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Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist (1838) is Charles Dickens' second novel. The book was originally published in Bentley's Miscellany as a serial, in monthly installments that began appearing in the month of February 1837 and continued through April 1839. George Cruikshank provided one steel etching per month to illustrate each installment.

Oliver Twist is the first novel in the English language to centre throughout on a child protagonist and is also notable for Dickens' unromantic portrayal of criminals and their sordid lives. The book's subtitle, The Parish Boy's Progress alludes to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and also to a pair of popular 18th-century caricature series by William Hogarth, "A Rake's Progress" and "A Harlot's Progress".

An early example of the social novel, the book calls the public's attention to various contemporary social evils, including the Poor Law that states that poor people should work in workhouses, child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals. Dickens mocks the hypocrisies of the time by surrounding the novel's serious themes with sarcasm and dark humour. The novel may have been inspired by the story of Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose account of his hardships as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s.

Oliver Twist has been the subject of numerous film and television adaptations, and is the basis for a highly successful musical, Oliver!.

Plot summary

Oliver Twist is born into a life of poverty and misfortune in a workhouse in an unnamed town within 75 miles north of London. Orphaned almost from his first breath by his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s unexplained absence, Oliver is meagerly provided for under the terms of the Poor Law, and spends the first eight years of his life at a "baby farm" in the 'care' of a woman named Mrs. Mann. Along with other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, Oliver is brought up with little food and few comforts.

Around the time of the orphan’s ninth birthday, Mr Bumble, a parish beadle, removes Oliver from the baby farm and puts him to work picking oakum at the main branch-workhouse (the same one where his mother worked before she died). Oliver, who toils with very little food, remains in the workhouse for six months, until the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. The task falls to Oliver, who at the next meal tremblingly comes forward, bowl in hand, and makes his famous request: "Please, sir, I want some more."

A great uproar ensues. The board of well-fed gentlemen who administer the workhouse, while eating a meal fit for a king, are outraged by Oliver's 'ingratitude'. Wanting to be rid of this troublemaker, they offer five pounds sterling to any person wishing to take on the boy as an apprentice. A brutal chimney sweep almost claims Oliver, but, when he begs despairingly not to be sent away with "that dreadful man" a kindly old magistrate refuses to sign the indentures. Later, Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker employed by the parish, takes Oliver into his service. He treats Oliver well, and, because of the boy's sorrowful countenance, uses him as a mute, or mourner, at children's funerals. However, Mr. Sowerberry is in an unhappy marriage, and his wife takes an immediate dislike to Oliver – primarily because her husband seems to like him – and loses few opportunities to underfeed and mistreat him. He also suffers torment at the hands of Noah Claypole, an oafish but bullying fellow apprentice who is jealous of Oliver's promotion to mute, and Charlotte, the Sowerberry's maidservant, who is in love with Noah.

One day, in an attempt to bait Oliver, Noah insults the orphan’s late mother, calling her "a regular right-down bad 'un". Oliver flies into an unexpected passion, attacking and even besting the much bigger boy. Mrs. Sowerberry takes Noah's side, helps him subdue Oliver, spanks him, and later goads her husband and Mr. Bumble, who has been sent for in the aftermath of the fight, into beating Oliver again. Once Oliver is sent to his room for the night, he does something that he hadn't done since babyhood - breaks down and weeps. Alone that night, Oliver finally decides to run away. He wanders aimlessly for a time, until a well-placed milestone sets his wandering feet towards London.

During his journey to London, Oliver encounters one Jack Dawkins, who is also affectionately known as the Artful Dodger, although young Oliver is oblivious to this hint that the boy may be dishonest. Dodger provides Oliver with a free meal and tells him of a gentleman in London who will "give him lodgings for nothing, and never ask for change". Grateful for the unexpected assistance, Oliver follows Dodger to the gentleman’s residence. In this way, Oliver unwittingly falls in with an infamous criminal known as Fagin, the "old gentleman" of whom the Artful Dodger spoke. Ensnared, Oliver lives with Fagin and his criminal associates in their lair at Saffron Hill for some time, naively unaware of their criminal occupations. He believes they make wallets and handkerchiefs.

