Oliver Twist is an extreme criticism of Victorian society’s treatment of the poor. The workhouses that figure prominently in the first few chapters of the novel were institutions that the Victorian middle class established to raise poor children. Since it was believed that certain vices were inherent to the poor and that poor families fostered rather than discouraged such vices, poor husbands and wives were separated in order to prevent them from having children and expanding the lower class. Poor children were taken away from their parents in order to allow the state and the church to raise them in the manner they believed most appropriate.
In the narrative, the workhouse functions as a sign of the moral hypocrisy of the working class. Mrs. Mann steals from the children in her care, feeding and clothing them inadequately. The Victorian middle class saw cleanliness as a moral virtue, and the workhouse was supposed to rescue the poor from the immoral condition of filth. However, the workhouse in Dickens’s novel is a filthy place—Mrs. Mann never ensures that the children practice good hygiene except during an inspection. Workhouses were established to save the poor from starvation, disease, and filth, but in fact they end up visiting precisely those hardships on the poor. Furthermore, Mr. Bumble’s actions underscore middle-class hypocrisy, especially when he criticizes Oliver for not gratefully accepting his dire conditions. Bumble himself, however, is fat and well-dressed, and the entire workhouse board is full of fat gentlemen who preach the value of a meager diet for workhouse residents.
The assumption on the part of the middle-class characters that the lower classes are naturally base, criminal, and filthy serves to support their vision of themselves as a clean and morally upright social group. The gentlemen on the workhouse board call Oliver a “savage” who is destined for the gallows. After Oliver’s outrageous request for more food, the board schemes to apprentice him to a brutal master, hoping that he will soon die. Even when the upper classes claim to be alleviating the lower-class predicament, they only end up aggravating it. In order to save Oliver from what they believe to be his certain fate as a criminal, the board essentially ensures his early death by apprenticing him to a brutal employer.
The workhouse reproduces the vices it is supposed to erase. One workhouse boy, with a “wild, hungry” look, threatens in jest to eat another boy. The suggestion is that workhouses force their residents to become cannibals. The workhouse also mimics the institution of slavery: the residents are fed and clothed as little as possible and required to work at tasks assigned by the board, and they are required to put on a face of cheery, grateful acceptance of the miserable conditions that have been forced on them. When Oliver does not, he is sold rather than sent away freely.
Dickens achieves his biting criticism of social conditions through deep satire and hyperbolic statements. Throughout the novel, absurd characters and situations are presented as normal, and Dickens often says the opposite of what he really means. For example, in describing the men of the parish board, Dickens writes that “they were very sage, deep, philosophical men” who discover about the workhouse that “the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay. . . .” Of course, we know that Oliver’s experience with the workhouse is anything but entertaining and that the men of the parish board are anything but “sage, deep,” or “philosophical.” But by making statements such as these, Dickens highlights the comical extent to which the upper classes are willfully ignorant of the plight of the lower classes. Since paupers like Oliver stand no chance of defeating their tormenters, Dickens takes it upon himself to defeat them with sly humor that reveals their faults more sharply than a serious tone might have. Though Oliver himself will never have much of a sense of humor, we will eventually meet other boys in his situation who will join Dickens in using humor as a weapon in their woefully unequal struggle with the society that oppresses them.
Noah Claypole’s relationship with Oliver illustrates Victorian England’s obsession with class distinctions. The son of destitute parents, Noah is accustomed to the disdain of those who are better off than he. Thus, he is relieved to have Oliver nearby, since, as an orphan, Oliver is even worse off than he is. Dickens characterizes Noah’s cowardice and bullying as “the same amiable qualities” that are “developed in the finest lord.” Dickens shows that class snobbery is a universal quality, characteristic of the lowest as well as the highest strata of society. Moreover, snobbish behavior seems a component of class insecurity. The poor mercilessly taunt those who are poorer than they, out of anxious desire to distinguish themselves from those who are even worse off in life.
In protesting the parish’s treatment of Oliver, Dickens criticizes the Victorian characterization of the poor as naturally immoral, criminal, and filthy. His principal character, Oliver, after all, is virtuous, good, and innocent. Although we might expect a criticism of the popular conception of the lower classes to describe many lower-class characters who are essentially good, honest, and hardworking, Dickens does not paint such a simplistic picture. The character of Noah, for example, exhibits the same stereotypes that Dickens satirizes in the first several chapters. Noah, the son of a drunkard, seems to have inherited all of the unpleasant traits that his father presumably has. Big, greedy, cowardly, ugly, and dirty, Noah is the quintessential Victorian stereotype of the good-for-nothing poor man.
Part of Dickens’s motivation for writing Oliver Twist was to expose the horrid conditions in which the lower classes were expected to live, and, as a result, much of the narrative focuses on the sensationally disgusting settings in which the poor live their lives. At one point, Oliver and Sowerberry travel to a squalid section of town to retrieve a dead pauper’s body. The neighborhood is full of shop fronts that are “fast closed and mouldering away.” The people of this neighborhood have apparently been left behind by the economic expansion of the Industrial Revolution, which was in full force at the time of Oliver Twist’s publication. The bereaved husband’s wife does not starve to death as a result of her “natural” laziness—she starves to death because of the economic realities of the society in which she lives.
Oliver’s attack on Noah is an important moment in the development of his character. Most of the time, he is portrayed as sweet, -docile, innocent, and naïve—sometimes to the point of seeming somewhat dim. Indeed, it might seem that Dickens, in his fervent desire to exact his Victorian audience’s sympathy for the poor orphan, exaggerates by making Oliver angelic. Oliver’s fit of rage, however, makes him seem more passionate and human, like an ordinary child. Oliver, raised in the workhouse, has never seen a functioning family except for the Sowerberrys, who are childless. His sense of familial love and duty is strong enough to compel him to violently come to his mother’s defense. Dickens implies that loyalty to kin, and the desire for the love of a family, is an impulse with which children are born, not one that needs to be learned and nurtured.
Oliver’s trip to London parallels the migration of the poor to the urban centers of England during the Industrial Revolution. His hungry, exhausted condition is a result of the laws forbidding begging, and it leaves him vulnerable enough to accept the questionable charity of a band of thieves. Dickens clearly blames the crimes committed by the poor on the people who passed the draconian Poor Laws. Thus, in order to survive, Oliver must accept the aid of Fagin’s band. Oliver’s stay with Fagin’s band represents the first truly domestic experience in his life. Although Fagin’s house is filthy and derelict, it contains a relatively idyllic dinner scene, with plenty of food laid out in pewter dishes and no one to begrudge Oliver his full share of the food.
From today’s perspective, Dickens’s characterization of Fagin through Jewish stereotypes is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of Oliver Twist. Dickens characterizes Fagin as a “very old shrivelled Jew” with a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” Victorians stereotyped the Jews as avaricious gold worshippers, and in accordance with that stereotype, Fagin’s eyes “glisten” as he takes out a “magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels.” True to the anti-Semitic stereotype, his wealth is ill-gotten—Fagin obtains it by having others do the thieving for him, and some of those others have even been hanged for doing Fagin’s bidding. Dickens’s narrator continually refers to him as “the Jew” or “the old Jew,” seemingly making Fagin into a representative for all Jews. When a Jewish acquaintance later took Dickens to task for his portrait of Fagin, Dickens responded that it reflected nothing other than the fact that a sizable number of the leaders of London thieving rings at the time were Jewish. Despite this answer, it is difficult to accept that his portrayal of Fagin does not involve a certain degree of bigotry.
Fagin also represents a harsh parody of the Protestant work ethic. Oliver is “anxious to be actively employed” because he notices that Fagin’s “stern morality” manifests itself when Charley and the Dodger return home empty-handed. Fagin rails about the “misery of idle and lazy habits” and punishes them by denying them dinner. Victorians castigated the poor for laziness, but the work ethic they preached was in some ways responsible for creating the perversion of that ethic that Fagin represents. As a result of the “stern morality” of charitable institutions, paupers have to choose between the harsh conditions of the workhouses and the harsh conditions of the streets. Because begging is a punishable offense, those who stay outside the workhouses are often forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
Oliver’s experience in the courtroom highlights the precarious position of the poor in the eyes of the law. Mr. Fang is an aptly named representative of the English legal system. The law has fangs ready to devour any unfortunate pauper brought to face “justice.” Without hard evidence or witnesses, and despite Brownlow’s testimony that he does not believe that Oliver is the thief, Mr. Fang convicts Oliver and sentences him to three months of hard labor. In Oliver’s weakened condition, the sentence is really a sentence of death.
Oliver’s inability to speak at his trial, caused by his exhaustion and sickness, metaphorically suggests the lower class’s lack of political power and ability to voice its own concerns in a public forum. In 1830s England, the right to vote was based on wealth, so the poor had no say with respect to the law. Moreover, the upper classes project their own conceptions of the poor upon them—to the point of blithely redefining poor people’s identities with no regard for the truth. Oliver cannot even say his name due to exhaustion and terror, so a court officer gives him the false name of “Tom White.” This process of inaccurate renaming occurs throughout the hearing, as Oliver is falsely named a “young vagabond” and a “hardened scoundrel” before he is eventually falsely declared “guilty.” But the name “Oliver Twist” is, in fact, no more authentic, as Mr. Bumble invents this name when Oliver is born. As these examples demonstrate, Oliver’s identity has been determined by other, more powerful people throughout his life.
Oliver enters a new world when Brownlow takes him home. The English legal system and the workhouses represent a value system based on retribution, punishment, and strict morals. The Brownlow household, in contrast, operates on a basis of forgiveness and kindness. After a life of false names and false identities imposed by others, Oliver comes into contact with a portrait of a woman he closely resembles. With this event, the novel’s central mystery—Oliver’s true identity—is established. In contrast to the courtroom, where a multiplicity of incorrect identities are forced upon Oliver, in the Brownlow home, Oliver’s resemblance to the woman’s portrait suggests the elusive nature of his true identity.
These chapters establish a relationship between clothing and identity. The disguise that Nancy wears when she enters the police station reveals key differences between the middle and lower classes in Victorian society. The crowning touch to her disguise is a plainly displayed door key, which marks her as a member of a property-owning class. Because she disguises herself as a middle-class woman, the legal system, in the form of the police station, recognizes her as an individual worth hearing. In the attire of the middle class, she gains both a social voice and social visibility. She becomes an individual rather than a member of the penniless mob.
