What does Dickens say about charity/philanthropy in Oliver Twist?

1 Answer

belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

One of the major themes in Oliver Twist is the hypocrisy of the Poor Law of 1834 which existed at the time. The government decided that poor people could only receive charity if they voluntarily moved into workhouses where they were expected to perform a specific amount of work to "earn" their charity. In theory, this would allow them to develop a strong work ethic which they would use to escape poverty; in practice, the government workers and volunteers who controlled the workhouses were corrupt, dishonest, and cruel, and the workhouses turned out to be far worse than simply living on the streets. Dickens describes one such controller, who was tasked with distributing the government stipend of workhouse orphans such as Oliver:

The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them.
(Dickens, Oliver Twist, gutenberg.org)

The good intentions of the government went to waste because of the inherent greed of its employees. Dickens makes many points in the book, including the idea that charity should not be done for an expected return, but instead entirely for its own sake, the workhouses were destined to fail because of its expectation that hard work would encourage personal responsibility and that it would be an equitable exchange; their employees didn't care about the poor, however, and with their embezzlement of charitable funds created conditions above which the poor could never rise.