Charles DIckens's Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy’s Progress
Charles Dickens created an astonishing collection of literary masterpieces each of which tightly grasped the attention of the audience. Dickens was able to maintain a writing schedule that would have exhausted any other author. In slightly more than thirty years, Dickens published more than twenty novels, acted as editor for a variety of literary journals, created his own magazine, worked as a freelance reporter, and executed a series of charismatic public readings. His popularity established Dickens as one of the first “celebrities.” Crowds brimming with eager fans would accumulate as Dickens bellowed out the charming lines of his tantalizing novels. His significance and notoriety are still easily identified in contemporary literary cannons. Although his books sold and the audience waited on edge for the next installment of his works, Dickens was not given completely favorable reviews to every text.
Oliver Twist was begun in February 1837 and continued as monthly installments in Bentley’s Miscellany until April of 1839. Dickens originally titled the novel Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy’s Progress but it has since been shorten to simply Oliver Twist. Dickens finished writing the novel in the London of 1838 and the first edition of the novel was found on shelves in November of 1838. The novel falls into the genre of a children’s detective story but the novel also contains an aspect of social protest as Dickens details the Poor Laws and workhouses. Dickens uses his hyperbolic irony and sentimentalism to create characters currently residing in the underworld of industrial London. The themes that appear within the text are the delineation between good and evil, the hypocritical attitudes and behaviors of public institutions, and the ultimately flawed theory of individualism. Dickens uses mistaken identities and familial ties to create a story, which closely details the journey of a virtuous orphan through the mean streets of poverty (Spark Notes: Oliver Twist).
While Dickens was composing Oliver Twist, he was also working as editor of Bentleys Miscellany. As an author, Dickens rarely completely finished one work before beginning an entirely new project. For example, Pickwick Papers was not completed prior to his beginning of Oliver Twist. Nor was Oliver Twist completed before Dickens had moved on to Nicholas Nickleby. Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop were soon to follow. Dickens wrote at a fevered pace which would have been daunting to other authors. In addition to his rapid publication of novels, Dickens was also able to create strikingly differing works. His first serially published novel, Pickwick Papers, was fully of comic charisma; however, Gilbert Keith Chesterton states that Oliver Twist “is by far the most depressing of all his books” (Chesterton).
Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan who unwittingly stumbles upon his hidden fortune. The tale is one that vividly depicts the dismal prospects of one born into a workhouse without parents and is forced to survive on little or no compassion. Oliver is unloved and unwanted from the open of the novel. However, as the novel progresses, Oliver finds that his honest and kind disposition win him a variety of friends in high places. Although Fagin and the other street urchins continually seek to ruin Oliver’s connections, Oliver’s faithful heart find a home in the end. The novel demonstrates the benefits of a good will that may be found in the most unlikely of people. Oliver’s merits carry him through life and away from the poverty that capture those with weaker morals. In the conclusion of the tale, Oliver finds himself among those with equally good manners and morals. His situation is only improved through the inevitable triumph of good over evil.
Dickens initially published Oliver Twist in the format of serial publication. Dickens used the process of creating monthly installments to create a high level of suspense, leaving the audience eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series. Oliver Twist was reportedly “a part of everyday conversations, just as top rated television shows are for us today.” Dickens effectively used the publishing techniques to his benefit; he was able to work the system (Oliver Twist—The Author and His Times).
Interestingly, Dickens’s personal environment was greatly shaken in both a happy manner and a sad one during the publishing of Oliver Twist. In May of 1837 Mary Hogarth died, devastating Dickens. Hogarth, his sister-in-law, was a dear friend and supporter of Dickens. Many critics speculate that the characters of Rose and Nancy were modeled after Dickens’ companion Mary Hogarth. After Hogarth’s death, Dickens feelings of abandonment seep into the world of Oliver. Oliver fears the loss of Rose as Dickens mourns the loss of Mary (Oliver Twist—The Author and His Times). Catherine Dickens was also reported to have given birth to Charles, the first of ten children during this time (Victorian Web). The splendor of a new baby was contrasted with the great loss of a close friend. Dickens, in fact, was forced to take a break from his busy writing schedule to cope with the drastic changes that took place in his personal life at this time.
