Dickens humours and mimics the poor laws and the English legal system quite often in Oliver Twist, "what a noble illustration of tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep! "17. Dickens added humour to the English Legal system, through Oliver. Oliver being too old to remain in the noble care of Mrs Mann, must be presented before the board to decide his future, at the sight of whom he trembles with fear. However, when he is called a fool, he is put at ease. This is perhaps due to the fact that this is all Oliver knows: harsh treatment and name- calling, inhumanity.
It seems that he has become quite accustomed to it that he feels quite comfortable when he is called a name. A rather strange comparison of a child feeling relaxed at the soothing sound of his/her mother's voice, springs to mind. "They established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative… of being starved to death by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it"18 The members of the board were "deep philosophical men"19 who administered laws, and established the inhumane rule above.
Dickens brings to light that fact that, corruption existed in large degrees within the Victorian era, but more so domiciled at the very top of the hierarchy. Dickens uses the tool of humorous irony to display the poor laws that existed within the city, "they made other wise and humane regulations"20. The fact of the matter is that they actually in reality mad unwise and inhumane regulations, which deeply affected the poor, but profited them. Oliver was chosen by the other boys at the orphanage to request for more gruel at dinner one night, after making this simple request
"The master (at the orphanage) aimed a blow at Oliver's head with a ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle"21 If this inhumane treatment was not enough Oliver was confined to a dark room by the board, which was of course through their incomparable wisdom. Dickens, through the clever usage of humour and irony, shows the readers that crime exists within the city at various degrees and levels, one being by the officials at the very top. "But the magistrate was half blind and half childish"22 The magistrate here could be said to represent the English legal system, and is of course supposed to be a pillar of law.
If this is to be taken as the case, then it is quite obvious that Dickens doesn't just refer to a single magistrate being blind, but in a much larger sense, is referring to the entire legal system being blind. One wonders, that if this is the situation of those who administer laws and justice, then what must be the condition of the actual criminals. Oliver as a child experienced loneliness, which he first experienced at the age of 9, " a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank into the child's heart for the first time"23.
This loneliness that Oliver experiences, was based on Dickens own feeling of loneliness that he felt when he was a child. Oliver was said and described as a naughty orphan that nobody could love. He was sold like an item of shopping, "the bargain was made"24; he had no worth and was like a house that was to "be let"25. The decision was made at one point that Oliver should be sent to sea to some "good unhealthy port"26. This in itself is rather relevant and interesting, as people who were at sea tended to be rather violent. "The skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood…
or would knock his brains out with an iron bar"27 Dickens uses rather violent language to describe "gentlemen of that class"28. The violent language does not simply refer to the people at sea, but it can be taken in many senses. Firstly, it can be taken in the sense that the officials are violent and inhumane to want to send Oliver to sea, knowing what happens there, and say that it was the "very best thing that could possibly be done with him"29. Secondly, it can be taken in the sense that the violent imagery and language can be used to refer to the state of mind of the Victorian society as a whole.
Moving on from crime and violence existing within officials, and the corruption of law. It is necessary to display in what ways the actual state and condition of Victorian society and city is described. Throughout his lifetime, Dickens appeared to have acquired a fondness for "the bleak, the sordid, and the austere"30. Most of Oliver Twist takes place in London's lowest slums. The city is described as a maze, which involves a "mystery of darkness, anonymity, and peril"31. In chapter 5, Dickens goes to large depths in regards to describing the streets and the city.
The city is described as a horrid place, full of filth and rottenness, the houses themselves were, "insecure of age and decay"32 and were described as "crazy dens"33 for the "houseless wretches"34. Dickens goes further to state that even the filthy rats "were hideous with famine"35. "The man's face was thin and very pale… his eyes were bloodshot… her two remaining teeth protruded over her upper lip; and her eyes were bright and piercing"36 The above shows a rather ugly image of the poor in Victorian times, and upon reading the above, it appears that even the people seem to look like the rats that are suffering famine.
Dickens also uses horrid creatures within his talk of the city and its people, like worms, from which a reader gets the image of the worm eating away at the earth. Dickens does this to show the squalid conditions in which the city lay. Many of the settings such as the pickpockets hideout, the surrounding streets and the bars, are described as dark, gloomy and bland. In chapter XI, Oliver is taken to court for stealing, however, he is innocent of the crime. The court itself is described as "a dirty court"37 which is symbolic.
Firstly, the dirt of the court represents the corruption of the legal system, as a court of justice is meant to be clean and free of grime in many senses, as well as being an area of justice. The dirt of the court can be seen as a sign of corruption, as Oliver is put on trial for a crime that he did not commit. Secondly, the dirt represents the grime of the city. Even the actual description of the cell is relevant, as it is described as being "intolerably dirty"38. The thought of Oliver, who is an innocent child, being in the same cell where murderers were, is one that makes a reader shudder.
There is of course reasoning behind such realism, which Dickens explains in the preface of Oliver Twist. Dickens explains that he has chosen the criminals in the book from the most "degraded of London's population"39, which serves Dickens purpose of wanting to "paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid misery of their lives"40. Dickens portrays this fascination, through the lowest characters in the narrative, like Bill Sykes and Fagin. "The man who growled out these words, was a stoutly-built fellow… dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck…
he smeared beer from his face as he spoke… and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow"41 The above description is of Bill Sykes, and upon reading of which one is told by Dickens that this is a degraded criminal, whom he wanted to paint in all his wretchedness. The image above is a rather disgusting one, and one does not get the impression that a man is being described, but a dog with scowling eyes and a growling bark. Again, Dickens uses animal descriptions and relates them to the poor humans of the squalid city.
Fagin, a Jew, is described as being "villainous-looking and repulsive"42 and is again a rather horrid creature from the most degraded of London, in Saffron Hill, which is described as a filthy and dirty place. Fagin, as a character, pursues the fascination of Dickens with crime and the city, as everything about him is squalid. Sin, crime and guilt are not only present in Oliver Twist but also in Great Expectations, where they are never far away from Pip in the novel, either in the physical form of prisons, prison-ships and convicts, or in the prescience of the sense of guilt which so often seems to haunt him.
Sine maybe defined as an offence against a moral law, crime as an offence against the laws of society. The idea of London as a place of glamour and opportunity is one of the many mistaken expectations of the novel. Pip sets off for the city full of hope and enthusiasm but upon arrival find narrow and dirty streets. Dickens in this narrative paints a picture of London and its life being almost uniformly depressing. Both Oliver and Pip, share many similarities, one being that they both had interactions with convicts, and another being that they are both practically orphaned at birth.
In conclusion, Dickens fascination with crime, police and detective work and the city, is such a topic that one could write of it for hours. However, it possible to affirm that this fascination did infact stem from his harsh treatment as a child. Subsequently, through which he wished to paint a realistic picture within the eyes of the reader, and show how corruption does not simply exist in low life London but also at many degrees.