OLIVER TWIST, a rich tapestry of English society in the 1830’s, has two distinct strands. In the first chapters, Dickens satirizes Victorian social institutions. Born in a workhouse, the young protagonist of unknown (but genteel, as it turns out) parentage is arbitrarily given the name Oliver Twist. His subsequent experiences of charity at the hands of the parish beadle Mr. Bumble, the workhouse directors, the magistrates, and the household of the undertaker to whom he is apprenticed sharply indicate the hypocrisy, stupidity, and cruelty of the so-called respectable world.
Running away to London, Oliver finds himself in a warmer though not actually kinder milieu--the urban underworld of thieves. In depicting the wily old Jew Fagin and his gang--the Artful Dodger, brutal Bill Sykes, Nancy, and others--the narrative becomes more sentimental and more humorous than in the early chapters. Though Dickens’ moral ties are with Oliver and the virtuous middle-class characters (Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies), his interests and sympathies seem to lie with the outlaws.
Throughout the novel, Oliver himself is a mere pawn. Fagin tries to make a thief of the naive boy, who is rescued, recaptured, and saved again. The mysterious Monks, who turns out to be Oliver’s half brother, would like the child to go bad: If debased, Oliver will lose his share of their late father’s estate. Oliver, however, proves passively incorruptible. The novel ends with nearly everyone where he or she should be. The genteel characters live together in a country village that is heaven on earth; the criminals are dead or punished. Only in the case of Nancy, viciously murdered for passing information to Rose Maylie, is conduct not appropriately rewarded.
OLIVER TWIST’S plot is intricate and governed to an improbable degree by coincidence. The book’s chief excellences are its vivid descriptions of London and its remarkable exploration of the criminal mind. The complexities of the satanic but amusing Fagin, the dishonest but engaging and resourceful Dodger, and Nancy, a woman of intelligence and good intentions trapped by her social circumstances and her love for an evil man, fascinated the book’s contemporary audience and continue to engage readers.
Anderson, Roland F. “Structure, Myth, and Rite in Oliver Twist.” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 3 (Spring, 1986): 238-257. Anderson explores the rites of passage that the plot of the novel depends on and demonstrates how the narrative structure itself seems to be centered in the myths associated with a rite of passage for a young man.
Dunn, Richard J. “Oliver Twist”: Whole Heart and Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1993. A thorough reader’s companion to the story. Dunn closely examines both the literary and historical context of the novel and includes five critical readings of Oliver Twist. This is perhaps the most useful text for beginning readers of the novel.
Ginsburg, Michal Peled. “Truth and Persuasion: The Language of Realism and of Ideology in Oliver Twist.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20, no. 3 (Spring, 1987): 220-226. Ginsburg discusses the rhetorical methods that Dickens is using in the narrative voice of the novel to persuade the reader that most commoners in Victorian Britain were living difficult lives because of their low socioeconomic status. He suggests that this novel was Dickens’ call for action against the industrialists.
McMaster, Juliet. “Diabolic Trinity in Oliver Twist.” Dalhousie Review 61 (Summer, 1981): 263-277. McMaster believes that the three characters Fagin, Sikes, and Monks are a depraved inversion of the holy trinity, representing knowledge, power, and love. Each of these characters takes one of the aspects of the trinity and uses it in an evil way.
Wheeler, Burton M. “The Text and Plan of Oliver Twist.” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 12 (1983): 41-61. Wheeler discusses unanswered questions and contradictions in the novel. Explains that Dickens did not intend to turn what had begun as a short serial work into a novel and thus did not plan a credible plot.