Satire

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Satire 2 key examples

Definition of Satire
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Poor Laws:

Throughout the novel, Dickens uses the ironic tone of the narrator to satirize English laws for dealing with poverty, especially the Poor Law of 1834. An early instance of this satire occurs in chapter 2, which describes Oliver's infancy under this law:

[Oliver is] despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week.

In reality, the woman siphons off most of the money for herself, starving the children under the pretense that it is bad for them to be overfed or coddled. The Poor Law of 1834 consolidated poor people in workhouses. It aimed both to reduce the state cost of supporting poor people and to encourage poor people to work for a living rather than relying on the state. The passage describing Oliver's entry into this system uses humor to demonstrate that it not only failed poor children and adults, but in fact made them targets of people like this woman, who "serves" Oliver and the other children by saving them from the "inconvenience" of life-sustaining nutrition. In Chapter 12, when Mrs. Bedwin is feeding Oliver, it becomes apparent just how much these children are being starved:

And with this, the old lady applied herself to warming up in a little saucepan a basin full of broth strong enough to furnish an ample dinner, when reduced to the regulation strength, for three hundred and fifty paupers, at the very lowest computation.

The narrator is no doubt exaggerating for comedic effect, but Dickens also sets up the reader to be alarmed. How on earth could a single saucepan of broth, intended for one little boy by a woman who actually wants to nurture him, stretch to feed 350 people? It must be barely more than water at that point. No wonder Oliver asks for more food when he is living in the workhouse.

Dickens uses not only the narrator, but also certain characters' comments to satirize the Poor Laws. In Chapter 19, Sikes laments his loss of a chimney sweep whom he used to employ to slip through small spaces for robberies:

But the father gets lagged, and then the Juvenile Delinquent Society comes, and takes the boy away from a trade where he was arning money, teaches him to read and write, and in time makes a ‘prentice of him.

Although the idea of training a child in an honest trade so that he will stop breaking into houses sounds good, Sikes actually has a point. Readers have seen what happened to Oliver when he was apprenticed with Mr. Sowerberry. Breaking up a family by arresting the parent and placing the child with a master of trade might not produce a better outcome for that child at all. The fact that Sikes—one of the novel's villains—makes a reasonable point emphasizes just how bad the Poor Laws are: even a villain can see that they don't work, and even an apprenticeship to a villain might be better than some standard apprenticeships.

Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Mockable Marriages:

Dickens's novel repeatedly satirizes the convention of marriage and the trope of the marriage plot, in which the central tensions of a novel are resolved at the end with a wedding. In Chapter 5, the depiction of the Sowerberrys' marriage challenges the notion that marriage leads to happiness:

Here there was another hysterical laugh, which frightened Mr Sowerberry very much. This is a very common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment, which is often very effective. It at once reduced Mr Sowerberry to begging as a special favour to be allowed to say what Mrs Sowerberry was most curious to hear, and, after a short altercation of less than three quarters of an hour’s duration, the permission was most graciously conceded.

Although at first glance this passage seems to praise the marriage, the narrator sets forth a certain verbal irony. A modern reader might recognize the dynamic between the Sowerberrys as abusive: Mr. Sowerberry is "frightened," and "reduced [...] to begging" to tell his wife what he knows she wants him to say. Mrs. Sowerberry is exercising disturbing power over her husband. In Victorian England, this dynamic was not necessarily troubling so much as laughable. This is the kind of power Mr. Sowerberry might exercise over his wife according to the conventions of the time, and Dickens uses the gender reversal as comic relief from the depressing tale of Oliver's childhood. To the extent that we do take the narrator seriously, the remark that this is "a very common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment" plants the idea that this abusive dynamic is typical of marriages. Whereas Victorian England and the trope of the marriage plot had both come to emphasize marriage as a step up in the world—financially and morally—this passage suggests that marriage can also be a powder keg for bad behavior and unhappiness.

Dickens uses other unhappy marriages to advance his point. The heading of cChapter 27 reads:

In which the reader, if he or she resort to the fifth chapter of this second book, will perceive a contrast not uncommon in matrimonial cases.

