Oliver Twist Questions and Answers

Charles Dickens

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Oliver Twist questions.

Does a sparsity of dialogue make Oliver a weak character?

A common criticism of Oliver Twist is that Dickens creates a weak character in Oliver because Oliver does not have extensive dialogue. Most often the narrator describes what Oliver is experiencing rather than lets him act it and talk it out. This device Dickens uses to build plot through narratorial intervention in the behavior and speech of the protagonist is a device that he used in his debut work, The Pickwick Papers. While Mr. Pickwick does have more dialogue than Oliver--bearing in mind that Pickwick is a person who puts himself forward while Oliver is a person who shrinks back away from contact--the narrator in Pickwick Papers has a similar role to the Twist narrator that features the same near proximity, the same pleasant intrusion with ironically satirical commentary, the same intervention between the character's deportment and the reader.

Such was the individual on whom Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles (which he had fortunately recovered), and to whom he proceeded, when his friends had exhausted themselves, to return in chosen terms his warmest thanks for his recent assistance. (The Pickwick Papers)

Is Oliver rendered a weak, unbelievable, unsympathetic character because of Dickens' use of the device of narratorial intervention in character behavior and speech, which curtails dialogue? It is clear that in the early parts of the novel, Oliver is not deprived of his full-bodied strength as a sympathetic character. Even though the narrator tells us what becomes of Oliver day by day, we believe in Oliver; we know and feel deeply for him, for example, such as when he has bleeding feet after walking seven days with nothing but scarce and meager hand-outs:

[T]he light only served to show the boy his own lonesomeness and desolation, as he sat, with bleeding feet and covered with dust, upon a door-step.

It is true that we feel a weakening of the novel in the latter part, however, it is not clear that the fault lies in a weakened character development of Oliver. Plot devices that must be taken into consideration are the change in tone and mood that occur: We are struck by the strong presence of melodramatic characters surrounding Oliver [mood] and by the reduction in ironic satire contributed by the narrator [tone]. Perhaps these changes occur because Dickens' feels too deeply about the complications, falling actions and resolutions, or perhaps Dickens has a less clear vision of the story once the trouble and climax are passed.

Melodramatic characters do distract from the strength of the second half of the novel, though in all fairness, Dickens' Victorian period readers found it far less objectionable than modern readers do: Having come from the Romantic period in literature, Victorians had a taste for the melodramatically emotional. When thinking of melodramatic characters, we might think of the old woman on Oliver's journey to London who tearfully gave him "what little she could afford—and more." We might think of Nancy on her knees before Rose while begging her to keep her distance from such a corrupted one as she. We might think of Oliver being set upon in the lane on a lovely day by Giles in his "white nightcap" while beseeching the boy for news of Rose's illness.

Melodramatic characters surround Oliver far and near while he suffers his own melodramatic trials and joys. Yet this melodrama not cause us to care less about Oliver whose life we still closely follow and hope the best for as we do when he and Giles happen to see Mr. Brownlow alight from a carriage in the Strand:

'[He was] [g]etting out of a coach,' replied Oliver, shedding tears of delight, 'and going into a house. I didn't speak to him—I couldn't speak to him, for he didn't see me, and I trembled so, that I was not able to go up to him.'

My response to this common criticism is that Dickens' device of narratorial intervention, which deprives Oliver of voice, dialogue and direct action, does not render him an unrealistic nor a weak character. There are problems of language and melodrama that affect the character development of Oliver, but the problems are unrelated to the sparsity of Oliver's dialogue.

Is Oliver passive or dynamic?

Critics often blame Dickens for developing Oliver as a passive character who, despite his one dynamic action of running away to London, is acted upon by other characters instead of taking action on his own by his own volition. Three arguments can be made in opposition to this criticism of Oliver's passivity:

  1. Other characters use of force upon Oliver.
  2. His oppressive workhouse background engendered timidity, fearfulness and passivity; dynamic action was driven out.
  3. Dickens' thesis is that inherent goodness survives in the face of raging adversity.

Oliver wants to take action but is prevented by others forcibly acting upon him. Early instances in which others use force are when the Artful Dodger grabs his arm to take Oliver to Fagin's "house near Field Lane"; when Fagin compels him to drink a "glass of hot gin-and-water" to render him unconscious and unlikely to flee; and when he is cast out of the magistrate's office and left to "lay on his back on the pavement ... his face a deadly white."

