Oliver Twist Analysis
by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist book cover
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Oliver Twist Analysis

  • Oliver Twist is Charles Dickens's second novel and was originally published in monthly installments. It bears many of the marks of Dickens's later works, such as moral seriousness and a focus on institutional corruption and hypocrisy.
  • Many critics have argued that Oliver's character is unrealistic, as he remains innocent throughout the narrative and, like other "good" children in Dickens's works, speaks upper-class English despite his working-class origins.
  • Dickens intended the novel as a biting social commentary, in particular as a response to the Poor Law of 1834, which forced impoverished Londoners to enter the workhouses.

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Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress was Charles Dickens's second novel and was published in monthly parts in Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1839. The novel is a major departure from Dickens's debut, The Pickwick Papers, which is more like a series of comic sketches than a novel. The Pickwick Papers closely resembles the sporting stories of Robert Smith Surtees, Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities or Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour. Oliver Twist, published only the following year, is already an entirely different type of book. It is more melodramatic and sentimental than Dickens's later novels, but the moral seriousness, the tone, and the themes that characterize his mature work are already present.

In particular, the figure of the innocent, exploited child is central to the book. Critics have often pointed out that Oliver himself is profoundly unrealistic. He is never corrupted and never seems to understand the evil natures and motives of those around him. Even the way he speaks marks him out from other parish boys and pickpockets. George Orwell remarks that all the "good" children in Dickens—Biddy Wopsle, Lizzie Hexam, Sissy Jupe, and Little Dorrit—mysteriously speak upper-class English despite having working-class origins, and this is a tradition which clearly begins with Oliver Twist. This aspect of Oliver's idealized character is particularly marked when he goes to work for Mr. Sowerberry. His way of speaking and his manners are obviously superior to those of Noah Claypole and even the Sowerberrys themselves. There is an irony in the subtitle of the novel, The Parish Boy's Progress, since Oliver never progresses or changes at all. In Dickens's view, he never needs to do so.

Dickens was to spend much of his career railing against the cruelty and corruption of numerous English institutions from boarding schools to the law courts, and it is institutional violence that preoccupies him in Oliver Twist. Although some of the most memorable scenes concern the terrifying Bill Sykes and the sinister Fagin, Dickens does not condemn these career criminals with the same bitterness as the workhouse authorities and the parish authorities, which, even when Oliver is a baby, conspire to cheat him of the small sums allowed for his upkeep and make him the "victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception." Although he quite frequently allows himself such vehement expressions to describe the cruelty of the parochial authorities, Dickens's favorite weapon is irony, which he employs thickly and frequently throughout the book. He is particularly scathing about those whose business is charity and who nonetheless display thoroughly uncharitable natures, as when he writes of the workhouse and its administrators:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work.

When Dickens was writing, the Poor Law of 1834 had just forced a large number of able-bodied people living in poverty to enter the workhouses,...

(The entire section is 1,039 words.)