Later, Oliver innocently goes out to "make handkerchiefs" because of no income coming in, with two of Fagin’s underlings: The Artful Dodger and a boy of a humorous nature named Charley Bates. Oliver realises too late that their real mission is to pick pockets. Dodger and Charlie steal the wallet of an old gentleman named Mr. Brownlow, and promptly flee. When he finds his wallet missing, Mr. Brownlow turns round, sees Oliver, and pursues him. Others join the chase and Oliver is caught and taken before the magistrate. Curiously, Mr. Brownlow has second thoughts about the boy- he seems reluctant to believe he is a pickpocket. To the judge's evident disappointment, a bookstall holder who saw Dodger commit the crime clears Oliver, who, by now actually ill, faints in the courtroom. Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver home and, along with his housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin, cares for him.

Oliver stays with Mr. Brownlow, recovers rapidly, and blossoms from the unaccustomed kindness. His bliss, however, is interrupted when Fagin, fearing Oliver might "peach" on his criminal gang, decides that Oliver must be brought back to his hideout. When Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver out to pay for some books, one of the gang, a young girl named Nancy – albeit reluctantly – accosts him with help from her abusive lover, a brutal robber named Bill Sikes, and Oliver is quickly bundled back to Fagin's lair. The thieves take the five pound note Mr. Brownlow had entrusted to him, and strip him of his fine new clothes. Oliver, dismayed, flees and attempts to call for police assistance, but is ruthlessly dragged back by the Dodger, Charlie and Fagin. Nancy, however, is sympathetic towards Oliver and saves him from beatings by Fagin and Sikes.

In a renewed attempt to draw Oliver into a life of crime, Fagin forces him to participate in a burglary. Nancy reluctantly assists in recruiting him, all the while assuring the boy that she will help him if she can. Sikes, after threatening to kill him if he does not cooperate, sends Oliver through a small window and orders him to unlock the front door. The robbery goes wrong, however, and Oliver is shot. After being abandoned by Sikes, the wounded Oliver ends up under the care of the people he was supposed to rob: Rose Maylie and her elderly aunt. Convinced of Oliver’s innocence, Rose takes the boy in and nurses him back to health.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Monks has found Fagin and is plotting with him to destroy Oliver's reputation. Nancy, by this time ashamed of her role in Oliver's kidnapping, and fearful for the boy's safety, goes to Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow to warn them. She knows that Monks and Fagin are plotting to get their hands on the boy again. She manages to keep her meetings secret until Noah Claypole (who has fallen out with the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, stolen money from him and moved to London together with his girlfriend Charlotte to seek his fortune), using the name "Morris Bolter", joins Fagin's gang for protection. During Noah's stay with Fagin, the Artful Dodger is caught with a stolen silver snuff box, convicted (in a very humorous courtroom scene) and transported to Australia. Later, Noah is sent by Fagin to "dodge" (spy on) Nancy, and discovers her secret. Fagin angrily passes the information on to Sikes, twisting the story just enough to make it sound as if Nancy had informed on him (in actuality, she had shielded Sikes, whom she loves despite his brutal character). Believing her to be a traitor, Sikes murders Nancy in a fit of rage, and is himself killed when he accidentally hangs himself while fleeing across a rooftop from an angry mob.

Monks is forced by Mr. Brownlow (an old friend of Oliver's father) to divulge his secrets: his real name is Edward Leeford, and he is Oliver's paternal half-brother and, although he is legitimate, he was born of a loveless marriage. Oliver's mother, Agnes, was their father's true love. Mr. Brownlow has a picture of her, and began making inquiries when he noticed a marked resemblance between her face, and the face of Oliver. Monks has spent many years searching for his father's child — not to befriend him, but to destroy him (see Henry Fielding's Tom Jones for similar circumstances). Brownlow asks Oliver to give half his inheritance (which proves to be meager) to Monks because he wants to give him a second chance; and Oliver, to please Brownlow, complies. Monks then moves to America, where he squanders his money, reverts to crime, and ultimately dies in prison. Fagin is arrested and condemned to the gallows; in an emotional scene, Oliver goes to Newgate Gaol to visit the old reprobate on the eve of his hanging.

