The Influence of Art on History, Part 3: Oliver Twist

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series here.

Oliver Twist serial cover, January 1846
Public Domain

Staying along the lines of discontent with the British government, we move forward to 1837 and the writing of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. This book was printed in serial form over the years of 1837-1839 and made into a complete book in 1839. In this serial, Charles Dickens tells the tale of a young orphan boy and how he navigates life as an impoverished youth towards the end of the Industrial Revolution era of England.

The British Industrial Revolution took place between roughly 1760 and 1840, ushering in an era of industrial change, economic advancement, and social reform. One of the areas which society was moving to transform was the idea that work was a moral virtue. Upper class citizens did not have to work in order to survive and thus stigmatized the middle classes for having to work, even when the person achieved enough success to become upper class and no longer work. In order to alleviate that stigma, the middle class began a campaign to give work a higher moral value and thus grant themselves a higher social legitimacy. Their platform was that earning their wealth was a sign that they were morally virtuous people who had been blessed by the hand of God in their fortunes.  As a consequence, this idea also defined those who were poor and impoverished as weak-willed, immoral, and evil.

Poor Laws Amendment, 1835
Public Domain

As a result of this movement by the middle class, the Poor Laws were instituted in 1834 that only allowed the poor to receive assistance if they lived and worked in government-instituted workhouses. Those who were caught begging would be arrested and any person who was unable to pay a debt, no matter how small, would be sent to debtor’s prison along with their entire family. Workhouses and debtor’s prisons were designed to inflict as much physical and emotional discomfort as possible in order to discourage people from availing themselves of this service. Items to provide physical comfort were not allowed, adequate nourishment was deliberately withheld, and family units were torn apart all in a twisted attempt to encourage the poor to find means in which to support themselves.

Growing up in this era, Dickens had firsthand experience with the hardships inflicted on the poor. His family started out middle-class, but because of excess and unexpected hardship, they landed in a debtor’s prison where they remained until his father received an inheritance and was able to repay the debts he owed. One of the ironies of debtor’s prisons is that the person was not allowed out to work, they were only allowed to work within the prison to both pay for their incarceration and their debt, resulting in people being imprisoned for a very long time due to low wages. It was a very poorly thought-out system.

During this time, Charles Dickens was twelve years old and forced to work 10 hours a day in a factory to support himself and help his family. He was able to live outside the prison in impoverished circumstances with a family friend while his parents and younger siblings resided within the prison, but had to leave school due to his new family circumstances. Even after his family left the debtor’s prison, his mother requested he stay at the factory for a few more months, which caused him great anger. Though this experience only lasted a year, it served as a catalyst for his literary satire.

Government-Instituted Workhouse
Public Domain
Workhouse Layout
Public Domain

Thirteen years after Dickens’ family experienced their nightmare in the debtor’s prison, Charles Dickens released the first installment of his literary masterpiece, Oliver Twist. In this work, he makes a social commentary on the abuses suffered by the poor and the counterproductive laws aimed at ‘helping’ the poor. By giving voice to the voiceless and shedding light upon the plight of the unfortunate, Charles Dickens began a movement that would culminate in the total reform of Britain’s political policies towards the poor.

Oliver Twist
Public Domain

The main focus of Oliver Twist was the inadequacy of charitable institutions run by the government along with the abuses inflicted by them on the poor. Dickens used satire and humor to call attention to these wrongs and bring to light the unchristian manner in which the poor were being forced to live. Instead of coming straight out and voicing his opinions about the injustices being committed by the government in their quest to ‘assist’ the poor, Dickens goes at it from an angle that is better suited to his time. Had he just railed against the government for their abhorrent system, it is most likely that he would have either ended up in jail or had his means of support stripped away. But by using literary art to convey his message, he was able to plant seeds of disillusionment and stir feelings of empathy in the hearts of his readers. For those who believed the poor deserved what they got, reading Dickens’ novel about a child who had no say in how he came into the world and was thus condemned before having the opportunity to choose his path, showed them in a non-confrontational way that their beliefs were wrong.

Using humor to address the shocking abuses committed against innocent children and satirizing those responsible, Dickens was able to express his opinion about the erroneous nature of these actions and condemn those who agreed with them while still retaining the interest of the reader. As the readers maintained interest in his work and continued to be affected by his writings, Dickens was better able to instill his views of how unjust the current system was towards the poor and needy in their society and thus promote a much-needed change.

While there is no direct link between Dickens’ work and the abolishment of the Poor Laws, his works sparked debate and changed the way people viewed what was going on in England at the time. Dickens’ vivid stories that captured the attention of the country gave faces and names to the tragedy that was the Poor Laws and showed a view into the lives of the poor. As people grew attached to Oliver and felt for his situation, many began to change their views on how the poor should be treated and the current modus operandi of ‘helping’ them.

One of the highlights of how Dickens was able to influence so many was his penchant for using real places and describing things people had seen, but hadn’t really noticed, such as Jacob’s Island on the Thames. Dickens also avoided expressing his own opinion or trying to tell others what was right or wrong, he just presented the story and let the readers form their own opinions.

Now, this is not to say that Dickens never voiced his thoughts or tried to persuade people. He was an avid philanthropist who helped girls and young women get off the streets and learn employable skills. He advocated for child labor laws, housing reform, and improved sanitation for the poor. And he was a loud supporter of educating the poor to help them improve their circumstances. His stories worked to instill seeds of sympathy and open eyes to the plight of the poor while his works sought to bring about change. Charles Dickens was able to do much during his life to improve the lives of the poor as best he could in his area, but his books were able to turn the entire country towards creating a better system to of support and empathy for a class of people who had, until this time, been viewed as deserving of their predicaments. Dickens was able to achieve what very few before him could: turning the proud hearts of the wealthy British elite from believing the poor were vile sinners to having compassion on those who had no say in the life of poverty they were brought into.


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