Just as Nancy assumes a middle-class identity by changing her clothing, Oliver sheds his identity as a orphan pickpocket when he leaves behind his pauper’s clothes. Brownlow purchases an expensive new suit for him. Oliver thus assumes the identity of a gentleman’s son by wearing the clothing of a gentleman’s son. After he dons his new clothing, Mr. Brownlow asks him what he might like to be when he grows up. At the workhouse, the authorities never even bother to ask Oliver his opinion on the matter of his apprenticeship. In Victorian England, even more than today, an individual’s profession determined a large part of his or her identity. The fact that no one at the workhouse asks for Oliver’s opinion regarding his apprenticeship shows, once again, how much he is denied the right to define himself. Oliver’s situation symbolically represents the silence of the poor. The poor cannot define their social identity—instead, the empowered classes define the identity of the poor for them. Oliver and Nancy both gain a voice the moment they shed their pauper clothing.
Class identity is correlated not only with clothing, but with history as well. Once Oliver dons his fine clothes, Brownlow asks him to give his own version of his life history. Earlier in the novel, when Oliver wears pauper’s clothing, other people control his history and, therefore, his identity. When he is Sowerberry’s apprentice, Oliver attempts to assume control of his identity by denying Noah’s insults to his mother, but instead he receives a beating for trying to assert the correct version of his past. Once he sheds his pauper status, however, Oliver’s right to explain his past is firmly established. The fact that Oliver is an orphan further underscores his lack of connection to his past. Whereas the upper classes, and particularly members of the aristocracy, are able to establish their identities by tracing their genealogies, Oliver seems to have no genealogy.
Nancy imposes another false identity on Oliver in order to kidnap him: she calls him her “dear brother.” This statement is not entirely a fabrication—those who are denied families in the novel often seek out a family structure or are placed within family structures against their will. While a member of Fagin’s clan, Oliver is a figurative brother to Nancy, since both are subject to the paternal authority of Fagin and are dependent upon him for their food and shelter. Through Nancy’s regret at returning Oliver to Fagin, Dickens suggests that such a family, while providing companionship and a means for survival, is not ultimately nurturing or morally healthy. Nancy knows that for the rest of society, Oliver confirms the worst stereotypes of the poor as a member of Fagin’s pickpocket band. Oliver’s assumption of the identity of a thief comes with his assumption of the very same pauper’s rags he had worn before. Donning his old clothing, the most obvious indicator of his poverty, marks him as a representative of vice for -Victorian society.
Although most major characters in Oliver Twist are either paragons of goodness, like Oliver and Mr. Brownlow, or embodiments of evil, like Mr. Bumble, Fagin, and Sikes, Nancy’s behavior spans moral extremes. Dickens’s description of her manner as “remarkably free and agreeable,” combined with her position as a young, unmarried female pauper, strongly implies that she is a prostitute, a profession for which Dickens’s Victorian readers would have felt little sympathy. In his preface to the 1841 edition of the novel, Dickens confirms this implication, writing that “the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.” She also spearheads the scheme to bring Oliver back into Fagin’s fold. But her outburst against Sikes and Fagin for seizing and mistreating Oliver demonstrates her deep and passionate sense of morality. Most other “good” characters we meet are good because they have no firsthand experience with vice and degradation. Nancy knows degradation perfectly well, yet she is good. Her character is a forum for the novel to explore whether an individual can be redeemed from the effects of a bad environment.
At the same time, some critics have suggested that Nancy’s speech, in which she announces her regret for having returned Oliver to Fagin’s care, hints that the boys might also be involved in prostitution. Nancy, pointing to Oliver, declares, “I have been in the same trade, and in the same service for twelve years since.” The fact that Nancy points to Oliver even as she speaks about herself implies an absolute identification between the two characters. About this detail, as about Nancy’s own identity as a prostitute, the narrative is purposely vague—Victorian sensibilities mandated that explicit references to sexuality were largely avoided.
Oliver’s domestic relationship with Fagin and his gang contributes to the novel’s argument that that the environment in which one is raised is a greater determining factor on one’s character than biological nature. The need for companionship, Dickens suggests, drives people to accept whichever community accepts them in return. As Oliver begins to find humor and joy in the companionship of the thieves, it becomes evident how easy it is for Fagin to corrupt Oliver. With the institution of the oppressive Poor Laws, it is no wonder that penniless, friendless children will adopt as family any person who is generous to them and will readily adopt that person’s values. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates are, aside from their crimes, quite likeable characters. As his name implies, the Dodger is highly intelligent, and Charley is given to bursts of uncontrollable laughter at little provocation. Both, one imagines, could have thrived in legitimate society, were that society willing to admit them to its ranks.
