Dickens’s Perspective on Social Grievances, Crime, and Penal Issues in the Victorian Era and Its Reflection in Oliver Twist

Term Paper 2012 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Dickens’s Views on Crime and Penal Issues

3 Oliver Twist and Social Criticism

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

The era of Victorian England was a time of great social and reformatory transformation driven by the consequences of the industrial revolution. The metropolitan areas, particularly the city of London, underwent enormous demographic and social changes. The rapid growth of England’s population and the urbanization led to an influx of new residents to the city accompanied with a staggering increase of housing prices. Since the industries were in need of finding workers for their productions, people from all over the country set out for the city in order to find work, which was badly paid due to a surplus of available workers and their need to take on any job they could find. Consequently, poverty and criminality increased among the lower classes and became one of the greatest problems in the Victorian era.

In order to cope with crime, different legal measures were applied. Until 1815, criminality was handled according to the Bloody Code, which came close to draconian punishment. During that time, capital punishment was applied to a great number of offences, even minor ones such as letter or cattle stealing. It was meant to function as a deterrent to crime by spreading fear among potential offenders. In the beginning of the 19th century, executions were not only applied in a physically brutal way by hanging, drawing and quartering, but also took place in public places in front of hundreds of spectators watching the felon die. In the 19th century, most prisons were not comparable to modern penitentiaries. They merely served the purpose of holding people awaiting trial or punishment and had no intention of educating or resocializing the convicts.

The problem of poverty was tackled with the establishment of parish workhouses under the New Poor Law. They were built to relieve the poor and segregated them from the rest of society. In fact, monetary shortcomings, punishment and starvation became a daily routine in these houses, in which mostly orphans, mentally ill, and paupers were accommodated and had to work.

In the course of the 19th century public executions ceased to exist in England, prison reform was initiated, the importance of hygiene as a basic need was recognized, and the catalog of offences punished by death was significantly reduced.

All of these reforms resulted from political endeavors of groups and individual people who fought for the realization of their political intentions over a long period of time. One of them was Charles Dickens. He was a political writer who engaged himself strongly in penal issues and the improvement of the social circumstances under which the poor suffered. He was an influential journalist and novelist whose writings aimed at catching the readers’ attention on an emotional level. In his life, he developed a strong, but ambivalent standpoint on issues such as prison reform and capital punishment. It was not only due to common interest that crime and punishment were matters of great concern to Dickens. In fact, it was a very personal matter for him deriving from a traumatic childhood experience. At the age of twelve his father was sent to debtors prison and his family joined him shortly after. On top of that, Dickens’s himself - still a child - had to work in a blacking warehouse in order to provide for his family. In his later life, he witnessed several executions, alterations in the administration of criminal law, prison acts and the introduction of the Metropolitan Police. These transitions contributed to the development of his critical standpoint concerning the cause of crime and the treatment of criminals.

The story of Oliver Twist is Dickens’s second and probably most renowned publication. It critically deals with the social grievances of the Victorian era such as poverty and juvenile crime and contains a satirical tone, subtly attacking the social system and those who exert power over others. In the 19th century, the story had great impact on the way people perceived Victorian society and shed light on the state’s deficiency in handling issues such as poverty and criminality in an appropriate and humane way.

Oliver Twist reflects Dickens’s opinion on social grievances, crime, and penal issues and can be seen as a political tool which aimed at creating an awareness for these issues among the readership.

This term paper commences by giving a detailed insight into Dickens’s views on prison, public executions, capital punishment, and other social grievances. After that, the story of Oliver Twist is examined according to those findings and analyzed in the way they are presented to the reader.

2 Dickens’s Views on Crime and Penal Issues

Charles Dickens dedicated his career as a political writer to penal issues driven by a strong personal interest (Gelfert 1974: 119) and the general popularity of the topic as such in the 19th century. In his life, Dickens developed an ambivalent fascination for penal issues and a critical standpoint towards public executions, which greatly influenced his writings.

In fact, one of the most frequently reoccurring motives in his fictional works is the prison or the concept of imprisonment. For example at the end of Oliver Twist, Fagin’s last night alive in prison is described, whereas in Great Expectations, Satis House becomes an emotional prison for its owner Miss Havisham that does not allow her to overcome her unhappy past.

