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Oliver Twist (1838) is Charles Dickens' second novel. It was originally published as a serial.
An early example of the social novel, the book, like most of Dickens' work, calls the public's attention to various contemporary social evils, including the workhouse, 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 laborer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830's.
Oliver Twist has been the subject of numerous film and television adaptations, and is the basis for a highly successful British musical, Oliver!.
Oliver Twist is born into a life of poverty and misfortune. Orphaned almost from his first breath by his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s conspicuous absence, Oliver is meagerly provided for under the terms of the Poor Law. Thus, Oliver spends the first nine years of his life within a branch-workhouse of the one in which he had the misfortune to be born. 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 branch-workhouse and puts him to work in the main facility. Oliver, who toils with very little food, remains in the workhouse for six months. Then, the desperately hungry boys draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. Oliver draws the short straw, and, at the next meal, advances, terrified, bowl in hand, and makes the famous request: Please, sir, I want some more.
A great uproar ensues. The board of well-fed gentlemen who administer the workhouse are outraged by Oliver's ingratitude. Wanting to be rid of this troublemaker, they offer a sum of money 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. Because of his sorrowful countenance, Sowerberry uses him as a "mute", or mourner, at children's funerals.
While working for the undertaker, Oliver suffers new torments at the hands of Noah Claypole, a charity boy and fellow apprentice. Eventually, in an attempt to bait Oliver, Noah insults the orphan’s late mother. Oliver flies into an unexpected passion, attacking and besting the much bigger boy. Mrs. Sowerberry, who dislikes Oliver, takes Noah's part, and punishes Oliver. That night, he runs away and wanders aimlessly for a time. However, he soon sets his destination as London.
During his journey to London, Oliver encounters Jack Dawkins, who is also known as the Artful Dodger. Dawkins provides Oliver with a free meal and tells him of a gentleman in London who will help him get established. Grateful for the assistance, Oliver follows Dawkins to the gentleman’s residence. Thus, Oliver unwittingly falls in with a Jewish criminal named Fagin, the "gentleman" of whom Dawkins spoke. Oliver lives with Fagin and his criminal associates for some time, naively unaware of their criminal occupations.
Later, Oliver innocently goes out to "make handerchiefs" with two of Fagin’s underlings: Dawkins and a boy named Charlie Bates. Oliver realizes too late that their real mission is to pick pockets, and, although he doesn't participate, he is hunted down and arrested. To the judge's evident disappointment, a witness clears Oliver, who, by now acutely ill, faints in the courtroom. A wealthy old gentleman named Mr. Brownlow, whom he was previously thought to have robbed, takes Oliver home and 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, orchestrates Oliver's kidnapping. When Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver to pay for some books, one of the gang, Nancy, accosts him and he is quickly bundled back to Fagin's lair. The thieves steal the five pound note Mr. Brownlow had entrusted to him, and strip him of his fine new clothes.
Afterwards, Oliver is forced to participate in another crime; this time, burglary. Bill Sikes, a violent thief who helped in the kidnapping, 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, a wounded Oliver ends up under the care of the people he was supposed to rob: Rose Maylie and the elderly Mrs. Maylie. Convinced of Oliver’s innocence, Rose takes the boy in and nurses him, once again, 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 thoroughly ashamed of her role in Oliver's kidnapping, goes to Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow to warn them. She manages to keep her meetings secret until Noah Claypole (who has fallen out with the undertaker and moved to London to seek his fortune) is sent by Fagin to spy on her, 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 an angry mob.
Monks is forced by Mr. Brownlow (an old friend of Oliver's father) to divulge his secrets and give half his inheritance (which proves to be meager) to Oliver. Then Monks moves to America, where he quickly spends 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. Charlie Bates, horrified by Sikes' murder of Nancy, becomes an honest citizen and works his way up to prosperity.
