What narrative techniques does Dickens use in Oliver Twist?

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First, Dickens uses a third-person narrator, one who stands above the action and records for us what is going on. He describes himself as Oliver's biographer, and his voice is so strong—at least when he wants it to be—that he becomes a character in the novel.

Because of his use of a narrator with such a distinctive voice, Dickens can employ a second narrative technique: irony. The narrator is not neutral—he is angry and bitter at what has happened to his subject for being born poor, and he does not hold back on criticizing a society that treats infants and young children as criminals for the misfortune of having no money. For example, he says this about the supposedly humane treatment his society doles out to workhouse children when it is clear Oliver is going to survive his indifferent birth:

What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. 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.

Dickens's narrator can hardly contain his anger at a society that takes an ordinary baby and forms it, from birth, into a despised member of society. This narrative voice is well-suited to his subject, which is as much Oliver as a representative example of poor children as it is Oliver as an individual.

The ironic voice of the narrator comes out again—as it has over and over—at the beginning of chapter 3, when the hapless Oliver, having dared to ask for more than a starvation diet, is punished. The board, of course, is anything but wise and merciful to punish a poor child so brutally for daring to ask for food:

For a week after the commission of the impious and profane offence of asking for more, Oliver remained a close prisoner in the dark and solitary room to which he had been consigned by the wisdom and mercy of the board.

It is also ironic not to give the date of the subject's birth in a biography, but the narrator understands the slippage between his purported genre—biography, a form usually reserved for the wealthy and important—and his subject, a child who is the poorest of the poor.

Third, Dickens, throughout the novel, will use a narrative technique in which his narrator sets the scene and tells us, with anger, humor, or poignance, what Oliver is thinking or feeling, and then zooms into dialogue. It is as if a camera is panning around a room, filming perhaps with a voice-over, and then coming closer and closer into the room or setting where Oliver happens to be. This, for example, is how chapter 5 opens, from the third paragraph on:

But his heart was heavy, notwithstanding; and he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep.

Oliver was awakened in the morning, by a loud kicking at the outside of the shop-door: which, before he could huddle on his clothes, was repeated, in an angry and impetuous manner, about twenty-five times. When he began to undo the chain, the legs desisted, and a voice began.

"Open the door, will yer?" cried the voice which belonged to the legs which had kicked at the door.

"I will, directly, sir," replied Oliver: undoing the chain, and turning the key.

The narrative voice builds a relentless sympathy for Oliver, a boy who would normally be despised and erased, voiceless, in his society. The novel genre up to this point had largely been a gentry-class phenomenon which, while it sometimes satirically indicted society's treatment of the poor, did not usually make the poorest of the poor its main subject. The narrative voice is largely responsible for framing Oliver sympathetically and for refusing to whitewash the society that tries to destroy him. While it can difficult for us to enter into Dickens's nineteenth-century voice, once we do, we can understand how he stunned his readers and raised their admiration.

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Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is narrated in the third person, and the narration varies in its intimacy and omnipotence throughout the novel. This narrator is self-conscious of his role as the teller of this story and refers to himself as Oliver Twist's "biographer," as shown in the following paragraph:

That Oliver Twist was moved to resignation by the example of these good people, I cannot, although I am his biographer, undertake to affirm with any degree of confidence; but I can most distinctly say, that for many months he continued meekly to submit to the domination and ill-treatment of Noah Claypole.

By calling himself a biographer, Dickens breaks the fourth wall and brings attention to the book as a text. Since a biographer records the life of real people, this word confuses the concepts of reality and fiction and creates a sense that this story really happened.

Dickens also uses satire to reveal the horrors of the workhouse and the treatment of children in Victorian England, especially during the first few chapters. One example of this is the famous scene when poor Oliver asks for more. The reaction of the master is as humorous as it is horrible.

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

The idea that a boy asking for more food would make a grown man faint is pure hyperbole and satire. By making the master and the workhouse board respond in ridiculous ways to Oliver's request, Dickens reveals how absurd and shameful the care of orphans in Britain is.

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Oliver Twist is what's known as a progress.  In fact, the subtitle was "A Parish Boy's Progress" originally.  In a progress, the main character does not take action directly.  In short, he does not make things happen, things happen to him.  Oliver does not grow or change as a character, and he does not make choices.  This is an interesting choice for a main character, but consider it historically.  Oliver Twist was the first novel with a child as a main character.  Dickens was interested in A Pilgrim's Progress and wanted to mimick the model.  He was a young writer then, and had never written a full-length novel.  His first published book was The Pickwick Papers, which is really a collection of humorous sketches.

It's important to note that this was Dickens's first attempt at outward social commentary aimed for reform.  He was successful, a fact incredible in itself.  By humanizing Oliver, the Poor Law became an atrocity that eventually England couldn't stomach.

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