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.
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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 Victorians to reexamine many aspects of their society and culture.
Industrialization drove many farmworkers into the cities, where poor labor conditions and inadequate housing condemned most of them to poverty. The unprecedented increase in urban population fostered new and overwhelming problems of sanitation, overcrowding, poverty, disease, and crime in the huge slums occupied by impoverished workers, the unemployed, and the unfortunate. London slums bred the sort of crime Dickens portrays in Oliver Twist.
The novel is set against the background of the New Poor Law of 1834, which established a system of workhouses for those who, because of poverty, sickness, mental disorder, or age, could not provide for themselves. Young Oliver Twist, an orphan, spends his first nine years in a "baby farm," a workhouse for children in which only the hardiest survive. When Oliver goes to London, he innocently falls in with a gang of youthful thieves and pickpockets headed by a vile criminal named Fagin. Dickens renders a powerful and generally realistic portrait of this criminal underworld, with all its sordid - ness and sin. He later contrasts the squalor and cruelty of the workhouse and the city slums with the peace and love Oliver finds in the country at the Maylies' home.
Shifting Narrative Voice
Throughout the novel, Dickens employs a shifting narrative voice; as James R. Kincaid noted in Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, "It is impossible to define the characteristics or moral position of the narrators in this novel, for they are continually shifting." At times the narrator is detached and wordy, as in the opening paragraph in which he says abstractly that he will not name the town or workhouse where a certain "item of mortality" was born. At the same time, he is mocking the conventions of many novels of his time, which open with a lengthy and often smug description of the main character's birthplace and family.
The narrator doesn't consistently stay in this remote but sarcastic voice but sometimes shifts to remarking ironically on the supposedly wonderful way in which the poor are treated and on how kind it is; or sometimes the narrator appeals to the friendly feeling of the reader: "We all know how chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel." As Kincaid noted, "We can never count on being in any single relationship with the narrative voice for long. Just as we relax. . . . We are pushed away."
The novel is filled with dark humor, from Mr. Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry laughing about the abundance of small children's coffins to Dickens's mocking the seriousness and puffery of the members of the parish board, to his exposure of the cowardice and avarice of Noah and Charlotte, to the caperings of the Artful Dodger when he is put on trial. This humor only serves to sharpen the desperate sufferings of Oliver and the other characters, however, so that although readers may laugh while they are reading the book, when they're done, they tend to remember the sadness in it.
Dickens uses "flat" characters; his people don't tend to grow or change over the course of the book. Oliver, who begins good, stays good, and he never wises up; never once does he show any awareness that the thieves are truly evil or any real disgust at Fagin's life. He is afraid of the thieves, but he is afraid because they may hurt him, not because he is aware that they're twisted and corrupted souls. Fagin, who begins evil, stays that way. Many of the characters are easily marked by certain "tags" of behavior or voice: Mr. Grimwig habitually thumps his cane on the ground and asserts, "I'll eat my head!"; Fagin is always out for money; Mr. Brownlow is steadfastly good; Monks is obsessively evil. Mr. Bumble is consistently pompous and shallow, and Noah Claypole remains a coward and a bully throughout the book.
In modern fiction, characters like these are considered a mark of poor writing, but in Dickens's time, readers were not bothered by such flat depictions. In addition, because the novel was written as a serial that required readers to remember all the characters for a long period of time, it was necessary for writers to make their characters easy to remember and categorize.
Oliver Twist is Dickens's second novel, written when he was still in his middle twenties, and does not display the brilliance of character, thought, form, and language that characterizes his most mature work. Nevertheless, the novel has much to recommend it. Dickens's realistic descriptions of the London criminal underworld are fascinating and effective. He creates lively characters and situations and has a knack for finding just the right word to devastate a character, drive home a point, or create effective irony or humor. His social criticism still generates animated discussions about similar problems existing today, and the moral issues Dickens raises will probably always face us.
Some readers object to Dickens's use of coincidences to propel the plot of Oliver Twist. He depends on the kinds of unlikely connections that many modem writers carefully avoid; Dickens himself toned down his reliance on coincidence as a plot device in his later works. It is important to note that coincidences even more startling than those in Dickens's books occurred regularly in other novels of the time, and hence, the Victorian reading public was accustomed to suspending its disbelief to a certain extent when reading novels. Dickens and other Victorian writers sought artistic balance in their plots, and making everything fit together was a time-honored goal of the novelist. More important, Dickens hoped to show that, although those who live comfortably may try to deny any connection with— and therefore responsibility for—the poor, all people are naturally and inescapably interconnected. In later novels such as Bleak House, Dickens succeeds in expressing this theme without resorting to coincidence as often as he does in Oliver Twist.