The act of cruelty from the government and institution towards unfortunate is probably the most dominant theme that is portrayed in Oliver twist. Workhouses “were places where poor homeless people worked and in return they were fed and housed. In 1834 The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced which wanted to make the workhouse more of a deterrent to idleness as it was believed that people were poor because they were idle and needed to be punished. So people in workhouses were deliberately treated harshly and the workhouses were more like prisons” – Charles Dickens 1812-1870. Charles Dickens wrote the book largely in response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, It showed how careless the government was for their less fortunate citizens during that time. And even though the book shows examples of both passive and active cruelty, the novel demonstrated amount of active cruelty is far more evident. The cruelty towards the unfortunate is not only from institutions, but is also from many individuals in the story. Although in the story it is the parochial board that decides Oliver’s future without sympathy and carelessly, the individual cruelty that is expressed towards Oliver is demonstrated by a character that goes by “the man in the white waist coat”. This character generally voices many specific harsh sentiments, so they are shown to not only have come from laws but from the individuals in power. Also, another Character that is often involved in the corporate harshness that Young Oliver has to face is Mr. Bumble. Dickens did this to show the cruelty wasn’t nameless nor was it faceless, it was the mindset of all the people in power as a whole, but it is apparent many of these culprits can in fact be named. Charles Dickens wanted to show how unfair it was for people who were born into poverty due to the fact that it was a simply left to chance of the conditions each person was born in. “And what an excellent example of the power of dress young Oliver Twist was. Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; – it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have fixed his station in society. But now he was enveloped in the old calico robes, that had grown yellow in the same service; he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none.” (Oliver twist, chapter 1, page 6) This quote from the book was Charles dickens way of saying that it was almost impossible to leave you social status once you were given a position of where they stood in society. When Charles dickens wrote this novel it was his primary intent to speak of all the unfairness and cruelty that was done towards many poor people who were living at that time.
As Charles Dickens wrote the novel Oliver twist he did it with the intention of demonstrating one of the most dangerous characteristics many people have; mob mentality. Mob mentality is essentially the notion that someone’s decisions are influenced by the people around then when they adopt certain behaviour or follow a certain trend. "'Stop thief! Stop thief!' The cry is taken up by a hundred voices, and the crowd accumulate at every turning. Away they fly, splashing through the mud, and rattling along the pavements: up go the windows, out run the people, onward bear the mob, a whole audience desert Punch in the very thickest of the plot, and, joining the rushing throng, swell the shout, and lend fresh vigour to the cry, 'Stop thief! Stop thief!'"(Oliver Twist, Chapter 10, pages 83-84). This passage provides a central example of the danger of mob mentality. When the cry is first taken up against Oliver, it is carried by individuals -Mr. Brownlow, the Dodger and Charley Bates, the butcher, the baker. However, once enough people are participating, the individuals are lost. It shows how easily influenced people were at that time by other individuals. The mob dominates completely, and with the loss of any individualism comes the loss of any individual guilt; no one considers it their responsibility to be sure that Oliver is really a thief; no one asks for evidence or details of the situation. The fact is that once enough people are chanting, there is no stopping it. Charles Dickens knows that this characteristic in humans played an enormous role in the poor treatment of the less fortunate, once enough people had a certain belief it just made sense to follow what everyone else was doing.
Another theme I found that was very prominent in the novel was the death penalty and how executions became more about entertaining the crowd rather than about meeting justice. The various form of justice is extremely important in Oliver Twist. At the end of the novel it’s shown that every character has had to face justice. It leaves all the good characters along with Oliver and Rose living happily ever after, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are left in a workhouse, and Fagin and Sikes are both hanged for their crimes. However Dickens shows that he is not exactly pleased with the way the events turned out. Even though the good character a given what they deserve, and the bad characters are given what they deserve, the novel still seems unsure about the methods used to execute justice. "Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarreling, joking. Everything told of life and animation but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death." This passage clearly expresses carelessness towards the death penalty. Fagin is certainly guilty of many crimes, but Dickens here makes it clear that death is always ugly, and that there is something deeply disturbing in the way people are treating a public hanging as entertainment. This makes it hard to forget that although Fagin’s actions contributed to Nancy’s death, he did not in fact kill anyone, and yet he has to pay with his life. And the excitement of the people in the scene around him raises the worry that he is not paying his life for justice, but for the enjoyment of the masses. The readers are also left unsure of whether the capital punishment is ethical because of Oliver’s close encounter of becoming an innocent victim to it. So even though it is extremely clear that Fagin is in fact guilty the court room is manipulated by mob mentality in such a way that the justice system just dissipates and succumbs to this mindset of following those around you. This this leaves the reader questioning, who has the right to deliver this “justice”, and whether someone’s life or death should be left in the hands of any government or bureaucracy.
Charles Dickens wrote each and every one of his novels with the intent of conveying a specific message. When he wrote Oliver twist he was it was to challenge Societies idea towards poor people. They believed that all poor people were essentially criminals at birth and that if you are a lower social status you will never a rise. Dickens used his own experiences he saw in others at that time by showing how bureaucracies oppress the less fortunate, and that as a society we treat our fellow human being without any dignity. He shows that things like classism, mob mentality, and the death penalty are all different ways of demonstrating the horrible way of our society. The reason why Dickens novel have lasted throughout the ages is not only his incredible language and writing style it’s that he wrote all his novel with message that still has meaning even to this day. The overall message he wanted to give to all his readers is that we should show compassion and respect to everyone around us.
Dickens, Charles, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oliver Twist. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print. Secondary sources
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