The fact that Oliver speaks and carries himself with a demeanor that is much more sophisticated than that of the rest of Fagin’s boys suggests that Dickens is using Oliver to show that even when people are born into squalid conditions, they can appreciate goodness and morality. When the Dodger and Charley pick Brownlow’s pocket, and again when Sikes and Crackit order Oliver into the house, Oliver reacts with shock and horror at the idea of stealing. It is unclear where he has acquired such moral fastidiousness. He could not have learned it amid the life or death struggles of the workhouse. The Dodger and Charley speak in the slang of street children, using expressions like “scragged,” “rum dog,” “peaching,” and “fogles and tickers.” But Oliver does not understand what such expressions mean. He himself speaks in proper King’s English: “I would rather go,” “you’re one, are you not?” Because even Mr. Bumble speaks with a comical vulgar accent, Oliver could not have picked up his refined speech patterns from him. It seems that Oliver’s careful speech is a symptom of his innate moral goodness.
Yet the suggestion that Oliver is innately good complicates Dickens’s argument that corruption is bred by the horrible living conditions of the lower classes, rather than inherently born into their characters. Descriptions of Oliver’s face, in fact, seem to suggest that morality can be born into character. Mr. Sowerberry enlists Oliver to serve in funerals on account of the “expression of melancholy in his face.” The usually unperceptive Toby Crackit notes that Oliver’s “mug is a fortun’ to him,” meaning that his innocent-looking face is worth money to the thieves. Mr. Brownlow sees clearly the resemblance between Oliver and the woman in the portrait, thus providing both himself and us with the first hint that the workhouse-born Oliver has an identity that is worth discovering. Dickens clearly protests against the idea propounded by Mr. Bumble, that the poor are born with an affinity for vice and crime. Yet it sometimes seems as if Oliver has been born with an affinity for virtue and love, just as he was born with his angelic face.
But even Oliver’s captivating face does not give him immunity against irrational malice, embodied by characters such as Bumble. Bumble names Oliver as a child born of “low and vicious” parents, reproducing the stereotype that the poor inherit a criminal nature. Moreover, Bumble narrates the incident of Oliver’s attack on Noah Claypole in the same light. Oliver was “low and vicious” for trying to define his identity on his own terms. Mr. Bumble shows Brownlow his own identification papers to prove his statement. His status as the middle-class beadle for a workhouse gives him the right to speak for Oliver and therefore to define Oliver’s identity as he sees fit. With his identification papers, Bumble has the power of the state to back up his word. Oliver only has his own word to back him up. Outside of the workhouse, Oliver has no legal existence unless he commits a crime and enters the courtroom. The poor are thus reduced to a public existence as criminals, corpses, and “idle, lazy” paupers living on state charity. The state chooses to recognize their existence only when they commit crimes, die, or enter the workhouses.
By contrasting two kinds of theft, Dickens shows how his culture is quick to condemn more obvious acts of theft, but ignores theft that occurs in more subtle ways. After presenting Sikes and Crackit’s botched attempt at theft, the novel quickly shifts to the scene of a very different form of thievery. Mrs. Corney, the middle-class matron of the workhouse, enjoys far more luxury than the pauper residents. They are crammed into tiny, unheated spaces, while Mrs. Corney enjoys a room to herself with a blazing fire during the bitterly cold winter. The amenities of her apartment, which draw Mr. Bumble’s eyes and heart in her direction, represent money that would have been more justly spent on the paupers under her care. Thus, her lifestyle is based on theft, but, because she is robbing those who have nothing, her theft will never be acknowledged.
The description of Mrs. Corney implies that the middle class controls conceptions of what is right and wrong, since church officials, intellectuals, and public officers—who have the authority to declare what is right and wrong—are all part of the middle class. With this control, they are able to ignore their own version of thievery—subtly shortchanging the lower classes—and at the same time condemn the lower-class version of thievery—stealing physical objects from the rich. The middle class’s sense of entitlement and belief that the poor are inherently morally wretched allow its members to easily rationalize the many ways in which they make sure the poor remain so.
Dickens uses an ironic dialogue between Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble to demonstrate their hypocrisy. Mr. Bumble remarks that Mrs. Corney’s cat and kittens receive better treatment than the workhouse paupers. The cats bask in front of a blazing fire while the paupers freeze in inadequately heated dormitories. Mr. Bumble remarks that he would drown any cat that was not grateful to live with Mrs. Corney. Mrs. Corney calls him a cruel man for saying that he would drown a cat. Mrs. Corney, of course, ignores her own great cruelty to the paupers, yet bristles at the implication of a drowned cat. By treating the paupers worse than animals, these so-called charitable officials violate their basic rights as human beings.
Mr. Bumble’s proposal to Mrs. Corney is a parody of a certain kind of middle-class marriage. Mr. Bumble whispers sweet nothings to Mrs. Corney, but for all of his romantic pretensions, his proposal is really inspired by Mrs. Corney’s material wealth. When she leaves the room, he verifies that her dishware is made from silver and that her clothing is of “good fashion and texture.” He assesses the exact condition of her furniture and ascertains that her small padlocked box contains money. At the end of this extensive inventory, he decides to go through with his proposal. During the Victorian era, many marriages were primarily economic arrangements, especially for people of middle-class status and above. Dickens, however, was a die-hard romantic. In Oliver Twist, he champions the romantic concept of marriage based on love. This idea will become increasingly important during the latter half of the novel.
