Oliver Twist is a well-known story, but the book is not quite as widely read as you might imagine. In fact, Time Magazine's list of the top 10 most popular Dickens' novels put Oliver Twist in 10th place, even though it was a sensational success in 1837 when it was first serialized and contributed the treacherous villain Fagin to English literature. The novel has the vivid storytelling and unimpeachable literary skill that Dickens brings to all his novels, but it also has a raw, gritty quality that may drive some readers away.
Oliver Twist was also influential in bringing to light the cruel treatment of paupers and orphans in Dickens' time. The novel is not only a brilliant work of art but an important social document.
'Oliver Twist': Indictment of the 19th-Century Workhouse
Oliver, the protagonist, is born in a workhouse in the first half of the nineteenth century. His mother dies during his birth, and he is sent to an orphanage, where he is treated badly, beaten regularly, and poorly fed. In a famous episode, he walks up to the stern authoritarian, Mr. Bumble, and asks for a second helping of gruel. For this impertinence, he is put out of the workhouse.
Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?
He then runs away from the family that takes him in. He wants to find his fortune in London. Instead, he falls in with a boy called Jack Dawkins, who is part of a child gang of thieves run by a man called Fagin.
Oliver is brought into the gang and trained as a pickpocket. When he goes out on his first job, he runs away and is nearly sent to prison. However, the kind person he tries to rob saves him from the terrors of the city gaol (jail) and the boy is, instead, taken into the man's home. He believes he has escaped Fagin and his crafty gang, but Bill Sikes and Nancy, two members of the gang, force him back in. Oliver is sent out on another job-this time assisting Sikes on a burglary.
Kindness Almost Saves Oliver Time and Again
The job goes wrong and Oliver is shot and left behind. Once more he is taken in, this time by the Maylies, the family he was sent to rob; with them, his life changes dramatically for the better. But Fagin's gang comes after him again. Nancy, who is worried about Oliver, tells the Maylies what's happening. When the gang finds out about Nancy's treachery, they murder her.
Meanwhile, the Maylies reunite Oliver with the gentleman who helped him out earlier and who-with the kind of coincidental plot turn typical of many Victorian novels-turns out to be Oliver's uncle. Fagin is arrested and hanged for his crimes; and Oliver settles down to a normal life, reunited with his family.
The Terrors Awaiting Children in London's Underclass
Oliver Twist is probably not the most psychologically complex of Dickens' novels. Instead, Dickens uses the novel to give readers of the time a dramatic understanding of the deplorable social situation for England's underclass and particularly its children. In this sense, it is more closely linked to Hogarthian satire than Dickens' more romantic novels. Mr. Bumble, the beadle, is an excellent example of Dickens' broad characterization at work. Bumble is a large, terrifying figure: a tin-pot Hitler, who is both frightening to the boys under his control, and also slightly pathetic in his need to maintain his power over them.
Fagin: A Controversial Villain
Fagin, too, is a wonderful example of Dickens ability to draw a caricature and still place it in a convincingly realistic story. There is a streak of cruelty in Dickens' Fagin, but also a sly charisma that has made him one of literature's most compelling villains. Among many film and television productions of the novel, Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin remains, perhaps, the most admired. Unfortunately, Guiness's makeup incorporated stereotypical aspects of portrayals of Jewish villains. Along with Shakespeare's Shylock, Fagin remains one of the most controversial and arguably antisemitic creations in the English literary canon.
The Importance of 'Oliver Twist'
Oliver Twist is important as a crusading work of art, although it did not result in the dramatic changes in the English workhouse system that Dickens may have hoped. Nevertheless, Dickens researched that system extensively before writing the novel and his views undoubtedly had a cumulative effect. Two English reform acts addressing the system actually preceded the publication of Oliver Twist, but several more followed, including the influential reforms of 1870. Oliver Twist remains a powerful indictment of English society in the early 19th Century.