of pure compassion, or poor and receive the help of the rich graciously. It seems that Dickens is suggesting that these two actions create, for the surviving characters, a “ little society whose condition approached as nearly to one of perfect happiness as can even be known in this changing world” (Dickens 348). If, Dickens suggests, the influential were to take their responsibility to the poor seriously and acted in compassion, then many of the injustices described in the novel would not occur. This simple solution of humility and compassion, as exhibited by the characters at the close of the novel, may seem idealistic, but according to Dickens, it is the only way to save the poor from the suffering they undergo in Oliver Twist. BIBLIOGRAPHYC. Dickens, Oliver Twist (1966)K. C. Frederick, ‘ The Cold, Cold Hearth: Domestic Strife in Oliver Twist,’ College English 27 (1966): 465-470

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