What Does Charles Dickens Criticize In The Beginning Of Oliver Twist By Placing Oliver In A Workhouse?

In what ways is Oliver Twist a social criticism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the aftermath of England's conflict with France, the people who suffered most from economic instability were of course the poor. Overtaxation, inflation, embargo on French imports, and a diminishing food supply were the common citizens' woes. Added to these factors was rising unemployment, as inventions in the manufacturiing sector steadily replaced manuel labour and as war veterans returned home.

The government took drastic measures to discourage the poor's dependence upon state funds.   In 1833, child labor laws were passed, and a year later, the "Poor Laws":

They required that people needing public assistance live in workhouses, where they were poorly fed and badly treated. The object of this plan was to make public assistance unattractive to the poor and thus to decrease the number of people on assistance, as well as the associated costs. The plan did save money, but at a great cost in human suffering, as Dickens makes plain in Oliver Twist.

Ironically, this "welfare" system oppressed the poor more than ever.  It was against such governmental regulation (favoring the interests of the rich rather than those of the poor) that Dickens was primarily speaking out:

In 1822, Dickens's father was transferred back to London, but he had gotten himself deeply in debt by then and was soon sent to a debtors' prison, or workhouse, along with his wife and Dickens's siblings. Dickens, who at twelve was considered old enough to work, had to work in a bootblacking warehouse. Alone in a strange city, separated from his family, he endured harrowing experiences that marked him with a hatred for the social system and the desire to succeed so that he would never have to live this way again.

Dicken's 'legacy of the poor' met a migitated public reception, as people were shocked by the vivid personalized characterization of his anti-heroes. He was accused of "endorsing" the crimes of the desperate and of rationalizing their acts as necessary for survival:

Joseph Gold, in Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist, wrote that it was not surprising that critics in Dickens's day were upset by the book, because what Dickens did was to "humanize the criminal. This was not readily forgiven, for to humanize the criminal is to show his relationship to the reader, who would prefer to regard him as another species." This was very different from previous novels, which either romanticized criminals as gallant outcasts or as complete monsters, utterly inhuman.

Note: The preceding quotes are taken from the references listed below.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 and died in 1870. He lived in a time in England where the rich were getting wealthier and the poor were being exploited more and more. In fact, Dickens as a twelve year old boy started working 10 hours a day, after his father was imprisoned. These facts must have left a deep impression on the young boy. This is probably the reason why the idea of social reform runs throughout his works. Also it is pretty clear that this books are challenging the culture in which he grew up. Even if this was not an intentional point, we can still say that Dickens' works are a social criticism, because they emerged from that thought world. In other words, it gives the reader a window into that society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The previous post was quite lucid.  Again, similar to most of Dickens' works, this one is a criticism about the notion of "industrial progress."  In writing about an orphanage and those who have been deemed as "forgotten," Dickens is making a pointed criticism about the ideas of industrialization in England.  In writing about the problems of the laws against the poor, Dickens draws the sociological link between crime and poverty.  Through the suggestion that poverty and criminal behavior are linked or possess some level of causality, Dickens is making a strict criticism between the manner in which English society views the poor and how the treatment of the poor can have larger implications on social orders, as a whole.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Essentially all of Charles Dickens's works were social criticism and Oliver Twist is very clearly critiquing the way that English society worked in Dickens's time.

The whole plot is essentially one big indictment of the way English society treated its poor.  We follow Oliver Twist's life as he is abused by society at every turn.  He is born to a mother whose name we never know and who dies soon afterward.

From then on, Oliver is exploited ruthlessly by the "welfare" system then in place.  He is placed in the "infant farm" run by Mrs. Mann.  When he is nine, he is taken to the workhouse.  In both places, we see corrupt practices that exploit the people who are being "helped."  These practices help the people who run the institutions make money, but they do nothing for the poor.

By pointing out these flaws and their impacts on Oliver, Dickens is criticizing English society and its treatment of the poor.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial