Oliver Twist

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Coffins Symbol Icon
Coffins crop up repeatedly in the novel, and symbolize not only the proximity of death throughout Oliver Twist, but the very real possibility that Oliver himself will not live long enough to realize his high birth and receive his due inheritance. Oliver is apprenticed, first, to Sowerberry, a coffin-maker, and is forced to sleep among the coffins while in the house. Oliver is made to witness numerous burials while working as a "mute" mourner for Sowerberry—someone brought along to enlarge the size of a funeral party. Other characters in the novel, too, use coffins in their figures of speech: Monks, on seeing Oliver in the town of Chertsey, while Oliver is delivering a letter, utters an oath involving the word, and Nancy tells Rose and Brownlow, later, that the only home she will ever know is the final home provided by a coffin. Indeed, the novel ends with a bittersweet image of a tomb for Agnes, Oliver's unwed mother, in the local church near where Oliver settles; this tomb has no coffin, symbolizing the fact that, though Agnes was a good women, she committed a crime against God by having a child out of wedlock, and her body was not buried with the rest of the family but rather interred in a shallow grave near the workhouse. Thus Oliver manages, at the end of the novel, to avoid the grisly fate, the waiting coffin, reserved for others—Nancy and his mother among them.

Coffins Quotes in Oliver Twist

The Oliver Twist quotes below all refer to the symbol of Coffins. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Oliver Twist published in 2002.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Then come with me . . . your bed's under the counter You don't mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn't much matter whether you do or don't, for you can't sleep anywhere else. Come . . . !

Related Characters: Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (speaker), Oliver Twist
Related Symbols: Coffins
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another famous scene, and one of the more immediately comic depictions of just how deplorable the conditions are in which Oliver is expected to live. Sowerberry, despite the inherent black humor in what he is proposing, is not kidding. He really does expect his young apprentice, who has no family, to sleep among the coffins he is assembling, in which he will inter dead bodies. Sowerberry does not care at all that this might frighten Oliver. Indeed, he seems to delight in the idea that Oliver would be scared and made to suffer.

In the early pages of Oliver Twist, then, Dickens tests the limits of narrative plausibility - the coffin-maker's name is, after all, Sowerberry ("sower" as in planting things in the ground, and "berry" as in "bury") - and the limits of Oliver's own physical and psychological endurance. Indeed, everyone in Oliver's life will test him in this way, and he will continually rise to the challenge that people in positions of authority put to him. 

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Chapter 33 Quotes

Death! Who would have thought it! Grind him to ashes! He's start up from a marble coffin, to come in my way!

Related Characters: Monks (speaker), Oliver Twist
Related Symbols: Coffins
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an instance of foreshadowing, and of the nature of coincidence and apparent coincidence in the novel. Oliver, running back to the Maylie's house after having delivered a letter for Dr. Losborne, who is to help Rose in her illness, runs straight into the man who will turn out to be Monks. And Monks, though he seems only to "accidentally" be in the same place as Oliver, is indeed following him, and has had his eye on him. Oliver, of course, cannot know this, nor can he know what will be revealed later - that Monks is Oliver's half-brother, and has been trying to frame Oliver as a thief in order to "ruin" Oliver. 

Monks brings up the "coffin" again, a symbol that recurs in the novel. The coffin is emblematic, of course, of the omnipresence of death - and it is also a piece of workmanship, and a trade, into which Oliver almost himself enters. Oliver, wherever he turns, cannot seem to avoid the coffin - they surround him, as does violence and death on the difficult streets of London. 

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Coffins Symbol Timeline in Oliver Twist

The timeline below shows where the symbol Coffins appears in Oliver Twist. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
...a ship. On his way back to the workhouse, the beadle encounters Mr. Sowerberry, a coffin-maker, who looks to collect money for recent coffins he has made for the workhouse, and... (full context)
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
...down in the basement. Mrs. Sowerberry then shows Oliver upstairs, to the attic containing the coffins, where Oliver is to sleep. (full context)
Chapter 5
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
Oliver spends the night, alone, among the coffins, and can barely sleep, he is so disturbed by the strange and macabre sight of... (full context)
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
...Sowerberry that a woman in the parish has died, and is in need of a coffin and a funeral preparation. The beadle does not ask after Oliver, nor does he seem... (full context)
Chapter 6
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
...a "mute," and because it's a time of year when sickness is more prevalent, the coffin trade increases, and Oliver attends more funerals. Oliver notes that many mourners—including people who have... (full context)
Chapter 7
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
Sowerberry beats Oliver to Bumble's and Mrs. Sowerberry's satisfaction, then has him sleep in the coffin workshop alone. That night, Oliver realizes how alone he is in the world, and resolves... (full context)
Chapter 27
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
...go to Sowerberry's to make arrangements for Old Sally's funeral. When he arrives at the coffin-maker's house, Bumble walks in on Noah Claypole and Charlotte flirting, kissing one another, and having... (full context)
Chapter 33
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
...Oliver caused; the strange man says, among other things, "He'd start up from a marble coffin, to come in my way!" Oliver is perturbed by this man's behavior, but continues running... (full context)
Chapter 40
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
...river Thames, and that the woman who once had this proof (Sally) is "in her coffin." Further, Monks reveals that Oliver is of high birth, and that if he finds out... (full context)
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
...Rose but takes her blessings, and saying that she (Nancy) has "no roof but a coffin-lid," heads out again into the night, leaving Rose shocked by the evening's revelations. (full context)
Chapter 53
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon
Individualism and Social Bonds Theme Icon
Social Forces, Fate, and Free Will Theme Icon
City and Country Theme Icon
...village. The final paragraph of the novel reveals that an empty tomb, one without a coffin, has been kept for Agnes in the local church—though she was a loving woman, she... (full context)