Ernst Fischer, a renowned Austrian artist of the 19th century once said that, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it for the better.”
Over the many years since the publishing of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist in 1838, many have come to know it as not only art but also as an account of the social and economic problems of the industrial revolution. Along with his other works, he would eventually inspire others to put an end to child labour, one the most horrific examples of human exploitation that went on in the industrial revolution. Oliver Twist addresses three major themes of the 19th century, the failure of charity, harsh realities of urban life, and the problems of capitalism in London.
“So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays.
They made a great many other wise and humane regulations . . . kindly undertook to divorce poor married people . . . instead of compelling a man to support his family, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor!
There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel, and that frightened people.”(Chapter 2, pg.13)
At the start of the industrial Revolution there was no legislation about working conditions in mills, factories or other industrial plants. They simply had not been needed before. As factories spread rapidly the owners of mills, mines and other forms of industry needed large numbers of workers and they didn’t want to have to pay them a high wage, therefore Children were the ideal employees.
Much of the first part of Oliver Twist challenges the organizations of charity workhouses by the church and the government in Dickens’s time. The system Dickens describes, was put into place by the Poor Law of 1834, which specified that the poor could only receive government assistance if they moved into government workhouses.
Residents of those workhouses were basically inmates whose rights were severely reduced by a multitude of heavy regulations. Labor was required, families were almost always separated, and rations of food and clothing were inadequate. The workhouses operated on the principle that poverty was the consequence of laziness and that the dreadful conditions in the workhouse would inspire the poor to better their own situation. Yet the economic disorder of the Industrial Revolution made it impossible for many to do so, and the workhouses did not provide any means for social or economic improvements for the poor.
Furthermore, as Dickens points out, the officials who ran the workhouses blatantly violated the values they preached to the poor. Dickens describes with great sarcasm the greed, laziness, and arrogance of charitable workers like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann. In general, charitable institutions only reproduced the awful conditions in which the poor would live anyway or as Dickens’s says, they had a choice of “being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.”
In Dickens’s time, England was rapidly becoming an industrial, urban society. Dickens’s shows the reader an overwhelmed concern with the social and psychological conditions that city life has evolved into.. In this passage from Chapter 32, describing Oliver’s trip to the countryside with Mrs. Maylie and Rose, the author reveals his profound disbelief about the influence of urban life on human society. This passage praises the purity and health of the rural environment and claims outright that even a lifelong city-dweller has in his blood a chance to better himself and society as a whole.
“Who can describe the pleasure and delight, the peace of mind and soft tranquility, the sickly boy felt in the balmy air and among the green hills and rich woods of an inland village! Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness deep into their jaded hearts!
Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change–men to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks–even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face, and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being.”
Dickens goes on to note that, in the country, even “the poor people” are “neat and clean.” The immorality and starvation that characterize urban poverty are not present in rural England. Although this maybe a product of wishful thinking and the ideals of a utopian society, it does show the reader a sense of hope for the future.
With the Industrial Revolution came about an unprecedented amount of power for what Karl Marx would call the “bourgeoisie”. Much like the French revolution, power and wealth would eventually become concentrated into the hands of a select few. Oliver Twist exposes the very faults of a capitalist British society. With the rise of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution, individualism was very much adapted as a philosophy.
Victorian capitalists believed that society would run much more smoothly if individuals looked out for their own interests. Ironically, the clearest understanding of this philosophy comes not from a legitimate businessman but from Fagin, who operates in the illegal businesses of theft and prostitution.
He tells Noah Claypole “a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.” In other words, the group’s interests are best maintained if every individual looks out for “number one,” or himself. This new ideal of individualism comes into play when Oliver is mistaken as a thief and is ultimately betrayed by the Artful Dodger.
“What was Oliver’s horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off, looking on with his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman’s pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief! To see him hand the same to Charley Bates; and finally to behold them, both running away round the corner at full speed. In an instant the whole mystery of the handkerchiefs, and the watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy’s mind. But the old gentleman was not the only person who raised the hue-and-cry.
The Dodger and Master Bates, unwilling to attract public attention by running down the open street, had merely returned into the very first doorway round the corner.
They no sooner heard the cry, and saw Oliver running, than, guessing exactly how the matter stood, they issued forth with great promptitude; and, shouting ‘Stop thief!’ too, joined in the pursuit like good citizens. Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature. If he had been, perhaps he would have been prepared for this. Not being prepared, however, it alarmed him the more; so away he went like the wind, with the old gentleman and the two boys roaring and shouting behind him.”(Chapter 10)
The Artful Dodger used Oliver to better himself; he sacrificed friendship without hesitation in the pursuit of personal gain. Sadly this is a true reflection of the times Dickens’s is writing in. In a capitalist society like Great Briton there was no concern for the collective group only a narrow focus on instant gratification. Friendship could not possible exists in the world of Oliver Twist, there were simply too many completing for the pursuit of wealth for there to every be any concern of loyalty.
Karl Marx, the father of socialism once said, “The philosophers of time have already perceived the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” With works Marx, Dickens, and other revolutionary thinkers of the 19th century through there works, brought awareness to the rest of society.
The failures of charity, harsh realities of urban life, and the problems of capitalism in London, where all exposed and would eventually bring about beneficial changes for the working class. As we watch an observe an even larger gap between the rich and the poor, one must take the lessons of the industrial revolution and aspire to change society as a whole.