Historical Context

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In the mid-nineteenth century, England was suffering from economic instability and widespread unemployment. The economic instability was a legacy of the Napoleonic era, which lasted until 1815. During this time, England was at war with France. The English government had imposed heavy taxes to pay for the war, and although these did not really affect the wealthy classes, they were a crushing burden on the poor. Prices rose, food became scarce, and inflation rose. Also because of the war, French and European markets for English goods were closed, leading to unemployment among workers.

Workers were also unemployed because the increasing use of machinery in manufacturing had made many of their jobs obsolete; for example, instead of employing many individual weavers, textile manufacturers began using mechanized looms, with only a few people needed to run them. The angry workers, known as Luddites, led movements to smash industrial machinery, a crime that was made punishable by death in 1811.

The Napoleonic War ended in 1815, but the misery did not. With the war over, England entered the worst depression it had ever seen. The number of poor people, never low, increased to crisis levels. Historically, each parish had been responsible for taking care of its poor by handing out money and food, and more and more people now chose to take these handouts. Others worked but took the assistance anyway, and when employers found out about this, they lowered their wages, making it impossible even for honest workers to survive on their wages. In addition, several thousand war veterans had returned to England, swelling the ranks of the jobless.

During this time, children often worked long hours, every day of the week, in dangerous factories. In 1833, child labor and working conditions began to be regulated and controlled.

In 1834, the "Poor Laws" were passed. 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.

In 1837, Queen Victoria ascended the English throne and began her long rule and a relatively stable period in English history. This stability, and the increasing numbers of people in the middle classes who were educated enough to read books for leisure and had the money to buy them and the time to read them, would help the young Dickens to an illustrious future.

Social Sensitivity

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Some of Dickens's original readers objected to Oliver Twists comparatively frank portrayal of thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But what was considered explicit then is quite mild today. Dickens carefully avoids direct quotation of offensive language and offers only the most oblique descriptions of objectionable behavior. The novel was written for a Victorian audience, after all, and as Dickens himself points out in the preface, "a lesson of the purest good may ... be drawn from the vilest evil."

Dickens's treatment of Jewish characters will be more objectionable to modem readers, although very few Victorians even noticed it. The original text clearly portrays Fagin as a Jew and may even suggest that his ethnic background has formed his character. Indeed, Dickens frequently compares Fagin to the devil, though never explicitly because Fagin is a Jew. Dickens, although remarkably clear-sighted about some forms of injustice, never completely escaped the views of his own culture, which generally viewed Jews as sneaky and dishonest.

Compare and Contrast

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1838 : It is not yet known that every person in the...

(This entire section contains 145 words.)

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world has different fingerprints, so the criminal justice system relies on eyewitness reports, confessions, and rough clues to determine who has committed crimes.

Today: Fingerprinting, DNA analysis, and sophisticated analysis of microscopic clues left at crime scenes have made the criminal justice system much more precise than it was in Dickens's day.

1838: Throughout the 1800s, a variety of crimes in England are punishable by death. In 1800, 200 types of crimes merited the death penalty. By 1837, reforms have diminished this number to 15 types of crimes.

Today: In England, there is no death penalty for any crime.

1838: Laws control the movement and daily lives of poor people who are confined to "workhouses" or "debtor's prisons" where they are starved and mistreated.

Today: England has an extensive social welfare system, which provides aid to unemployed, ill, and elderly people.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading