Oliver Twist Themes
The main themes in Oliver Twist are good versus evil, children in poverty, and class and fate.
- Good versus evil: The novel juxtaposes characters whose motives are essentially good with those who are irremediably evil, showing that good ultimately triumphs.
- Children in poverty: The conditions for poor children in Victorian England were dangerous and bleak, as shown by the lives of the children in the novel.
- Class and fate: Dickens explores the relationship between one's social class and one's fate, with a particular eye toward the class structure of Victorian England.
Good versus Evil
The theme of good versus evil—and the eventual triumph of the former—is prominent in Oliver Twist. This theme can be seen in Dickens’s juxtaposition of Oliver Twist and his friends in contrast to Fagin and the thieves. Villains like Sikes, Fagin, and Monks have few—if any—positive or redeemable qualities. They are only seen committing acts of crime, abuse, and subterfuge. Though they thrive for a time by profiting from the weak and the helpless, the evil characters all meet just fates. Sikes and Fagin die for their crimes, and Monks’s greed and profligacy lead him to a pitiful demise.
On the other hand, the good characters are, for the most part, depicted as pure, wholesome, virtuous, and innocent. Chief amongst this group are Oliver and Rose. Both characters are depicted in a wholly positive light and given only admirable traits. Both are kind-hearted, open in expressing gratitude and affection, helpful and compassionate to those in need, sensitive, and morally upright. Oliver is treated unfairly for most of his life and is subject to abuse and mischaracterization, but he is eventually vindicated. Oliver’s innocence and earnestness lead him to two groups of generous patrons: the Brownlow and Maylie households. Those characters are depicted as laudable by the narrator, in large part for their care of Oliver.
However, the characters of Nancy and Charley complicate the easy divide between good versus evil characters. Nancy is morally ambiguous; she is hesitant to leave her life of crime but well-intentioned when it comes to Oliver, and Charley initially works as a thief but reforms and goes on to earn an honest living. In the final analysis, the novel emphatically supports the idea that good triumphs over evil.
Children in Poverty
Oliver Twist presents a sobering portrait of the life of poverty in Victorian London. In his preface, Dickens asserts that he will not romanticize the circumstances in which his degraded criminals exist. He seeks to depict poverty “in its unattractive and repulsive truth” to force Victorian readers to reckon with the “depraved and miserable” reality, because “a lesson of purest good may be drawn from the vilest evil.”
While Dickens portrays certain impoverished adults, the children born into poverty seem to be his chief concern. Dickens focuses his attention on the corrupt system of the parochial workhouses, the abuse of orphans, and the overall suffering caused by the Poor Laws. Oliver, as an orphan, is a ward of the parish, and he is starved, beaten, and insulted. Those who hold power in the parochial system are greedy and self-centered, keeping money for themselves while feeding the children as little as possible. When they reach an appropriate age, children can be apprenticed and perhaps find a trade that will allow them to make a living. However, they may be apprenticed into a dangerous profession, such as chimney sweeping, which could land them in an early grave. Oliver’s friend Dick bids him goodbye, remarking that he hopes to die so he can go to heaven and join “kind faces that I never see when I am awake.” Here, Dickens indicts his society, in which poor children would rather die young than be forced to continue living in misery and denied dignity or affection.
Once Oliver makes it to London, he witnesses another route children in poverty can take: crime. His first observations of London as he approaches Fagin’s residence are that “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen” and “heaps of children” infest the streets. He soon meets many other boys who work for Fagin, children who have “grown...
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up” far too quickly. They act like men, and Oliver later learns that they steal for a living and hand over most of their profits to Fagin. Dickens’s portrayal of child pickpockets suggests how desperate and dire the life of an orphan born into poverty can be. This dangerous and immoral lifestyle leads children to lose their innocence far too soon. As a whole, Dickens’s novel makes it clear that poor children in Victorian England had few options, almost all of which entailed significant suffering.
Class and Fate
Oliver Twist portrays how the socioeconomic circumstances into which one is born inform and determine one’s fate. Being born poor or an orphan results in a particular set of options for a child in Victorian England. Both Oliver and Rose suffer as a result of their identity as orphans. Oliver never knows love or affection until he is nursed by Mrs. Bedwin at Brownlow’s house. The parochial system treats children like him as a burden. Oliver is lucky to fall into the hands of two generous families who sense his inherent goodness and take care of him. However, most poor orphans are not so fortunate. The lives of the child thieves, like Charley and Jack, and young prostitutes, like Nancy, suggest that growing up poor leads children on a dangerous trajectory.
Meanwhile, those who are neither poor nor rich look down upon the impoverished, in large part because they need to feel superior to someone else. Bumble is a perfect example of this mentality: he exaggerates his own importance and abuses the little power he has to deride and abuse the paupers he surveys.
On the other hand, Dickens also depicts generous wealthy characters who take pity on Oliver and Rose and welcome them into their families. A small twist of fate could have changed Oliver’s story completely. If he had not been shot during the robbery and remained subject to Fagin and Sikes, Oliver may not have met Rose Maylie. In some ways, the novel implies that Oliver is simply lucky, but on the other hand Dickens encourages readers to see Oliver as an example of good defeating evil.
While Oliver and Rose both get happy endings that the novel suggests they deserve, social class and circumstances do play a role in those endings. Rose can only marry Harry Maylie because he lowers his social status; otherwise, she would be seen as an impediment to his name and could hinder his professional progress, regardless of how much they love each other. Oliver can only claim his inheritance through the word of his father’s legitimate son, Monks, who must attest that his father left all of his property to Oliver and his mother, Agnes. While the virtuous characters do earn their rewards, the novel suggests that the society to which they belong is flawed and unjust.