With the introduction of Monks, the novel begins to take on the clear attributes of a detective story, especially because we are unsure of who the man is and why he might be interested in Oliver. Even Dickens’s description of Monks as “a dark figure” who lurks “in deep shadow” is mysterious. Furthermore, the chapter implies that Monks will be involved in the protracted unveiling of Oliver’s identity, and, after Monks’s conversation with Fagin, our curiosity seeks satisfaction from the lingering bewilderment. Monks’s claim that he saw “the shadow of a woman . . . pass[ing] along the wainscot like a breath” introduces a note of suspense and even of the supernatural, which grows more pronounced as the story continues.
Through Rose’s reaction to Oliver, Dickens presents delinquency as a problem determined by culture rather than by innate character. Upon seeing Oliver, Rose imagines his entire history at a glance. Unlike most adults who have tried to second-guess him, Rose’s hypotheses about his past and personality are accurate. She surmises that Oliver took part in the attempted burglary because he has never “known a mother’s love” or because he suffered “ill-usage and blows” and “the want of bread.” She names all the miserable conditions of poverty that may have “driven him to herd with men who have forced him to guilt.” Like Brownlow, and unlike the English legal system, the Maylies believe in forgiveness and kindness. Dickens uses these characters, who believe that Oliver is innately good but born into a bad environment, to show that vices can be combated by improving the material conditions of the poor rather than by punishing them. The Maylies recognize that Oliver’s surroundings have determined his behavior but not necessarily his nature, and, as a result, for the first time in his life Oliver is given the chance to narrate his life history on his own terms. This event is an important step in establishing his identity as separate from his surroundings.
The Maylie household in effect simulates a benevolent courtroom, giving Oliver a voice and actually listening to that voice. In this capacity, the courtroom of the Maylie household is wholly different from the typical courtroom of the English legal system. In the courtroom of Mr. Fang, which Dickens depicts in the novel, Oliver is not permitted to testify on his own behalf. Moreover, even in the absence of conclusive evidence, the magistrate still convicts him of the crime of pickpocketing. In the courtroom of the Maylie household, Oliver not only testifies for himself, but he also admits his part in the attempted burglary. However, rather than convict him, his testimony exonerates him, since the Maylies are more concerned with the fact that Oliver can be saved from committing further crimes than with punishing him for the crime that he committed. For the Maylies, Oliver’s entire history and personality matter more than any single action of his.
Losberne’s conversation with Giles and Brittles elaborates the two kinds of moral authority by which characters can be judged in Oliver Twist: the moral authority of the English court system and the higher spiritual authority of God. Losberne appeals to Giles’s fear of God’s higher authority to keep him from telling the constable that Oliver took part in the attempted burglary. His question to Giles and Brittles—“Are you, on your solemn oaths, able to identify that boy?”—asks them if they are morally able to identify Oliver to the law and live with the consequences. Losberne implies that Giles will be responsible for Oliver’s death if Giles’s statement sends him to the English courtroom, since the harsh, literal-minded authority of the English legal system would sentence Oliver to death for participating in a burglary. But the novel suggests that the higher, spiritual authority of God would sentence Giles to hell for complicity in the death of a child. Even though Giles, Brittles, and Losberne are all certain that it was indeed Oliver who committed the crime, the three men are in a position to exercise mercy, while the court system is not. The scene suggests that mercy is frequently more valuable than justice, especially when crimes or sins are committed within extenuating circumstances.
The maternal roles that Mrs. Maylie and Rose play in Oliver’s life place Oliver in a normal family structure for the first time in the novel, and Dickens’s characterization of the upper-class family complicates his original intention of giving voice to the poor. Oliver is the object of women’s kindness when both Mrs. Bedwin and Nancy step in to offer him some measure of maternal protection. But unlike Mrs. Bedwin and Nancy, the Maylie women are upper-class, and Dickens’s portrayal of them reveals an implicit bias toward the upper class that complicates his explicit attempts to speak for the poor. Blessed with the freedom and leisure to do nothing all day but read, pick flowers, take walks, and play the piano, the Maylies lead lives of perfect bliss, in which Oliver is thrilled to take part. Dickens condemns the money-grubbing tendencies of characters like Fagin and Mr. Bumble, but his idyllic portrait of the moneyed life almost makes Fagin’s and Bumble’s avarice seem more understandable.
The idyll of Oliver’s life with the Maylies is also related to their move to the countryside, and Dickens suggests that rural life is superior in all ways to city life. In the country, even poor people have “clean houses,” and woodland “scenes of peace and quietude” are described as sufficient comfort even for those who lead “lives of toil.” Dickens’s portrait of rural poverty as perfectly pleasant cannot be entirely accurate, in light of the vast numbers of peasants who chose to migrate to the city in his time. His description of the countryside as a site of class harmony may be a result of Oliver’s sudden migration into the ranks of the upper class as much as anything else. We already know that the condition of the poor in cities is horrific, and the extravagant lives of the wealthy people who live alongside them may look grotesque and downright immoral in contrast. But if the rural poor lead comfortable lives, there is no call to condemn the leisurely existence of the wealthy Maylies.
