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...
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