Who are the most important characters in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist?
A discussion of the main characters in Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist must, of course, begin with the title character, Oliver, born in a “workhouse” to a mother whose last comment was “Let me see the child, and die,” which she duly did. Dickens’ protagonist, then, was brought into the world an orphan, described by the novel’s narrator as follows:
But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.
Oliver will spend a formative period of childhood a street urchin, begging for food and seeking shelter wherever available. It is in this state that he encounters the characters who will emerge the novel’s other major figures. First among these is Jack Dawkins, soon to be known as “the Artful Dodger,” whom Oliver meets in Chapter VIII, and about whom the narrator provides the following observation:
Mr. Dawkin’s appearance did not say a vast deal in favour of the comforts which his patron’s interest obtained for those whom he took under his protection; but, as he had a rather flightly and dissolute mode of conversing, and furthermore avowed that among his intimate friends he was better known by the sobriquet of ‘The Artful Dodger’ . . .
The Artful Dodger, or just Dodger, will assume a position of great importance in young Oliver’s life. Taken under this experienced thief’s wing, Oliver will be schooled in the finer points of life on the street, sadly in the service of another of the novel’s major characters, Fagin. Fagin is described rather distastefully, and in the anti-Semitic context of the times, as “a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. . .dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare;”
Fagin is the adult who “oversees” this small group of orphaned pick-pockets and thieves who he dispatches out into the world to retrieve whatever food and valuables they can steal, fencing what he can. Invariably referred to by the narrator as “the Jew” or “the old Jew,” Fagin is depicted as both benevolent and occasionally cruel, as when he is angered by the Dodger’s failure to produce the goods.
Another major character, and the epitome of wanton cruelty, is Bill Sikes, a former protégé of Fagin’s now grown and a hardened criminal. Making his first appearance in Chapter XIII, Sikes’ character and his influence upon his surroundings can best be described by the following passage in which he visits his old haunt and is about to be served a beverage by his former “teacher”:
‘And mind you don’t poison it,’ said Mr. Sikes, laying his hat upon the table.
This was said in jest; but if the speaker could have seen the evil leer with which the Jew bit his pale lip as he turned round to the cupboard, he might have thought the caution not wholly unnecessary, or the wish (at all events) to improve upon the distiller’s ingenuity not very far from the old gentleman’s merry heart.
Bill Sikes will prove a continuing obstacle to the orphans and to Fagin throughout Dickens’ novel, and represents the cruelty that constantly pervades these young boys’ lives.
Bill Sikes’ ‘girlfriend’ (whom he pimps) is Nancy, who is described in her initial appearance as wearing “a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind,” and is “rather untidy about the shoes and stockings.” She and Bet, another prostitute, “were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty.”
Rose Maylie is introduced well into the novel, specifically, in Chapter XXIX, when her upper-class home is burglarized and she emerges as a kind young soul who will develop a bond with Oliver unaware as yet of their mutual relationship (aunt and nephew). Mr. Brownlow, “an absent old gentleman,” is another of the novel’s more benevolent characters. Introduced during the scene in Chapter XI when Oliver is presented before the magistrate after being caught pick-pocketing, Mr. Brownlow will emerge as one of Oliver’s more prominent benefactors. During the scene with the particularly unpleasant magistrate, Mr. Fang, the elderly gentleman offers the following in the way of introduction:
‘My name, sir,’ said the old gentleman, speaking LIKE a gentleman, ‘my name, sir, is Brownlow. Permit me to inquire the name of the magistrate who offers a gratuitous and unprovoked insult to a respectable person, under the protection of the bench.’
These are the main characters in Oliver Twist. Others, like Charlie Bates and Mr. Gamfield, the former another of the young pick-pockets under Fagin’s control, the latter a chimney sweep who momentarily takes Oliver under his wing, but who is prone to bouts of distemper, are important, but not of such importance as to include in a discussion of the novel’s major characters.