by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
And what an excellent example of the power of dress young Oliver Twist was. Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; – it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have fixed his station in society. But now he was enveloped in the old calico robes, that had grown yellow in the same service; he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none. (1.14)
This passage shows several things: first of all, it shows that when Oliver is born, he could be anybody, and of any social rank – but marking him as a parish child and an orphan is as simple as swapping his blanket for yellow calico robes. It shows how superficial class distinction is, for starters. Saying that the difference between a nobleman and a beggar is only in the clothes that they wear is a pretty radical statement, if you think about it. And marking a person’s place and rank in the world while they’re only a baby and making it a permanent, unchangeable condition ("badged" and "ticketed") seems pretty cruel, as well – especially to modern readers, who like to believe that social rank can change, through a combination of good luck and hard work (check out the "Seven Basic Plots" section for more on the rags-to-riches plot).
Noah was a charity-boy, but not a workhouse orphan. […] The shop-boys in the neighborhood had long been in the habit of branding Noah in the public streets with the ignominious epithets of ‘leathers,’ ‘charity,’ and the like; and Noah had borne them without reply. But now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, at whom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him with interest. This affords charming food for contemplation. It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature is, and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy. (5.26)
This passage shows that there are subtle distinctions of rank even at the very bottom of the social ladder: Noah might be a "charity-boy," and his father a "drunken soldier," but unlike Oliver, at least he knows who his father is. This is another place where Dickens clears away superficial distinctions between classes – the desire to kick the people below you on the social ladder is common to "the finest lord" and the "dirtiest charity-boy."
[…] as Oliver looked out of the parlour window, and saw the Jew roll [his old clothes] up in his bag and walk away, he felt quite delighted to think that they were safely gone, and that there was now no possible danger of his ever being able to wear them again. They were sad rags, to tell the truth; and Oliver had never had a new suit before. (14.8)
Look, another passage about clothing. Why does Dickens keep harping on it? Why is it so important that Oliver be in control of the clothes he wears? Other people are always putting Oliver into pigeonholes – calling him "young gallows," or "work’us," and "badging" him as soon as he’s born with the yellowed calico clothes of a parish boy. Choosing his own clothes becomes as important as being called by the right name – it’s a way for Oliver to assert his independence over the system.