Characters in "Oliver Twist"
- Oliver Twist – the title character, a boy born in a workhouse
- Fagin – a Jew who recruits and trains boys for thievery
- Bill Sikes – a violent thief
- The Artful Dodger aka Jack Dawkins – one of Fagin's boy pickpockets
- Charley Bates – another of Fagin's boy pickpockets
- Nancy – barmaid and Bill's girl
- Betsy – 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
- Rose Maylie
- Mr Bumble – the parish Beadle
- Mr. Sowerberry – an Undertaker who takes Oliver into his service. He's not a bad sort.
- Mrs. Sowerberry – Mr. Sowerberry's wife, who dislikes Oliver and treats him badly.
- Charlotte – servant to Mrs Sowerberry; in love with Noah Claypole
- Gamfield – a vicious chimney-sweep
- 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.
Major themes and symbols
Oliver Twist is one of Dicken's best-known books, and is a grimly comic indictment of the effects of industrialism upon 19th century England. This is evident in the Poor Laws, the workhouses, and the harsh and unforgiving society in which Oliver, an innocent child, is trapped. From this grim 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 - just as his chief tormenters receive theirs. On the way to this happy ending, however, Dickens spends less and less time with the virtuous Oliver, instead amusing the reader at the expense of Mr Bumble, Sikes, Fagin, and sundry villains and hypocrites from the novel's lively rogue's gallery.
Charity and love - and the lack thereof - are important motifs in Oliver Twist. Although mistreated by almost everyone who has any authority over him, Oliver receives love and kindness from a few people – the old magistrate who saves him from Mr. Gamfield, the bookseller who gives evidence to clear him, and, of course, Mr. Brownlow, Rose Maylie, and Nancy. These unaccustomed acts of kindness make a great impression on Oliver, and save him from a variety of bad ends. In contrast to the false charity offered by Fagin, and the grudging pittance afforded him at the workhouse, Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie open their homes and hearts to Oliver, and Nancy loses her life when she defies her criminal "family" and helps him escape the life they've planned for him.
Ambivalence is a notable theme in the novel. This trait is especially conspicuous in Fagin and Nancy, but is also discernible in Sikes. Fagin, a thieving, manipulative, evil old man, nevertheless has a jovial air and provides food, shelter, and employment to poor young orphans. In Nancy's case, she struggles with the decision of whether to stay with the father figure Fagin or to play the mother herself by helping Oliver. Even Sikes, the epitome of criminal thuggishness, suffers unexpected pangs of conscience when he kills Nancy.
The corrupting influence of human greed is another important theme, as shown by the barbaric systems in which the nearly powerless Oliver finds himself. First, he is exploited ruthlessly at the workhouse; later, he drifts into London's criminal underworld, where Fagin hopes to make a thief of him. Finally, Monks tries to steal his identity and his inheritance.
Like greed, England's class system is a powerful force in the novel's dynamics. Dickens shows how the Poor Laws, introduced in 1834, influenced society: a middle class developed and began to exploit the lower classes. Mrs. Mann, Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Sowerberry are examples of middle class people who abuse members of the lower class. Oliver, an orphan without friends, means, or known relatives, is routinely despised and mistreated on that basis alone - often by people such as Noah Claypole who are only slightly above him on the social scale. When salvation arrives for Oliver, it comes primarily from the upper classes.
If Dickens intends to criticise the class system, however, he delivers a rather mixed message, especially in his portrayal of the lowborn characters. Noah Claypole, a charity boy like Oliver, is idle, mean, and cowardly; Sikes is a thug; Fagin lives by corrupting children; and Fagin's boys seem perfectly comfortable embarking on lives of crime. 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 and returned to his proper place.
In a style that would become characteristic, Dickens makes considerable use of symbolism. The "old gentleman" Fagin, for example, has satanic characteristics - he is a veteran corrupter of young boys who first appears standing over a fire holding a toasting-fork in lieu of a pitchfork. Food, also, has symbolic value; 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 occurred after he joined Fagin's gang.
