Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist
Olivertwist front.jpg
Frontispiece and title-page, first edition 1838
Illustration and design by George Cruikshank
Author Charles Dickens
Original titleOliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress
Illustrator George Cruikshank
GenreSerial novel
PublishedSerialised 1837–1839; book form 1838
PublisherSerial: Bentley's Miscellany
Book: Richard Bentley
OCLC 185812519
Preceded by The Pickwick Papers  
Followed by Nicholas Nickleby  
Text Oliver Twist at Wikisource

Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress, Charles Dickens's second novel, was published as a serial from 1837 to 1839, and as a three-volume book in 1838. [1] Born in a workhouse, the orphan Oliver Twist is bound into apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Oliver travels to London, where he meets the "Artful Dodger", a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin.


Oliver Twist unromantically portrays the sordid lives of criminals, and exposes the cruel treatment of the many orphans in London in the mid-19th century. [2] The alternative title, The Parish Boy's Progress, alludes to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress , as well as the 18th-century caricature series by painter William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress and A Harlot's Progress . [3]

In an early example of the social novel, Dickens satirises child labour, domestic violence, the recruitment of children as criminals, and the presence of street children. The novel may have been inspired by the story of Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose account of working as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s. It is likely that Dickens' own experiences as a youth contributed as well, considering he spent two years of his life in the workhouse at the age of 12 and subsequently, missed out on some of his education. [4]

Oliver Twist has been the subject of numerous adaptations, including a highly successful musical, Oliver! , the multiple Academy Award-winning 1968 motion picture, Disney's animated film Oliver & Company in 1988 and the 1948 film, starring Alec Guinness as Fagin. [5]


The novel was first published in monthly instalments, from February 1837 to April 1839, in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany . It was originally intended to form part of Dickens's serial, The Mudfog Papers . [6] [7] [8] George Cruikshank provided one steel etching per month to illustrate each instalment. [9] The novel first appeared in book form six months before the initial serialisation was completed, in three volumes published by Richard Bentley, the owner of Bentley's Miscellany, under the author's pseudonym, "Boz". It included 24 steel-engraved plates by Cruikshank.

The first edition was titled: Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy's Progress.

Cover, first edition of serial, entitled "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" January 1846 Twist serialcover.jpg
Cover, first edition of serial, entitled "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" January 1846

Serial publication dates: [10]

Plot summary

Mr Bumble by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke) Mr Bumble 1889 Dickens Oliver Twist character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke).jpg
Mr Bumble by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

Oliver Twist is born into a life of poverty and misfortune, raised in a workhouse in the fictional town of Mudfog. Around the time of Oliver's ninth birthday, Mr Bumble, the parish beadle, removes Oliver from the baby farm and puts him to work picking and weaving oakum at the main workhouse. One day, the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. This task falls to Oliver, who at the next meal comes forward trembling, bowl in hand, and begs the master for gruel with his famous request: "Please, sir, I want some more".

A great uproar ensues. The board of gentlemen who administer the workhouse offer £5 to any person wishing to take on Oliver as an apprentice. Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker employed by the parish, takes Oliver into his service. He treats Oliver better and, because of Oliver's sorrowful countenance, uses him as a mute at children's funerals. Oliver suffers torment at the hands of Noah Claypole, a fellow apprentice and "charity boy" who is jealous of Oliver's promotion, and Charlotte, the Sowerberrys' maidservant, who is in love with Noah. Oliver escapes from the Sowerberrys' house and later decides to run away to London to seek a better life.

George Cruikshank original etching of the Artful Dodger (centre), here introducing Oliver (right) to Fagin (left) Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin by Cruikshank (detail).jpg
George Cruikshank original etching of the Artful Dodger (centre), here introducing Oliver (right) to Fagin (left)

Oliver encounters Jack Dawkins, a pickpocket known as the "Artful Dodger", and his sidekick, Charley Bates. The 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". In this way, Oliver falls in with an infamous criminal known as Fagin, who trains the boys as pickpockets.

The Dodger and Charley steal the handkerchief of an old gentleman named Mr Brownlow and promptly flee. Mr. Brownlow sees Oliver running away in fright, and pursues him, thinking he was the thief. Mr Brownlow has second thoughts about the boy. He takes Oliver home and cares for him. As Oliver recovers, Brownlow and his housekeeper notice that Oliver resembles a woman depicted in a portrait hanging in Brownlow's home.

Bill Sikes by Fred Barnard Bill-sikes.jpg
Bill Sikes by Fred Barnard

Fagin, fearing Oliver might tell the police about his criminal gang, sends a young woman named Nancy, and her abusive lover, the robber Bill Sikes, to bring Oliver back to Fagin's lair. Fagin forces him to participate in a burglary. The robbery goes wrong, and the people in the house shoot Oliver in his left arm. After being abandoned by Sikes, the wounded Oliver makes it back to the house and ends up under the care of the people he was supposed to rob: Miss Rose and her guardian Mrs. Maylie, both of whom treat Oliver well, moved by the tragic stories he tells them.

