Charles Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, is a tale of misfortune and coincidence, fear and entrapment, and reward for humility and suffering. While recounting the tale of the orphan Oliver Twist, Dickens comments on the implications of the New Poor Law, which increased the hardships of impoverished Victorians, and on the well-fed hypocrisy of the middle classes, who distinguished between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. In this essay I will be analysing how Charles Dickens presents the underclass, first of all looking at the purpose of his novel.
Charles Dickens’s motive for writing ‘Oliver Twist’ was to show the reader the harsh social conditions of 19th Century London, as most of the readers of his novels would be those who could afford books- the upper class. Dickens wanted this book to entertain, supplying shock, horror, and suspense, whilst also attempting to influence people’s political ideas. As Dickens lived in London, he had an excellent knowledge of the city and so it inspired him to set the novel there. Most of the characters in ‘Oliver Twist’ are stereotypes of their social and financial backgrounds, for example Fagin.
Fagin is an underclass Jew and therefore Dickens depicts him as being scrounging and tight fisted- ‘ took from it a magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels. “Aha! ” said the Jew, shrugging up his shoulders and distorting every feature with a hideous grin’. Dickens portrays Fagin to be self-orientated, corrupt and obsessed with money, Fagin obtains his income from abusing and manipulating the children in his ‘gang’. Charles Dickens included the character Fagin to show the pick-pocketing and criminal acts taking place, for the underclass to earn money.
Bill Sikes is a murderous, violent character who often works in conjunction with Fagin on illegal acts. Sikes’s entrance into the novel immediately displays his aggressive nature -‘This command was accompanied with a kick, which sent the animal to the other end of the room’. ‘I wonder they don’t murder you! I would if I was them’ – This comment shows how comfortably Bill can use violence in conversation. Dickens wants Sikes’s character to symbolize the sinister, criminal presence in poorer areas of the capital city.
Another strong example of Bill Sikes’s brutal personality is when he murders Nancy -“the murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down’. Nancy, Bill’s partner, is a virtuous woman and doesn’t want to be a criminal but is forced to because of her environment and circumstances. Nancy shows warmth, caring for Oliver, but is later murdered for interfering with him. Her character shows that not all the under-class citizens are like Fagin or Bill Sikes and that some want to be law abiding.
The settings contribute to the overall presentation of the under-class by showing the filthy conditions of the streets and of Saffron Hill. The contrasting images of Brownlow’s house emphasises the appalling state of the poverty-stricken regions. Some examples of contrasting imagery are- in Brownlow’s house there are ‘bookshelves’, ‘pictures’ and ‘a study’, whereas in Fagin’s it is ‘drab, dull’ and there is an ‘obscure parlour’. In Brownlow’s house there is a strong sense of knowledge, through the many intellectual books, whereas there is an obvious presence of alcohol abuse in Fagin’s house – ‘smell of licker’.