Dickens's second novel was a far cry from THE PICKWICK PAPERS, his first. The story of an orphan who flees the workhouse only to fall in with a gang of thieves and prostitutes in London's sleazy underworld, it was a trenchant criticism of England's poor laws. Enacted in the 1830s, these laws provided assistance for the poor only through workhouses, which were deliberately squalid and miserable to encourage the poor--who were considered lazy and immoral--to better themselves and get out. The inequities between rich and poor were one of Dickens's constant themes, and with OLIVER TWIST he established himself as a staunch champion of the downtrodden, particularly children. The novel also, however, has its cheerful moments, and contains some of Dickens's most memorable characters, including Fagin, the Artful Dodger, the evil Bill Sykes, and the unfortunate Nancy.