The relationship between Harry and Rose illustrates that although marriage based on love is difficult, Dickens values it more highly than marriage based on social station. However, Rose and Mrs. Maylie both believe that marriage based on love is problematic. Rose refuses to marry Harry for the same reasons that Mrs. Maylie says she should not. Rose calls herself “a friendless, portionless girl” with a “blight” upon her name. As a penniless, nameless girl, she says to Harry that his friends will suspect that she “sordidly yielded to your first passion and fastened myself . . . on all your hopes and projects.” In other words, she fears that outsiders will believe that she slept with Harry outside of wedlock and secured his hand in marriage in that way. Thus, she demonstrates her awareness of the tendency of “respectable” society to assume the worst about individuals of low social standing, a tendency that has almost ruined Oliver’s life time and again.
Rose’s fear that others would find her marriage to Harry “sordid” reveals the fundamental irrationality of the society whose opinion she fears. Victorians who belonged to the middle and upper classes often married for economic reasons. Individuals usually married someone from a similar economic and social class because, presumably, marrying down would harm their social and economic interests. Logically, we might assume that a marriage between two people of different classes was more, not less, likely to be based on love and higher spiritual values, since it would violate the material interests of at least one party. Yet Rose predicts that others would attribute her marriage to Harry to factors far less honorable than love. Society’s inclination to assume the worst about those of low social standing is so strong that it can lead to patently irrational conclusions.
Rose regrets that she cannot offer Harry an economically profitable and socially acceptable marriage, but Dickens criticizes socially or economically motivated marriage. Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney demonstrate one such marriage, and the Bumbles lead a miserable life. They dislike each other intensely. Mr. Bumble regrets marrying for “six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money.” He bases his marriage on class similarities and not on personal compatibility, and the result is a complete disaster.
Like Nancy and Oliver, Bumble learns of the influence that clothing exercises upon identity. Bumble has given up his position as the parish beadle to become the workhouse master. Having exchanged one identity for another, he now regrets the change. After leaving his position as beadle, he realizes how important the beadle’s clothing was to the position. Dickens writes, “Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.” The power and dignity of privileged roles are not qualities inherent in the men who occupy them. They are, like clothing, merely purchased and worn, and they can be taken off as easily as they were put on.
The title of Oliver Twist is deceptively simple. Although it does nothing more than state the protagonist’s name, the central mystery of the novel is, in fact, the protagonist’s true identity. Oliver’s misfortunes have had much to do with the false or mistaken identities others have thrust upon him. Dickens conceals the solution to the mystery of his true identity, leaving just a clue here and there in order to move the plot forward. Various people seek to conceal Oliver’s identity for their own personal gain. Oliver’s identity is intertwined with Monks’s identity, and the connection between the two of them has shrouded both their identities in mystery. Once it becomes clear that Oliver and Monks are brothers, the novel enters its final stage. We begin to have some idea of who Oliver might be, but the story continues since Oliver himself has yet to find out.
The meeting of Nancy and Rose represents the clash of two very different worlds. Rose has been raised amid love and plenty, and, as a result, her virtue and kindness are almost unreal. On the other hand, Nancy has struggled for survival in the streets, and instead of conventional virtue, her life is full of crime and violence. Yet both were once penniless, nameless orphans. Rose simply had the good luck to be taken in by Mrs. Maylie, who offered her a road of escape from her unfortunate position. Now, Rose offers Nancy a similar road of escape, but it is already too late for Nancy. Their characters can be seen as part of Dickens’s argument that the environment in which people are raised and the company that they keep have a greater influence on their quality of character than any inborn traits. Rose and Nancy were born in similar circumstances: only the environment in which each was raised has made them so different.
Nancy’s decision to confront Rose with information about Oliver stands in opposition to her earlier decision to drag Oliver back to Fagin. Just as Nancy causes Oliver to become a thief earlier in the novel by sending him to Fagin, her decision to reveal the information she holds regarding his inheritance may cause him to become wealthy. Furthermore, Nancy’s honorable act directly contradicts Victorian stereotypes of the poor as fundamentally immoral and ignoble. It demonstrates that there are different levels of vice and that an individual who partakes of one level does not necessarily partake of the others. Nancy has been a thief since childhood, she drinks to excess, and she is a prostitute. Despite these tainting circumstances, however, she is incredibly virtuous where the most important matters, those of life and death, are concerned. With her character, Dickens suggests that the violation of property laws and sexual mores is not incompatible with deep generosity and morality.
In many ways, Nancy, the paragon of vice, appears here as more virtuous than Rose, the paragon of virtue. Rose stands to lose nothing by helping Oliver, but Nancy could lose her life. Fagin’s central threat to keep his associates from acting against his interests is the threat of legal “justice.” He knows in intimate detail the criminal activities of everyone in his social circle. Fagin can send Nancy to the gallows for talking to anyone outside his circle of criminal associates.
Nancy regrets her life of vice, but she refuses Rose’s offer to help her change it. Nancy sees herself, as Rose puts it, as “a woman lost almost beyond redemption.” It seems as if she herself assimilates to the judgments that intolerant characters like Mr. Bumble have passed upon her. Yet Nancy’s love for Sikes is more crucial to her decision to return to her old life than any belief that she has strayed too far from the path of moral goodness. The different light in which society treats Nancy’s and Rose’s romantic attachments reveals the extent of its prejudices against the poor. It is considered a virtue when a woman like Rose is unconditionally faithful to a respectable young man like Harry Maylie. Yet when a woman like Nancy displays the same fidelity to a dreadful fellow like Sikes, it becomes “a new means of violence and suffering.” This contrast demonstrates that socioeconomic status has the power to color all aspects of an individual’s life, even the private emotions of love and sentiment.