Little Oliver Twist lay on his back on the pavement, with his shirt unbuttoned, and his temples bathed with water; his face a deadly white; and a cold tremble convulsing his whole frame.

Oliver does act on his own behalf albeit in quiet, subtle ways that are not obvious though in keeping with his orphaned, workhouse upbringing that rendered him a passive dependent. An example of quiet, subtle activity that miscarries is when Oliver resolves to run away from Dodger. His resolve is broken when Dodger grabs his arm to take him in to Fagin.

Oliver was just considering whether he hadn't better run away, when ... [h]is conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door ...

Another example is when little Dick, after telling Oliver that he is dying, insists Oliver not stop on his trek to London for fear he will be captured. Oliver insists that he will stay to say good-bye and that they will meet again.

'You musn't say you saw me, Dick,' said Oliver. 'I am running away. ... How pale you are!' 'I heard the doctor tell them I was dying,' replied the child .... 'I am very glad to see you, dear; but don't stop, don't stop!' 'Yes, yes, I will, to say good-b'ye to you,' replied Oliver. 'I shall see you again, Dick. I know I shall!'

Oliver's passive reactions are part of Dickens' thesis point: Circumstances toss and blow orphans and other children about, yet, for the fortunate few, the inherent goodness they possess, which they've inherited, remains intact. While arguments can be made against Dickens' thesis, he proves his point through the forces that act upon a passive Oliver, thus explaining Oliver's passivity.

If the criticism still stands in light of these arguments, it has to be concluded that Dickens failed to prove his thesis; he failed to make his point that goodness remains in tact no matter what evil and hostility the winds of life blow over the soul, mind and body of an inherently good child.

It may also be said that an Oliver who is dynamic and active would be an unrealistic character after having been raised as an orphan in workhouses where caretakers believed in a social remedy requiring starvation joined to extreme punishment. This Oliver, still a smallish, timid, quiet boy but not passive, would be a character who could not possibly have arisen from such circumstances. It seems, then, the arguments opposing the criticism of Oliver as a passive character present a stronger case than the criticism itself does.

What are the themes of Oliver Twist?

In a richly developed framework of events and issues, Dickens' presents the joint themes of Education and Workhouse Life by contrasting workhouse children to street children of London. It is interesting to note that Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist who found the missing Dr. David Livingston, was raised in a workhouse in Wales: his workhouse education was well-founded enough that he became a journalist and famous expedition leader.

It is important to recognize that the Poor Laws, with the first in 1601 and with significant updates made in 1767 and 1834, required that poor and orphaned children be sent to the country where they might escape the exposure to crime, indolence, drunkenness and disability that oftentimes accompanied residence in a London workhouse. Thus the contrast between workhouse children and street children is in significant regards a contrast between country children and city children.

As part of the rich framework addressing the themes stated above, Dickens contrasts workhouse children to street children using the issue of language. Specifically, Oliver and Dick have exceptional language skills though they had been "beaten, and starved, and shut up together, many and many a time" in the Poor Law specified childs' farmhouse while the Artful Dodger can't readily be understood by the standard English speaker. Dickens exposes the failings of the English approach to education while simultaneously underscoring the missed potentiality for success in the workhouses.

Oliver Speaking with Dick

  'You musn't say you saw me, Dick,' said Oliver. 'I am running away. ... How pale you are!'

  'I heard the doctor tell them I was dying,' replied the child .... 'I am very glad to see you, dear; but don't stop, don't stop!'

  'Yes, yes, I will, to say good-b'ye to you,' replied Oliver. 'I shall see you again, Dick. I know I shall!'

Oliver Speaking with the Dodger

  'My eyes, how green!' exclaimed the young gentleman. 'Why, a beak's a madgst'rate; and when you walk by a beak's order, it's not straight forerd, but always agoing up, and niver a coming down agin. Was you never on the mill?'

  'What mill?' inquired Oliver.

  'What mill! Why, the mill—the mill as takes up so little room that it'll work inside a Stone Jug; and always goes better when the wind's low with people, than when it's high; acos then they can't get workmen. But come,' said the young gentleman; 'you want grub, and you shall have it. I'm at low-water-mark myself....'

