1. Victorian Morals and the Poor
1.1. Poor Laws and Workhouses
1.2. Child Labour
2. Dickens’ Childhood and Background
3. Cold Reality of Workhouses: Oliver Twist’s Social Commentary
Have you ever thought about how it would be to live in a time of poverty? How would life be if you were poor and did not know from where you would be getting your next meal? What would it be like to be forced to live in a workhouse? These are some crucial questions you might ask yourself if you were living in early nineteenth century England. Charles Dickens, who was a lifelong champion of the poor, addresses these central issues in his early novel and timeless masterpiece Oliver Twist (1838).
Dickens himself suffered the harsh abuse visited upon the poor by the English legal system. In England in the 1830s, the poor truly had no voice, political or economic. In particular, children were often mistreated and subjected to the poorest of working and living conditions. In point of fact, the Victorian Era was characterized by the use of children to help develop the economy. Child labourers received less than the essentials needed at home, school, and at work. In a nutshell, the life of a young worker was in essence the life of a slave.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens presents the everyday existence of the lowest members of English society and realistically portrays the horrible conditions of the nineteenth century workhouses. Hence, in the story of Oliver Twist, Dickens uses past experiences from his childhood and targets the Poor Law of 1834 which renewed the importance of the workhouse as a means of relief for the poor. In fact, Dickens’ age was a period of industrial development marked by the rise of the middle class. In the elections brought about by the accession of William IV in 1830, the Tories lost control of the government. Assumption of power by the Whigs opened the way to an era of accelerated progress.
In this time period, children worked just as much, if not more, than some of the adults. After 1833, an increased amount of legislation was enacted to control the hours of labour and working conditions for children and women in manufacturing plants. The Poor Law of 1834 wanted to make the workhouse more of a deterrent to idleness as it was believed that people were poor because they were lazy and needed to be punished. So people in workhouses were deliberately treated harshly and the workhouses were similar to prisons.
Nonetheless, the plan was successful from one point of view, for within three years the cost of poor relief was reduced by more than one-third. However, this system was sharply criticized and censured: Dickens, for instance, attempted to improve the workhouse conditions with his novel Oliver Twist and as a result, this work helped influence changes in the problem. Nevertheless, in Oliver Twist, Dickens goes far beyond the mere experiences of the workhouse, extending his depiction of poverty to London’s squalid streets, dark alehouses, and thieves’ dens. Thus, he gives voice to those who had no voice, establishing a link between politics and literature with his social commentary.
In the following, it will be analyzed how Dickens attacks the defects of existing institutions in his novel Oliver Twist. Hence, it will be shown how Dickens creates a fictive world that was a mirror in which the truths of the real world were reflected. However, firstly, it is necessary to take a closer look at the historical background. Thus, the attitude of Victorian society towards the poor comes into view and with it the central issues of child labour, Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. Secondly, when regarding the central theme of child labour in Oliver Twist, one must also be aware of Dickens’ childhood and social background, Oliver Twist being partly an autobiographic novel.
1. Victorian Morals and the Poor
1.1 Poor Laws and Workhouses
On June 20, 1837, Queen Victoria came to the throne of England as the long period of middle class ascendancy was gaining momentum. The Victorian Age, which this time period is often referred to, comes from Queen Victoria. In 1840, it was thought that only twenty percent of the children of London had any form of schooling. The 1840s were years of crises. The character of English life was being transformed by industrial expansion and by great movements of population towards urban life.
Hence, the Industrial Age and the financial opportunities surrounding it led to a rapidly growing middle class in early nineteenth century Britain. Previously, the aristocratic upper class, one that scorned working for a living, dictated economic and social influence. Now the bourgeoisie, including factory owners, managers and purveyors of new services, wanted its place in society and needed to legitimize labour. Thus, they put forth a new ideal of work as moral virtue: God loved those who helped themselves, while “burdens on the public” were sinful and weak. This attitude validated the middle class by giving it someone to look down upon.
Hence, so-called Poor Laws were introduced. These laws were a distorted manifestation of the Victorian middle class’s emphasis on the virtues of hard work. England in the 1830s was rapidly undergoing a transformation from an agricultural, rural economy to an urban, industrial nation. The growing middle class had achieved an economic influence equal to, if not greater than, that of the British aristocracy. In the 1830s, the middle class clamoured for a share of political power with the landed gentry, bringing about a restructuring of the voting system. Parliament passed the Reform Act, which granted the right to vote to previously disenfranchised middle-class citizens. The middle class was eager to gain social legitimacy. This desire inspired sweeping economic and political change.
As the middle class was stigmatized for having to work, and so, to alleviate the stigma attached to the middle-class wealth, it promoted work as a moral virtue. However, the resulting moral virtue attached to work, along with the middle class’ insecurity about its own social legitimacy, led English society to subject the poor to hatred and cruelty. The majority of the middle class was anxious to be differentiated from the lower classes, and one way to do so was to stigmatize the lower classes as lazy good-for-nothings. The middle class’s value system transformed earned wealth into a sign of moral virtue. Thus, Victorian society interpreted economic success as a sign that God favoured the honest individual’s efforts, and thus, regarded the condition of poverty as a sign of the weakness of the poor individual.
 In this context Monroe Engel states: “In all his [Dickens’] fiction, there was purpose in his portraits of the poor: “I have great faith in the Poor; to the best of my ability I always endeavour to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and shall never cease, I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming” (Monroe Engel, “The Social and Political Issues.” In Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist. Authoritative Text. Backgrounds and Sources, Early Reviews, Criticism. Edited by Fred Kaplan. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, p. 495).
 The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 took power out of the hands of local parishioners and gave it to elected officials representing central authority and middle-class values. It also took away relief from the poor outside government institutions – it was either the workhouse or nothing. These harsh changes were aimed at the able-bodied poor. However, it hit the infirm, the old and the very young much harder. Many MPs (Member of Parliament) voting on the Act were southern rural landowners who had been devastated by bad harvests and rioting, for corn prices, greatly depended on for income, were at an appalling low.
 Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the English Novel (Chicago, 1967), p. 219.
 Harry Kaste, M.A., Cliff’s Notes on Oliver Twist (Lincoln, 1997), p. 8.
 Kaste, p. 8.
 Information about the historical background is taken from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/oliver/context.html.
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- Childhood Victorian England Charles Dickens Oliver Twist