Research Paper: Urban Capitalism in Oliver Twist

Heather Haynes
March 1, 2007
Dr. J Andrew Hubbell
London Underworld

The urbanization of nineteenth-century London demonstrates how capitalist competition defines class structure. As money began to define class structure through what luxuries citizens were able to afford, the drive to accumulate as much money and luxury as possible developed in people of all classes. This process can be observed in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in which all classes of Londoners are portrayed as competing in order to obtain the largest amount of money possible.

The upper working classes Dickens provided for his readers in Oliver Twist exhibit a competitive instinct that suggests the beginnings of an internalization of the need for money and its capitalist powers. These workers understood “that money can function as a store of value, and hence of social power” and indeed strived to earn more in any way legally possible (Harvey 173). In the growing urban economy of 19th century London, citizens began to internalize the need for capital in the form of money. They simultaneously understood that “urbanization of capital and of consciousness is so central to the perpetuation and experience of capitalism” that they engaged fully in monetary exchange (254). However their need for money manifests itself subtly, an excellent example of which is the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and his family.

Mrs. Sowerberry remarked almost immediately after her introduction in the plot that parish children such as Oliver “always cost more to keep, than they’re worth” (Dickens 40). She then ordered Oliver to be served “some of the cold bits that were put by for Trip,” assuming that the boy for whom the meal was meant could go without eating. Her act of feeding one apprentice with another’s food demonstrates the desire (if not the need) to conserve money to the utmost extent.

Furthermore, Oliver slept in a bed under the kitchen counter in order to conserve space (41). In the burgeoning urban economy space found itself almost synonymous with money, and Oliver not being worth himself, earned only the minimal amount of space possible for his existence. As Harvey explains, “space cannot be considered independently of money” because money dictates the ability to purchase space (175). Oliver possessed no money and therefore was unable to procure space for himself, remaining under the will of a master with higher social rank than himself.
Mrs. Sowerberry held true to her belief that parish workers are not worth their cost and in practicing her belief so effectively passed the ideology onto the other household servants. Indeed the two other servants to the Sowerberrys turned to treat Oliver as if he were not worth his keep (53-59). In this manner the two servants established themselves as an upper class to Oliver, as they possessed more of the money and the space that the Sowerberrys allocated their servants than did Oliver.

Mr. Sowerberry, the town undertaker, also horded capital through his practice of holding meager funerals for lower class citizens. When conferring with the family of a recently deceased lower class woman he encourages the family to eat and drink, suggesting “Anything, everything!” so that he may feed himself and Oliver at another’s expense (48). For the woman’s actual funeral, Mr. Sowerberry, and other men of higher social rank than the mourning party, compressed “the burial service…into four minutes,” immediately filled the grave, and hurried the mourners out of the yard (49). In order to save time and money the parochial officers were ready and willing to belittle the solemnity of a burial service and possibly insult the mourning family.

Along a slightly different vein, the newly married Mrs. Bumble gained money at the expense of the lower class by insisting Monks pay her “five-and-twenty pounds in gold” simply for information (Dickens 250). She quickly dismissed the offer of twenty pounds from Monks for no reason other than that the asking price seemed to her “not a large sum” (150). Here the lady deigned to request a small sum for her information, knowing that the man paying her obviously occupied a lower income status than herself. However her resolve to earn as much of a small sum as possible proves her drive to gain more money, thus widening the capitalist gap between Monks and herself.

In this exchange, more concretely than in other examples, money has become “the abstract and universal measure of social wealth and the concrete means of expression of social power” (Harvey 168). The money Mrs. Bumble procured at the expense of Monks doubtlessly went towards her estate, whereas the poorer Monks had no home or personal space to speak of. Through losing twenty-five pounds to Mrs. Bumble Monks also lost the space that he may have procured with that money. Dickens implied the lack of space and money on Monks’ end as he requested that they meet in an abandoned water mill surrounded by a “collection of mere hovels” (Dickens 247).

Another, less striking example of monetary competition in upper class London society is in the transaction which led Oliver to be apprenticed with Mr. Sowerberry. After Oliver angered the magistrates who ran the workhouse in which he lived, they offered “five pounds and Oliver Twist…to any man or woman who wanted and apprentice to any trade” (29). Here the gentlemen followed Mrs. Sowerberry’s later notion that Oliver was worth much less than what he costs them in upkeep, to the point where losing five pounds and the boy would be a gain to their business. The absence of Oliver from the workhouse also freed space in which another child could live, thus giving the gentlemen a three-fold advantage in getting rid of Oliver.

