Study Guide

Oliver Twist Poverty

By Charles Dickens


Workhouses, filthy quarters, despair: Dickens is very concerned with showing just how miserable the lower classes really were in 19th Century London. With Oliver Twist, he doesn’t shy away from depicting the conditions of the poor in all their misery with gritty realism.

Questions About Poverty

  1. In the description of the Baytons, Dickens makes the poor people seem somehow sub-human: "Oliver was afraid to look at either her or the man, – they seemed so like the rats he had seen outside" (5.64). In a later description of Folly Ditch, he describes the poverty as "loathsome" (50.4). Is Dickens sympathetic to the plight of the poor in these moments, or not?
  2. Are the paupers always morally superior to the parochial authorities?
  3. Is there a difference, in the world of Oliver Twist, between vagrancy (i.e., homelessness) and poverty? Is one "worse" than the other? According to whom?
  4. Is it possible that the parish authorities actually want to keep the poorest class poor?

Chew on This

Dickens uses a distant, journalistic tone when describing poor neighborhoods to add to the realism of Oliver Twist, but the distance has the additional effect of making it occasionally difficult to sympathize with the poor.

Dickens occasionally describes members of the poorest class as sub-human or animal-like to highlight the huge chasm between the experiences of his middle class readers and the poor people he describes.