Although Fagin claims to be in partnership with his associates, protecting them in exchange for their loyalty, in the end, he manipulates them so that his own self-interest is better served. He watches the people around him with special care and translates his knowledge about them into power. A prime example of this strategy is his hope to use Nancy’s possible lover to control her through blackmail. Even worse, he reveals Nancy’s betrayal of the band’s code of silence to Sikes in the worst, most treacherous light possible. He describes her actions in such a way as to inspire Sikes’s murderous rage. Having Nancy killed is at least as beneficial to Fagin as to Sikes, but Fagin is unwilling to risk doing the deed himself. Instead, he uses his knowledge about Nancy and about Sikes’s character to manipulate Sikes into committing the horrible crime.
Oliver Twist explores different varieties of justice—that served by the English court system; spiritual or godly justice; and, with Sikes’s crime, personal justice, or the torments of conscience. Justice for Sikes’s “foulest and most cruel” of crimes is served almost instantly, as Sikes’s guilt immediately subjects him to horrific mental torture. The passages exploring his mental state are among the most psychologically intricate in the novel. Sikes cannot cleanse himself of Nancy’s blood, either figuratively or literally. Visions of Nancy’s dead eyes disturb him greatly, and he fears being seen. During his desperate flight from London, he feels as though everyone is watching suspiciously. Sikes’s remorse and paranoia shape and twist the world around him. The traveling salesman who claims to offer “the infallible and invaluable composition for removing all sorts of stain,” including bloodstains, is so canny in his offer to help Sikes remove his stains that the salesman could almost be a figment of Sikes’s haunted imagination. Likewise, the burning barn, which essentially serves no purpose in the plot, seems to be a herald of the fires of hell Sikes sees in his future.
Unlike Oliver, who spends much of the novel trying to discover his identity, Sikes desperately wishes to hide his identity. However, his dog, Bull’s-eye, acts as a kind of walking name tag. The animal follows him everywhere. Indeed, Sikes’s animal even leaves his mark at the scene of the crime—his bloodstained footprints cover the room where Nancy is killed. Bull’s-eye often functions as an alter ego for Sikes: the animal is vicious and brutal, just like its owner. Sikes’s desire to kill the dog symbolically and psychologically represents a desire to kill himself, the murderer he has become.
The long story surrounding Mr. Leeford’s marriage is told to demonstrate the disastrous consequences of economically motivated marriages. Dickens’s romanticism manifests itself in the difference between Oliver and his half-brother. Oliver, the child of Leeford’s love affair, is virtuous and innocent. Monks, the result of an economic marriage, is morally twisted by his obsession with wealth. This obsession with money leads him down a long, dark path of nefarious crimes and conspiracies.
Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens criticizes the Victorian stereotype of the poor as criminals from birth. However, after a strident critique of the representation of the poor as hereditary criminals, he portrays Monks as a criminal whose nature has been determined since birth. Brownlow tells Monks, “You . . . from your cradle were gall and bitterness to your own father’s heart, and . . . all evil passions, vice, and profligacy, festered [in you].” Monks’s evil character seems less the product of his own decisions than of his birth.
Oliver Twist is full of mistaken, assumed, and changed identities. Oliver joins his final domestic scene by assuming yet another identity. Once the mystery of his real identity is revealed, he quickly exchanges it for another, becoming Brownlow’s adopted son. After all the fuss and the labyrinthine conspiracies to conceal Oliver’s identity, it is ironic that he gives it up almost as soon as he discovers it.
The final chapters quickly deliver the justice that has been delayed throughout the novel. Fagin dies on the gallows. Sikes hangs himself by accident—it is as though the hand of fate or a higher authority reaches out to execute him. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are deprived of the right to ever hold public office again. They descend into poverty and suffer the same privations they had forced on paupers in the past. Monks never reforms, nor does life show him any mercy. True to Brownlow’s characterization of him as bad from birth, he continues his idle, evil ways and dies in an American prison. For him, there is no redemption. Like Noah, he serves as a foil—a character whose attributes contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another—to Oliver’s character. He is as evil, twisted, and mean while Oliver is good, virtuous, and kind. Oliver and all of his friends, of course, enjoy a blissful, fairy-tale ending. Everyone takes up residence in the same neighborhood and lives together like one big, happy family.
Perhaps the strangest part of the concluding section of Oliver Twist is Leeford’s condition for Oliver’s inheritance. Leeford states in his will that, if his child were a son, he would inherit his estate “only on the stipulation that in his minority he should never have stained his name with any public act of dishonor, meanness, cowardice, or wrong.” It seems strange that a father would consign his child to lifelong poverty as well as the stigma of illegitimacy if the son ever committed a single wrong in childhood. In the same way that the court is willing to punish Oliver for crimes committed by another, Leeford is ready to punish Oliver for any small misdeed merely because he hated his first son, Monks, so much.