Fagin by 'Kyd' (1889) Fagin by Kyd 1889.jpg
Fagin by 'Kyd' (1889)

Fagin plots with a mysterious man called "Monks" to find and destroy evidence of Oliver's true parentage. Now ashamed of her role in Oliver's kidnapping and worried for his safety, Nancy tells Rose Maylie, who tells Mr Brownlow. Fagin realizes that Nancy is up to something and sends Noah Claypole, who has joined Fagin's gang, to find out more. Noah discovers Nancy's meeting with Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow. Fagin passes the information on to Sikes, who beats Nancy to death in a fit of rage. The police and a mob pursue Sikes onto a roof and he dies in a failed attempt to escape.

Fagin in his cell, by British caricaturist George Cruikshank Cruikshank - Fagin in the condemned Cell (Oliver Twist).png
Fagin in his cell, by British caricaturist George Cruikshank

It is revealed that Monks and Oliver are half-brothers and Monks has been attempting to have Oliver killed so that Monks may inherit their father's fortune. Brownlow asks Oliver to give half his inheritance to Monks to give him a second chance; Oliver is more than happy to comply. Monks moves to "the new world", where he squanders his money, reverts to crime, and dies in prison. Fagin is arrested, tried and condemned to the gallows. On the eve of Fagin's hanging, Oliver, accompanied by Mr Brownlow in an emotional scene, visits Fagin in Newgate Prison, in hope of retrieving papers from Monks. Fagin is lost in a world of his own fear of impending death.

Oliver lives with Mr Brownlow, who adopts him. The Bumbles lose their positions and are reduced to poverty, ending up in the workhouse themselves. All the members of Fagin's gang suffer unhappy endings, except for Charley Bates, who turns against Fagin and becomes an honest citizen, moves to the country, and eventually becomes prosperous.


Major themes and symbols

Bill Sikes by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke) Bill Sikes 1889 Dickens Oliver Twist character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke).jpg
Bill Sikes by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)
The Artful Dodger by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke) Clarke-dodger.jpg
The Artful Dodger by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

In Oliver Twist, Dickens mixes grim realism with 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 options seem to be the workhouse, a life of crime symbolised by Fagin's gang, a prison, 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 steers away from evil when those around him give in to it, and in proper fairy-tale fashion, he eventually receives his reward – leaving 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 outcast, orphan boy could expect to lead in 1830s London. [11]

Poverty and social class

Poverty is a prominent concern in Oliver Twist. Throughout the novel, Dickens enlarged on this theme, describing slums so decrepit that whole rows of houses are on the point of ruin. In an early chapter, Oliver attends a pauper's funeral with Mr Sowerberry and sees a whole family crowded together in one miserable room. This prevalent misery makes Oliver's encounters with charity and love more poignant. Oliver owes his life several times over to kindness both large and small. [12]

Oliver is wounded in a burglary, by George Cruikshank. Oliver Twist - Cruikshank - The Burgulary.jpg
Oliver is wounded in a burglary, by George Cruikshank.


Dickens makes considerable use of symbolism. 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 criminal world; he makes his first appearance standing over a fire holding a toasting fork, and he refuses to pray on the night before his execution. [13]


The Last Chance, by Cruikshank. Cruikshank - The Last Chance (Oliver Twist).png
The Last Chance, by Cruikshank.

In the tradition of Restoration Comedy and Henry Fielding, Dickens fits his characters with appropriate names. Oliver himself, though "badged and ticketed" as a lowly orphan and named according to an alphabetical system, is, in fact, "all of a twist." [14] However, Oliver and his name may have been based on a young workhouse boy named Peter Tolliver whom Dickens knew while growing up. [15]

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's whim, shows the mindless brutality of the master. This is also illustrated when Sikes dies and the dog immediately dies as well. [16]

Nancy, by contrast, redeems herself at the cost of her own life and dies in a prayerful pose. She is one of the few characters in Oliver Twist to display much ambivalence. Her storyline in the novel strongly reflects themes of domestic violence and psychological abuse at the hands of Bill. Although Nancy 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 Dickens was later criticised for giving to a "thieving, whoring slut of the streets" such an unaccountable reversal of character, he ascribed her change of heart to "the last fair drop of water at the bottom of a dried-up, weed-choked well". [17]

Allegations of antisemitism

Dickens has been accused of portraying antisemitic stereotypes because of his portrayal of the Jewish character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Paul Vallely writes that Fagin is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature, and one of the most vivid of Dickens's 989 characters. [18] Nadia Valman, in Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, argues that Fagin's representation was drawn from the image of the Jew as inherently evil, that the imagery associated him with the Devil, and with beasts. [19]

The novel refers to Fagin 274 times [20] in the first 38 chapters as "the Jew", while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned. [18] In 1854, The Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathizing heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed." Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew." [21] It is widely believed that Fagin was based on a specific Jewish criminal of the era, Ikey Solomon. [22] Dickens commented that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish people, saying in a letter, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them." [23] Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens's home in 1860 when he had put it up for sale, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. While Dickens first reacted defensively upon receiving Davis's letter, he then halted the printing of Oliver Twist, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which explains why after the first 38 chapters Fagin is barely called "the Jew" at all in the next 179 references to him. Later, we see a shift in his perspective as he redeems the image of Jews in Our Mutual Friend [18]

Film, television and theatrical adaptations




The earliest known playbill of a production of Oliver Twist. Marylebone Theatre, 1838 Oliver Twist Pavilion Theatre 1838.jpg
The earliest known playbill of a production of Oliver Twist. Marylebone Theatre, 1838

See also

Related Research Articles

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