1834 Poor Law

The 1834 Poor Law required all workhouse children be taught daily lessons on "reading, writing, arithmetic, and ... Christian Religion ... to fit them for service, ... usefulness, industry and virtue." Of course, application of these requirements varied greatly with the effect being as much dependent upon the administrators, like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corey, as much as upon the lessons given. Yet extant workhouse lesson schedules and biographies of workhouse residents like Henry Morton Stanley attest to the potential for success resulting from rightly administered workhouse and educational systems.

St. Marylebone Workhouse Lesson Timetable

BOYS

9.00-10.00   Historical reading, with explanations.   

10.00-11.00   General and mental arithmetic, tables, use of clock dial for learning the time of day.      

11.00-12.00   Grammar. Parsing and Dictation.

2.00-3.00   Writing in copy books & arithmetic.

3.00-4.00   Reading with explanations.      

4.00-5.00   Geography, with maps.

GIRLS

9.00-11.30   Reading, spelling, tables, arithmetic.

1.30-12.30   Working in copy books. Dictation

12.30-2.00   Dinner. Recreation.

2.00-5.00   Needlework, knitting and domestic employment.

6.00-8.00   Needlework, knitting & domestic employment.

(Workhouses.Org.UK)

Language and Theme

The language of Oliver and Dick illustrates the results of successful education whereas the language of the Dodger illustrates the results of the failure to provide education. The Dodger was one of London's street children. According to Workhouses.Org.UK, street children were orphans or children who had chosen to live on the street rather than suffer abuses of drunkenness, molestation or violence at home. Street children had no access to education or apprenticeships, work opportunities that might render them useful and industrious, because free compulsory education to age 10 was not implemented until 1880 and not revised to age 12 until 1899. By contrast, workhouse children were educated "at least three hours a day" from age 7 to 16.

While Oliver's speech may sound to modern readers like a affectation on Dickens' part or like a stylistic mistake, Dickens was in fact deliberately illustrating his joint themes. Readers contemporaneous with Dickens would have immediately recognize the truth of the situations being exposed and satirized by the elegance of the one's speech and the virtual incomprehensibility of the other's speech. The contrasting language used by Oliver and the Dodger shows the value and necessity of education, the potentiality within the workhouse system--the ironic satire with which Dickens' exposes both the failures and potentialities underscores his call to social action to reform education and workhouses--and horror of poor childrens' lives, whether workhouse children or street children.

What is the symbolic meaning of Brownlow's name?

Have you ever wondered why Dickens, the master of symbolic names, chose "Brownlow" as the name for Oliver's benefactor? A case could be made that since Brownlow was a man with a deep sorrow--but one that he didn't allow to darken his whole being--Dickens made him "brown" and "low" to symbolize mild depression. Yet, when you think carefully about Dickens' themes of education and poor children's lives (see our Themes Insights), you find another reason for using the symbolic name Brownlow.

In 1769, a workhouse called "House of Industry" was built on Brownlow Hill in Liverpool to serve the needs of the poor and orphaned. While it has more than one notable spot in the history of its existence, a significantly notable event was the introduction of an experiment in overseeing health care for the workhouse population. In 1838 Brownlow House introduced into the workhouse infirmary twelve nurses trained at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing. The experiment was successful enough that the practice of having nurses in workhouse infirmaries spread across England (Workhouses.Org.UK).

Recalling our query regarding the symbolic meaning of Mr. Brownlow's name, it is a strong possibility that Dickens chose the name for the connections to (1) a successful experiment and (2) the workhouse. The Brownlow Hill House of Industry and nursing experiment symbolize Mr. Brownlow's humanitarian experiment in rescuing, nursing then fostering the boy, Oliver, from the workhouse.

An interesting historical note is that in 1904, the Registrar General of England required that birth certificates could no longer indicate that a child was illegitimate. To accommodate this new regulation, local registrars registered illegitimate births to a local street address, which sometimes required the invention of a fictitious one. For example, the Liverpool workhouse used 144A Brownlow Hill when in need of a fictitious address. Was this mere convenience or a salute to Dickens' Mr. Brownlow, who was himself a salute to Liverpool's Brownlow Hill House of Industry?