Read about the key themes of Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist offers a close-up look at an England suffering the effects of industrialization in the 19th Century. Dickens uses a mixture of shocking realism and biting satire to create that. The new Poor Laws offered an innocent orphan child a few unappealing life options: the workhouse, a life of crime, prison, or early death.
This immortal story is depressing and uplifting at the same time because in the midst of this grim prospect – trying to survive in a world of corruption – Dickens shows a child getting the lucky breaks that are far from being the norm. The norm is the child trapped in an organisation like Fagin’s and growing up to be a career criminal and dying young in a rat-infested, disease-ridden prison. On his way to eventual peace, surrounded by loving friends, Oliver passes through the kind of life, with its ominous prospects, that an orphan can expect to live.
Dickens’ exploration of 1830s England, looking particularly at a large city – London in this novel – is a story with closely interlinked themes. Poverty and its effects are central, and connected to poverty are such things as the law, with its major influence on the lives of those who suffer from poverty; crime, that is the natural companion of poverty, and social class, which creates the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – the difference between a prosperous lifestyle and starvation.
Dickens makes a general comment on the poverty of his time by focusing on the terrible effects of poverty on an individual’s life. He hones in on an incident that has become one of the most famous moments in English fiction. In Chapter Two Oliver asks for more gruel. He is “desperate with hunger.” Having lost the draw among the boys he makes the request for more. “Reckless with misery,” he approaches the master, bowl and spoon in hand, and says, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
The culture of the workhouse is such that the staff is genuinely shocked. The master hits Oliver with the ladle and the beadle is stupefied. The incident, and particularly the reaction of the adults, reveals the dehumanization of deprived children in a way that ensures that their condition of deprivation will continue, rather than that those charged with the wellbeing of the children would realize that they are starving and try to help them.
We see and smell the poverty all through the novel as Dickens enlarges on the theme. We see slums so run-down that row upon row of houses are on the point of collapse. As Oliver attends a pauper’s funeral he sees a whole, large, family crowded together in one small room.
Then we see London – its crowded streets populated by some of the most ragged, scrawny people imaginable, co-existing with rats. Gangs of street children roam freely and pickpockets are everywhere.
The conditions of 1830s London led naturally to crime. The novel presents a close picture of how one particular criminal gang operates. It’s composed of a cross-section of types and personalities. Fagin lives by corrupting children and Sikes is a thug, an old-fashioned housebreaker and burglar. The Artful Dodger is someone who, if born into a better class, would have done exceptionally well, given his high intelligence, creativity, and sunny personality, but, as things are, has been born for a life of crime. Nancy is there because she has nowhere else to go. She’s an essentially good person forced to go with the way the wind blows but finally risking, and forfeiting, her life in her effort to do the right thing.
By following such characters Oliver Twist explores the nature of criminality in the 1830s: it asks questions about who the people are who commit crimes, what kind of crimes are there, and is criminality a learned behaviour? In which case, with social reform, can it be eliminated? We see all kinds of crimes, from pickpocketing to murder. How would Oliver have turned out if there hadn’t been the fairy-tale ending for him? Might he have become a Bill Sikes? These are all questions we are forced to consider as we read the novel.
The novel is an exposition of the effect on the poor of British laws in the 19th Century, as industrialisation accelerated. The reasoning behind the Poor Laws was good-intentioned – the creation of workhouses as a way of dealing with the homeless: giving them food and shelter. The reality, however, was the confinement of paupers in places where they were starved and mistreated with no training or education or any hope for a way out of the trap they were in, intended partly as an answer to the growing crime rate. But the Poor Laws had ironically resulted in soaring rates of lawlessness.
On the level of the law as it applied to individuals, we see, in the treatment of Oliver when he is suspected of theft, that individuals of his supposed class had no chance, It was only through the intervention of a middle-class gentleman that Oliver was spared from being flung into prison.
Good versus Evil
‘Good versus evil’ is the one theme that is common to most works of literature. The very act of creating a variety of characters leads straight to that. Dickens said that his idea of his protagonist, Oliver, was that he represented the good surviving dire adversity and “triumphing at last.”
In Oliver Twist there are characters who are completely bad – Fagin and Bill Sikes. There are also characters who are completely good, like Oliver and Rosa. There are characters between those two extremes – like most human beings. The Artful Dodger is an example of that, and Nancy is an even better example as we see her struggling with her conscience.
Dickens gives us another layer of characters – those who should be models of good, the people who occupy high positions because they are trusted to be social beacons. The reality, however, is that when Dickens shines a light on them we find that they are corrupt, using their positions of trust to line their own pockets at the expense of those they are charged to protect. We also see that those who make decisions about the parish poor, and starve them, eat and drink like royalty.
That’s our guide to Oliver Twist themes. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!