The Environment of Victorian Era in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations

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Charles Dickens is considered by Dr. Diniejko of Warsaw University to be England’s first “great urban novelist” (par. 1). When the Poor Law of 1834 was established, poverty escalated in the streets of London and the lower class citizens were forced to work in the egregious conditions of the workhouses. Through his traumatic childhood experiences, social involvement, and understanding of Industrial England’s flaws, Dickens was able to expose the “economic, social, and moral injustices” of the Victorian Era by drawing the attention of the public to the “deprivation of the lower classes”, which in time, inspired reform (par. 5). Furthermore, Charles Dickens successfully critiques the social environment of the Victorian Era in the novels Oliver Twist and Great Expectations by incorporating intrinsic themes of society portrayed through his use of biting satire and the motif of relationships, respectively.

The “vivid descriptions” of life in the Victorian Era in Dickens’s novels were primarily influenced by his childhood experiences (“Influence of Charles Dickens” par. 1). Born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, Charles John Huffman Dickens was the second child and eldest son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. Dickens enjoyed a rather comfortable lifestyle in the lower middle class; his father was a clerk for the Navy Pay Office and his mother was educated, which was an anomaly for lower-class women. Due to John Dickens’s job, the family was very accustomed to moving and in 1817, they moved to Chatham, Kent where young Dickens enjoyed the happiest years of his childhood which “permanently affected his outlook on life” (Leone 14). Dickens enjoyed blissful times in Chatham where he spent time with friends, put on magic lantern shows, and sang duets with his sister, Franny. Due to his poor health, Dickens often spent much of his time reading which contributed to his exceptional performance at the School of William Giles. His education at this school laid “the groundwork for his lifelong hope and vitality” in which Dickens desired to graduate college and enter into a profession (14). However, Dickens’s bliss was interrupted on February 20, 1824, when his father was arrested and imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813. With the family in financial turmoil and his father in debtor’s prison, Dickens’s prospects only continued to blacken. When Dickens was merely twelve years old, he was sent to work at Warren's Blacking, a shoe polish factory, where he worked for a brutal 12 hours a day earning only six shillings a week. While he was working at the factory, Dickens reached an epoch which he described as “the secret agony of my [his] soul” (15). Dickens felt as if he had fallen through the social hierarchy to the lowest depths of the laboring class, 'utterly neglected and hopeless” (“Childhood of Charles Dickens” par. 12). After four months, he was rescued by his father and allowed to resume his education, but the humiliating stigma cast a permanent shadow on his life which he “never afterward forgot” (par. 13). As a result, Dickens sustained “deep philosophical wounds,” yet was able to utilize his poignant childhood as a “springboard” for future social reforms (Diniejko par. 17).

After surviving his father’s imprisonment and working in the factory, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to expose the innate problems of society to provide for the lower class, more specifically, about the failure of the workhouses. In the opening chapters of Oliver Twist, society is defined as a world of “poverty, oppression, and death” which represents the conditions of the lower class (qtd. in Slater 54). Additionally, Dickens uses sarcasm to suggest that “we [society] are the villains,” thereby urging the middle class to feel sympathy for the poor by establishing the theme of the callousness and apathy of society towards the lower class (Kincaid 119-120). He expands upon this accurate view by incorporating the motif of the victimization of innocent children portrayed when Oliver is forced to join Fagin’s gang and the characterization of Nancy, a prostitute.

According to Michael Slater of the University of London, Oliver Twist “begins with satire” which stemmed from Dickens’s outrage at the Malthusian chatter about the “surplus population” and the government’s “workhouse as deterrent policy” (53). Dickens satirically characterizes the philosophers whose “blood is ice, and whose heart is iron” that run the institutions as no more than executioners who will kill off the “inconvenient poor” (53). However, this system of “prolonged hunger, physical punishment, humiliation, and hypocrisy” is ironically challenged when Oliver is born into a workhouse, contradicting its entire purpose (Diniejko par. 8). Dickens sardonically writes, had Oliver been surrounded “by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, and experienced nurses and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time” (4; ch. 1). In fact, Oliver’s “good sturdy spirit” only gets plenty of room to grow “thanks to the spare diet of establishment” on Mrs. Mann’s baby farm “without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing” (4; ch. 1). Thus, the satirical beginning of the novel starts with the birth of Oliver Twist and is further developed when Oliver is moved to the workhouse operating under the Poor Law of 1843.