In order to learn more and gain expertise in the field of prison administration, Dickens visited several prisons in England and other European countries (Collins 1965[1962]: 29). One of them was London’s notorious Newgate prison, which was renowned as one of the worst prisons in England during the first half of the 19th century (Collins 1965[1962]: 32). He dealt with the impressions in his first fictional publication Sketches by Boz, giving a rather uncommented account of what he saw. According to Collins, he even described the use of prisoners as disciplinary officers1 in a neutral and noncommittal way without reference to the corruption and oppression this procedure led to (1965[1962]: 34). As Collins points out, Dickens was quite young when he reflected on his visit to Newgate in Sketches by Boz; however, he became “more perceptive and more confident” (1965[1962]: 36) in his judgments when he grew older and collected experience. In a comment on the Philadelphia Separate System, which introduced a prison reform following the concept of solitary confinement, Dickens sharply criticized it as “too cruel and too luxurious” at the same time (Schwan 2011: 304) and thus evoked the proponents’ questioning his authority in this matter (Schwan 2011: 302).

As his statement suggests, Dickens had an ambivalent fascination for penal issues. Driven by the traumatic experiences in his childhood - in particular his father’s fate - he had “strong and conflicting feelings about criminals” (Collins 1965[1962]: 1). This is also evident in a comparison of Dickens’s denotations of young pickpockets. First he describes them as “irreclaimable wretches”, whereas later in his writings he refers to them as “creatures of neglect” (Collins 1965[1962]: 33) implying the failure or lack of social and educational programs, and stating his affinity with the non-elite (John 2010: 40). The ambivalence of his perspective on the issue derives from his conviction that on the one hand the prison as a social institution and punishment itself is a necessity in order to retain society from mischief and malignancy. On the other hand, Dickens felt empathy for the criminals in death row, as they - still human beings - had to surrender to their fate and were in no position to find redemption or atonement in their anticipation of death (Gelfert 1974: 120).

Despite his dilemma, Dickens had a critical perspective on prison reform arousing from the ironic situation that felons were supposed to be punished for their offences, but the sanitary standard, the regularity of meals, the classification and separation of prisoners, and other “amenities” in the reformed prisons were comparably luxurious to the life in workhouses or most of the private homes (Schwan 2011: 304). In his American Notes, he comments on the Philadelphia Separate System by saying that he “found it difficult at first to persuade [himself] that [he] was really in a jail: a place of ignominious punishment and endurance” (1862: 119). With this statement, stressing the difference between what was expected of prison and what was found, he clearly doubts the disciplinary effect of the reformed prison.

Dickens’s self-confidence and knowledge in penal issues increased over time, as is demonstrated in a critical passage on Newgate and the judicial system in Great Expectations, which he wrote in his later years:

While I looked about me here, an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice asked me if I would like to step in and hear a trial or so: informing me that he could give me a front place for half-a-crown, whence I should command a full view of the Lord Chief Justice in his wig and robes - mentioning that awful personage like waxwork, and presently offering him at the reduced price of eighteenpence. (2003 [1861]: 165-166)

His ridiculed depiction of the minister of justice can be perceived as a fierce attack against the judicial system and its handling of crime and punishment. The description of it’s being dirty can be seen as synonym for being covered with dust, stating that it is outdated and needs a thorough makeover. The dirtiness might also refer to a certain speech Dickens gave at a banquet of the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in 1851:

[N]o one can estimate the amount of mischief which is grown in dirt; that no one can say, here it stops, or there it stops, either in its physical or its moral results […] all the information I have since been able to acquire through any of my sense, has strengthened me in the conviction that Searching Sanitary Reform must precede all other social remedies [ cheers ], and that even Education and Religion can do nothing where they are most needed, until the way is paved for their ministrations by Cleanliness and Decency. (1960: 128-29)

In this speech, he argued for the importance of hygiene as a basic need and put emphasis on the necessity of cleanliness for the containment of crime. In most of his works, Dickens put great emphasis on the emergence of criminality triggered by social inequalities, the lack of hygiene, famine, and other deprivations (Schwan 2011: 307). In regard to the description of the minister of justice above, one may interpret that the spread of mischief caused by the lack of hygiene does not stop for the state’s judicial system. The quotation reveals that Dickens sees no chance for education and religion to be fruitful as long as hygiene is not provided. In regard to the contaminated judicial system, any attempt to bring back rationality appears redundant. This thought is strengthened by the minister’s offer to sell a front place to spectate at a trial, making business out of the culprits’ misery.

The dirty appearance of the minister also alludes to the corruption that had spread among the authorities, as they took personal advantage of their influence and power in order to enrich themselves. These circumstances were addressed by Dickens in the further description of the same scene from Great Expectations:

[The] Lord Chief Justice's proprietor wore (from his hat down to his boots and up again to his pocket-handkerchief inclusive) mildewed clothes, which had evidently not belonged to him originally, and which, I took it into my head, he had bought cheap of the executioner. (1861: 166)


1 This procedure was abolished in the 1865 Prison Act.


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dickens’s perspective social grievances crime penal issues victorian reflection oliver twist



Title: Dickens’s Perspective on Social Grievances, Crime, and Penal Issues in the Victorian Era and Its Reflection in Oliver Twist