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Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist has a unique perspective on social problems. It investigates, chastises, and warns against regressive conduct in society. The critical approach that the author takes in discussing social themes is one of the novel's standout features. Dickens, a nineteenth-century social critic, worked to counter injustices in his society. Dickens aimed to condemn facets of abuse and encourage the wellbeing of children in society through the views and viewpoints of the characters. Oliver Twist played an intrinsic role in creating awareness for the social, emotional, and psychological challenges that children were facing in the 19th century. The depiction of children characters by the author inspired sympathy within the audience and enabled the establishment of mediums through which children welfare could be promoted in the social settings. Charles Dickens sought to criticize the social indifference that was extended towards children by the adults and wealthy in the society.
Firstly, children in the novel are referred to as victims of adult actions. Nonetheless the adults fail to take responsibility for the children’s welfare. Such callousness provides a major concern for Dickens. Upon birth, Oliver Twist is committed to a workhouse that fosters hopelessness among children. As an estranged child, born to an unmarried woman, Twist was the subject of derision from the day he was born. His mother’s mistakes were thus imposed upon him by the society irrespective of his innocence. Dickens indicates that the dressing that Oliver Twist is given upon birth provides the proof that he had been condemned by his society. Thus, “now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world – despised by all, pitted by none” (6). The nineteenth century adult attitudes towards children and their potential was thus grounded on the opulence of the social settings in which the children were born. A child born to a poor mother was thus the subject of derision while a child born to a wealthy family was the subject of celebration in the nineteenth century English community.
Charity overseen by adults in the society fails to meet the needs of needy children. The assertion is a consequence of pervasive individualism and love for material among the adults at the expense of the children’s welfares. For instance, the parish authorities in Oliver Twist hide under the veil of philanthropism when in real sense they are condemning children to perdition by sending them to the workhouses. Under the guise of benevolence, “the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed’, or in other word, that he should be dispatched to branch-workhouse some three miles off” (Dickens 7). The woman who is tasked with the duty of caring for the children takes it upon herself to manipulate and abuse them. She is a reflection of the callousness with which children were regarded in the nineteenth century. She starves them and deceives the administrative to gain financially at the expense of the children under her care. Dickens calls the trait “a systematic course of treachery and deception” (7). Breinner argues that such treatment has a negative implication on the psychology of the children who are committed to such institutions (19). Conclusively, it is the duty of the society to care for the underprivileged in the society.
Dickens promotion of children welfare in the society is also manifested when he reflects on the tribulations that Oliver and his friends undergo in forced labor. Under the care of the woman at the workhouse, Oliver is forced is forced to fend for his upkeep working as an apprentice to the undertaker. One learns from the novel that “a child is not a burden to gotten rid by apprenticing him or her to an employer on the best terms available to parish without consulting or considering the child’s interest” (Breinner 24). Children need care, empowerment and education to progress. Oliver’s escape from the clutches of his master serves as an indication of the physical and psychological traumas that children in forced labor face. Examining the theme of child labor in the novel provided Dickens with a medium through which he could exhibit the negative implications that forced labor had on children. Oliver not only grew suspicious of the adults around him as a result of his hardships, he also became wary of them. A society that is established upon the principles of fear and mistrust cannot progress.
Aspects of Violence in Oliver Twist
Violence is one the major themes in the narrative Oliver Twist. Unconventionally, Charles Dickens assumed a positive view of the environment around him. His analysis of violent deaths was structured to emphasize the importance of life and being. The graphic details that he involved in addressing the theme of death and violence, provided the author with a medium through which he could encourage initiative in the society. Thus, one should ensure that they maximize their time in life as it is temporary and a gift of empowerment. Unlike most of the authors of his time, Dickens refused to assume a jaundiced view of death and violence.
Violent deaths in Oliver Twist were intended to reflect reality about human experiences. It was a negation of illusory experiences that were manifested in many of the novel. The indifference that children mirror upon death serves as a validation of the stance that was assumed by Dickens with regards to the reality of life. According to Dickens, the society commits abundant resources to burial ceremonies when the event cannot be redeemed. His commitment to the projection of reality is also manifested when he claims that “the purpose of art…is to encourage the suspension of everyday activity in order to allow “the looker-on” to see more clearly the vicissitudes of life” (Federico 364). Oliver’s first experience with death marks the beginning of an inquiry into the truth about death. While the spectacle of bearers with a coffin attracted the ragged boys, the response was temporary as soon enough the children were back to their playing ways. Thus, “the ragged boys whom the spectacle had attracted into the churchyard played a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones, or varied their amusements by jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin” (Dickens 60). The act was a manifestation of the indifference that the society had towards death and violence. The reality about death is that it marks the end of one’s relevance in their society. Despite the constant allusions to the gaping vacuum that is left behind by death, human beings are mostly indifferent to death after the burial. Violence in Oliver Twist is thus an emphasis on human reality.
Alternatively, the manifestation of violence in the novel is projected to be a culmination of injustice and suffering in the society. Federico asserts that Oliver Twist, “is Dickens’s first avowal of the unavoidable necessity of looking at a world of suffering and injustice where human beings are opposed and estranged: a world of dark motives and death, cruelty and sanguinary acts” (364). Firstly, violence provides the tool that inspires crime. The members of Fagin’s gang involve violence to achieve their criminal goals. Thus, violence gives them the power to perpetuate injustice in their societies. Nonetheless, it is important to note that their actions were inspired by deprivation. Suffering provided them with the motivation to commit crimes in the society. Violence is a reflection of moral decadence. An increase in violent tendencies acts a mark of increased social injustice.
Oliver Twist is one of the most socially reflective analyses in the 19th century. Drafted by Charles Dickens, it examines several themes which affected the 19th century British society. Violence and children welfare provide some of the major themes that were examined by the author in Oliver Twist. Through the characters such as Oliver Twist, the author intended to stress on the responsibility that society had upon its children. It is the duty of everybody to look after children. Alternatively, Dicken’s examination of violence was intended to reflect the concepts of social injustice, reality and deprivation within the English culture.
Breinner, Robert H. “Child Welfare in Fiction and Fact”. Child Welfare, no. 1, 1995, pp. 19-31.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Penguin Classics, 2002.
Federico, Annette. “The Violent Deaths of Oliver Twist”. Papers on Language & Literature, no. 4, pp. 363-385.
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