ByCiaran Davis, writer at Creators.co

It is a known truth that Marx was a lover of Charles Dickens’ works, due to his graphic descriptions of the harsh working and living conditions of the proletariat in Victorian Britain; the same conditions in which Marx and Engels later wrote about in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Due to this it is believed by many that these themes of poverty and power, as seen throughout in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, illustrate that Dickens was an example of a Pre-Marxist writer as “the narratives of Dickens present Marx's concepts as relevant and accessible within popular imagination.” (Ami E. Stearns and Thomas J. Burns, About the Human Condition in the Works of Dickens and Marx). However, for a text to follow the conventions of a Marxist literary piece, it must be a “point-blank socialist novel…The more the opinions of the author remain hidden the better the work of art”. (Friedrich Engels, letter to the English Novelist Margaret Harkness). At first glance Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist certainly appears to be a Marxist text. However, it may be interpreted that the novel isn’t a “point-blank socialist” one, as when further analysis is given, a critic may notice that it appears as if Dickens’ own opinions of the views of Marx and Engels bleed through into the novel, challenging these ideals.

An example of how the novel may appear to agree with Marxism is that the main protagonist, Oliver Twist, may be interpreted to be an embodiment of the harsh reality of exploitation towards children born into poverty. Dickens used Oliver to paint a clear picture of the lives of working class citizens living in early Victorian London: “…a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse…to be cuffed and buffeted through the world-despised by all, and pitied by none.” (Dickens 1). The fictional setting of the parish workhouse that Dickens has chosen to begin Oliver’s life in may be seen as a metaphor for the Marxist ideal that once one enters poverty, it is almost impossible for them to rise up in society due to exploitation; as if they are imprisoned within poverty itself.

Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in Oliver! (1968)
Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in Oliver! (1968)

Furthermore, even when Oliver is sold to the Funeral Directors, he still continues to work for the Parish as he makes the coffins, so even then he still exists within the same world that he was born into: “Parochial business connected with parochial orphans.” (Dickens 32). The setting has been used to represent the reification of workers in a Victorian setting: an overtly capitalist society in which the working class were seen as commodities; there to create high profits for industries as the work they carried out was worth more than they were actually paid for. Critics may interpret this as a strong example of how Oliver Twist fits Marxist ideals as Marx himself criticised the British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo; who were in charge of the British economy at the time, due to the exploitation of their proletariat, believing that “capitalism alienates them (workers) from themselves by seeing them in terms of production.” (Hans Bertens, Literary Theory: The Basics-The Politics of Class: Marxism).

Oliver and the other orphans represent these exploited workers seen as commodities: “We name our fondlings in alphabetical order...I have names ready made to the end of the alphabet." (Dickens 35). This ideology of workers being exploited in a Capitalist society by their masters is also seen in Hard Times; another of Dickens novels: “So many hundred Hands in this mill; so many hundred horse steam power.” (Dickens 73, Hard Times). I personally agree that Hard Times appears to also be a Marxist text, as Dickens refers to the proletariat as “Hands”, as this portrays every worker as “merely one link in a long chain” (Hans Bertens, Literary Theory: The Basics-The Politics of Class: Marxism); again, illustrating this idea of the workers being used to make money for their masters. Therefore, it would appear that Hard Times, written after The Communist Manifesto, continues to hold the same views that Dickens had when writing Oliver Twist; written before it. This suggests that Oliver Twist fits in with Marxist ideals.

Moreover, Fagin, a crook who fathers a group of youth pick pockets, may be seen as a symbol used by Dickens to illustrate the harsh class issues present at the time in which the book was written and published; a class divide far greater than that of today’s society. The working class would live better lives as criminals than as proletariat workers; as thieving, rather than working in a factory, would mean that their working conditions would have been greater; as well as not getting taxed so therefore having more money. It is evident that Dickens clearly sympathised with criminals; using Fagin to explain that some criminals are not evil, they are really just trying to make a living in a harsh world: “I thieved for you when I was a child…” (Nancy) pointing to Oliver. “I have been in the same trade… for twelve years since.” “…if you have, it's your living!” replied (Fagin)…” (Dickens 16). This is an example of how the novel fits in with Marxist ideals as the fact that many proletarians resorted to crime to make a living was a criticism that Marx had against capitalism.

Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! (1968)
Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! (1968)

Although Fagin was created to be quite a vulgar character, it is almost undeniable that “there is something inherently sympathetic in Dickens’s writing.” (Timothy Spall, The Jewish Chronicles-This is how you play Fagin, Rowan). Although the street urchins that Fagin has adopted assist him in his crimes, it is made obvious by Dickens that he cares for them greatly and his kindness for them shows that at heart Fagin is very selfless: “His fondness for the…boys cost him a good deal of money.” (Dickens 9). A reader might agree that Fagin was put in place to be the polar opposite of Mr Bumble and the other ministers of the parish, as “The first people you see in charge of Oliver’s destiny are those in the workhouse. They…are a repugnant bunch of bastard hypocrites…But the next person you see…is Fagin. He’s the first adult character who has any warmth. What Dickens is saying…is that he may be a crook but at least he’s looking after these kids.” (Timothy Spall). I personally believe that this is an example of how the novel could be interpreted to hold Marxist ideals, as Dickens has clearly made the audience favour the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. Some may agree that Dickens understood, as do many Marxist socialists, why the crime rate was at its peak during the Victorian Era, and blamed the class divide and harsh exploitation of the proletariat for the reason it was so high.

However, due to Dickens’ portrayal of the true nature of the working class in Victorian Britain, the novel’s ending may appear to some readers as somewhat disconcerting to them and may even change their perception on whether or not the novel may be read as a Marxist text. Like many of Dickens’ novels Oliver Twist is a bildungsroman, so Oliver does become rich and successful at the end, but not because of his own abilities; instead, because it is discovered that he was the lost child of the Brownlow family, an upper class family. It appears as if Dickens removes the feeling of hope that some children of the proletariat may have held; wishing to one day be rich and successful, as Oliver was “born into poverty of the like Marxism defends against, pushed into the role first of a ‘machine cog’ worker, then of a thief against his own wishes…is saved…not by his goodness…intellectual or physical abilities, but because he is in actuality a member of the bourgeoisie.” (Jessica Rising, Oliver Twist and Marxism).

Due to Dickens’ ending the book this way, rather than allowing for Oliver’s life to have improved due to his own abilities, I agree that Dickens himself held “far less optimistic… (and) far more realistic views…than that of Marxism.” (Jessica Rising). Dickens never openly claimed that the proletarians could ever rise higher than the class of which they were born into. Instead of Marx and Engels, who believed that the Proletariat would rise up against the ruling body to gain power, it appears as if Dickens, a strong Christian, held the belief that if the proletariat continue to act the way they do, rather than resorting to violence, then they “will find their reward in Heaven” ( Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today) as seen when he writes that Oliver “should pray for the people who...take care of (him).” (Dickens 36).

This gives reason as to why the lives of kind, lower class characters such as Nancy and Fagin never improve; and, although Mr Bumble and his wife were eventually fired from the parish workhouse and made poor, the couple themselves were never truly free as Bumble answered to higher authority figures, as he works for the ministers of the parish and has to go through them when wanting to evict Oliver from the parish: “The board…arrived at a decision…over (Oliver’s) future fortunes.” (Dickens 37). This is another reason as to why a critic may interpret Oliver Twist as not fitting with Marxist ideals as these ministers, who are the true bourgeoisie, remain powerful and successful throughout the novel, and represent the people “who control the world’s natural, economical, and human resources.” (Lois Tyson). Although this still highlights the division of labour and production of which Marxism was against; for a text to be regarded as entirely Marxist, of the sort that Engels spoke of, the ruling body would not remain in power.

Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble in Oliver! (1968)
Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble in Oliver! (1968)

To conclude, it appears apparent that, although Dickens held similar views to those put forward by Marx and Engels, he personally believed that Marxism is more of an ideal than a reality; an optimistic utopia that Marx and Engels dreamed of but Dickens understood wasn’t realistic as, during the Victorian era, if you were born into a proletariat lifestyle, that was where you would most likely remain for your entire life. Therefore, it is arguable whether Oliver Twist could be regarded as a pre-Marxist text or not. Nevertheless, it seems that the novel still continues to hold Dickens’ own interpretations and criticisms of capitalism; which seem to appear within separate, later novels by Dickens, such as A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Hard Times etc.

Bibliography

  • Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, Penguin Classics, 1966
  • Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, 2002
  • Stearns, Ami E., and Burns Thomas J., “About the Human Condition in the Works of Dickens and Marx”, http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/literary-criticism/74158741/about-human-condition-works-dickens-marx, 2011
  • Engels, Friedrich, letter to the English Novelist Harkness, Margret http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1888/letters/88_04_15.htm, 2000
  • Bertens, Hans, Literary Theory: The Basics-The Politics of Class: Marxism, Routledge, 2nd Edition, 2007
  • Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Wordsworth Classics, 1995
  • Spall, Timothy, The Jewish Chronicles-This is how you play Fagin, Rowan, www.thejc.com/arts/theatre/10174/this-how-you-play-fagin-rowan‎‎, 2008
  • Rising, Jessica, Oliver Twist and Marxism, gutsandglorybooks.com/2011/11/30/oliver-twist-and-marxism, 2011
  • Tyson, Lois, Critical Theory Today, Routledge, 2nd Edition, 2006
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