On a happier note, Rose Maylie turns out to be the long-lost sister of Oliver's mother Agnes; she is therefore Oliver's aunt. She marries her long-time sweetheart Harry, and Oliver lives happily with his saviour, Mr. Brownlow. Noah becomes a paid informant; Mr. Bumble loses his job (under circumstances that cause him to utter the well-known line "The Law is a Ass") and is reduced to great poverty, eventually ending up in the same workhouse where he once lorded it over Oliver and the other boys; and Charley Bates, horrified by Sikes' murder of Nancy, becomes an honest citizen, moves to the country, and works his way up to prosperity.

Characters

  • Oliver Twist – the title character, an orphan boy born in a workhouse. He's a young boy who is very passionate and very kind hearted, but he is very naive. He does not know the dangers of the world yet.
  • Fagin – a racially depicted Jew who recruits and trains boys for thievery.
  • Bill Sikes – a violent thief and eventual murderer of Nancy.
  • The Artful Dodger aka Jack Dawkins – one of Fagin's youth pickpockets.
  • Charley Bates – another of Fagin's boy pickpockets.
  • Nancy – Bill's girl; a thief trained by Fagin who longs for a better life.
  • Bullseye – Bill Sikes' faithful canine companion.
  • Betsy –(nearly always called simply Bet) a thief of Fagin's and friend of Nancy.
  • Noah Claypole – untalented apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, and something of a bully.
  • Mr. Brownlow – Oliver's saviour, a kindly old gentleman.
  • Monks, aka Edward Leeford – Oliver's half-brother, a criminal type bent on destroying Oliver.
  • Rose Maylie– who turns out to be his aunt.
  • Mr Bumble – the parish Beadle and leader of the orphanage. He's officious, corrupt, a chronic mangler of the King's English, and a great source of comic relief.
  • Mrs Bumble/Mrs Corney – a widow who marries Mr Bumble and becomes his shrewish nemesis.
  • Mr. Sowerberry – an Undertaker who takes Oliver into his service. He's not a bad sort, and rather likes Oliver.
  • Mrs. Sowerberry – Mr. Sowerberry's shrewish wife, who dislikes Oliver and treats him cruelly.
  • Charlotte – servant to Mrs Sowerberry; in love with Noah Claypole.
  • Gamfield – a vicious chimney-sweep who nearly claims Oliver as apprentice.
  • Fang – a harsh, unjust magistrate who almost sentences Oliver to three months' hard labour. Dickens based him on a real magistrate named Laing.
  • Mrs Bedwin – Motherly housekeeper to Mr Brownlow who nurses Oliver back to health.
  • Mr Grimwig – an old friend of Mr Brownlow's who pretends to be a great cynic, but is really a sentimental softy.
  • Harry Maylie – Mrs Maylie's son, who wants to mary Rose.

Major themes and symbols

Introduction

In Oliver Twist, Dickens mixes melodrama, grim realism, and merciless satire to describe the effects of industrialism on 19th-century England, and to criticise the harsh new Poor Laws. Oliver, an innocent child, is trapped in a world where his only alternatives seem to be the workhouse, Fagin's den of thieves, a prison sentence, or an early grave. From this unpromising industrial/institutional setting, however, a fairy tale also emerges: In the midst of corruption and degradation, the essentially passive Oliver remains pure-hearted; he refrains from evil when those around him succumb; and, in proper fairy-tale fashion, he eventually receives his reward – he leaves London for a peaceful life in the country, surrounded by kind friends. On the way to this happy ending, Dickens explores the kind of life an orphan, outcast boy could expect to lead in the London of the 1830s.

Poverty and social class

Poverty is a prominent concern in Oliver Twist. Throughout the novel, Dickens enlarges on this theme, describing slums so decrepit that whole rows of houses are on the point of collapse, and people so downtrodden that they seem scarcely human. In an early chapter, Oliver attends a pauper's funeral with Mr. Sowerberry and sees a whole family crowded together in one miserable room. The deceased, a young mother, has died of starvation despite her husband's desperate efforts to beg for her on the streets. The surviving adults are horrible in their wretchedness: the husband frightens Oliver with his frenzied grief, while the dead woman's haglike mother chuckles at the irony of outliving her own child, then whines for a warm cloak to wear to the funeral.

