Starvation in the Workhouse
14 x 9.4 cm vignetted
Third illustration for The Adventures of Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist and A Child's History of England, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), vol. 3, facing p. 16.
Whereas Dickens's description of "Oliver's Asking for More" (Chapter 2, "Treats of Oliver Twist's Growth, Education, and Board") suggests that he succumbs to group pressure when he approaches the well-fed master of the workhouse on behalf of the entire body of starving juvenile inmates, Furniss's interpretation depicts Oliver as a plucky rebel confronting insensitive, bloated authority. [Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.
"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle. . . . [Chapter 2, "Treats of Oliver Twist's Growth, Education, and Board," p. 13]
By now, the scene in the workhouse in the initial (February 1837) number of The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress is familiar to even non-English speakers as a result of dramatisations on stage and film, and even such cartoons as Oliver Asks for a Doggy Bag, even though few would identify it with an obscure Victorian periodical entitled Bentley's Miscellany, in which the novel first appeared in twenty-four monthly instalments, each with a single-page steel engraving by caricaturist George Cruikshank. To grab a sizeable readership for his new serial, Dickens began the first instalment with the death of a young woman in the workhouse, then quickly moved ahead a decade to show her ill-fed, abused, neglected child confronting a personification of the callous administrators of the new Poor Law. Having been raised in Mrs. Mann's baby farm, on his ninth birthday, the boy returns to "learn a useful trade" (picking oakum, in fact), if he does not succumb to the workhouse regimen, which tends to starve boys to death. In James Mahoney's redrafting of the celebrated scene for the The Household Edition in 1871, a rake-thin Oliver innocently gestures towards the fat master with his bowl. Nothing separates the the viewer from the naieve boy in penitential uniform, and the focal point of the picture is clearly the boy and the master, the largest figures in the picture. Whereas in the original 1837 steel engraving the overfed "master" scowls at the temerity of the scrawny waif, while the eight other survivors of the starving system look on in suspense, Mahoney has turned the master's face away from the reader, and has repositioned the matron, who now expresses merely modest astonishment (centre rear) at Oliver's unorthodox behaviour. Although the lineaments of the scenario are much the same in Furniss's reinterpretation, the overall effect is far more kinetic and emotionally charged — an not without some comic distortion and melodramatic exaggeration. In particular, Furniss has given the tiny protagonist a look of stern defiance wholly absent in previous interpretations in this David-versus-Goliath confrontation of scrawny underdog taking on the corpulent establishmentarian figure in what amounts to Socialistic propaganda. Whereas previous illustrators have focussed on the plump, incredulous functionary and the emaciated petitioner, Furniss presents the entire social context of the dramatic moment, placing the eight other boys, individually realised, in the foreground so that the reader approaches the lithograph as if it were a theatrical scene, including two shocked elderly female assistants (upper centre).
Illustrations from the Serial (1837), Diamond Edition (1867), Household Edition (1871), and Waverley Edition (1912)
Left: George Cruikshank's original version of Oliver's Asking for More (1837, 1846). Centre: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Oliver and Little Dick (1867). Right: Charles Pears' early 20th c. revision, focussing on the two contrasting figures, Oliver Twist and the Master of the Workhouse. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: James Mahoney's 1871 engraving of the gaunt Oliver's acting as a spokesperson for his fellow starving inmates, Uncaptioned Headpiece for Chapter One, although the famous incident actually occurs in the second chapter. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. "George Cruikshank." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 15-38.
Darley, Felix Octavius Carr. Character Sketches from Dickens. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1888.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. Il. George Cruikshank. London: Bradbury and Evans; Chapman and Hall, 1846.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. 55 vols. Il. F. O. C. Darley and John Gilbert. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1865.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Diamond Edition. 14 vols. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. Il. James Mahoney. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871.
Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens Library Edition. Il. Harry Furniss. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 3.
Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. The Waverley Edition. Illustrated by Charles Pears. London: Waverley, 1912.
Forster, John. "Oliver Twist 1838." The Life of Charles Dickens. Ed. B. W. Matz. The Memorial Edition. 2 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1911. Vol. 1, book 2, chapter 3.
Last modified 31 December 2014