Oliver Twist

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Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oliver Twist, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Poverty, Institutions, and Class Theme Icon

Oliver Twist is a sustained attack on the British Poor Laws, a complex body of law that forced poor families to labor in prison-like "workhouses." One of the novel's effects is, simply, to describe what poverty was like at this time in England. Although many parts of English society had come in contact with the poor, few had read accounts of what it meant to be poor. Simply by telling of conditions in the workhouse, Dickens does a service to the English poor—he shows they are human beings, and that they are not treated as such.

Dickens' description of the workhouses, and of Bumble and Mrs. Bumble especially, also serves to show that the Poor Laws are not simply dehumanizing—they are a part of the cycle of poverty rather than a remedy for it. The workhouse provides Oliver and others with no meaningful skills, and it feeds them so little that many simply become sick and die. Bumble is a "beadle," or an Anglican Church official in charge of managing the poor within each county. Dickens shows that Bumble behaves "un-Christianly" in hoping simply to shelve the poor in the workhouse, and to prevent them from leading meaningful lives. The novel's goal, then, is not just to describe English poverty—it is actively to change perceptions of both poverty and the general sense of Victorian society that poverty is being dealt with humanely and appropriately, in the hopes of changing society.

Dickens' argument about poverty, social institutions, and class immobility is a complex imagining of the interrelation of the three. Dickens believes that workhouses play to the worst desires of people in power—people like Sowerberry and the Bumbles—to keep the poor poor. The workhouses then enable the middle and upper classes to argue for a self-fulfilling prophecy: that people who have no options in life, no ability to make a positive contribution to society, either die or become society's outcasts. Dickens does not excuse crime committed by those who are inherently evil (Fagin and Sikes), but he does tend to be more sympathetic to the lives of those that have been determined by terrible circumstances (Oliver, Nancy, Bates and the Dodger). Dickens champions Oliver above all, since Oliver struggles so mightily to maintain his goodness, and manages to do so.

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Poverty, Institutions, and Class Quotes in Oliver Twist

Below you will find the important quotes in Oliver Twist related to the theme of Poverty, Institutions, and Class.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he [Oliver] might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar . . . . But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed . . . a parish child . . . the orphan of a workhouse.

Related Characters: Oliver Twist
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrator notes here, there is no difference, in a newborn child, between being wealthy and being poor - or, for that matter, being lucky or unlucky, being intelligent or unintelligent. For a newborn, life is utterly a blank slate - and it awaits the impress of the events that happen to a person as he or she ages.

Oliver Twist is, among other things, a novel about how people court fate, and how people change their fates - how both people's decisions and the situations of their environment impact the kinds of lives they lead. Oliver is a child who takes life by the horns, who is willing to attempt scary or dangerous things in order to improve his station. He is also a child who, by any account, has experienced bad luck at an early age - he is here "ticketed" as seemingly headed for a life of poverty and labor. The only way he can change this fate is through more luck, and through the sheer force of his will. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!
For more! . . . Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?
- - -
That boy will be hung . . . I know that boy will be hung.

Related Characters: Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous scenes in the book - one that has seeped into the popular culture, even for those who haven't read Oliver Twist. This is Oliver's first act of rebellion. It is also a polite act, one that is designed not just to better his own circumstances but the circumstances of those around him. Oliver believes that because he is hungry, and because he is fed so very little, it would not be unreasonable to ask those in positions of authority for more food. 

But, of course, this is simply not done - not because getting more food would be a bad thing, or a waste of resources, but because those in charge have not thought about the condition of the boys' lives at all. This kind of indifference to the suffering of others is a hallmark of corrupt people in power in Oliver Twist, and indeed throughout Dickens' novels more generally. And it is this indifference that Oliver seeks to push back against. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

Oliver fell on his knees, and clasping his hands together, prayed that they would order him back to the dark room—that they would starve him—beat him—kill him if they pleased—rather than send him away with that dreadful man [Gamfield, the chimney-sweep].

Related Characters: Oliver Twist
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is an indication of just how cruel and unfair Gamfield will be. Oliver hates the workhouse, and cannot imagine living there another second--that is, until he realizes he might also have to live with a violent man, whose work is dirty, laborious, and incredibly dangerous for those boys employed to do it.

As throughout the novel, this passage is an instance of the immensely difficult choices Oliver is forced to make at every term. Is it sensible to want to return to the workhouse, where the administrators hate him, and where he has already made a name for himself as a "rabble rouser"? Or is it better to go off with a man Oliver doesn't know, who promises to employ him in a field that has caused many other children to perish? Oliver is forced to make this decision - and to do so at an age when boys of privilege are largely playing with their friends and enjoying their time with their families. 

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. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

Send Oliver with them . . he will be sure to deliver them safely, you know.
Yes; do let me take them, if you please, sir. . . . I'll run all the way, sir.

