Workhouse. Orphanage in which Oliver Twist is confined when the novel opens. Located approximately seventy-five miles north of London, the workhouse plays an important role in the mood, atmosphere, and plot of the story. The dingy, poor, hard-edged conditions of the workhouse and town make these places appear to be characters in their own right. Oliver spends many of his early years in the workhouse as a frail, malnourished lad in worn work clothes. His condition represents the conditions in the workhouse and the town. In English society, the workhouse and its inhabitants were at the lower end of the class scale.
The caretakers of the workhouse, Mrs. Mann and Bumble, are above the workhouse children in status. They are oblivious to the hardships and death around them in the workhouse. Alcoholism, a part of the life of poor English people, is rampant in the workhouse. Furthermore, the weather in the town is very dramatic, ranging from hail, freezing rain, snow, and bracing winds to the occasional bright sunshine. These extremes symbolize the changes that occur in Oliver’s life. Because of the adverse conditions of the workhouse, Oliver finally runs away and walks for seven days before reaching the outskirts of London.
*London. Capital and greatest city of Great Britain. After arriving in a suburb of London, Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, known as the Artful Dodger, who leads Oliver to the east side of London. Before long, Oliver finds himself part of the London underworld, a world overseen by the sinister Fagin. The deserted streets, alleys, old dirty buildings, dark back streets, dim rooms, smoke, fog, and pitch-black nights of east London provide the proper atmosphere for Fagin’s gang of thieves. They lurk in the crumbling ruins, which are symbolic of the political injustices of English society. The numerous evidences of neglect and decay in the surroundings closely correspond to the decadent human qualities that were running rampant in the hearts of the people. As in the workhouse environment, slime and filth prevail in much of London.
The general mood of terror and extreme brutality that exists in London can be directly correlated with the frequent rain and extremely cold weather. Rooftops and corridors that interconnect the dirty, crumbling buildings provide Fagin’s thieves with escape routes that reflect the squalor of their occupation. Bill Sikes, the leader of Fagin’s band of trained pickpockets, is a lower-class alcoholic, who makes his living by robbing people at night. A significant portion of the action in the novel occurs during the nighttime, a time for darkness, criminals, and corruption.
*Chertsey. Quiet village along the River Thames. Oliver is exposed to a completely different world when he is rescued, first by Mr. Brownlow, and later by Mrs. Maylie and her adopted daughter. It is only in these settings that brightness and sunlight occur for any length of time in the novel. This setting expresses hope in moral values that make a positive difference in the quality of human life. Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie live in country homes in Chertsey, a community providing a pleasant, mellow atmosphere, where well-heeled members of English society lived. When Oliver moves to Mr. Brownlow’s home, his worn, tattered, second-hand clothing is exchanged for a new woolen suit. The transition represents the progress Oliver has made from a harsh, unpleasant life of poverty to a comfortable, peaceful lifestyle. From the abuse and social injustice of the workhouse and the world of Fagin, Oliver has escaped, having relied on his moral character to bring him up from dire circumstances to find happiness and peace in Chertsey.
Dickens sets Oliver Twist in early nineteenth-century England, a time when long-held ideas and beliefs came under serious scrutiny. Profound changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, religious uncertainty, scientific advancement, and political and social upheaval caused many...
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