This ubiquitous misery makes Oliver's few encounters with charity and love more poignant. Oliver owes his life several times over to acts of kindness large and small—from the old magistrate's refusal to sign him over to Gamfield to Nancy's supreme sacrifice. The apparent plague of poverty that Dickens describes also conveyed to his middle-class readers how much of the London population was stricken with poverty and disease. Nonetheless, in Oliver Twist he delivers a somewhat mixed message about social caste and social injustice.Oliver's illegitimate workhouse origins place him at the nadir of society; as an orphan without friends, means, or known relatives, he is routinely despised and mistreated on that basis alone – often by people only slightly above him on the social scale. His "sturdy spirit" keeps him alive despite the torment he must endure. Most of his associates, however, deserve their place among society's dregs and seem very much at home in the depths. Noah Claypole, a charity boy like Oliver, is idle, stupid, and cowardly; Sikes is a thug; Fagin lives by corrupting children; and the Artful Dodger seems born for a life of crime. Many of the middle-class people Oliver encounters—Mrs. Sowerberry, Mr. Bumble, and the savagely hypocritical "gentlemen" of the workhouse board, for example— are, if anything, worse.

Oliver, on the other hand, who has an air of refinement remarkable for a workhouse boy, proves to be of gentle birth. Although he has been abused and neglected all his life, he recoils, aghast, at the idea of victimizing anyone else.This apparently hereditary gentlemanliness makes Oliver Twist something of a changeling tale, not just an indictment of social injustice. Oliver, born for better things, struggles to survive in the savage world of the underclass before finally being rescued by his family and returned to his proper place—a commodious country house.

In a recent film adaptation of the novel, Roman Polanski dispenses with the problem of Oliver's genteel origins by making him an anonymous orphan, like the rest of Fagin's gang.

Symbolism

Dickens makes considerable use of symbolism. The many obstacles Oliver faces symbolises the concept of good versus evil, with the evil continually trying to corrupt and exploit the good, but the good winning out in the end. The "merry old gentleman" Fagin, for example, has satanic characteristics: he is a veteran corrupter of young boys who presides over his own corner of the underworld; he makes his first appearance standing over a fire holding a toasting-fork; and he refuses to pray on the night before his execution. The London slums, too, have a suffocating, infernal aspect; the dark deeds and dark passions are concretely characterised by dim rooms, smoke, fog, and pitch-black nights, while the governing mood of terror and merciless brutality may be identified with the frequent rain and uncommonly cold weather. In contrast, the countryside where the Maylies take Oliver is a pastoral heaven.

Food is another important symbol; Oliver's odyssey begins with a simple request for more gruel, and Mr. Bumble's shocked exclamation "Oliver Twist has asked for more!" indicates that the "more" Oliver hungers for is not just gruel. Chapter 8 — which contains the last noteworthy mention of food in the form of Fagin's dinner — marks the first time Oliver "ate his share" and represents the transformation in his life that occurs after he joins Fagin's gang.

The novel is also shot through with a related motif, obesity, which calls attention to the stark injustice of Oliver's world. When the half-starved child dares to ask for more, the men who punish him are fat and middle-aged. It is interesting to observe the large number of characters who are overweight. Obesity symbolises social class as much as clothing does.

Toward the end of the novel, the gaze of knowing eyes becomes a potent symbol. For years, Fagin avoids daylight, crowds, and open spaces, concealing himself in a dark lair most of the time: when his luck runs out at last, he squirms in the "living light" of too many eyes as he stands in the dock, awaiting sentence. After Sikes kills Nancy, he flees into the countryside but is unable to escape the memory of her dead eyes. Charlie Bates turns his back on crime when he sees the murderous cruelty of the man who has been held up to him as a model.

With Oliver Twist, Dickens invites the public to become similarly enlightened. Oliver lives in a terrifying world of slums, crime, hunger, and harsh punishments; and although Dickens eventually contrives a more-or-less miraculous escape for his title character, he also tries to open his reader's eyes to the plight of real orphans.

Nancy’s decision to meet Brownlow and Rose on London Bridge reveals the symbolic aspect of this bridge in Oliver Twist. Bridges exist to link two places that would otherwise be separated by an uncrossable chasm. The meeting on London Bridge represents the collision of two worlds unlikely ever to come into contact—the idyllic world of Brownlow and Rose, and the atmosphere of degradation in which Nancy lives. On the bridge, Nancy is given the chance to cross over to the better way of life that the others represent, but she rejects that opportunity, and by the time the three have all left the bridge, that possibility has vanished forever.

