How does the character Oliver Twist exemplify the virtues of innocence and courage? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his novel Oliver Twist, with the characterization of little Oliver, whose very last name connotes the gallows, the social reformer Charles Dickens dispels the common notion of his day that the poor and ignorant possessed innate tendencies toward criminality. Although he is immersed in a world of poverty, cruelty, and criminality, Oliver emerges virtuous because of his inherent goodness that is naturally repulsed by evil deeds and crime.

Here are examples of Oliver's remaining innocent and pure despite his exposure to evil:

1. When Oliver is sent to work for the undertaker Sowerberry, he is subjected to physical and mental abuse; however, he runs away as pure at heart as he was before he came. He bravely decides to walk seventy miles to London in the hope of finding a better life. When he stops at the workhouse where the pitiful Dick is outside weeding, Oliver tells Dick he has been beaten and ill-used so he is leaving. He makes no vituperative remarks about anyone in particular.

2. Unfortunately, Oliver is tricked into going with John Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, who offers him food. From his appearance and speech, Oliver deduces that Jack is not a good person, so he hopes to ingratiate himself to the gentleman that Jack promises to introduce him to and disassociate himself from Jack. However, this does not happen. As he stays with Fagin, Oliver watches and participates as the boys learn to take handkerchiefs and other things from Fagin's pockets without touching anything else.
When he is taken out on the streets it is with "horror and alarm" that Oliver realizes the significance of those activities with Fagin.

In one instant the whole mystery of the handkerchiefs, and the watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy’s mind. He stood for a moment with the blood tingling so through all his veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burning fire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels, and, not knowing what he did, made off as fast as he could lay his feet to the ground. (Ch.10)

Having been taken in by Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is grateful and does not want to return to Fagin's at all. At the home of Mr. Brownlow, Oliver's "appearance and manner were unusually prepossessing." So, it seems that Oliver retains his purity and innocence.

3. In Chapter 20, Fagin leaves Oliver a book to read while he is to wait for Sikes, who wants to use him in a robbery of the house.

In a paroxysm of fear the boy closed the book and thrust it from him. Then, falling upon his knees, he prayed Heaven to spare him from such deeds, and rather to will that he should die at once, than be reserved for crimes so fearful and appalling. 

Also, when Oliver realizes that he is to be used in a robbery, he tries to escape, wanting nothing to do with this exercise of criminality.

4. In Chapter 15, there is an authorial intrusion in which Dickens states that the innocent Oliver is victimized: 

Weak with recent illness; stupefied by the blows and the suddenness of the attack; terrified by the fierce growling of the dog, and the brutality of the man; overpowered by the conviction of the bystanders that he really was the hardened little wretch he was described to be; what could one poor child do?

It is Oliver Twist's unsullied goodness which finally leads him to safety from such an evil world, while his malevolent brother Monk suffers the consequences of his evil, along with the other nefarious characters of Dickens's novel.

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Oliver Twist

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