Dickens sets Oliver Twist in early 19th-century England, a time when long-held ideas and beliefs came under serious scrutiny. Profound changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, religious uncertainty, scientific advancement, and political and social upheaval caused many Victorians to reexamine many aspects of their society and culture.
Industrialization drove many farmworkers into the cities, where poor labor conditions and inadequate housing condemned most of them to poverty. The unprecedented increase in urban population fostered new and overwhelming problems of sanitation, overcrowding, poverty, disease, and crime in the huge slums occupied by impoverished workers, the unemployed, and the unfortunate. London slums bred the sort of crime Dickens portrays in Oliver Twist.
The novel is set against the background of the New Poor Law of 1834, which established a system of workhouses for those who, because of poverty, sickness, mental disorder, or age, could not provide for themselves. Young Oliver Twist, an orphan, spends his first nine years in a “baby farm,” a workhouse for children in which only the hardiest survive. When Oliver goes to London, he innocently falls in with a gang of youthful thieves and pickpockets headed by a vile criminal named Fagin. Dickens renders a powerful and generally realistic portrait of this criminal underworld, with all its sordidness and sin. He later contrasts the squalor and cruelty of the workhouse and the city slums with the peace and love Oliver finds in the country at the Maylies’ home.