The Poor Laws were established prior to the publication of the novel. The Poor Laws, according to The Victorian Web, were created to destroy the relief programs that were in play since 1601. The Poor Laws generated a system of workhouses. The workhouses allowed for a program of assistance that did not merely dole out money but rather doled out food, shelter, and clothing. The Poor Laws provided an answer to the declining laws that were supporting the impoverished. The problems were obvious: the current system left the aged uncared for, the children ignorant and uneducated, and the lower class population starving. King George III proposed a plan to:
Stop the allowance system—to deprive the magistracy of the power of ordering out-door relief—to alter in certain case the constitution of parochial vestries—to give large discretionary powers to the central commissioners—to simplify the law of settlement and removal—to render the mother of an illegitimate child liable to support it. Dickens 366
However, the workhouses proved to be yet another place to shove the poor. The theory may have been formed from noble ideals but the foundations were flawed.
The boundaries and faults of the Poor Laws are blatantly exemplified in Oliver Twist. Oliver is forced to suffer the indignities of starvation, brutal treatment, and is damned to life in a workhouse. Dickens used his artistic talents to speak for the silent, to fight for the oppressed, and to champion those defeated. Dickens himself states: “It was my attempt, in my humble and far distant sphere, to dim the false glitter surrounding something which really did exist, by showing it in its unattractive and repulsive truth” (Dickens 6). Dickens used his literary engine to fuel the debate over the Poor Laws and to reveal the reality that so many unfortunate souls were forced to inhabit.
The novel was received in a variety of ways. Many hailed the novel as a “runaway bestseller” and an encore to the highly prized Pickwick Papers. On the other hand, the Jewish population as well as other critics found the novel to be far too sentimental and lacking. One of the major issues raised by an entire community against the novels was the portrayal Fagin, the evil Jew. Milton Kerker in his article “Charles Dickens, Fagin and Riah” states that Fagin may be the “most grotesgue and villainous Jew in all of English literature.” Fagin was found by the Jewish community to be a ruffian with the devil dwelling within his cold heart. In 1854 the Jewish Chronicle was outraged and presented the public with this criticism of Dickens. Later in 1863, Eliza Davis writes Dickens to question his portrayal of Fagin. Dickens responds to Davis by stating:
I must take leave to say, that if there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people, that I have done them what you describe as “a great wrong,” they are a far less sensible, a far less just, and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed them to be. Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a Jew, because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew. Dickens 378
The public did not openly object to the portrayal of Fagin until several years after the novel was originally published. However, despite the fact that Dickens maintained his innocence, Dickens did attempt to make alterations in the next edition of the novel to correct this offensive implication. In the 1867 edition of chapter 38, Fagin is referred to as “the Jew” more than 250 times. However, in later chapters he is referred to as “the Jew” only 32 times. This is thought to have been Dickens’s attempt to reconcile Fagin’s character with the Jewish community. Despite this characterization of Fagin and Dickens’s wording changes, Dickens never openly abused a Jewish person nor did he openly practice anti-Semitic opinions (Kerker).
Likewise, the Monthly Review of January 1839 demanded that Dickens used characters that are so low that sympathy cannot be created. The reviewer feels that although there were comic pieces worth noting, the ending does not comply with the standard notion that the evil ones must face strict consequences while the just are rewarded. The reviewer does not go so far as to claim Dickens to be an immoral writer but he does not treat the characters with the morals that would classify Dickens with the “highest rank of our moral fictionists.” Dickens is yet again commended for openly stating the plea of the downtrodden but in this reviewer’s opinion, the downtrodden are not moral enough to place Dickens in a higher class of fiction novelists (Dickens 403-405).
Just as the Monthly Review questions the worth of such characters as Nancy, William Makepeace Thackeray also claims that such characters are not worth the sympathy or the attention of the audience. Thackeray does allow for Dickens’s popularity but questions his use of setting and characters. True, Dickens can charm an audience like none other. True, one must continually read Dickens to satisfy some strange need. Unfortunately, the fact remains that Thackeray does not believe there is much to be gained by closely examining the life of the poor and forgotten (Dickens 408-410). In the opinion of Thackeray, would it not be much more prudent to bestow such kind sympathies upon a worthier class of characters? Character such as Amelia Osborne and Becky Sharp are worthy of moral scrutiny but Oliver Twist and the like shall remain in the gutter, below the view of the mainstream population.
