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Survival, Money and Power

(Novels for Students)

Oliver Twist is notable for its emphasis on the struggle to survive, its presentation of the poor and criminals as real people with their own stories and sufferings, and its emphasis on money and the hypocrisy it frequently breeds.

Both Oliver and the thieves are victims of the Poor Laws and other social institutions that prevent or discourage them from productive work. They all battle hunger, cold, and lack of decent living conditions, and society seems bent on rubbing them out—even Oliver's harmless and sweet friend Dick is viewed as a nuisance and a danger by the authorities. As Dickens wrote, children in the "infant farm" are often killed when they are "overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death" during clothes washing. When the workhouse board decides to get rid of Oliver so they won't have to pay for his food and lodging anymore, they consider sending him to sea, "the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar." This they regard as his rightful due, as if, being a pauper, he is therefore a criminal in need of punishment. He is almost apprenticed to Gamfield, a cruel chimney sweep who takes pleasure in torturing small boys, with the board's approval, until at the last minute he is saved from this horrible fate by a kind magistrate.

In addition, one of the board members, "the gentleman in the white waistcoat," repeatedly remarks, "I know that boy will be hung," as if he is already a criminal and the death penalty is his due. This comment is particularly chilling because Oliver is depicted as a kind, loving child who has done nothing wrong during his short life. However, because of social attitudes toward the poor, he is considered doomed or inherently evil, a born criminal.

Like a prisoner, Oliver is given very little food, is frequently beaten, and is often confined in a small, dark room. Throughout the novel, this imprisonment is repeated whenever Oliver offends someone who has more power than he does. He is variously imprisoned in a "coal cellar," a "dark and solitary room," "a little room by himself," a "cell," "a stone cell ... the anteroom to the coal cellar," and the claustrophobic coffin workshop, as well as the dark, filthy, and labyrinthine rooms of Fagin's criminal gang.

The criminals themselves are shown as living in "dens" like those of animals: dirty "holes," houses boarded up and entered through tiny openings, with dark passages; at times Dickens uses the word "kennel" to describe these places and writes of the criminals as if they are predatory animals who must hunt to survive.

Before Dickens's novels, few writers had presented criminal life as physically, morally, and psychologically repellent, preferring instead to glorify criminal characters as fascinating, glamorous, or romantic outlaws, similar to Robin Hood; this tendency continues in modern fiction, with murder mysteries, gangster movies, Mafia miniseries, and prison escape tales in which the criminals are heroes. In Oliver Twist, Dickens shows the filth and degradation the thieves live in and their utter lack of faithfulness to each other; with rare exceptions, they are all ready to spy on each other and turn each other in if they can save themselves, make money, or gain new alliances by doing so. As Fagin says, they are all "looking out for Number One." This nervewracking, unstable, and dangerous world was new to readers and accounted for both the negative remarks of some critics as well as the fascination of many readers, who were able to see into a world of which they had no direct experience.

Dickens also showed the unglamorous end of some of the thieves' careers: Fagin is hanged; Monks dies in prison overseas, unmourned after a life of crime; and the Artful Dodger is arrested and jailed for life. None of the thieves, in fact, remains active in crime, as if Dickens did not want to show any of them achieving "success" as...

(The entire section is 7,812 words.)