What are the themes of Oliver Twist?

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In a richly developed framework of events and issues, Dickens' presents the joint themes of Education and Workhouse Life by contrasting workhouse children to street children of London. It is interesting to note that Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist who found the missing Dr. David Livingston, was raised in a workhouse in Wales: his workhouse education was well-founded enough that he became a journalist and famous expedition leader.

It is important to recognize that the Poor Laws, with the first in 1601 and with significant updates made in 1767 and 1834, required that poor and orphaned children be sent to the country where they might escape the exposure to crime, indolence, drunkenness and disability that oftentimes accompanied residence in a London workhouse. Thus the contrast between workhouse children and street children is in significant regards a contrast between country children and city children.

As part of the rich framework addressing the themes stated above, Dickens contrasts workhouse children to street children using the issue of language. Specifically, Oliver and Dick have exceptional language skills though they had been "beaten, and starved, and shut up together, many and many a time" in the Poor Law specified childs' farmhouse while the Artful Dodger can't readily be understood by the standard English speaker. Dickens exposes the failings of the English approach to education while simultaneously underscoring the missed potentiality for success in the workhouses.

Oliver Speaking with Dick

'You musn't say you saw me, Dick,' said Oliver. 'I am running away. ... How pale you are!'

'I heard the doctor tell them I was dying,' replied the child .... 'I am very glad to see you, dear; but don't stop, don't stop!'

'Yes, yes, I will, to say good-b'ye to you,' replied Oliver. 'I shall see you again, Dick. I know I shall!'

Oliver Speaking with the Dodger

'My eyes, how green!' exclaimed the young gentleman. 'Why, a beak's a madgst'rate; and when you walk by a beak's order, it's not straight forerd, but always agoing up, and niver a coming down agin. Was you never on the mill?'

'What mill?' inquired Oliver.

'What mill! Why, the mill—the mill as takes up so little room that it'll work inside a Stone Jug; and always goes better when the wind's low with people, than when it's high; acos then they can't get workmen. But come,' said the young gentleman; 'you want grub, and you shall have it. I'm at low-water-mark myself....'

1834 Poor Law

The 1834 Poor Law required all workhouse children be taught daily lessons on "reading, writing, arithmetic, and ... Christian Religion ... to fit them for service, ... usefulness, industry and virtue." Of course, application of these requirements varied greatly with the effect being as much dependent upon the administrators, like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corey, as much as upon the lessons given. Yet extant workhouse lesson schedules and biographies of workhouse residents like Henry Morton Stanley attest to the potential for success resulting from rightly administered workhouse and educational systems.

St. Marylebone Workhouse Lesson Timetable


9.00-10.00 Historical reading, with explanations.

10.00-11.00 General and mental arithmetic, tables, use of clock dial for learning the time of day.

11.00-12.00 Grammar. Parsing and Dictation.

2.00-3.00 Writing in copy books & arithmetic.

3.00-4.00 Reading with explanations.

4.00-5.00 Geography, with maps.


9.00-11.30 Reading, spelling, tables, arithmetic.

1.30-12.30 Working in copy books. Dictation

12.30-2.00 Dinner. Recreation.

2.00-5.00 Needlework, knitting and domestic employment.

6.00-8.00 Needlework, knitting & domestic employment.


Language and Theme

The language of Oliver and Dick illustrates the results of successful education whereas the language of the Dodger illustrates the results of the failure to provide education. The Dodger was one of London's street children. According to Workhouses.Org.UK, street children were orphans or children who had chosen to live on the street rather than suffer abuses of drunkenness, molestation or violence at home. Street children had no access to education or apprenticeships, work opportunities that might render them useful and industrious, because free compulsory education to age 10 was not implemented until 1880 and not revised to age 12 until 1899. By contrast, workhouse children were educated "at least three hours a day" from age 7 to 16.

While Oliver's speech may sound to modern readers like a affectation on Dickens' part or like a stylistic mistake, Dickens was in fact deliberately illustrating his joint themes. Readers contemporaneous with Dickens would have immediately recognize the truth of the situations being exposed and satirized by the elegance of the one's speech and the virtual incomprehensibility of the other's speech. The contrasting language used by Oliver and the Dodger shows the value and necessity of education, the potentiality within the workhouse system--the ironic satire with which Dickens' exposes both the failures and potentialities underscores his call to social action to reform education and workhouses--and horror of poor childrens' lives, whether workhouse children or street children.

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