by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Poverty Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
The houses on either side were high and large, but very old; and tenanted by people of the poorest class. [...] A great many of the tenements […] which had become insecure from age and decay, were prevented from falling into the street by huge beams of wood which were reared against the tottering walls, and firmly planted in the road; but even these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly haunts of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards which supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from their positions to afford an aperture wide enough for the passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy; the very rats that here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine. (5.60)
This passage is a good example of Dickens’s realism – he describes the poorest part of the town without pulling any punches. Some contemporary readers were offended by this kind of realistic detail, but that was probably Dickens’s point – he wanted to shock readers by showing them how the poor really lived. In this passage, Dickens makes the houses seem almost like people who are "tottering" and "crazy", supporting themselves on canes. And the people he describes are dehumanized – they "skulk like shadows" earlier in the paragraph, and they’re reduced to "human bodies" here – they’re not even "people" – just nameless bodies.
The man’s face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard were grizzly, and his eyes were bloodshot. The old woman’s face was wrinkled, her two remaining teeth protruded over her under lip, and her eyes were bright and piercing. Oliver was afraid to look at either her or the man, – they seemed so like the rats he had seen outside. (5.64)
These people are desperately poor, and Dickens seems to want the reader to sympathize with them (like in the next quotation). But in this initial description, they hardly seem human, and Oliver finds that he can’t sympathize with them because they’re more like animals than people.
"I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her, and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the dark – in the dark. She couldn’t even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their names. I begged for her in the streets, and they sent me to prison. When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they starved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it,– they starved her!" (5.69)
This is the poor man, Mr. Bayton, ranting to Mr. Sowerberry and Oliver over the body of his dead wife. Two questions about this passage: why does he repeat "in the dark"? Obviously, she was literally in the dark when she died (no fire or candle), but repeating it makes us wonder if, even through his half-crazy rant, Mr. Bayton is suggesting that she died in the dark in a more figurative sense, as well. The whole system leaves people in the dark. Which brings us to the second question: who’s this "they" that Mr. Bayton is accusing of starving her to death? Again, that’s something he repeats: "they starved her." Does he mean the parish authorities? The neighbors in the poor neighborhood around him? The rich people who turn a blind eye to the suffering of others? All of society? If it’s all of society, does that mean that the reader, too, shares some of the guilt of starving her?