Chapter 37 depicts Mr. and Mrs. Bumble's new marriage. The chapter heading directs the reader's attention to the "contrast" between the Bumbles' marriage and their courtship several chapters earlier. Whereas the Bumbles seemed highly invested in flattering one another the last time they appeared, now that they are married, they seem contemptuous of one another. The narrator describes their relationship as a battle of wills, waged with manipulation and power plays:

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other must necessarily be final and conclusive, [...] dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

Now that the couple is married, they have fallen into some of the same bad behavior as the Sowerberrys. This damning depiction of their marriage follows immediately after a loving scene between Harry and Rose, setting up an additional contrast between that unmarried couple and this married one. Dickens seems to be suggesting that Harry and Rose might be happier if they never got married at all. Dickens was not the only satirist at the time to depict marriage as a social and economic institution that causes more problems than it solves. His satire does not necessarily demonstrate total cynicism about matrimony, but it does cut at the idea that marrying people off will automatically fix social problems.

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Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Poor Laws:

Throughout the novel, Dickens uses the ironic tone of the narrator to satirize English laws for dealing with poverty, especially the Poor Law of 1834. An early instance of this satire occurs in chapter 2, which describes Oliver's infancy under this law:

[Oliver is] despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week.

In reality, the woman siphons off most of the money for herself, starving the children under the pretense that it is bad for them to be overfed or coddled. The Poor Law of 1834 consolidated poor people in workhouses. It aimed both to reduce the state cost of supporting poor people and to encourage poor people to work for a living rather than relying on the state. The passage describing Oliver's entry into this system uses humor to demonstrate that it not only failed poor children and adults, but in fact made them targets of people like this woman, who "serves" Oliver and the other children by saving them from the "inconvenience" of life-sustaining nutrition. In Chapter 12, when Mrs. Bedwin is feeding Oliver, it becomes apparent just how much these children are being starved:

And with this, the old lady applied herself to warming up in a little saucepan a basin full of broth strong enough to furnish an ample dinner, when reduced to the regulation strength, for three hundred and fifty paupers, at the very lowest computation.

The narrator is no doubt exaggerating for comedic effect, but Dickens also sets up the reader to be alarmed. How on earth could a single saucepan of broth, intended for one little boy by a woman who actually wants to nurture him, stretch to feed 350 people? It must be barely more than water at that point. No wonder Oliver asks for more food when he is living in the workhouse.

Dickens uses not only the narrator, but also certain characters' comments to satirize the Poor Laws. In Chapter 19, Sikes laments his loss of a chimney sweep whom he used to employ to slip through small spaces for robberies:

But the father gets lagged, and then the Juvenile Delinquent Society comes, and takes the boy away from a trade where he was arning money, teaches him to read and write, and in time makes a ‘prentice of him.

Although the idea of training a child in an honest trade so that he will stop breaking into houses sounds good, Sikes actually has a point. Readers have seen what happened to Oliver when he was apprenticed with Mr. Sowerberry. Breaking up a family by arresting the parent and placing the child with a master of trade might not produce a better outcome for that child at all. The fact that Sikes—one of the novel's villains—makes a reasonable point emphasizes just how bad the Poor Laws are: even a villain can see that they don't work, and even an apprenticeship to a villain might be better than some standard apprenticeships.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—Poor Laws:

Throughout the novel, Dickens uses the ironic tone of the narrator to satirize English laws for dealing with poverty, especially the Poor Law of 1834. An early instance of this satire occurs in chapter 2, which describes Oliver's infancy under this law:

[Oliver is] despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week.

In reality, the woman siphons off most of the money for herself, starving the children under the pretense that it is bad for them to be overfed or coddled. The Poor Law of 1834 consolidated poor people in workhouses. It aimed both to reduce the state cost of supporting poor people and to encourage poor people to work for a living rather than relying on the state. The passage describing Oliver's entry into this system uses humor to demonstrate that it not only failed poor children and adults, but in fact made them targets of people like this woman, who "serves" Oliver and the other children by saving them from the "inconvenience" of life-sustaining nutrition. In Chapter 12, when Mrs. Bedwin is feeding Oliver, it becomes apparent just how much these children are being starved:

And with this, the old lady applied herself to warming up in a little saucepan a basin full of broth strong enough to furnish an ample dinner, when reduced to the regulation strength, for three hundred and fifty paupers, at the very lowest computation.

