Charles Dickens is one of those authors that most students fear. I know I did. His books just seemed so…boring. But there’s a reason he’s the classic English author (behind Shakespeare): his books captured what life was like for ordinary people during the 1800s.
Oliver Twist is one of his more famous books, and it’s a great example of why Dickens is worth your time.
In the 1830s, when Oliver Twist was published, England was going through massive social change. It was the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, which upended ordinary people’s lives. All across the country, rural towns and farms were being enclosed as private land. Peasants couldn’t make a living as farmers anymore, so they were flocking to burgeoning cities, looking for work in brand new factories.
But life was difficult. Cities were dirty. Pollution was everywhere, and many people lived on the streets. Thirteen-year-olds were working twelve hours a day in grueling conditions. Wages were low, and England’s Poor Laws forced those who needed help to join workhouses, where they fared little better than slaves. It was hard times, to borrow the title of another Dickens book.
That’s the world that Oliver Twist explores—the beginnings of our modern era. It tells the story of Oliver, a young boy living in a workhouse who goes on to join a gang of criminals. Dickens uses Oliver’s story to critique the conditions people lived in, and the injustice of poverty and workhouses and homelessness.
Often, the Industrial Revolution is studied as a magnificent feat of ingenuity and technology. But Oliver Twist is a moving reminder that those grand advances in our society can have a real human cost—a lesson to remember as we look toward the future today.
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