Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is one of the most widely recognized and beloved stories of all time. The popularity of the novel and its author has made the book a frequent subject of literary criticism. Although the work has received mainly praise, some critics attack the novel. Since its publication, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist has evolved from being criticized as a social commentary and a work of art, to a literary and artistic composition.
Charles Dickens was born Charles John Huffam Dickens on February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England. Spending most of his childhood in London and Kent, Charles led a privileged life until 1824. It was then, while Charles was twelve years old, that his father, mother, and siblings were sent to debtor’s prison. Although Dickens escaped the same fate as his family, he was forced to support himself by working in a shoe-polish factory. The horrific conditions in the factory haunted Dickens for the rest of his life. Dickens’s childhood experiences with the English legal system and in the factories made him a life-long champion of the poor. His novels are filled with downtrodden figures such as abused, impoverished orphans. He had a profound sympathy for childhood suffering and a strong desire for social reform that touches his work at almost every level. These themes heavily influence Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens).
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Dickens left the factory, educated himself, and in 1827 took a job as a legal clerk. After learning shorthand, he began working as a reporter in the courts and Parliament. The great detail and precise description that characterize Dickens’ style in his novels are accredited to his experience as a reporter.
After finding success as a reporter, Dickens focused on writing novels. He wrote a best-selling collection of humorous stories called The Pickwick Papers about orphans. With his second novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens retained some of the humor and the title character of an orphan, but he wrote a book with a more complex plot and a grittier look at the horrors of London. Dickens list of literary accomplishments continues with Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Master Humphrey’s Clock (including Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge 1840-1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times for These Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), Our Mutual Friend (1865), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished 1870) (Dickens iv).
Published in monthly installments in Bentley’s Magazine before being released in its entirety, Oliver Twist, or The Parrish Boy’s Progress as it was also called, is the bildungsroman story of an orphan named Oliver Twist. The story begins with Oliver’s birth as an illegitimate child. His mother dies in childbirth and Bumble, a beadle for a local church, names the boy and takes him under his custody at the parish “baby farm” or orphanage. After defiantly asking for more food, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker. Clashes with other boys who ridicule him for not having a mother and being illegitimate get Oliver in more trouble. After running away, Oliver meets up with Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger. Oliver is brought to the hideout of Fagin, a master criminal and fencer of stolen goods, who decides to corrupt Oliver and use him in crimes. During a failed attempt to pick the pockets of a well-to-do businessman named Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is arrested. However, Mr. Brownlow chooses not to press charges against the boy and instead brings Oliver home. After Oliver is nursed back to health, he is sent out on an errand for Mr. Brownlow. While out on this errand, Oliver is kidnapped and brought back to Fagan by Nancy and Sikes, two other members of the gang. Fagin once again sends Oliver out to assist at a robbery, where he is shot and left by the other thieves. The occupants of the house, Rose Maylie and her aunt, take to Oliver and believe his pleas of innocence. A new villain named Monks is introduced and he and Fagin plot to kill Oliver. In the complex plot, it is revealed that Oliver is Monk’s half-brother and the son of Mr. Brownlow’s old friend Mr. Leeford. Mr. Leeford left a will that Oliver would inherit his estate, but only if he grew up and avoided being a criminal, otherwise it would go to Monk. Monk and Fagin tried to corrupt Oliver so they could split the inheritance. Nancy, who helped Rose and Mr. Brownlow uncover the secrets of Oliver’s past, is confronted by Sikes for revealing the gangs secrets. She is brutally murdered because of her involvement in helping Oliver. In the end, the good prevail and the evil are punished as Sikes is hanged while trying to escape the police, Fagin is apprehended and condemned to be hanged, and Bumble loses his job. Oliver, his friends, and family enjoy a happy life in the English countryside.
The Adventures of Oliver Twist was serialized by Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839, with three breaks in June and October 1837 and September 1838. Dickens revised the work extensively in 1838 for its release as a single work on November 9, 18938. A second edition published December 17, 1838 was actually an exact copy of the original with second edition printed on the title page. Chapman and Hall issued a third edition with a new title page and a preface in 1840. Dickens continued to revise the novel extensively, repunctuating, “curbing the melodramatic style”, and altering chapter divisions. The final product is the edition most commonly found. Oliver Twist was published in Philadelphia in 1838 by Lea and Blanchard, in Paris in 1838 by Baudry, and in Leipzig in 1843 by Tauchnitz. In addition, all editions were released with original artwork by George Cruikshank (Schlicke 429). These pictures were harsh, but Dickens “made no effort to get them softened” (Dickens vi). The heart-warming story has maintained such a strong love throughout generations that more dramatizations of Oliver Twist been produced than any other Dickens work. Plays, movies, and public readings of Oliver Twist are still very prominent and popular.
Charles Dickens was already established as a favorite writer of many people even before the release of Oliver Twist. This reputation ensured that his newest novel would be widely reviewed, for the most part with admiration. Dickens can be labeled as the first Victorian author because it was during the writing of Oliver Twist that the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne. She even read Dickens’ novel, calling it “excessively interesting” (Schlicke 428). Attaining Dickens’ goal, the novel was read as much as a social document as a work of art.