Related Characters: Oliver Twist (speaker), Mr. Grimwig (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Here is another instance in which Oliver's goodwill is tested by those around him, especially by those in positions of authority. Brownlow is inclined to trust Oliver, to believe that he is a young boy in the city without a family, and that he is in need of help. But Grimwig wants proof of Oliver's good will. He wants to know that he is not a con artist, that he is not a boy who will engage in treacherous behavior, or rob his benefactor. Thus Grimwig tells Oliver to go to the bookseller with money to fetch a book - and if Oliver is honest, he will return.

It is exactly this kind of circumstance, however, where Dickens decides to test Oliver's fate. Oliver is caught at the bookseller's by Nancy, and then delivered back to Sikes - he does not have a chance to announce to Brownlow and Grimwig what has happened to him, and so they naturally assume that he's run off with their money, and that they cannot trust him. In this instance, then, Oliver's bad luck has caught up to his good intentions - he is trapped.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I should like . . . to leave my love to poor Oliver Twist, and to let him know how often I have sat by myself and cried to think of his wandering about in the dark night with nobody to help him.

Related Characters: Dick (speaker), Oliver Twist
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

DIck is an especially saintly character in the workhouse, and another foil for Oliver - indeed, if the Dodger is the "bad" version of the hero, then Dick is the perfect one, a boy who is so sick he cannot participate in life's events, but who nevertheless has the finest of feelings and the best of intentions (similar to Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol). Dick tells Bumble that he wishes to leave Oliver his "love," because he wants the best for Oliver. And, of course, this infuriates Bumble, who hates that Oliver has whipped up a great deal of support among the other boys in the house.

At this point in the novel Bumble seems aware of Oliver's ability to stand out among the other boys, and indeed among other people in general, and to lead them. Bumble hates that this is the case, and vows to make life even more difficult for Oliver if ever he is to find him - and, of course, Bumble then stumbles upon the notice Brownlow places in the paper, wondering where Oliver is. Bumble decides that he will "set the record straight" with Brownlow, and tell him that Oliver is really a very bad boy. 

Chapter 26 Quotes

I tell you again, it was badly planned. Why not have kept him here among the rest, and made a sneaking, sniveling pickpocket of him at once?

Related Characters: Monks (speaker), Oliver Twist
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Monks, an associate of Sikes whose relationship to Oliver is, at this point, unclear, is upset that Oliver has been initiated so quickly into serious robbery. He's upset not because he fears that robbery is bad, or thinks that Oliver shouldn't rob things at all. Instead he absolutely supports the idea of Oliver becoming a thief - but he believes that Oliver should be led slowly into the craft, initially via pickpocketing, and then, over time, into larger and larger hauls. Therefore Monks critiques Fagin, in the conversation with Sikes, arguing that Fagin has rushed along Oliver in his "development."

What is interesting to note in this section, too, is how Monks and Fagin are each concerned with Oliver's "development" as a thief, his "education" such as it is. This follows in the tradition of the "Bildungsroman," or coming-of-age novel, in which a character is educated in schools or school-like places, and in which he or she learns the difficulties of life from a young age. For Oliver, this learning often comes outside educational establishments, within the seedy underworld of London. 

Chapter 27 Quotes

Say it again, you vile, owdacious fellow! . . . How dare you mention such a thing, sir? And how dare you encourage him, you insolent minx! Kiss her! . . . Faugh!

Related Characters: Mr. Bumble (speaker), Noah Claypole, Charlotte
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an important, and comedic, indication of the profundity of Bumble's hypocrisy. Bumble has just been wooing Mrs. Corney, and wondering what he might do to curry her favor - and also how to make use of her for his own ends, since Mrs. Corney could give him a job as the manager of a poor home for which Corney also works. But Bumble, walking in on two young people carousing without any other motive - simply because they enjoy spending time with one another - finds this completely intolerable. He launches into the tirade here, accusing Charlotte of possessing lax morals, and implying that Noah is a beast for having any romantic interest in anyone.

Hypocrisy in Dickens is often shot through with class distinctions. Bumble pretends that he is not of the "lower" classes, although he is not wealthy - but he makes a living ordering around the poor in workhouses. Bumble therefore considers himself above Noah and Charlotte, and Bumble participates in a common critique of the poor in Dickens' time - the idea that poor people are "naturally" immoral, have no control over their emotions, and tend to engage readily in illicit sexual behavior. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

The prospect before you . . . is a brilliant one; all the honors to which great talents and powerful connections can help men in public life are in store for you. . . . I will neither mingle with such as hold in scorn the mother who gave me life; nor bring disgrace or failure on the son of her who has so well supplied that mother's place.

