What evidence of black humor is in Oliver Twist?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Critic Gene Gissing calls Charles Dickens "a genial moralist, a keen satirist, and a leader in literature."  Certainly, his dark satire on public institutions comes through in many of his works, including "Oliver Twist" in which the cold-hearted Mrs. Mann starves the children under her care at the "infant farm" because she keeps the money allocated for their food.  When the children die, their deaths are ruled "accidental." Oliver lives with her until he is taken when he is nine by Mr. Bumble who is in charge of the workhouse.  After Oliver is hired out to a local mortician, he gets into a fight with another boy, Noah Claypole, and the Sowerberrys tell Mr. Bumble to come fetch the boy:

'Dear, dear!' ejaculated Mrs. Sowerberry, piously raising her eyes to the kitchen ceiling: 'this comes of being liberal!'

The liberality [satirical phrase] of Mrs. Sowerberry to Oliver had consisted in a profuse bestowal upon him of all the dirty odds and ends which nobody else would eat; so there was a great deal of meekness and self-devotion in her voluntarily remaining under Mr. Bumble's heavy accusation.

'Ah!' said Mr. Bumble, when the lady brought her eyes down to earth again; 'the only thing that can be done now, ...is to leaven him in the cellar for a day or so, till he's a little starved down; and then to take him out, and keep him on gruel all through his apprenticeship. He comes of a bad family. Excitable natures, Mrs. Sowerberry.  Both the nurse and doctor said, that that mother of his made her way  her, against difficulties and pain that would have killed any well-disposed woman, weeks before.'

In other chapters, such as Chapter IV, Dickens's satire upon the evil lurking in the Poor Law Act, points in a darkly humorous manner to the injustices against the poor as well as to the fostering of the criminal element.  For, by the new act of 1834, outdoor sustenance of the poor was eliminated, driving them to crime.  People could not be relieved of their suffering without going into the poorhouse to work, or by turning to crime.  Describing Noah Claypole, Dickens writes of his giving in to crime, with dark humor,

how impartially the same aimable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest ....

This dark humor of Dickens is further exemplified with Mr. Beadle' s attempts to woe Mrs. Mann, believing that such a marriage will profit him financially.  Instead, he becomes implicated in his and her crimes of thievery from Oliver's mother.  And, in his satire of the opinionated higher social classes, Dickens uses the curmudgeon, Mr. Grimwig with his "I'll eat my head" whenever someone contradicts his point of view.  Also, the man with the white vest, who concludes that the boys he sees in court will all come to "a bad end" no matter the charge.