Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress
Olivertwist front.jpg
Frontispiece and title-page, first edition 1838
Illustration and design by George Cruikshank
Author Charles Dickens
Illustrator George Cruikshank
CountryEngland
LanguageEnglish
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; or, The Parish Boy's Progress at Wikisource

Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, is the second novel by English author Charles Dickens. It was originally published as a serial from 1837 to 1839 and as a three-volume book in 1838. [1] The story follows the titular orphan, who, after being raised in a workhouse, escapes to London, where he meets a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin, discovers the secrets of his parentage, and reconnects with his remaining family.

Contents

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's 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 the 1948 film of the same name, starring Alec Guinness as Fagin; a highly successful musical, Oliver! (itself adapted into the Oscar-winning 1968 film), and Disney's 1988 animated feature film Oliver & Company. [5]

Publications

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

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. The children working there receive very little food; after six months, they draw lots, with the loser asking for another portion of gruel. Oliver is designated, and so he approaches workhouse manager Mr Bumble and humbly requests another serving. A great uproar ensues at this perceived act of rebellion.

Oliver is removed from the workhouse and sent into the service of the undertaker Mr Sowerberry. One day, his jealous co-apprentice, Noah Claypole, insults Oliver's mother and an enraged Oliver attacks him. When he is punished by Mr Sowerberry, Oliver runs 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 meets a young man named Jack Dawkins who calls himself "the Artful Dodger", offers him food and lodging and takes him to meet an infamous criminal known as Fagin, who trains orphan boys as pickpockets. Oliver innocently begins Fagin's training, but when he goes out with the Dodger and another boy and sees them stealing a handkerchief from an old gentleman named Mr Brownlow, he realizes the truth. While the Dodger and the other boy escape, Oliver is pursued, apprehended, formally arrested and tried before Magistrate Fang. Interceding for Oliver, Brownlow takes him 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

Worried that Oliver might incriminate him and his gang, Fagin sends a young woman named Nancy and her abusive lover, the robber Bill Sikes, to abduct Oliver and bring him back to Fagin's lair. Fagin forces him to participate in a burglary planned by Sikes. The robbery goes wrong; while Sikes escapes, Oliver, after having been wounded, ends up in the care of the people he was supposed to rob: Miss Rose and her guardian Mrs Maylie.

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

A mysterious man, known only as "Monks," teams up with Fagin, to prevent Oliver from learning of his past. Monks bribes Mr Bumble and his new wife, the former Widow Corney, for information on Oliver. Together, they dispose of a ring and medallion that had once belonged to Oliver's mother and had been stolen from her after she died. Nancy, racked with guilt for her role in Oliver's kidnapping, secretly spies on them and passes the information on to Rose Maylie, who tells Mr Brownlow. Meanwhile, the Artful Dodger is arrested for pickpocketing, tried and sentenced to Transportation to Australia.

Noah Claypole, who had fled to London with the Sowerberrys' maid Charlotte after robbing Mr Sowerberry, joins Fagin's gang. Following Fagin's orders, he follows Nancy and discovers that she regularly meets with the Brownlows and Maylies for the sake of Oliver's welfare. Fearing that Nancy has betrayed him and Sikes (which, unknown to him, she has refused to do), Fagin passes the information on to Sikes, who beats Nancy to death in a fit of rage and goes into hiding. He is recognised by an angry mob and attempts to flee. Going to Toby Crackit's hideout, he learns that Fagin has been arrested. When the mob catches up to him, he tries to escape over the rooftops by swinging on a rope, but while he is about to loop the rope about himself a vision of the dead Nancy's staring eyes terrorises him into losing his balance; in the fall, the looped rope catches him around the neck and hangs him.

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

Mr Brownlow has Monks arrested and forces him to divulge his secrets: he is actually Oliver's half-brother and had hoped to steal Oliver's half of their rightful inheritance. Brownlow begs Oliver to give half his inheritance to Monks and grant him a second chance, to which Oliver happily agrees. Monks emigrates to America, but squanders his money, relapses into crime and dies in prison. Fagin is arrested and sentenced to the gallows. The day before his execution, Oliver and Mr Brownlow visit him in Newgate Prison and learn the location of the documents proving Oliver's identity. Bumble and his wife lose their jobs and are forced to become inmates of the workhouse. Rose Maylie, who turns out to be Oliver's maternal aunt, marries and enjoys a long life. Oliver lives happily as Mr Brownlow's adopted son.

Characters

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.

Symbolism

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]

Characters

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. A shift in his perspective is seen in his later novel Our Mutual Friend , as he redeems the image of Jews. [18]

Reception

Contemporary reviewers including John Forster and the Literary Gazette praised the book for its realistic depiction of social conditions. However others such as Richard Ford considered it an exaggeration of poverty. [24]

Audio recordings

Dicken's novel has been recorded many times as an audiobook. Notable recordings include:

Film, television, radio and theatrical adaptations

Film

Television

Radio

Theatre

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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Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger, is a character in Charles Dickens's 1838 novel Oliver Twist. The Dodger is a pickpocket and his nickname refers to his skill and cunning in that occupation. In the novel, he is the leader of the gang of child criminals on the streets of London trained and overseen by the elderly Fagin. The term has become an idiom describing a person who engages in skillful deception.

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