Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, in 1883, to show the reader things as they really are. He felt that the novel should be a message of social reform. One of its purposes was to promote reform of the abuses in workhouses. In no way does Dickens create a dream world. His imagination puts together a bad place during a bad time; an English workhouse just after the Poor Law Act of 1834 (Scott-Kilvert, 48).
In the first chapter of Oliver Twist, Dickens moves from comedy to pathos and from pathos to satire. He takes us from the drunken old woman to the dying mother to the hardened doctor. Such rapid switches help in all the later novels to hold together disparate effects, to provide variety and unity, and to give that double opportunity for comedy and pathos that Dickens admired in stage melodrama (Scott-Kilvert, 47). In this first chapter, Dickens also captures life and death in a single sentence, "Let me see the child, and die." (Dickens, 2). This sums up the mother's will to see the newborn baby, and takes a short stride from birth to death.
Dickens seems to create his characters to open the reader's eye's to the true characteristics of their nature. One of his subjects are conditioned human nature and the relationship of the individual to his environment (Scott-Kilvert, 47-48). In Oliver Twist, Dickens attempts to free his characters of any influence of their environment. He muddles the message of the novel by making Oliver immune to an environment which is denounced as necessarily corrupting (Price, 86). Dickens created Oliver's character to be virtuous and innocent. He put many stressed tests on him in the course of the book.
Dickens comes close to endangering Oliver's idealized virtue, though; in the great temptation scene in Chapter 18 (Scott-Kilvert, 49). This is where the child is being carefully brainwashed, first cunningly cold-shouldered and isolated, then cunningly brought in the deadly warmth of the thieves' family circle (Scott-Kilvert, 49).
Oliver was but too glad to make himself useful; too happy to have some faces, however bad, to look upon; too desirous to conciliate those about him when he could honestly do so; to throw any objection in the way of this proposal. So he at once expressed his readiness; and, kneeling on the floor, while Dodger sat upon the table so that he could take his foot in his lap, he applied himself to a process by which Mr. Dawkins designated as "japanning his trotter-cases". The phrase rendered into plain English, signifieth, cleaning his boots. (Dickens, 131).
Oliver escapes the situation but there is still the presence of a real threat.
We are apt to forget how early-Victorian society, the society of the laissez-faire, took for granted individual conditions of privacy and isolation...It was a society where each unit, each family and household, led their secret lives with an almost neurotic antipathy to external interference (Price, 90-91). It was the age of the private gentleman who wanted nothing but to be left alone...He could ignore politics, the Press, the beggar who happened to be dying of hunger in the coach-house; he need feel no pressure of social or national existence...There has probably never been a time when England was-in the sociological phrase-less integrated." (Price, 90-91). Dickens wrote in contrast to the society in which he witnessed around him. He brought together a unity of the two worlds and attempted to bring them together. This goes along with the purpose of reform in the workhouses. All these people have the same outlook and the same philosophy of life, a philosophy which that private gentleman, Fagin, sums up as looking out for number 1 (Price, 91).
Dickens is unique in the way he often talks to the reader in "one to one" conversations. He does this quite frequently throughout Oliver Twist as a way of amplifying what he feels the reader should be attentive to. He also uses this technique to invoke stage directions to the book....
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