Oliver Twist Essay, Research Paper
Advanced Placement English
Literature and Composition
January 12, 2001
A Criticism of Society or a Biography
With all of the symbolism and moral issues represented in Oliver Twist, all seem to come from real events from the life of its author, Charles Dickens. The novel’s protagonist, Oliver, is a good person at heart surrounded by the filth of the London streets, filth that Dickens himself was forced to deal with in his everyday life. It’s probable that the reason Oliver Twist contains so much fear and agony is because it’s a reflection of occurrences in Charles Dickens’ past. Oliver Twist also brought to light the evils of social injustice and the victims of it.
During his childhood, Charles Dickens suffered much abuse from his parents. This abuse is often expressed in his novel. For example, while suffering from starvation and malnutrition for a long period of time, Oliver was chosen by the other boys at the orphanage to request more gruel at dinner one night. After making this simple request, the master (at the orphanage) aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with a ladle and placed him confinement. As noted by Patricia Marks in her article on Dickens, “childhood experience and suffering had emerged as a significant new topic in romantic poetry, and Dickens was personally impelled towards it by memories of his own pre-teenage years when, with the rest of his family in prison and himself alone, he was thrown into manual labour.” Dickens was even quoted as saying, “I might easily have been, for any care that
was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” This quote could relate to Oliver’s first
encounter in London, which was with a member of a criminal gang who sought to recruit him.
Phillip Collins believed that throughout Dickens’ lifetime, he appeared to have acquired a fondness for “the bleak, the sordid, and the austere,” due to Dickens’ colorful description of London. Most of Oliver Twist, for example, takes place in London’s lowest slums. The city is described as a maze, which, as Richard Ford put it “involved a mystery of darkness, anonymity, and peril.” Many of the settings, such as the pickpocket’s hideout, the surrounding streets, and the bars, are also described as dark, gloomy, and bland. But in creating this environment, Dickens makes Oliver a symbol for good or an archetypal figure like Christ or the Phoenix. For example, even while his life was in danger while in the hands of Fagin and Bill Sikes, two conniving pickpockets, Oliver refused to participate in the stealing which he so greatly opposed.
Obviously, escape is an important topic in Oliver Twist. All Oliver really longed for was to escape from harsh living conditions and evil surroundings which he had grown up in. Oliver is seeking various forms of escape from conditions that make him unhappy like his loneliness and starvation. Since dealing with escapism, it is not surprising that death is also a major symbol in this story. In the novel, death and coffins symbolize a happy and peaceful manner of escape, expounding more on the somewhat morbid tone of this novel.
Philip Collins said that Oliver Twist “announces two central concerns of Dickens’s fiction: seeing characters in relation to institutions, and referring to important topicalities. How to deal with paupers, criminals, and children were urgent and controversial issues, in which Dickens took a prolonged and well-informed interest, outside as well as in his fiction.”
Most of Oliver Twist seems to imply that it is better to be a thief than to be alone. This
tends to make the reader think that Dickens favors the criminal aspect of his novel over the moral
side. However, the conflict between the individual and the institution leads to Dickens’ criticism of social injustices such as injustices towards the poor.
During its time of publication, Oliver Twist took the form of a new type of English prose. It depends heavily on the use of abstraction, or the avoidance of various facts, like how Oliver just happens to meet old family friends and relatives in the vast city of London. However, the novel has it’s own form of narration. Oliver Twist is written in the third person, therefore the reader gains a view of the story from the position of an onlooker or outsider, making the reader semi-impartial and allowing the reader to form their own opinions about the characters from “watching them.” With a theme dealing primarily in social injustices Oliver Twist has a lot to offer society in terms of pointing out many problems which still exist today, such as child abuse and injustice to the poor. All of which are bad things in our society that are not usually in the spotlight. In order to conquer these evils, they must first be understood and explaining the severity of these experiences seems to be a job that Charles Dickens did very well.
Collins, Philip. “Oliver Twist.” Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. 3. Ed. D.L.
Kirkpatrick. Chicago and London: St. James Press, 1991. 1747-48.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Avenel Books, 1985.
Ford, Richard. “Oliver Twist.” The Chelsea House of Literary Criticism, Vol. 8. Ed. Harold
Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Marks, Patricia. “Charles Dickens.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction, 2nd ed. Ed. Frank N.
Magill. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1983. 743-56