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The first time I read Oliver Twist, I didn’t fully grasp the full purpose of the author’s depictions of the injustices tormenting the citizens of Dickensian society to the core. After re-reading and ruminating over the text, I came to comprehend to importance of Dickens‘ conveyance of the world he experienced during his own life which shines through in his writing. Oliver is born into a society filled with suffering individuals. Poverty stricken people struggle to survive and children, such as Oliver, are orphaned. Although Dickens makes certain to portray certain characters in an amiable light, he also makes it known there is a difference between an inherently bad person and a desperate one. The misfortune of circumstance shapes the individual, not intrinsic attributes.

From the onset of the text, the reader notices descriptive language which cannot be overlooked. Dickens makes it a point to illustrate sentence after sentence, word after word, the ways poor Oliver has been slighted in his short life. From the moment he is born, the boy is thrown into an orphanage where he lives undernourished and unloved.  Dickens unloads harsh criticism and sarcasm not difficult to detect upon Mrs. Mann. She raises Oliver and other orphans with money she receives from the parish, but keeps most for herself. On Oliver’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, the church beadle, stops by to take the boy to another home. Throughout the conversation between the Mann and Bumble, the reader is aware neither care for children despite their professions and comments regarding ‘blessed infants.’ Yet, although these people may make poor judgments, they too, are merely attempting to make their way in the society in which they live.

After chancing fate by leaving the village of his birth, the virtuous boy Oliver almost freezes to death by traveling to London on foot. Along the way, he encounters another young boy and accepts him as a companion. The boy, the Artful Dodger, is not so different from Oliver himself. He too is an orphan seeking the protection of anyone willing to provide it. Dressed in men’s clothing, Dodger shows that underneath an exterior meant to portray a mature adult lies a child required to grow up too quickly. But his description does not take away from his child-like innocence. A child playing dress-up only creates the illusion that he is wiser than his years. Perhaps he values the men’s jacket he wears because it has been given to him by a man he trusts.

Dodger and his friends Bates, and Jack Dawson innocently depend upon a criminal named Fagin. In their minds, he supplies them with shelter, clothing, and food without charge. The dependence they have on him is something they don’t realize because they view him more as a father figure than an oppressor. They are too young to understand that stealing isn’t the game Fagin pretends it is. In reality, Fagin teaches them to steal in his home and then sends them out into the streets. When they return, he attributes their worth to the amount of goods they steal and calls them ‘good boys’ for coming home with an abundance of items. Failure is not an option.  After having a bad day at ‘work,’ the boys don’t view Fagin as cruel for his treatment of them. Instead, they think they have let him down. ‘Whenever Dodger and Charley Bates came home at night empty handed, he would expiate with great vehemence on the misery of idle and lazy habits and would enforce upon them the necessity of an active life, by sending them supperless to bed.’ The boys do not realize the implications of the exchange because it is all they know. Their acceptance of this fate seems more realistic than that of Oliver who immediately recognizes the relationship as wrong.

Oliver’s fate is decided by an act he does not want to commit.  Mr. Brownlow realizes he is missing his handkerchief and calls out. It is instinct for Dodger and Bates to leave Oliver behind and save themselves. For the children belonging to the den of thieves, their only survival mechanism is to steal and not be caught. Yet, if Mr. Brownlow had known the children would be forced to go without food without his handkerchief, he might have willingly offered it up. It turns out that Oliver is placed in jail. Luckily, Mr. Brownlow ends up giving the boy a home.

Nancy is introduced as the main female member of Fagin’s ring after Oliver has been caught stealing. Due to deep concern on the parts of Fagin and his partner Bill Sikes that Oliver will give information to the authorities about them, they require a spy to inquire about Oliver’s situation. The men summon Nancy as their scapegoat.  From the moment Nancy enters the novel she is shown to be a woman who does what the cold-blooded Fagin tells her without considering consequences. She has always been a pawn, it doesn’t occur to her that by dragging Oliver back into Fagin’s house she is putting a child into a situation she loathes herself.

After Oliver is captured from Brownlow’s a change comes over Nancy. From the moment Oliver is threatened, she defends him adamantly. In the boy she sees her past. Suddenly, she knows that if Oliver stays he will become a thief like the other children and his life will be ruined. She recalls Fagin contributing to her own life on the ‘cold, wet, dirty streets.’ Her sorrows are juxtaposed by Bates and Dodger attempting to convince Oliver happily of the benefits of becoming a good thief like them. Nancy is on the verge of a psychological breakdown as she realizes the implications of having been exploited all her life.  When it is revealed to Nancy that due to the boy’s ancestry, he may have a chance for a different life; she views her new-found information as a chance to save Oliver and redeem herself. Rose(Flemming) Maylie, Oliver’s biological aunt receives the news from Nancy, but Nancy will not be saved. She feels a connection to Fagin.

Nancy has overheard Fagin and Monks, his associate, involved in a secret conversation.  Monks has known Oliver’s identity all along because he is his half-brother. Oliver’s mother, Agnes Flemming, was not a beggar after all, but the widow of Edwin Leeford. Conveniently enough, Edwin Leeford was once a friend of the man who saved and eventually adopted Oliver, Mr.Brownlow.  In the end, then Oliver lives a life of happiness with good people. Of his small protagonist, Charles Dickens said: “I wished to shew in Little Oliver the principle of the most Good surviving through every adverse circumstance and triumphing at last.”(preface to 3rd edition) It almost seems as though Dickens implies that the Maylie’s and Brownlow who live happily ever after with the Good little boy Oliver deserve to have a happier existence because of their class standing than Nancy who must suffer the consequences of her poor choices with poverty and death. Or, is he actually being ironic?

Fagin and the other thieves will live and die in poverty. Perhaps he too was an orphan once. As Dickens so thought provokingly shows society limiting options through suffering, starvation, and humiliation, it becomes easier to imagine a person becoming a criminal. The reader slowly but surely develops sympathy for crime as opposed to starving in tenements and begging fat Mr. Bumble for assistance. If a person commits a crime out of poverty, isn’t it more understandable than a crime committed out of pure evil? It is left to the reader to decide. Dickens concludes the novel in resolute terms. Is there more to consider?

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

For more information: Complete Works of Dickens Online

Dickens and Society

Films:  (2007) TV Series

(2005) directed by Roman Polanski

(1968) multiple Academy Award Winning