In Oliver Twist, in accordance with Charles Dickens’s social theories, Oliver‘s promotion from a dreadful, lower-class existence to a privileged middle-class life is not a reward for virtuous action. Stephen Gill notes “there can be no negotiation for Oliver between the worlds of Oliver Twist”; he is caught by the “onslaught” of “the massed powers of Good and Evil” (xiii). Thus, what happens to Oliver is beyond Oliver’s control; as a poor, underprivileged workhouse orphan, he has a damaging childhood thrust upon him by ‘philosophical’ authorities. In spite of his damaging upbringing, Oliver proves to be incorruptible. David Paroissien finds that Oliver, “as the unwavering embodiment of goodness . . . stands in direct opposition to . . . Utilitarian Radicals” and their Benthamite philosophy that places “emphasis on selfishness as the defining characteristic of human behaviour” (19, 42). The orphaned Nancy, who has been corrupted by her life on the streets where she has lived since childhood, also stands in opposition to Utilitarian philosophy. Self-interest is not a consideration in her attempt to save Oliver; she refuses Rose’s help to better her circumstances (281-2). In proving to be innately ‘good’ Nancy partially redeems herself; but because she is unwilling to leave Sikes she brings about her own murder (328). Thus, Nancy is too psychologically damaged by her upbringing to be saved. Paroissien provides ample evidence to show that London’s street-children, and young women such as Nancy, did attach to undesirable and criminal characters, and hence were subject to the psychologically damaging aspects and life-threatening dangers of the conditions under which they were forced to live (93, 98, 236).
Nevertheless, there are a number of instances in Oliver Twist to indicate that Dickens is aware that whether an unfortunate childhood is truly damaging depends much on the nature of the child. For example, the street-children in Fagin’s den who seem to enjoy the criminal life-style simply fade out of the story: “all the hopeful pupils of the merry old gentleman . . . went to supper” (65-6). Conversely, young Charley Bates repents his earlier life of crime and “having a contented disposition, and a good purpose, succeeded in the end” in becoming “the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire” (373). But Noah Claypole, another street child, is only concerned for his own neck; so he gives up his criminal life to realise a “genteel subsistence” even though, true to his nature, he stays barely within the law (373). Even so, in his novel Dickens implies that poor orphaned children are intrinsically ‘good’ but that street-children are both psychologically damaged whereas workhouse children are disadvantaged and physically damaged. This is evidenced by the brief existence of “porochial” Dick, Oliver’s “little friend and playmate” in the “branch-workhouse” (19, 59, 123). Dick, glimpsed briefly in a garden, smiles faintly and tells Oliver, “I heard the doctor tell them I was dying . . . I dream of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake” (59). Dick could be seen as Dickens’ symbol for the death of innocence at the hands of the system and hence Dickens’ jab at the philosophers and their Benthamite ideology: Dick makes no mistakes, and learns nothing other than he is going to die; he asks Mr. Bumble to tell Oliver that “I was glad to die when I was very young; for, perhaps, if I had lived . . . my little sister, who is in heaven, might forget me . . . it would be so much happier if we were both children there together” (123-4). Thus, as a character in the novel the ideal child Dick is not very interesting, merely a little touch of sugar-sweet Victorian sentimentality: “Goodbye, dear! God bless you!” (59).
