Describe and analyze specific examples of Dickens' syntax in Oliver Twist.

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Charles Dickens is justifiably famous for his portrayals of downtrodden youth—kids who face difficult circumstances and abusive situations. Dickens begins his novel Oliver Twist, appropriately enough, at the beginning of Oliver’s life. Oliver’s birth immediately places him in such a precarious situation. Born in a “workhouse” to a mother who dies almost immediately thereafter, Oliver very nearly does not survive himself.

Dickens, like many writers, likes to spur reader interest with a little bit of irony (surprising or unexpected statements or events). One of the ways to do that is to create a certain kind of sentence, the syntax (sentence structure) of which causes a delay for the reader.

In the example below, Dickens wants to express the idea that medical care was not very reliable in that time period. But he also wants to surprise the reader a little bit. He is writing about the moments right after Oliver's birth, when he is in distress and danger of dying: 

Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time.

Notice how he finishes the sentence with the words “have been killed in no time.” He is telling us that, as far as survival is concerned, Oliver was just as well off not having a lot of people, even supposedly experienced medical personnel, around at his birth. The implication is that they would have done something, no doubt meaning well, that would have backfired and resulted in the baby’s death.

The reader does not expect to see the word “killed” here at the end of the sentence, and it gives Dickens’ sentence an almost humorous, while at the same time tragic, tone. Normally we would expect to see this statement at the beginning of the sentence, as in:  

Oliver would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time if, during this brief period, he had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom.

This version, while syntactically more common, does not carry the same ironic punch, or interest, for the reader.  

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