Names are another symbolic aspect of Dickens' writing, often marking their owners 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 official language he tries to use; and Mr. Fang, the magistrate who adjudicates Oliver's alleged theft of a handkerchief, is such a sadist that he nearly consigns the ailing boy to three month's hard labour - a sentence that would surely have killed him. The Sowerberry's are, of course, "sour berries", a reference to Mrs. Sowerberry's perpetual scowl, and, possibly, to Mr. Sowerberry's profession (burying) and to the poor provender Oliver receives from them. The "good" characters are also named according to their type; Mr. Grimwig, for example, is so called because his seemingly "grim", pessimistic outlook is actually a protective cover for his kind, sentimental soul. Oliver Twist's name, chosen according to an alphabetical system, at first reflects nothing more than his lowly status as just another "item of mortality" in a long list of others. The surname "Twist", however - although bestowed by the eminently prosaic Mr Bumble - foreshadows the strange turns of fortune which await its bearer.
The world of Oliver Twist is indeed a grim one; however, a thread of optimism runs through the novel, and the story ends happily for most of the deserving characters. Fagin, who up until the end manages to conceal his criminal activities from the general public, ends up squirming in the "living light" of too many eyes as he stands in the dock, awaiting sentence. When Sikes kills Nancy, her eyes continue to accuse him even after he has fled the scene. Dickens, it seems, believes that once the general public becomes aware of the sufferings of London's orphans, they will do something to remedy the situation: and Oliver Twist, he hopes, will help direct the popular gaze in the proper direction.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
There have been many theatrical, film and television adaptations of Dickens' novel:
- The earliest film adaptation is a silent film made in 1909.
- A 1912 version starring Nat Goodwin as Fagin.
- A 1916 version with Tully Marshall as Fagin, Hobart Bosworth as Bill Sykes, and Marie Doro in a trouser role as Oliver.
- The 1922 film, the most famous silent version of the classic ever made, starring Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin.
- A low-budget 1933 version of the novel (the first with sound), starring Irving Pichel as Fagin, Dickie Moore as Oliver Twist, and Doris Lloyd as Nancy.
- Oliver Twist, a feature film from 1948 by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness in one of his most defining roles as Fagin, is still considered the classic film version.
- In 1960, Lionel Bart's musical play Oliver! opened to rave reviews in London. It became the longest-running musical there up to that time, playing six years. Producer David Merrick brought the show to the United States. The show toured nationally in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit before opening at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on January 6, 1963, where it received less ecstatic reviews and did not run nearly as long as it did in London.
- Lionel Bart's musical was adapted for the big screen in Oliver! (1968), and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1969. It featured Mark Lester as Oliver, Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as Sikes, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. It received better reviews than the show had. The film also won an Oscar for its director, Sir Carol Reed. Moody and Wild were also Oscar-nominated, but did not win. This is still the only film version of the novel to receive Oscar nominations.
- A 1985 BBC television drama adaptation in their Classic Serial strand, produced by Terrance Dicks and starring Eric Porter as Fagin.
- An animated interpretation by Disney called Oliver & Company (1988), loosely based on Dickens, about an orphaned cat named Oliver who meets a dog called Dodger.
- A television movie, Oliver Twist, was released in 1997.
- An ITV/PBS production, Oliver Twist, from 1999, adapted by Alan Bleasdale and starring Robert Lindsay as Fagin, and Andy Serkis as Bill Sikes.
- The 2003 movie Twist by director Jacob Tierney is loosely based on the novel but set in modern-day Toronto with male prostitution and drugs, rather than pickpocketing.
- Boy called Twist by director Timothy Greene (2004) is set in Cape Town, South Africa, in the street-kid scene. With its unglamorous but sympathetic account of city poverty, the film is true to Dickens' story.
- In 2005 director Roman Polanski released a new big-budget version of Oliver Twist.
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 intervened.
The renowned comic book creator, Will Eisner, disturbed by the anti-semitism in the typical depiction of Fagin, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.
- Online Text
- Oliver Twist, available freely at Project Gutenberg
- Oliver Twist - Easy to read HTML version.
- Oliver Twist – complete book in HTML one page for each chapter.
- Oliver Twist - Searchable HTML version.
- RSS Version - Read Oliver Twist in the RSS Version.
- Critical analysis
- When Is a Book Not a Book? Oliver Twist in Context, a seminar by Robert Patten from the New York Public Library