While the saving of money was not explicitly stated in these examples, the notion of money is implied when referring to commodities purchased most commonly by money, such as space. As the “universal qualities of money call forth other forms of social transformation within the community that money defines,” money became increasingly important to a point where citizens of the capitalist society understood their inability to function without it (Harvey 169).

Lower class citizens in Dickens’ novel took their need for money to an entirely new level. Of the lower class with legitimate jobs, competition can be seen as the workers take advantage of each other, or of citizens slightly less fortunate than themselves. In this respect Dickens gave his readers Mrs. Mann, who, paid by the government for her work, raised “juvenile offenders” such as Oliver. However, the woman “appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use,” essentially leaving the children to starve while in her care (Dickens 20). This blatant disregard for children not in the position to care for themselves displays a drive for monetary competition more intense than that of the upper class. While this treatment may seem reminiscent of the Sowerberrys, the difference lies in the fact that they first and foremost ran a business and took care of their helpers only secondarily. Mrs. Mann’s chose to neglect her sole function of child-rearing in order to better herself. Also, the money Mrs. Mann gained from exploiting the children placed her closer in monetary worth to the upper class.

Mrs. Mann and her children also serve as an excellent example of the relationship between money and space. As Oliver sat “in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young gentlemen,” Mrs. Mann greeted Mr. Bumble in her “small parlour” (Dickens 21, 22). The inclusion of “small” before “parlour” further indicates the woman’s lower class status, while allowing her money to afford a parlour in the first place. Conversely, three boys were locked in a small room not intended for human use. This juxtaposition proves how possession of money precludes possession of space. Here Dickens presented his reader with an example of how urban “low income and minority populations seek to define collective spaces within which they can exercise the strictest social control” (Harvey 197). By acquiring wealth and forcing her children out of their rightful space, Mrs. Mann exerted physical and social control over Oliver and the others that they internalized through fearing her and other adults.

A more severe lack of money (than Mrs. Mann displayed) forced the lower class out of competition with the wealthier citizens and into its own category that functions chiefly in the underworld of the city. As citizens’ sense of class came “out of the experience of earning money” the difference between upper and lower, legitimate and illegitimate, became how one earns his or her own money (Harvey 232). The most striking example of this in Oliver Twist is Fagin and his gang of thieves. Their lives of pick-pocketing and house-breaking stand as an overarching and shining example of alternative methods of earning money. Fagin’s boys viewed the Jew with great respect and followed his every command, thus representing an internalization of his illegitimate moral and capitalist values.

Yet even as the supposed leader, Fagin stashed wealth for himself. In the underworld wealth did not uniformly appear as money, which Dickens’ readers were introduced to earlier as the boys stole handkerchiefs (Dickens 65). Fagin’s wealth, hidden under floor boards, consisted of “a magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels” (Dickens 67). His internal need for competition drove him to keep wealth for himself as a matter of survival.

By keeping his watch effectively hidden, Fagin limited his wealth to handkerchiefs and such that the boys could actively steal. In this outward state of poverty Fagin and his boys lived in very little space which Dickens described only by it’s scant furnishing and place up “dark and broken stairs” (65). Without money, the thieves could not function in legitimate urban society, and were therefore forced into small and unfavorable quarters. However, the thieves as an alternative community found “it hard, if not impossible, to survive as autonomous entities” and therefore relied regularly on mainstream society for their illegitimate source of income (Harvey 235).

Though these examples a simple pattern arose. A lack of money transferred to a lack of space, which in turn brought about greater competition among early urbanized people. Fagin and the thieves, who represented the lowest income group in the capitalist portrait Dickens painted, stole property that was never meant to be theirs in order to survive in the underworld. The money legally paid to Mrs. Mann for her farming of children was squandered. However, the weekly stipends were given to her judgment and she used the money as she saw fit. Mrs. Bumble demanded money from Monks, though as payment for information the man professed to need. The Sowerberrys used their legal earnings, much in the fashion of Mrs. Mann, to treat their servants as they saw fit. While none of these saw to the proper treatment of Oliver and other orphans, the emphasis in capitalist society lies on oneself and the ability to support oneself over all others.

Dickens clearly pushed the new model of urban capitalism to the extreme in his novel, although his characters did not stand far from the truth. The inherent competition of capitalist society revolved directly around money and its derivative, space.

Works Cited
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. First Edition. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Harvey, David. The Urban Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.