Oliver Twist is a sustained attack on the British Poor Laws, a complex body of law that forced poor families to labor in prison-like "workhouses." One of the novel's effects is, simply, to describe what poverty was like at this time in England. Although many parts of English society had come in contact with the poor, few had read accounts of what it meant to be poor. Simply by telling of conditions in the workhouse, Dickens does a service to the English poor—he shows they are human beings, and that they are not treated as such.
Dickens' description of the workhouses, and of Bumble and Mrs. Bumble especially, also serves to show that the Poor Laws are not simply dehumanizing—they are a part of the cycle of poverty rather than a remedy for it. The workhouse provides Oliver and others with no meaningful skills, and it feeds them so little that many simply become sick and die. Bumble is a "beadle," or an Anglican Church official in charge of managing the poor within each county. Dickens shows that Bumble behaves "un-Christianly" in hoping simply to shelve the poor in the workhouse, and to prevent them from leading meaningful lives. The novel's goal, then, is not just to describe English poverty—it is actively to change perceptions of both poverty and the general sense of Victorian society that poverty is being dealt with humanely and appropriately, in the hopes of changing society.
Dickens' argument about poverty, social institutions, and class immobility is a complex imagining of the interrelation of the three. Dickens believes that workhouses play to the worst desires of people in power—people like Sowerberry and the Bumbles—to keep the poor poor. The workhouses then enable the middle and upper classes to argue for a self-fulfilling prophecy: that people who have no options in life, no ability to make a positive contribution to society, either die or become society's outcasts. Dickens does not excuse crime committed by those who are inherently evil (Fagin and Sikes), but he does tend to be more sympathetic to the lives of those that have been determined by terrible circumstances (Oliver, Nancy, Bates and the Dodger). Dickens champions Oliver above all, since Oliver struggles so mightily to maintain his goodness, and manages to do so.
Poverty, Institutions, and Class ThemeTracker
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Quotes in Oliver Twist
Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he [Oliver] might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar . . . . But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed . . . a parish child . . . the orphan of a workhouse.
Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!
For more! . . . Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?
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That boy will be hung . . . I know that boy will be hung.
Oliver fell on his knees, and clasping his hands together, prayed that they would order him back to the dark room—that they would starve him—beat him—kill him if they pleased—rather than send him away with that dreadful man [Gamfield, the chimney-sweep].
Then come with me . . . your bed's under the counter You don't mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn't much matter whether you do or don't, for you can't sleep anywhere else. Come . . . !
I should like . . . to leave my love to poor Oliver Twist, and to let him know how often I have sat by myself and cried to think of his wandering about in the dark night with nobody to help him.
Say it again, you vile, owdacious fellow! . . . How dare you mention such a thing, sir? And how dare you encourage him, you insolent minx! Kiss her! . . . Faugh!
The prospect before you . . . is a brilliant one; all the honors to which great talents and powerful connections can help men in public life are in store for you. . . . I will neither mingle with such as hold in scorn the mother who gave me life; nor bring disgrace or failure on the son of her who has so well supplied that mother's place.
Do not close your heart against all my efforts to help you . . . I wish to serve you indeed.
You would serve me best, lady . . . if you could take my life at once; for I have felt more grief to think of what I am, tonight, that I ever did before . . . .
You'll pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something. I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!
You have a friend in me, Nance; a staunch friend. I have the means at hand, quiet and close. If you want revenge on those that treat you like a dog . . .come to me. I say, come to me.
She goes abroad tonight . . . and on the right errand, I'm sure; for she has been alone all da, and the man she is afraid of, will not be back much before daybreak . . . .
You must do more than that . . . make restitution to an innocent and unoffending child, for such he is, although the offspring of a guilty and most miserable love . . . .