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Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens

Poverty Quotes

How we cite our quotes:

Quote #1

[…] the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. (2.1)

Oooh, Dickens, don’t cut yourself on that irony – it’s pretty sharp. The description of the system of "baby-farms" is actually accurate: orphan babies would get sent out of the workhouse to be brought up by someone who was paid by the parish. Some baby farms like Oliver’s had a mortality rate as high as 90%. So, in the worst ones, only 1 baby in 10 would survive infanthood. And the "poor-laws" Dickens refers to were designed to care for poor people, yet at the same time to make the workhouses unpleasant enough to deter people who could work and support themselves from living at the expense of the parish. Not that anyone would want to, of course – and babies obviously had no choice in the matter, anyway. So calling these orphaned babies "juvenile offenders against the poor-laws" and as "culprits" who are without the "inconvenience" of adequate nutrition or clothing is some of the sharpest irony you’ll find anywhere in this book. It’s pretty damning of the whole system, because obviously the orphans haven’t done anything wrong.

Quote #2

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. (2.59)

Again with the irony. Again with a system designed to care for poor people, that actually just draws out their misery. And the sarcastic parenthetical comment here is particularly telling: it highlights the complacency of the parish authorities. They’re so arrogant and self-satisfied that they think that their system is both just and humane, and that they should be thanked for their generosity.

Quote #3

They made a great many other wise and humane regulations having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat. (2.59)

One of the ways the parish authorities wanted to control the poor is to keep poor people from reproducing and creating more little poor people, so they had strict rules to keep men and women (even if they were married) in separate quarters in the workhouses. The "wise and humane" part is obviously ironic – the rule is neither wise nor humane. But the "it is not necessary to repeat" bit is important, too – it’s part of the self-censoring that’s all over Victorian fiction. The reason for keeping men and women separated was, of course, to keep them from having sex, and heaven forbid we mention anything about sex anywhere in print.

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