Charles Dickens was man who had a mighty voice when it came to social reform in Victorian Britain. From the orphan begging for more in Oliver Twist to the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens highlighted poverty and squalor. In his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets, Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, the brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, government bureaucracy, extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times. From all of these examples it is not hard to see what Dickens was trying to achieve when writing his books epically Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist opens with a bitter invective directed at the nineteenth-century English Poor Laws. These laws were a distorted manifestation of the Victorian middle class’s emphasis on the virtues of hard work. England in the 1830s was rapidly undergoing a transformation from an agricultural, rural economy to an urban, industrial nation. The growing middle class had achieved an economic influence equal to, if not greater than, that of the British aristocracy.
Many members of the middle class were anxious to be differentiated from the lower classes, and one way to do so was to stigmatize the lower classes as lazy good-for-nothings. The middle class’s value system transformed earned wealth into a sign of moral virtue. Victorian society interpreted economic success as a sign that God favoured the honest, moral virtue of the successful individual’s efforts, and, thus, interpreted the condition of poverty as a sign of the weakness of the poor individual.
The sentiment behind the Poor Law of 1834 reflected these beliefs. The law allowed the poor to receive public assistance only if they lived and worked in established workhouses. Beggars risked imprisonment. Debtors were sent to prison, often with their entire families, which virtually ensured that they could not repay their debts. Workhouses were deliberately made to be as miserable as possible in order to deter the...