Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Workhouse. Orphanage in which Oliver Twist is confined when the novel opens. Located approximately seventy-five miles north of London, the workhouse plays an important role in the mood, atmosphere, and plot of the story. The dingy, poor, hard-edged conditions of the workhouse and town make these places appear to be characters in their own right. Oliver spends many of his early years in the workhouse as a frail, malnourished lad in worn work clothes. His condition represents the conditions in the workhouse and the town. In English society, the workhouse and its inhabitants were at the lower end of the class scale.
The caretakers of the workhouse, Mrs. Mann and Bumble, are above the workhouse children in status. They are oblivious to the hardships and death around them in the workhouse. Alcoholism, a part of the life of poor English people, is rampant in the workhouse. Furthermore, the weather in the town is very dramatic, ranging from hail, freezing rain, snow, and bracing winds to the occasional bright sunshine. These extremes symbolize the changes that occur in Oliver’s life. Because of the adverse conditions of the workhouse, Oliver finally runs away and walks for seven days before reaching the outskirts of London.
*London. Capital and greatest city of Great Britain. After arriving in a suburb of London, Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, known as the Artful Dodger, who leads Oliver to the...
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In the mid-nineteenth century, England was suffering from economic instability and widespread unemployment. The economic instability was a legacy of the Napoleonic era, which lasted until 1815. During this time, England was at war with France. The English government had imposed heavy taxes to pay for the war, and although these did not really affect the wealthy classes, they were a crushing burden on the poor. Prices rose, food became scarce, and inflation rose. Also because of the war, French and European markets for English goods were closed, leading to unemployment among workers.
Workers were also unemployed because the increasing use of machinery in manufacturing had made many of their jobs obsolete; for example, instead of employing many individual weavers, textile manufacturers began using mechanized looms, with only a few people needed to run them. The angry workers, known as Luddites, led movements to smash industrial machinery, a crime that was made punishable by death in 1811.
The Napoleonic War ended in 1815, but the misery did not. With the war over, England entered the worst depression it had ever seen. The number of poor people, never low, increased to crisis levels. Historically, each parish had been responsible for taking care of its poor by handing out money and food, and more and more people now chose to take these handouts. Others worked but took the assistance anyway, and when employers found out about this, they lowered...
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Dickens sets Oliver Twist in early nineteenth-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 sordid - ness and sin. He later contrasts the squalor and...
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Shifting Narrative Voice
Throughout the novel, Dickens employs a shifting narrative voice; as James R. Kincaid noted in Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, "It is impossible to define the characteristics or moral position of the narrators in this novel, for they are continually shifting." At times the narrator is detached and wordy, as in the opening paragraph in which he says abstractly that he will not name the town or workhouse where a certain "item of mortality" was born. At the same time, he is mocking the conventions of many novels of his time, which open with a lengthy and often smug description of the main character's birthplace and family.
The narrator doesn't consistently stay in this remote but sarcastic voice but sometimes shifts to remarking ironically on the supposedly wonderful way in which the poor are treated and on how kind it is; or sometimes the narrator appeals to the friendly feeling of the reader: "We all know how chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel." As Kincaid noted, "We can never count on being in any single relationship with the narrative voice for long. Just as we relax. . . . We are pushed away."
The novel is filled with dark humor, from Mr. Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry laughing about the abundance of small children's coffins to Dickens's mocking the seriousness and puffery of the members of the parish board, to his exposure of the cowardice and avarice...
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Oliver Twist is Dickens's second novel, written when he was still in his middle twenties, and does not display the brilliance of character, thought, form, and language that characterizes his most mature work. Nevertheless, the novel has much to recommend it. Dickens's realistic descriptions of the London criminal underworld are fascinating and effective. He creates lively characters and situations and has a knack for finding just the right word to devastate a character, drive home a point, or create effective irony or humor. His social criticism still generates animated discussions about similar problems existing today, and the moral issues Dickens raises will probably always face us.
Some readers object to Dickens's use of coincidences to propel the plot of Oliver Twist. He depends on the kinds of unlikely connections that many modem writers carefully avoid; Dickens himself toned down his reliance on coincidence as a plot device in his later works. It is important to note that coincidences even more startling than those in Dickens's books occurred regularly in other novels of the time, and hence, the Victorian reading public was accustomed to suspending its disbelief to a certain extent when reading novels. Dickens and other Victorian writers sought artistic balance in their plots, and making everything fit together was a time-honored goal of the novelist. More important, Dickens hoped to show that, although those who live comfortably may...
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Some of Dickens's original readers objected to Oliver Twists comparatively frank portrayal of thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But what was considered explicit then is quite mild today. Dickens carefully avoids direct quotation of offensive language and offers only the most oblique descriptions of objectionable behavior. The novel was written for a Victorian audience, after all, and as Dickens himself points out in the preface, "a lesson of the purest good may ... be drawn from the vilest evil."
