Oliver Twist is the story of a young orphan, Oliver, and his attempts to stay good in a society that refuses to help. Oliver is born in a workhouse, to a mother not known to anyone in the town. She dies right after giving birth to him, and he is sent to the parochial orphanage, where he and the other orphans are treated terribly and fed very little. When he turns nine, he is sent to the workhouse, where again he and the others are treated badly and practically starved. The other boys, unable to stand their hunger any longer, decide to draw straws to choose who will have to go up and ask for more food. Oliver loses. On the appointed day, after finishing his first serving of gruel, he goes up and asks for more. Mr. Bumble, the beadle, and the board are outraged, and decide they must get rid of Oliver, apprenticing him to the parochial undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry. It is not great there either, and after an attack on his mother’s memory, Oliver runs away.
Oliver walks towards London. When he is close, he is so weak he can barely continue, and he meets another boy named Jack Dawkins, or the artful Dodger. The Dodger tells Oliver he can come with him to a place where a gentleman will give him a place to sleep and food, for no rent. Oliver follows, and the Dodger takes him to an apartment in London where he meets Fagin, the aforementioned gentleman, and Oliver is offered a place to stay. Oliver eventually learns that Fagin’s boys are all pickpockets and thieves, but not until he is wrongfully accused of their crime of stealing an old gentleman’s handkerchief. He is arrested, but the bookseller comes just in time to the court and says that he saw that Oliver did not do it. The gentleman whose handkerchief was taken, Mr. Brownlow, feels bad for Oliver, and takes him in.
Oliver is very happy with Mr. Brownlow, but Fagin and his co-conspirators are not happy to have lost Oliver, who may give away their hiding place. So one day, when Mr. Brownlow entrusts Oliver to return some books to the bookseller for him, Nancy spots Oliver, and kidnaps him, taking him back to Fagin.
Oliver is forced to go on a house-breaking excursion with the intimidating Bill Sikes. At gun point Oliver enters the house, with the plan to wake those within, but before he can, he is shot by one of the servants. Sikes and his partner escape, leaving Oliver in a ditch. The next morning Oliver makes it back to the house, where the kind owner, Mrs. Maylie, and her beautiful niece Rose, decide to protect him from the police and nurse him back to health.
Oliver slowly recovers, and is extremely happy and grateful to be with such kind and generous people, who in turn are ecstatic to find that Oliver is such a good-natured boy. When he is well enough, they take him to see Mr. Brownlow, but they find his house empty—he has moved to the West Indies. Meanwhile, Fagin and his mysterious partner Monks have not given up on finding Oliver, and one day Oliver wakens from a nightmare to find them staring at him through his window. He raises the alarm, but they escape.
Nancy, overhearing Fagin and Monks, decides that she must go to Rose Maylie to tell her what she knows. She does so, telling Rose that Monks is Oliver’s half-brother, who has been trying to destroy Oliver so that he can keep his whole inheritance, but that she will not betray Fagin or Sikes. Rose tells Mr. Brownlow, who tells Oliver’s other caretakers, and they decide that they must meet Nancy again to find out how to find Monks.
They meet her on London Bridge at a prearranged time, but Fagin has become suspicious, and has sent his new boy, Noah Claypole, to spy on Nancy. Nancy tells Rose and Mr. Brownlow how to find Monks, but still refuses to betray Fagin and Sikes, or to go with them. Noah reports everything to Fagin, who tells Sikes, knowing full well that Sikes will kill Nancy. He does. Mr. Brownlow has in the mean time found Monks, who finally admits everything that he has done, and the true case of Oliver’s birth.
Sikes is on the run, but all of London is in an uproar, and he eventually hangs himself accidentally in falling off a roof, while trying to escape from the mob surrounding him. Fagin is arrested and tried, and, after a visit from Oliver, is executed. Oliver, Mr. Brownlow, and the Maylies end up living in peace and comfort in a small village in the English countryside.
OLIVER TWIST, a rich tapestry of English society in the 1830’s, has two distinct strands. In the first chapters, Dickens satirizes Victorian social institutions. Born in a workhouse, the young protagonist of unknown (but genteel, as it turns out) parentage is arbitrarily given the name Oliver Twist. His subsequent experiences of charity at the hands of the parish beadle Mr. Bumble, the workhouse directors, the magistrates, and the household of the undertaker to whom he is apprenticed sharply indicate the hypocrisy, stupidity, and cruelty of the so-called respectable world.
Running away to London, Oliver finds himself in a warmer though not actually kinder milieu--the urban underworld of thieves. In depicting the wily old Jew Fagin and his gang--the Artful Dodger, brutal Bill Sykes, Nancy, and others--the narrative becomes more sentimental and more humorous than in the early chapters. Though Dickens’ moral ties are with Oliver and the virtuous middle-class characters (Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies), his interests and sympathies seem to lie with the outlaws.
Throughout the novel, Oliver himself is a mere pawn. Fagin tries to make a thief of the naive boy, who is rescued, recaptured, and saved again. The mysterious Monks, who turns out to be Oliver’s half brother, would like the child to go bad: If debased, Oliver will lose his share of their late father’s estate. Oliver, however, proves passively incorruptible. The novel ends with nearly everyone where he or she should be. The genteel characters live together in a country village that is heaven on earth; the criminals are dead or punished. Only in the case of Nancy, viciously murdered for passing information to Rose Maylie, is conduct not appropriately rewarded.
OLIVER TWIST’S plot is intricate and governed to an improbable degree by coincidence. The book’s chief excellences are its vivid descriptions of London and its remarkable exploration of the criminal mind. The complexities of the satanic but amusing Fagin, the dishonest but engaging and resourceful Dodger, and Nancy, a woman of intelligence and good intentions trapped by her social circumstances and her love for an evil man, fascinated the book’s contemporary audience and continue to engage readers.
Anderson, Roland F. “Structure, Myth, and Rite in Oliver Twist.” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 3 (Spring, 1986): 238-257. Anderson explores the rites of passage that the plot of the novel depends on and demonstrates how the narrative structure itself seems to be centered in the myths associated with a rite of passage for a young man.
Dunn, Richard J. “Oliver Twist”: Whole Heart and Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1993. A thorough reader’s companion to the story. Dunn closely examines both the literary and historical context of the novel and includes five critical readings of Oliver Twist. This is perhaps the most useful text for beginning readers of the novel.
Ginsburg, Michal Peled. “Truth and Persuasion: The Language of Realism and of Ideology in Oliver Twist.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20, no. 3 (Spring, 1987): 220-226. Ginsburg discusses the rhetorical methods that Dickens is using in the narrative voice of the novel to persuade the reader that most commoners in Victorian Britain were living difficult lives because of their low socioeconomic status. He suggests that this novel was Dickens’ call for action against the industrialists.
McMaster, Juliet. “Diabolic Trinity in Oliver Twist.” Dalhousie Review 61 (Summer, 1981): 263-277. McMaster believes that the three characters Fagin, Sikes, and Monks are a depraved inversion of the holy trinity, representing knowledge, power, and love. Each of these characters takes one of the aspects of the trinity and uses it in an evil way.
Wheeler, Burton M. “The Text and Plan of Oliver Twist.” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 12 (1983): 41-61. Wheeler discusses unanswered questions and contradictions in the novel. Explains that Dickens did not intend to turn what had begun as a short serial work into a novel and thus did not plan a credible plot.