Early reviews from The Examiner, September 10,1837, claim that this novel is an “exact painting” of the reality Dickens wished to present to the public. Dickens was praised for his capture of the emotions surrounding death of Nancy and the detailing of Oliver’s life as an orphan. Although the reviewer is surprised to see Dickens making use of the Poor Law Debates in the first chapters of the novel, the reviewer understands the philanthropy that Dickens is attempting to inspire (Dickens 399-401). In conclusion of this review, the author states: “We leave him most reluctantly, and so will every read who has any capacity to see and feel whatsoever is most loveable, hateful, or laughable, in the character of the everyday life about him” (401).
The Spectator states on November 24, 1838, that Dickens “has genius to vivify his observation.” Dickens is complimented for his powerful use of pathos and his description of truth. The reviewer admires Dickens’s ability to find good in all humanity despite the dirty surroundings of unfortunates such as Oliver. Dickens’s style is commended to be capable of an effective use of language while never sounding forced (Dickens 401-402).
The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres declares on November 24, 1838, that Dickens has “dug deep into the human mind; and he has nobly directed his energies to the exposure of evils—the workhouse, the starving school, the factory system, and many other things, at which blessed nature shudder and recoiled.” Dickens’s ability to capture the suffering of Oliver intrigues the reading audience. Those who are far removed from the factories and the workhouses are suddenly acutely aware of the plea of the poor and the corruption of the Poor Laws. Dickens’s has made a successful journey into social activism with the guidance of Oliver and his band of companions (Dickens 402-403).
The Quarterly Review of 1839 published a glowing review of the novel. The reviewer believed Dickens to be “a sign of the times” and as such, he provoked “more interest than that of Halley’s comet.” The reviewer felt that not only did he write just enough and not too much, but also he wrote with enough vigor to demand that the public read the next installment. His popularity was unparalleled and his installments were always immediately read. Dickens manages to tell of “real pain” while the novel lacks in false sentimentalism (Dickens 405-408). The reviewer states: “He deals truly with human nature, which never can degrade; he takes up everything, good, bad, or indifferent, which he works up into a rich alluvial deposit. He is natural, and that never can be ridiculous” (Dickens 406).
Ironically, Oliver Twist, one of Dickens’s earliest published works, returned to Dickens upon his death. During his career, Dickens performed public readings of his novels to large crowds of people. It was reported that such readings drew people from great distances to watch as Dickens reenacted his colorfully written scenes. During one of these readings, his last dramatic performance, Dickens suffered a collapse in April of 1869. Dickens was reading the portion of Oliver Twist where Sikes violently murders Nancy. The scene was “physically and emotionally exhausting” for the over-worked author. After this collapse, Dickens ceased to perform public readings of his novels. The stress on his body led to his death on June 8th of 1870. Dickens was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the time of his death (Oliver Twist—The Author and His Times).
Dickens has been criticized for his choice of characters and setting. At times the novel tends to shift to a sentimentality that leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the reading audience. The novel condemns the world of the Poor Laws by describing in great detail the life of a prostitute, orphan, gang of thieves, and other miscreants that grope their way along the underbelly of civilization. However, many of the reviewers felt that Dickens’s ability to color realism with his pen was worth reading. Although Fagin may have been referred to as “the Jew” numerous times, Dickens was able to effectively shed light upon the suffering of the impoverished. After all, Dickens’s goal was to pointedly describe the reality of where and how Oliver lived and survived the streets of a city that did not want him. The novel depicts the best of human nature in contrast with the worst of human nature. Couple the dynamic duo of good verse evil with the name of Charles Dickens and a best seller is a sure thing.
 The information provided can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist with authoritative test, backgrounds and sources, early reviews, and criticism included in the text. Fred Kaplan edits the edition with a preface written by Dickens. The edition was published by W. W. Norton & Company in New York in 1993. From this point, page number and author will refer to the edition.
Bloy, Marjie. The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. “Appreciations and Criticisms: Oliver Twist.”
Dickens, Charles. A Norton Critical Edition: Charles Dickens Oliver
Twist.” Ed. Fred Kaplan.
New York: Norton & Company, 1993.
Kerker, Milton. “Charles Dickens, Fagin, and Riah.” Luminaries.
“Oliver Twist—The Author and His Times.” Barron’s Book Notes.
Spark Notes: Oliver Twist. http://www.sparknotes.com