On Oliver’s ninth birthday, he is taken by Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, to the workhouse where the board decides that he will be “educated” in the craft of “picking oakum” which Dickens satirically describes as such:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered--the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; where it was all play and no work. 'Oho!' said the board, looking very knowing; 'we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time.' 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. (13; ch. 2)As a result, Oliver receives only three meals of the As a result, Oliver receives only three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. Since the purpose of the board was to solve the problem of the surplus population through gradual starvation, Oliver’s “request for more” shocks the workhouse to the point where “horror was depicted on every countenance” (15; ch. 2). As punishment, Mr. Bumble, Dickens’s satirical creation who is “totally identified with his institutional role,” `beats Oliver until he is “within an inch of his life” (Slater 54). Eventually, it is decided that Oliver will be apprenticed to the cruel chimney sweep, Mr. Gamfield, “whose villainous countenance was a regular stamped receipt for cruelty” (24; ch. 3). In this scene, Dickens satirizes the “half-blind and half childish magistrate” who represents societal law and will decide whether Oliver is to be apprenticed by Mr. Gamfield (24; ch. 3) (Slater 54). Ironically, although Oliver is saved from a horrible fate and allowed to return to the workhouse, it is done so “only by accident”; the magistrate sees Oliver’s terrified countenance because the inkpot is not in the usual place (Slater 55). At seeing Oliver’s face, the magistrate has a fleeting human reaction as he declares, “Take the boy back to the workhouse and treat him kindly. He seems to want it” (25; ch. 3). In this, Dickens is criticizing the large institutions who govern society; they fail to see the people they govern as beings, rather, only as abstractions of society. Later, when Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerbury, he witnesses a funeral for a pauper that reinforces Dickens’s view on the corrupt societal institutions. The clergyman reads “as much of the burial service as could be compressed into four minutes,” thus, revealing the indifference and apathy prevalent in Victorian society (Slater 55).

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Oliver escapes from this society in chapter eight only to be imprisoned by the criminal underworld in London. At the center of this “sinister labyrinth” is Fagin, a master criminal, who like Mr. Bumble, embodies a corrupt aspect of Victorian society (56). Furthermore, from this point onwards, the novel “ceases to be satirical” and focuses more on the perception of Oliver as “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance,” and depicting criminals “as they really are” (56). Dickens describes Fagin as a literal “emanation” from the streets: “the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved” (qtd. in Slater 56). Dickens characterizes Fagin as such in order to emphasize the prevalent motif of the victimization of innocent children in society. For example, when Fagin trains Oliver to be a thief, Oliver suspects nothing and only “wondered what picking the old gentleman's pocket in play, had to do with his chances of being a great man. But thinking that the Jew, being so much his senior, must know best, he followed him quietly to the table; and was soon deeply involved with his study” (72; ch. 9). Thus, Fagin exploited Oliver’s innocence by corruptly “instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped should blacken it and change its hue forever” (152; ch. 18). Similar to Oliver, Nancy, who is a prostitute in Fagin’s gang, is victimized by England’s society, though more because of her vulnerability than her innocence. Due to the poverty and corrupt environment in which she lives, Nancy is left with no other means of survival than prostitution, a profession she abhors. Thus, although Oliver and Nancy are victimized in different ways, they are both exploited by the same corrupt society which fails to provide for them.

Unlike Oliver Twist, Great Expectations explores the theme of the existing conflict between love and money through the development of the main character, Philip Pirrip. In the novel, Philip, nicknamed Pip, uncovers the true nature of love in society, which Dickens traditionally portrays as the only means of escape from the solitude Pip experiences. From its inception, the reader can clearly distinguish Pip’s desire for love from his visit to his parents’ grave. However, after Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe, angrily confronts him following the encounter with the mysterious Abel Magwitch, to whom he gave food, Dickens reveals that Pip needs love, but only that which is freely given, not bought with money or extorted via threats (Selby 38). Thus, throughout Great Expectations, Dickens emphasizes that true love is selfless and requires sacrifices; Pip must relinquish his desire for wealth and social status in order to attain personal and moral development.

