Victorian stereotypes about the poor asserted that poverty and vice were fundamentally connected and that, moreover, both were hereditary traits: the poor were supposedly bad from birth. How does Dickens approach such stereotypes?
On the surface, Dickens appears to be using Oliver Twist to criticize the Victorian idea that the poor were naturally destined for lives of degradation and desperation. Dickens satirizes characters who voice such an opinion, such as Mr. Bumble, Mr. Grimwig, and Mrs. Sowerberry. The latter, for instance, declares that children like Oliver “are born to be murderers and robbers from their very cradle.” In addition, characters like Nancy, Charley Bates, and Oliver stand in direct opposition to the assertion that an individual who happens to be born poor is also born without any innate sense of right and wrong. However, on a more subtle level, Oliver may be interpreted as a character who lends support to the very stereotypes Dickens seems to be condemning. At the end of the novel, we discover that Oliver is, in fact, the child of well-off parents, and a Victorian reader could interpret the novel as saying that Oliver’s seemingly innate goodness is inherited from them. Moreover, with a few obvious exceptions, most of the poor characters depicted are morally reprehensible, or at the very least somewhat laughable as people. Finally, while the character of Monks explicitly violates the connection of vice with poverty, he represents some support for the argument that moral shortcomings are the product of nature, not nurture. Brownlow tells Monks that, “You . . . from your cradle were gall and bitterness to your own father’s heart, and . . . all evil passions, vice, and profligacy, festered [in you].” It seems, then, that vice and virtue may be hereditary traits, present in an individual “from [the] cradle.”
Consider the female characters of Nancy, Rose Maylie, and Agnes Fleming. How are the three women different? How are they similar? What do their differences and similarities suggest about Dickens’s ideas about women?
The differences between the three women are explicitly stated in the novel. Rose is a young lady of good breeding and perfect chastity. Nancy, in contrast, is a girl raised on the street and a prostitute. Agnes, as a young girl of good breeding who nonetheless committed a fatal sexual indiscretion in her affair with Mr. Leeford, stands somewhere in between Rose, a model of purity, and Nancy, a model of sin. Each woman’s social standing is closely bound to her sexual history. Less obvious are the similarities between them, which center around the sacrifices each makes for others. Nancy sacrifices her life for the sake of Oliver, a boy she barely knows. Agnes gives her life to save her family from her own ill repute. On a lesser scale, even Rose makes a great sacrifice when she refuses to marry Harry Maylie, fearing that her dubious birth will harm his chances for career advancement. Dickens passes overwhelmingly favorable judgments on each of these women. In doing so, he demonstrates a broad-minded willingness to forgive the sexual indiscretions of which two of them are guilty. Yet he also displays a thoroughly Victorian fondness for humility and self-sacrifice in women. The ideal woman, it would seem, must be prepared, and even glad, to live and die for others.
Again and again in Dickens’s novels, female characters appear who, like Nancy and Agnes, commit sexual indiscretions at some point in their lives, but who in one way or another redeem themselves, displaying generosity and love as well as repentance. It is interesting to note that while Dickens goes to great lengths to establish that these fallen women are still human beings worthy of forgiveness and redemption, every one of them either dies or is transported by the end of the novel in which she appears. As with Nancy, many of these female characters are offered the chance to reject their pasts and start over, but this new beginning is never to be. It is as if Dickens advocates in principle the idea that sexually tainted women could be reconciled with respectable English society, but he cannot actually bring himself to imagine a scenario in which this social rebirth actually happens.
Discuss the portrait of the criminal justice system presented in Oliver Twist.
We might hope that legal justice in Oliver Twist would be blind, not taking into account people’s social status, gender, or age. Unfortunately, however, in early nineteenth-century England, such factors did seem to matter. The legal system portrayed in Oliver Twist, however, is heavily biased in favor of middle-class and upper-class individuals. Oliver enters courtrooms twice in the novel. The magistrate who presides over Gamfield’s petition to take Oliver on as an apprentice is half blind. Only by chance does he see the terror on Oliver’s face and so decide to save him from life as a chimney sweep. With reference to this trial, the phrase “justice is blind” seems ironic. Like the magistrate, the justice system is half blind. It is generally unable to perceive the perspective or interest of the poor. Oliver’s trial for stealing a handkerchief also highlights the precarious position of the poor in the eyes of the law. Mr. Fang is the presiding magistrate at Oliver’s trial, and the law has fangs ready to harshly punish any unfortunate pauper brought to face justice. Without hard evidence, without witnesses, and despite the protests of the victim of the crime, Mr. Fang convicts Oliver. Mr. Fang is biased against Oliver from the moment he steps into the courtroom. He does not view Oliver as an individual but as a representative of the criminal poor. Again, the phrase “justice is blind” can be applied ironically to Oliver Twist. The magistrate is blinded by his society’s stereotypes about the poor. The novel’s portrait of legal justice will change considerably by the end, when it condemns Fagin, guarantees Oliver his inheritance, and generally helps ensure fair outcomes in the characters’ lives. This change occurs when Oliver receives the backing of wealthy individuals like Brownlow and the Maylies. Once Oliver gains wealth and social status, the law seemingly regains its sight.