The narrator is no doubt exaggerating for comedic effect, but Dickens also sets up the reader to be alarmed. How on earth could a single saucepan of broth, intended for one little boy by a woman who actually wants to nurture him, stretch to feed 350 people? It must be barely more than water at that point. No wonder Oliver asks for more food when he is living in the workhouse.

Dickens uses not only the narrator, but also certain characters' comments to satirize the Poor Laws. In Chapter 19, Sikes laments his loss of a chimney sweep whom he used to employ to slip through small spaces for robberies:

But the father gets lagged, and then the Juvenile Delinquent Society comes, and takes the boy away from a trade where he was arning money, teaches him to read and write, and in time makes a ‘prentice of him.

Although the idea of training a child in an honest trade so that he will stop breaking into houses sounds good, Sikes actually has a point. Readers have seen what happened to Oliver when he was apprenticed with Mr. Sowerberry. Breaking up a family by arresting the parent and placing the child with a master of trade might not produce a better outcome for that child at all. The fact that Sikes—one of the novel's villains—makes a reasonable point emphasizes just how bad the Poor Laws are: even a villain can see that they don't work, and even an apprenticeship to a villain might be better than some standard apprenticeships.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 37
Explanation and Analysis—Mockable Marriages:

Dickens's novel repeatedly satirizes the convention of marriage and the trope of the marriage plot, in which the central tensions of a novel are resolved at the end with a wedding. In Chapter 5, the depiction of the Sowerberrys' marriage challenges the notion that marriage leads to happiness:

Here there was another hysterical laugh, which frightened Mr Sowerberry very much. This is a very common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment, which is often very effective. It at once reduced Mr Sowerberry to begging as a special favour to be allowed to say what Mrs Sowerberry was most curious to hear, and, after a short altercation of less than three quarters of an hour’s duration, the permission was most graciously conceded.

Although at first glance this passage seems to praise the marriage, the narrator sets forth a certain verbal irony. A modern reader might recognize the dynamic between the Sowerberrys as abusive: Mr. Sowerberry is "frightened," and "reduced [...] to begging" to tell his wife what he knows she wants him to say. Mrs. Sowerberry is exercising disturbing power over her husband. In Victorian England, this dynamic was not necessarily troubling so much as laughable. This is the kind of power Mr. Sowerberry might exercise over his wife according to the conventions of the time, and Dickens uses the gender reversal as comic relief from the depressing tale of Oliver's childhood. To the extent that we do take the narrator seriously, the remark that this is "a very common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment" plants the idea that this abusive dynamic is typical of marriages. Whereas Victorian England and the trope of the marriage plot had both come to emphasize marriage as a step up in the world—financially and morally—this passage suggests that marriage can also be a powder keg for bad behavior and unhappiness.

Dickens uses other unhappy marriages to advance his point. The heading of cChapter 27 reads:

In which the reader, if he or she resort to the fifth chapter of this second book, will perceive a contrast not uncommon in matrimonial cases.

Chapter 37 depicts Mr. and Mrs. Bumble's new marriage. The chapter heading directs the reader's attention to the "contrast" between the Bumbles' marriage and their courtship several chapters earlier. Whereas the Bumbles seemed highly invested in flattering one another the last time they appeared, now that they are married, they seem contemptuous of one another. The narrator describes their relationship as a battle of wills, waged with manipulation and power plays:

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other must necessarily be final and conclusive, [...] dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

Now that the couple is married, they have fallen into some of the same bad behavior as the Sowerberrys. This damning depiction of their marriage follows immediately after a loving scene between Harry and Rose, setting up an additional contrast between that unmarried couple and this married one. Dickens seems to be suggesting that Harry and Rose might be happier if they never got married at all. Dickens was not the only satirist at the time to depict marriage as a social and economic institution that causes more problems than it solves. His satire does not necessarily demonstrate total cynicism about matrimony, but it does cut at the idea that marrying people off will automatically fix social problems.

Unlock with LitCharts A+