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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Oliver Twist and dissection of the poor

Reproduction of Cruikshank's illustration depicting the Beadle leading Oliver Twist by the handThe Beadle and Oliver Twist, watercolour by George CruikshankSome scholars like to think that Oliver Twist has a happy ending, but this not in fact entirely so.

After giving birth to her boy in the workhouse, Oliver Twist's mother dies at the very outset of the book. We only hear what had happened to her body in oblique ways. Oliver has no name of his own: the beadle Mr Bumble created the name by which we know him, and is at pains to let us know the fruitless trouble he took to identify the mother: contemporaries would have understood her to be numbered among the unclaimed. The child's real identity is obscured until very late in the book, and even though his parentage is eventually clarified, his name is never changed: he has the mark of the workhouse on him forever.

Reproduction of Cruikshank's watercolour depicting Oliver and Rose standing in an old church before a white marble wall plaque bearing the name AgnesThe empty tomb, watercolour by George CruikshankThe book's plot turns on a locket Oliver's mother had on her when she died, which is purloined, pledged at a pawnbroker's, sold corruptly by the workhouse matron, and then deliberately discarded by Oliver's wicked half-brother Monks in a rushing millrace, and lost forever. The locket, we learn, contained three incorruptible things: two locks of hair laid together with a plain gold wedding ring. These are all pledges of a very different kind: of eternal love. The purloining of the locket was accomplished inside the workhouse, and the theft impacts materially on the entire life of the most innocent party in the book - the naked baby of page one, who is deprived of his own identity (ie: his birthright) at the outset. When Oliver is referred to as a 'bastard child', Mr Brownlow firmly observes that the term reflects disgrace on no-one living but those who use it: Dickens clearly has no truck with the idea of original sin.

Nothing is said about the fate of Oliver's mother's body until right at the very end of the book, when a church monument is erected in her memory. The inner side of the ring in the locket had been inscribed 'Agnes' - which name Dickens intended to signify the essential innocence of Oliver's mother, it means 'lamb'. This is all that is inscribed on the tomb, too: simply 'Agnes'. The tomb bears her name, but marks no grave. Dickens specifically tells us in the book's last paragraph, that 'there is no coffin in that tomb'. She is numbered among the unclaimed and the disappeared. Thus the locket and its contents turn out to be an analogue for her missing body: purloined, sold, scrutinized, and destroyed, under a corrupt workhouse regime.

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