Dickens's treatment of Jewish characters will be more objectionable to modem readers, although very few Victorians even noticed it. The original text clearly portrays Fagin as a Jew and may even suggest that his ethnic background has formed his character. Indeed, Dickens frequently compares Fagin to the devil, though never explicitly because Fagin is a Jew. Dickens, although remarkably clear-sighted about some forms of injustice, never completely escaped the views of his own culture, which generally viewed Jews as sneaky and dishonest.
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Compare and Contrast
1838: It is not yet known that every person in the world has different fingerprints, so the criminal justice system relies on eyewitness reports, confessions, and rough clues to determine who has committed crimes.
Today: Fingerprinting, DNA analysis, and sophisticated analysis of microscopic clues left at crime scenes have made the criminal justice system much more precise than it was in Dickens's day.
1838: Throughout the 1800s, a variety of crimes in England are punishable by death. In 1800, 200 types of crimes merited the death penalty. By 1837, reforms have diminished this number to 15 types of crimes.
Today: In England, there is no death penalty for any crime.
1838: Laws control the movement and daily lives of poor people who are confined to "workhouses" or "debtor's prisons" where they are starved and mistreated.
Today: England has an extensive social welfare system, which provides aid to unemployed, ill, and elderly people.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is Nancy a morally complex character? What evidence supports your conclusions?
2. Is Oliver really the central character in the book that bears his name?
3. At the end of many Victorian novels, the author rewards and punishes his or her characters. To what extent do the characters of Oliver Twist get what they deserve in the end?
4. Which characters in this novel seem most realistic to you? Do you find that certain types of characters seem more believable than others? Why?
5. Some readers object to Dickens's treatment of Fagin and other Jews in Oliver Twist. Is Dickens prejudiced? Under what conditions should we decide that an individual character represents an author's feelings about an entire group?
6. Dickens is often described as a humorist. What about Oliver Twist makes it funny? You might consider characters, language, and situations.
7. What kinds of social criticism do you find in Oliver Twist? How does Dickens feel about important institutions and ideas of his time? Does he effectively persuade his readers to agree with his point of view?
8. What events transpire before the story actually opens? What effects do these events have on Oliver? How does he find out who his real parents and relatives are?
9. What function does Monks play in the novel? What is his relation to Oliver, and what are his motives?
10. Compare Rose...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Oliver Twist describes characters from many different social and economic levels. What effects do class and economic level have on the characters in this novel?
2. Compare Dickens's view of men with his view of women in Oliver Twist. What are the characteristics of his ideal woman? His ideal man? How do the novel's characters fulfill or not fulfill these ideals?
3. Oliver Twist deals with questions of good and evil. How do you think Dickens would define these terms? What evidence from the novel supports your conclusions? How do the novel's characters measure up against Dickens's definitions?
4. How do you think Dickens feels about Nancy? Is she predominantly good or bad? To what extent does Dickens seem to reward or punish her, and for what aspects of her life does he do so?
5. How does coincidence function in Oliver Twist? Do the connections among various characters seem forced? What effects do these coincidences have on the reader?
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Topics for Further Study
Oliver Twist attacks the nineteenth-century treatment of orphans by showing how they were abused. How are orphans treated in our society? Investigate and write about what happens to children whose parents are dead or unknown, and who don't have family members willing to take them.
Fagin is sentenced to death for his crimes. Do you think this is justified? Why or why not?
Oliver is remarkably "good," despite the starvation and abuse he receives during his childhood. Do you think this is realistic? Why or why not?
Investigate what it was like to live in London during the middle of the nineteenth century. If you lived there, what job would you have done? What would your life have been like?
Fagin is evil and cunning, and Dickens also frequently mentions that he is Jewish, leading critics to remark that Dickens was anti-Semitic, though this may not have been the case. How common was anti-Semitism in Dickens's time? Research and write about how Jewish people were viewed and treated in England during the nineteenth century.
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Oliver Twist has been the basis for several films, the most popular of which is the musical Oliver! (1968). Starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, and Shani Wallis, this version won six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Carol Reed and Best Picture. While many of the film's characters and musical numbers are delightful, its general tone obviously departs from Dickens's. The film's characters, except Bill Sikes and possibly Fagin, are entirely too whitewashed, and the squalor and sordidness of underworld London are softened. Many events and characters are omitted, thus changing, and sentimentalizing, the plot considerably. The film excludes Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Corney, the entire Maylie family, Mr. Grimwig, and Monks.