In 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, but after twenty years of marriage and ten children, Dickens fell in love with Ellen Ternan, an actress. Soon after, Dickens and his wife separated, ending a long stream of marital difficulties. Dickens continued to work long hours in his later years. He died of a stroke in 1870, following an impassioned public reading of Nancy’s death scene from Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens).
Oliver Twist has been critically analyzed in two major ways, as a work of art and as a social commentary. Since the novel was critical of social matters, and many of these problems have long been reformed, it is of no surprise that the only criticisms of Oliver Twist as a social piece are from a period very close to the novels publication.
the somber tone of Oliver Twist coming after The Pickwick Papers, was a surprise, though no disappointment, to readersWith Oliver Twist, Dickens the master of grand social vision, and Dickens the journalist, come to the front of the stage. (Wilson).
Alfred Rimmer praised Dickens for his detailed recreation of the London underworld.
The dens and stews of London are painted from life, and the picture is not inviting. The characters of Fagin or Bill Sikes are simply bad, as bad as they can be, without one silver thread lining the edge of the cloud. but if we read the police summaries we are sadly reminded that they are hardly extinct.
“The vile streets, accurately described and named; the bare, filthy rooms inhabited by Fagin and Sikes and the rest of them; the hideous public-houses to which thieves resort are before us with a haunting reality (Palmer). G.K. Chesterton also praises Dickens for “attacking things because they are bad.” “Oliver’s nearly becoming an apprentice chimney sweep also alluded to a scandalously dangerous juvenile job” (Collins 1747). The apprentice system was something Dickens was adamantly opposed to, and it would appear again in some of his later works, such as David Copperfield. George Orwell gives the best summary of Dickens abilities to criticize social problems by explaining that “In Oliver Twist Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked swallowed completely, (with Dickens) becoming a national institution himself.” The novel is indisputable “most alive in its presentation of social evils” (Collins 1748).
But Dickens received some criticism for his gritty portrayal of criminal life. Since the idea of a social novel was unheard of, some objected to hearing about the facets of life they wanted to ignore. By forcing people to hear about life on the streets, Dickens attained part of his goal for the novel (Tomlin).
Also questioning of Dickens’ work, David Philipson brings up an interesting point in his criticism of “The Jew in English Fiction”. “Strange it is that Charles Dickens, who, contributed the most toward reforming social abuses, should have joined the vulgar cry, and marked his worst character as a Jew.” Philipson’s biting remarks hold true, making Dickens appear hypocritical. In Dickens defense, he did edit out almost all references to Fagin as a Jew in later editions (Schlicke 433).
After the working conditions, child labor laws, and standard of living in England were improved, the incentive to criticize Oliver Twist for its social commentary faded. However, the criticisms of Oliver Twist as a literary work have continued from its publication through today.
The critics of Dickens’ plot and structure are not as kind as his social critics were, regardless of era. In 1849, James Oliphant cites “plots we find little to admire and much to condemn” as “the most serious problem” in Oliver Twist. Oliphant’s biggest objections are to the “lack of probability” the events in the plot would occur. Going on to say that the “remarkable coincidences are perfectly absurd”, the book is “too childish”, and that the freedom a novelist has to “arrange incidents to suit his purposes” must be managed “in a more convincing fashion, …or the whole illusion is gone.”
Phillip Collins praises Dickens for originality in story, saying Oliver Twist was the first English novel centered on a child. But he too has a problem with the “multiple coincidences” of the plot that repeatedly deliver Oliver to all the right people, as well as the confusion caused by involved heritages and relations between characters. “Flagrantly non-realistic” were the words of Angus Wilson. “There is no coherency in the structure of the thing; the plot is utterly without ingenuity, the mysteries are so artificial as to be altogether uninteresting (Palmer 4). Some explanation for the incoherency in structure can and have been attributed to the format in which Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, stopping every month and trying to do so at a point that would keep readers interested and in suspense.
Graham Greene provides another interesting twist in the importance of Oliver Twist. Greene opens by criticizing Oliver Twist’s lack of realism in plot and characters, saying that Dickens would not perfect this skill until later. The real genius of Oliver Twist, Greene argues, is the conflict between good and evil. It has Fagin and Sikes being the more interesting characters and a world without God. Consequently, the real interest in the novel is Oliver’s “struggles between good and bad”, and not his convenient ascension to the upper class.
G.K. Chesterton has a more involved interpretation of Oliver Twist as a literary work. He states “Oliver Twist is not of great value but of great importance. Some parts are so crude that one is tempted to say that Dickens would have been greater without it.” Chesterton continues to assert that the importance of Oliver Twist lies less in its value as great literature than as an insight to the “moral, personal, political” and social character of Dickens, important for analyzing Dickens later, better crafted works.
Although not as highly acclaimed as some of Dickens’ other works, Oliver Twist is a fascinating and touching story. The novel drew attention for being more than a great story, as it also helped to reform English law. Although Dickens’ objective of social reform has long been accomplished, the stories literary qualities keep it at the forefront of classic novels and criticism.