According to John Waller, Charles Dickens contributed to the view that “illegitimate offspring of gentle folk deserved greater esteem than the legitimate children of hardened parish paupers” (76). In his Oliver Twist, Dickens’s third person omniscient narrator reveals that Oliver is indeed quality by birth, but Dickens also reminds his readers that to be human is to be flawed—Oliver is illegitimate (18, 356-60, 372, 374). Oliver’s illegitimacy seems of little moment. Mr. Brownlow, an old middle-class gentleman, recognises “something” in Oliver’s face “that touches and interests” him (78). The gentle, middle-class, young woman Rose Maylie announces Oliver is “a child of a noble nature and a warm heart” (285). Although he is raised in the uneducated lower classes and has no-one of middle-class quality on which to model himself, Oliver’s diction and manners are, from the first, curiously that of an educated young man (69, 72). Waller finds Oliver is “a delicate and high-minded . . . with the manners of a son of a most distinguished gentleman” (246). Thus, Dickens implies that quality is goodness, and that quality will out. Waller says that “the theme of noble ancestry underpinned the entire plot of the novel. For it was Oliver’s decent parentage that made it believable for both Dickens and his readers that a low-down work’us boy could have resisted the blandishments of Fagin’s clan of pick-pockets and thieves” (246). Fred Kaplan says that in the “strongly patriarchal, Bible-driven culture” of Dickens’ era, “economics and morality neatly dove-tailed” (xi). The implication is that in Dickens’ era the middle classes, being economically sound, were also considered to be morally sound.
Kaplan writes that what actually saves Oliver “is a Victorian novelist’s and his culture’s residual faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness on earth and in heaven”; and he adds that in Oliver Twist, as in all Dickens’ novels, “vice is punished and virtue is rewarded” (ix). Thus, Dickens kills off the evil criminals and attempts an ideal solution to Oliver’s problems, but the picture he creates is lacking in substance. Strangely, Monks proves to be Oliver’s half-brother and the merciful Rose proves to be the long lost sister of Oliver’s dead mother, Agnes, who was “weak and erring” (374). When Mr. Brownlow and the reluctant Monks reveal the truths of these relationships, “a father, sister, and mother were gained and lost, in that one moment” (361-2). True to his unifying techniques Dickens makes the sisters two sides of a whole; but the virtuous Rose is allowed to live happily and glorifies the memory of her fallen sister: “Within the altar of the old village church there stands a white marble tablet, which bears as yet one word—‘Agnes!’ ” (374). In a sense, the sisters are united in Oliver—he is the off-spring of one and the blood nephew of the other with whom he is also united in merciful, Christian love for the memory of his dead mother. Towards the end of the novel Oliver’s manner becomes increasingly un-childlike: Oliver throws “his arms about Rose’s neck” and declares “I’ll never call her aunt . . . that something taught my heart to love so dearly from the first! Rose, dear, darling Rose!” (361-2). Now, Oliver seems strangely adult: he “relinquishes” “Mr. Brownlow’s hand” and says to Fagin who is on death-row, “Let us say a prayer . . . upon your knees with me, and we will talk to morning” (370). Oliver is strangely Dickens himself, but in this instance his authorial intrusion is somewhat covert: “Oh! God forgive this wretched man!” (371).
Kaplan also says that “any satisfaction the modern reader may feel in the rescue of a small boy and the restoration of a moral balance is likely to be undercut by the reader’s sense throughout that what threatens Oliver is far more powerful and real than what saves him” (ix). The further Oliver is distanced from his damaging childhood, the more unrealistic he appears and the more realistically the evil Fagin is portrayed; thus, the uneasy dichotomy between the unrealistic and the realistic aspects in the narrative become increasingly noticeable. In this last third of the novel Oliver fades into Dickens’ romantic idea of the social ideal and becomes an aesthetic type, and hence loses his representational value. Likewise, the evil Fagin’s London world—Oliver’s old unhappy world—is realistically portrayed, but Oliver’s new happy world with Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow is idealised. All Dickens does is move Oliver in space from the streets of London to a comfortable but dream-like middle-class existence. Thus, in spite of the apparent ease of life for those in the middle classes, the workhouses and the streets of London and hence the problems of the lower classes and the damaging childhoods continue to exist, even if Oliver has escaped them.
John Bayley suggests that “Fagin’s world and that of Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow” are not intended by Dickens to represent “two real places that exist separately in life”, but, rather, two places that “co-exist in consciousness: they are twin sides of the same coin of fantasy” (quoted in Horne xl-xli). David Malouf points out that “reading is an interiorising activity”; “it is one of the ways . . . by which we come . . . into full possession of a place . . . in the imagination” (36, 39). Thus, Oliver Twist is one world that consists of nightmare and dream—a literary landscape which belongs to the reader’s imagination. It could be suggested that by exercising his unifying techniques Dickens keeps his 1867 Preface promise to break the romantic illusion created by previous literature but at the same time explodes his own romantic idea of the social ‘ideal’: “all [Oliver’s] recent life had been but a happy dream” (355). G. K. Chesterton says: “As a nightmare, the work is really admirable. Characters which are not very clearly conceived as regards their own psychology are yet, at certain moments, managed so as to shake to its foundations our own psychology” (quoted in Horne xli).
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.
Kaplan, Fred. Introduction. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. New York: Norton, 1993. ix-xii.
Waller, John. The Real Oliver Twist. Cambridge, U.K.: Icon, 2005.