'"Please, sir, I want some more"' is not only one of the most famous sentences in literature, but also one of the most symbolic. In 1834 the government had introduced the hated Poor Law Amendment Act, providing relief for the destitute at a level beneath that of the lowest-paid workers and obliging them to live in workhouses, in which families were separated and sustenance was barely at subsistence level. However, although Oliver Twist is supposedly impelled by a powerful sense of social injustice, Dickens' inability to rein in his glee at the sheer ludicrousness of his creations means that the satire of his comedy is subordinated to its farce.
It is sneeringly stated at several stages that it is 'philosophers' who have created the hateful institutions that so blight Oliver's life, as if a reminder of how little basis in practical humanity his world has. Oliver suffers more at the hands of officials than he ever does at Fagin's. Their unfitness for office is clear from the start, when the midwife officiating at his birth is described as 'hastily depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of which she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction'. Similarly Mrs. Mann, head of the orphanage, replies when asked what she is drinking whilst on duty '"I'll not deceive you, Mr. B. It's gin."' Bumble promptly joins her for a glass. Bumble himself swells the long rank of officials who are totally unable to rise to their responsibilities, and yet are tremendously pompous. We hear at one point of 'that remarkable dignity which was usually his chief characteristic', and his very name is, of course, an explicit indication of haplessness.
It seems at times, however, that it is not the institutions themselves that infuriate Dickens, but the hypocrisy of those who administer them. Gamfield, a chimney sweep who seeks to employ Oliver, defends his calling to the workhouse board by arguing that 'Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen'lmen'. This makes the board seem 'very much amused' and they proceed successfully to barter for his sale. Yet the absurdity of Gamfield, who is first seen 'alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey', completely destroys his satirical credibility as an agent of official wrong. Bumble's coat buttons, presented by the board as a token of respect, and which excite much favourable comment from Sowerberry, depict the parable of the Good Samaritan. But this irony is diminished by the heavy-handed dialogue that ensues, in which Bumble rages that his critics are 'ineddicated, vulgar, grovelling wretches'.
Bumble soon ceases to represent much more than comic relief, unhappily marrying Mrs. Corney on account of her silver spoons and declaring that 'I never see any difference in boys. I only know two sorts of boys. Mealy boys and beef-faced boys' - a remark which has no real meaning, but is very funny. By the end, when he is exposed and reduced to becoming an inmate of the workhouse, we have completely ceased to see him as a threat; he has become a clown and we are correspondingly fond of him. This is the central fault of the novel's satire. Its humour overrides its zeal, and leaves us more amused than irate.
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