When Rose gives Nancy her handkerchief, and when Nancy holds it up as she dies, it shows that by her acts, Nancy has gone over to the "good" side against the thieves.Her position on the ground is as if she is in prayer, and this shows her godly or good nature.

Characters

In the tradition of Restoration Comedy and Henry Fielding, Dickens fits his characters with appropriate names. Oliver himself, although "badged and ticketed" as a lowly orphan and named according to an alphabetical system is, in fact, "all of a twist. Mr. Grimwig is so called because his seemingly "grim", pessimistic outlook is actually a protective cover for his kind, sentimental soul. Other character names mark their bearers as semi-monstrous caricatures. Mrs. Mann, who has charge of the infant Oliver, is not the most motherly of women; Mr. Bumble, despite his impressive sense of his own dignity, continually mangles the berries", a reference to Mrs. Sowerberry's perpetual scowl; to Mr. Sowerberry's profession as an undertaker; and to the poor provender Oliver receives from them. Rose Maylie’s name echoes her association with flowers and springtime, youth and beauty, while Toby Crackit’s is a reference to his chosen profession–housebreaking.

Bill Sikes’s dog, Bull’s-eye, has “faults of temper in common with his owner” and is an emblem of his owner’s character. The dog’s viciousness represents Sikes’s animal-like brutality, while Sikes's self-destructiveness is evident in the dog's many scars. The dog, with its willingness to harm anyone on Sikes' whim, shows the mindless brutality of the master. Sikes himself senses that the dog is a reflection of himself and that is why he tries to drown the dog. He is really trying to run away from who he is. This is also illustrated when Sikes dies and the dog does immediately also. After Sikes murders Nancy, Bull’s-eye also comes to represent Sikes’s guilt. The dog leaves bloody footprints on the floor of the room where the murder is committed. Not long after, Sikes becomes desperate to get rid of the dog, convinced that the dog’s presence will give him away. Yet, just as Sikes cannot shake off his guilt, he cannot shake off Bull’s-eye, who arrives at the house of Sikes’s demise before Sikes himself does. Bull’s-eye’s name also conjures up the image of Nancy’s eyes, which haunts Sikes until the bitter end and eventually causes him to hang himself accidentally.

Dickens employs polarised sets of characters to explore various dual themes throughout the novel; Mr. Brownlow and Fagin, for example, personify 'Good vs. Evil'. Dickens also juxtaposes honest, law-abiding characters such as Oliver himself with those who, like the Artful Dodger, seem more comfortable on the wrong side of the law. 'Crime and Punishment' is another important pair of themes, as is 'Sin and Redemption': Dickens describes criminal acts ranging from picking pockets to murder (suggesting that this sort of thing went on continually in 1830's London) only to hand out punishments with a liberal hand at the end. Most obviously, he shows Bill Sikes hounded to death by a mob for his brutal acts, and sends Fagin to cower in the condemned cell, sentenced to death by due process. Neither character achieves redemption; Sikes dies trying to run away from his guilt, and on his last night alive, the terrified Fagin refuses to see a rabbi or to pray, instead asking Oliver to help him escape. Nancy, by contrast, redeems herself at the cost of her own life, and dies in a prayerful pose.

Nancy is also one of the few characters in Oliver Twist to display much ambivalence. Although she is a full-fledged criminal, indoctrinated and trained by Fagin since childhood, she retains enough empathy to repent her role in Oliver's kidnapping, and to take steps to try to atone. As one of Fagin's victims, corrupted but not yet morally dead, she gives eloquent voice to the horrors of the old man's little criminal empire. She wants to save Oliver from a similar fate; at the same time, she recoils from the idea of turning traitor, especially to Bill Sikes, whom she loves. When he was later criticised for giving a "thieving, whoring slut of the streets" such an unaccountable reversal of character, Dickens ascribed her change of heart to "the last fair drop of water at the bottom of a dried-up, weed-choked well".

Film, TV, theatrical and graphic novel adaptations

There have been many theatrical, film, television and graphic novel adaptations of Dickens' novel:

Adaptations of the novel tend to simplify the original story. The way the book is normally interpreted on screen causes modern readers to focus on Bill Sikes as the villain. They thus fail to recognise how Fagin has trained Sikes and made him what he is; part of Dickens' message is that he might have done the same with Oliver had chance not

References

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Critical analysis

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