Oliver is portrayed very differently to Dick. Oliver is at once an individual and a representative figure. His experiences are those of other children in the workhouses and slums of Victorian England—he could be any child whatsoever: “he might have been the child of a nobleman or beggar” (19). Other than when the criminal types take the focal point in the writing, the other characters in the story are sometimes seen through Oliver’s focalisation by way of the third person omniscient narrator, and at all times enlarged upon by this narrator for Oliver’s sake. The narrator causes the reader to look through Oliver at the other characters and their actions; this factor, together with the assistance of the narrator’s omniscience, builds a rounded picture of Oliver’s tragic circumstances, and the events that bring about change. In one way Oliver seems to be character in a fairy story—a middle-class virtuous cast adrift in the streets of London—and hence a little unrealistic. Because Dickens’ third person omniscient narrator helps the reader to see things through Oliver’s eyes, this entity takes an almost child-like, innocent view of the various characters and events; and in giving those views expression the narrator promotes Oliver as a child of a tender sensibility and hence excites the reader’s emotional and ethical responses. Being a young child, Oliver relies on his instincts, he is unable to express himself articulately; thus, this external narrator who speaks for Oliver imbues the narrative with a sense of innocence and nightmare: Oliver sobbed, “I am only a very little boy, sir . . .”; “The child . . . looked into his companion’s face with tears of real agony” (39-40). Thus, the reader gains knowledge of the various characters’ personalities indirectly; that is, the narrator employs satire and irony and sentimentality, and builds the story’s aura of pathos, horror, and sentiment in order to highlight Oliver’s plight. Porter Abbott points out: “It is no exaggeration . . . to call narrative an instrument of power, and in fact many exceptionally powerful narratives reflect upon this power” (36).
Still, for the greater part of the novel Dickens portrays Oliver reasonably realistically as an individual. Like any real life child caught in desperate circumstances Oliver suffers when hungry, knows what it is to experience misery, and feels fear and great loneliness: “he burst into an agony of childish grief as the cottage-gate closed after him . . . and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world sank into the child’s heart for the first time” (23-4). Dickens further assists the reader to ‘see’ Oliver as a real life child by associating him with popular psychology. At Rose Maylie’s Oliver feels safe and falls into a peculiar waking sleep only to catch a glimpse of Monks and Fagin at the window. At first he thinks he is trapped in a nightmare, but the terror is “impressed upon his memory as if it had been . . . set before him from his birth”, and he wakes suddenly and realises it was not a dream (238-9). Paroissien says Oliver’s experience is Dickens’ oblique reference to a Dr. Robert Macnish, a well-known and highly respected Victorian doctor who delved into the psychology of dreams and first described this type of sleep phenomenon (101, 217). Dickens breaks into Oliver’s story to give a very precise description of this type of dream state; his narrator then resumes the story and Oliver experiences the sleep Dickens has just described (238-9). In giving Oliver this type of experience Dickens not only links him by covert means to a well-known and respected real life doctor and a real life experience with which his early readers would have been conversant, he also perpetuates the mimetic illusion of horror; the nightmare of Oliver’s old life intrudes into what he instinctively feels is a safe haven.
Oliver’s dream experience marks a turning point in the story. It heralds the plot involving Monks and which Dickens has not as yet revealed to the reader (238-9). So Monks does not appear until quite late in the story, but his inclusion allows Dickens to clarify the situation (227, 238, 356-9). Kindly Mr. Brownlow pressures the reluctant Monks to reveal the family relationships, the truths of inheritances and the reasons behind Oliver’s predicament and the truth behind Oliver’s plight (362). Mr. Brownlow deals with Monks and restores Oliver to his rightful inheritance (372-4). Dickens implies that once Monks reveals his part in Oliver’s plight, the reader should have instinctively known that there was something more to Oliver’s dire circumstances than merely being born into the workhouse. Monks’ sudden inclusion could be seen as an afterthought by Dickens. As Gill rightly points out, this factor and “the bewildering and complex reasons for Monks’ hatred of Oliver” are structural flaws in the narrative (viii). In fact, the narrative is flawed by frequent omissions, late inclusions and other inconsistencies in the plot. As Gill says, the novel which began as “a topical satire on the workhouse system and the role of the 1834 New Poor Law . . . became a moral fable about the survival of good, a romance in which a cheated orphan is restored to his inheritance” (ix).
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations London: Queensway, n.d.
—, Preface (dated 1867) Oliver Twist. By Dickens. London: Queensway, n.d. 13-16
—, Oliver Twist: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton, 1993.
—, Oliver Twist: With an Introduction and Notes by Stephen Gill. Ed. Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
—, Oliver Twist. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin, 2002.
Gill, Stephen. Introduction. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. vii-xxix.
Horne, Philip. Introduction. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens London: Penguin, 2002. xiii-xliv.
Paroissien, David. The Companion to Oliver Twist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1992.