Critics often blame Dickens for developing Oliver as a passive character who, despite his one dynamic action of running away to London, is acted upon by other characters instead of taking action on his own by his own volition. Three arguments can be made in opposition to this criticism of Oliver's passivity:
- Other characters use of force upon Oliver.
- His oppressive workhouse background engendered timidity, fearfulness and passivity; dynamic action was driven out.
- Dickens' thesis is that inherent goodness survives in the face of raging adversity.
Oliver wants to take action but is prevented by others forcibly acting upon him. Early instances in which others use force are when the Artful Dodger grabs his arm to take Oliver to Fagin's "house near Field Lane"; when Fagin compels him to drink a "glass of hot gin-and-water" to render him unconscious and unlikely to flee; and when he is cast out of the magistrate's office and left to "lay on his back on the pavement ... his face a deadly white."
Little Oliver Twist lay on his back on the pavement, with his shirt unbuttoned, and his temples bathed with water; his face a deadly white; and a cold tremble convulsing his whole frame.
Oliver does act on his own behalf albeit in quiet, subtle ways that are not obvious though in keeping with his orphaned, workhouse upbringing that rendered him a passive dependent. An example of quiet, subtle activity that miscarries is when Oliver resolves to run away from Dodger. His resolve is broken when Dodger grabs his arm to take him in to Fagin.
Oliver was just considering whether he hadn't better run away, when ... [h]is conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door ...
Another example is when little Dick, after telling Oliver that he is dying, insists Oliver not stop on his trek to London for fear he will be captured. Oliver insists that he will stay to say good-bye and that they will meet again.
'You musn't say you saw me, Dick,' said Oliver. 'I am running away. ... How pale you are!' 'I heard the doctor tell them I was dying,' replied the child .... 'I am very glad to see you, dear; but don't stop, don't stop!' 'Yes, yes, I will, to say good-b'ye to you,' replied Oliver. 'I shall see you again, Dick. I know I shall!'
Oliver's passive reactions are part of Dickens' thesis point: Circumstances toss and blow orphans and other children about, yet, for the fortunate few, the inherent goodness they possess, which they've inherited, remains intact. While arguments can be made against Dickens' thesis, he proves his point through the forces that act upon a passive Oliver, thus explaining Oliver's passivity.
If the criticism still stands in light of these arguments, it has to be concluded that Dickens failed to prove his thesis; he failed to make his point that goodness remains in tact no matter what evil and hostility the winds of life blow over the soul, mind and body of an inherently good child.
It may also be said that an Oliver who is dynamic and active would be an unrealistic character after having been raised as an orphan in workhouses where caretakers believed in a social remedy requiring starvation joined to extreme punishment. This Oliver, still a smallish, timid, quiet boy but not passive, would be a character who could not possibly have arisen from such circumstances. It seems, then, the arguments opposing the criticism of Oliver as a passive character present a stronger case than the criticism itself does.