One contradiction that critics of Oliver Twist have pointed out is that although Dickens spends much of the novel openly attacking retributive justice, the conclusion of the novel is quick to deliver such justice. At the story’s end, crimes are punished harshly, and devilish characters are still hereditary devils to the very end. The only real change is that Oliver is now acknowledged as a hereditary angel rather than a hereditary devil. No one, it seems, can escape the identity dealt to him or her at birth. The real crime of characters like Mr. Bumble and Fagin may not have been mistreating a defenseless child—it may have been mistreating a child who was born for a better life.
Yet Dickens’s crusade for forgiveness and tolerance is upheld by his treatment of more minor characters, like Nancy, whose memory is sanctified, and Charley Bates, who redeems himself and enters honest society. These characters’ fates demonstrate that the individual can indeed rise above his or her circumstances, and that an unfortunate birth does not have to guarantee an unfortunate life and legacy.
Analysis of Major Characters
As the child hero of a melodramatic novel of social protest, Oliver Twist is meant to appeal more to our sentiments than to our literary sensibilities. On many levels, Oliver is not a believable character, because although he is raised in corrupt surroundings, his purity and virtue are absolute. Throughout the novel, Dickens uses Oliver’s character to challenge the Victorian idea that paupers and criminals are already evil at birth, arguing instead that a corrupt environment is the source of vice. At the same time, Oliver’s incorruptibility undermines some of Dickens’s assertions. Oliver is shocked and horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates pick a stranger’s pocket and again when he is forced to participate in a burglary. Oliver’s moral scruples about the sanctity of property seem inborn in him, just as Dickens’s opponents thought that corruption is inborn in poor people. Furthermore, other pauper children use rough Cockney slang, but Oliver, oddly enough, speaks in proper King’s English. His grammatical fastidiousness is also inexplicable, as Oliver presumably is not well-educated. Even when he is abused and manipulated, Oliver does not become angry or indignant. When Sikes and Crackit force him to assist in a robbery, Oliver merely begs to be allowed to “run away and die in the fields.” Oliver does not present a complex picture of a person torn between good and evil—instead, he is goodness incarnate.
Even if we might feel that Dickens’s social criticism would have been more effective if he had focused on a more complex poor character, like the Artful Dodger or Nancy, the audience for whom Dickens was writing might not have been receptive to such a portrayal. Dickens’s Victorian middle-class readers were likely to hold opinions on the poor that were only a little less extreme than those expressed by Mr. Bumble, the beadle who treats paupers with great cruelty. In fact, Oliver Twist was criticized for portraying thieves and prostitutes at all. Given the strict morals of Dickens’s audience, it may have seemed necessary for him to make Oliver a saintlike figure. Because Oliver appealed to Victorian readers’ sentiments, his story may have stood a better chance of effectively challenging heir prejudices.
A major concern of Oliver Twist is the question of whether a bad environment can irrevocably poison someone’s character and soul. As the novel progresses, the character who best illustrates the contradictory issues brought up by that question is Nancy. As a child of the streets, Nancy has been a thief and drinks to excess. The narrator’s reference to her “free and agreeable . . . manners” indicates that she is a prostitute. She is immersed in the vices condemned by her society, but she also commits perhaps the most noble act in the novel when she sacrifices her own life in order to protect Oliver. Nancy’s moral complexity is unique among the major characters in Oliver Twist. The novel is full of characters who are all good and can barely comprehend evil, such as Oliver, Rose, and Brownlow; and characters who are all evil and can barely comprehend good, such as Fagin, Sikes, and Monks. Only Nancy comprehends and is capable of both good and evil. Her ultimate choice to do good at a great personal cost is a strong argument in favor of the incorruptibility of basic goodness, no matter how many environmental obstacles it may face.
Nancy’s love for Sikes exemplifies the moral ambiguity of her character. As she herself points out to Rose, devotion to a man can be “a comfort and a pride” under the right circumstances. But for Nancy, such devotion is “a new means of violence and suffering”—indeed, her relationship with Sikes leads her to criminal acts for his sake and eventually to her own demise. The same behavior, in different circumstances, can have very different consequences and moral significance. In much of Oliver Twist, morality and nobility are black-and-white issues, but Nancy’s character suggests that the boundary between virtue and vice is not always clearly drawn.
Although Dickens denied that anti-Semitism had influenced his portrait of Fagin, the Jewish thief’s characterization does seem to owe much to ethnic stereotypes. He is ugly, simpering, miserly, and avaricious. Constant references to him as “the Jew” seem to indicate that his negative traits are intimately connected to his ethnic identity. However, Fagin is more than a statement of ethnic prejudice. He is a richly drawn, resonant embodiment of terrifying villainy. At times, he seems like a child’s distorted vision of pure evil. Fagin is described as a “loathsome reptile” and as having “fangs such as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” Other characters occasionally refer to him as “the old one,” a popular nickname for the devil. Twice, in Chapter 9 and again in Chapter 34, Oliver wakes up to find Fagin nearby. Oliver encounters him in the hazy zone between sleep and waking, at the precise time when dreams and nightmares are born from “the mere silent presence of some external object.” Indeed, Fagin is meant to inspire nightmares in child and adult readers alike. Perhaps most frightening of all, though, is Chapter 52, in which we enter Fagin’s head for his “last night alive.” The gallows, and the fear they inspire in Fagin, are a specter even more horrifying to contemplate than Fagin himself.