Although Great Expectations is a work of fiction, its narrator, Pip, has a lot in common with Dickens. Like Pip, Dickens experienced deprivation and shameful childhood, had great expectations of moving up in society, and suffered terribly in love. Both Dickens and Pip became disillusioned with their success and recognized the shallowness of their high expectations (Leone 26). Furthermore, in Great Expectations, Dickens portrays the conflict between love and money through his extensive use of the motif of relationships. Pip’s best friend, Herbert Pocket, hides his relationship with Clara from her mother because Herbert is not from the “right status”. Miss Havisham and Pip finance Herbert’s aspirations but keep it a secret. Most importantly is Pip’s relationship with his brother-in-law, Joe. While in London, Pip expresses, “Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, sober mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money I certainly would have paid” (211; ch. 27). Thus, in each case, money obscures the expression of love and happiness is found “not in seeking its (society’s) approval or in embracing it, but in escaping it” (Grant 62). Also, by endeavoring to involve himself with society, Pip inadvertently falls into the upper class’s selfishness. This theme is demonstrated in the conversation between Joe and Miss Havisham, a member of the rich upper class whom Pip is ashamed to come into contact with when Joe is present. When Miss Havisham inquires about Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe, Joe speaks solely to Pip in an effort of refusing to turn his love for Pip into a “commercial transaction” (Selby 43). In contrast, Miss Havisham and her daughter, Estella, both share in a materialistic view of Pip and Joe as a servant and master. However, this new relationship, which is forced upon Joe and Pip by Miss Havisham, causes tension between them as Pip suddenly starts to accept Miss Havisham’s views and see Joe as a “socially inept fool” (43). Thus, it is evident that money destroyed the simple love Pip once felt for Joe, proving the effect it has on people and relationships.

Four years later, Pip is visited by Jaggers, a lawyer, who brings him promises of “great expectations” (35). Although Pip is hesitant to enter the coach that will take him to London and away from Joe, he ultimately chooses a life as a gentleman and abandons his closest friend for this pursuit. Even Joe’s visit to London to see Pip ends in failure because Pip would rather not be seen with someone from such a low class as Joe. Thus, Dickens shows how Pip is seeking approval from a society where power is derived from status and wealth; Pip, possessing both, has completely severed his relationship with his oldest friend, Joe. In contrast, at the end of the novel, even when Pip has lost everything, Joe still provides compassion and friendship, thereby demonstrating that the true gentleman is lower-class Joe, not middle-class Pip (Wilden 32). In fact, Dickens emphasizes the motif of relationships to portray that aspiring to be both happy and socially successful are incompatible ambitions, writing that “no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says no varnish can hide the grain of wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself” (Grant 60).

The theme of the conflicting nature of love and money is further developed through Pip’s relationship with Estella, the girl he loves, and Magwitch, his benefactor. When Pip’s love for Estella is repudiated, Pip becomes ashamed of his lower-class status, hence, his abandonment of Joe in his journey to London. However, Pip’s personal development occurs not through his love for Estella, but through the slow change in his relationship with Magwitch. (Miller 51). As Pip falls deeper into debt, he shamefully learns that the convicted criminal, Magwitch, whom he helped as a child, was the source of his wealth, his benefactor. In this, Dickens if offering redemption to Pip to find love in embracing “his act of charity” to the convict rather than pursue a superfluous, upper-class life with Estella (52). Thus, Pip is finally forced to choose between love and money: he either must give Magwitch up to the police or break society’s laws by harboring a convicted criminal. At this point, it is clear that Pip can only escape from his despair by accepting Magwitch, relinquishing his great expectations. After Pip’s failed attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of London, Pip states, “for now my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held his hand in his, I saw only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously towards me with great constancy through a series of years” (qtd. in Miller 53). In doing so, Pip is finally able to find happiness by isolating himself from the materialistic society. Thus, through accepting Magwitch, Pip transforms his once self-aggrandizing love to a selfless one in which money has no influence; he recognizes that Magwitch is the source of everything “he has and is” (54).

In conclusion, Charles Dickens, considered to be the greatest urban novelist, successfully expresses his views on the conditions of life in Victorian society through his use of satire in Oliver Twist and the motif of relationships in Great Expectations. By incorporating these techniques, Dickens relays his concerns about the victimization of innocent children, society's inability to provide for the poor and the conflict between love and money, all of which revolve around 19th century London’s materialistic society.

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The Environment of Victorian Era in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
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