Oliver! was derived from the classic 1948 British film adaptation entitled Oliver Twist, which was directed by David Lean and starred Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, John Howard Davies, and Kay Walsh. Other film versions include a weak 1933 release and a passable 1982 television movie strengthened by George C. Scott's performance as Fagin.
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Oliver Twist was adapted as a silent film in 1909, directed by J. Stuart Blackton and starring William Humphrey and Elita Proctor Otis; in 1912, directed by Thomas Bentley; and in 1916, directed by James Young and starring Marie Doro and Tully Marshal.
The book was adapted as a film in 1922, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney; in 1933, directed by William J. Cowen and starring Dicke Moore and Irving Pichel; and in 1948, directed by David Leon and starring John Howard Davies and Alec Guinness.
Television versions were released in 1959, directed by Daniel Petrie and starring Richard Thomas and Eric Portman; in 1982, directed by Clive Donner and starring Richard Charles and George C. Scott; in 1985, directed by Gareth Davies and starring Ben Rodska and Eric Porter; in 1997, directed by Tony Bill and starring Alex Trench and Richard Dreyfuss; and in 1999 starring Sam Smith and Robert Lindsay, directed by Renny Rye.
A long-running Broadway musical based on Oliver Twist, entitled Oliver!, was adapted as a feature film in 1968, directed by Carol Reed.
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What Do I Read Next?
Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) is a humorous satire on pre-Victorian London.
Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-1850), drawn from Dickens's own early experiences, tells the story of a young orphan.
Bleak House, by Dickens (1852-1853), is a satirical tale set in the labyrinth of the English legal system.
Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a dramatic narrative of the French Revolution.
Charlotte Brönte's Jane Eyre (1847) tells another story about an orphan in nineteenth-century England.
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For Further Reference
Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. New York: Norton, 1973. An excellent source for background on the period in which Dickens wrote.
Collins, Philip A. W. Dickens and Crime. London and New York: Macmillan, 1962, 1964. Includes information on Dickens's depiction of crime that is pertinent to a study of Fagin and his gang.
House, Humphry. The Dickens World. 2d. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Includes an excellent discussion of the New Poor Law of 1834 and the workhouse system it set up.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. This Book-of-the-Month Club selection has become a standard biography. It includes good critical chapters on all the novels, including Oliver Twist.
Marcus, Steven. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. London and New York: Chatto & Windus, 1965. This psychological and sociological study includes a useful chapter on Oliver Twist.
Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958. A standard on Dickens's novels. Includes a good discussion of Oliver Twist.
Orwell, George. "Charles Dickens." In Dickens, Dali, and Others: Studies in Popular Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1946. A classic study of Dickens's novels....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bayley, John, "Things As They Really Are," in Dickens: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Martin Price, Prentice Hall, 1967, pp. 83-96.
Ford, George H., Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism since 1836, W. W. Norton and Company, 1965, pp. 35-47.
Gissing, George, Critical Studies of the Works of Charles Dickens, Haskell House, 1965, pp. 43-57.
Gold, Joseph, Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist, University of Minnesota Press, 1972, pp. 25-65.
Kincaid, James R., Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 50-75.
Miller, J. Hillis, "The Dark World of Oliver Twist," in Charles Dickens, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 29-69.
Thurley, Geoffrey, The Dickens Myth: Its Genesis and Structure, St. Martin's Press, 1976, pp. 43-50.
For Further Reading
Fido, Martin, The World of Charles Dickens: The Life, Times and Work of the Great Victorian Novelist, Carlton, 1999.
This book provides background information on Dickens's time, life, and work.
Hobsbaum, Philip, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.
This work examines all of Dickens's work and provides a guide to readers.
Kaplan, Fred, Dickens: A Biography, Johns Hopkins University...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Anderson, Roland F. “Structure, Myth, and Rite in Oliver Twist.” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 3 (Spring, 1986): 238-257. Anderson explores the rites of passage that the plot of the novel depends on and demonstrates how the narrative structure itself seems to be centered in the myths associated with a rite of passage for a young man.
Dunn, Richard J. “Oliver Twist”: Whole Heart and Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1993. A thorough reader’s companion to the story. Dunn closely examines both the literary and historical context of the novel and includes five critical readings of Oliver Twist. This is perhaps the most useful text for beginning readers of the novel.
Ginsburg, Michal Peled. “Truth and Persuasion: The Language of Realism and of Ideology in Oliver Twist.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20, no. 3 (Spring, 1987): 220-226. Ginsburg discusses the rhetorical methods that Dickens is using in the narrative voice of the novel to persuade the reader that most commoners in Victorian Britain were living difficult lives because of their low socioeconomic status. He suggests that this novel was Dickens’ call for action against the industrialists.
McMaster, Juliet. “Diabolic Trinity in Oliver Twist.” Dalhousie Review 61 (Summer, 1981): 263-277. McMaster believes...
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