What narrative techniques does Dickens use in Oliver Twist?

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cynthiadawn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

Read the study guide:
Oliver Twist

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