Related Characters: Rose Maylie (speaker), Harry Maylie
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose is the novel's most selfless character - the one to whom all other characters' generosity, including Oliver's, might be compared favorably. Rose thinks so much of Harry, and indeed loves him so much, that she could not imagine a world in which the unexplained "blight" on her family causes her to alter Harry's promising life's work as a lawyer and politician. She loves so deeply that she cannot be with the person she loves - and she is okay with this.

Harry's devotion to Rose, and Rose's devotion to Harry, is one of the book's underlying romances. In Dickens, romantic entanglements tend either to be like this one - where love is profound but thwarted - or like Nancy and Sikes' relationship, where love exists but is deeply imperfect and haunted by violence. There is a moral element, here, too - Harry and Rose are "chaste" in their life, whereas it is hinted that Nancy and Sikes are not - only adding to the illicit, "criminal" quality of the latter relationship.

Chapter 40 Quotes

Do not close your heart against all my efforts to help you . . . I wish to serve you indeed.
You would serve me best, lady . . . if you could take my life at once; for I have felt more grief to think of what I am, tonight, that I ever did before . . . .

Related Characters: Nancy (speaker), Rose Maylie (speaker)
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose and Nancy are not so much foils as characters in utter opposition. Rose Maylie, as above, has devoted her life to others, and her sickness, which nearly kills her, is an occasion for much grieving among those in her family. Nancy, on the other hand, has made a life of petty theft - although Fagin and Sikes did help to raise her and care for her, and she is loyal to them because of it. Nancy, Dickens implies, chose her life because she had nothing else to choose - there were no other options available to her that would keep her safe and fed.

Rose seems to understand this and wants to protect Nancy. She believes that Nancy is, at heart, a good person, and, further, that Nancy can change her circumstances, can improve them by leaving Fagin and Sikes behind. But Nancy seems already to know at this point that she can never abandon her life, nor can she leave Sikes - that Sikes would as soon kill her as let her do that. 

Chapter 43 Quotes

You'll pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something. I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!

Related Characters: The Artful Dodger (speaker)
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is an indication of the Dodger's carefree attitude and odd charm, right till the end. The Dodger does his best to show the court that he does not care much for their ruling - indeed, that someday, somehow, they will "regret" what they've done to him. Of course it is not clear how exactly this will come to pass, but the Dodger is accustomed, even at his young age, to a life lived as a mature adult - wherein, if the Dodger wants something, he will do everything he can do to get it, and will not let anyone, adults or the law, tell him otherwise.

The Dodger runs up against a limit on his free will when he finds himself in court, however. The Dodger could do as much as he pleased on the streets of London, but there are rules he cannot break - and when caught stealing the snuff box, he knew that his time had been called, that he was going to be hauled off to jail and made to serve at least one penalty for a young lifetime of small crimes already committed. 

Chapter 44 Quotes

You have a friend in me, Nance; a staunch friend. I have the means at hand, quiet and close. If you want revenge on those that treat you like a dog . . .come to me. I say, come to me.

Related Characters: Fagin (speaker), Nancy
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

Fagin does not realize exactly what Nancy is doing - he believes that Nancy is meeting with another lover (not Sikes, that is), on the bridge, rather than meeting with Rose and attempting to work for Oliver's ultimate protection. But for Fagin, the real reason for Nancy's distance with Sikes is not important. What does matter is that Nancy wants this distance, that she hopes to build a life for herself away from Sikes' control. In this, Fagin sees an opening.

Dickens thus describes in this section two different kinds of treachery. On the one hand, Nancy is, of course, giving up her friends and associates to help Oliver and Rose, whom she considers to be worthy people. She is doing this, however, because she knows that her "friends" are criminals and should be stopped - she is serving, in effect, as a whistleblower. Fagin also wants to go against his friend (Sikes), but his treachery is motivated only by the possibility of greater personal gain - of cutting Sikes out of their illicit business.

Chapter 45 Quotes

She goes abroad tonight . . . and on the right errand, I'm sure; for she has been alone all da, and the man she is afraid of, will not be back much before daybreak . . . .

Related Characters: Fagin (speaker), Noah Claypole, Sikes, Nancy
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a further instance of Fagin's treachery. He has recruited Noah to do his spying for him, to track Nancy. Thus, he is not really trying to help Nancy at all, to help her get away from Sikes, for example, or to make a life for herself on her own. No - he wishes, instead, to use Nancy as a pawn, as a means of enraging Sikes, perhaps, and further asserting control among the other criminal associates.

Fagin is a difficult character to summarize for several reasons. First, of course, he is a profoundly offensive caricature, especially in the contemporary context (although the offensiveness would also have been apparent in Dickens' time) - and, related to this, his motivations are hard to understand. For Fagin seems to have almost no shred of dignity at all - he will do anything, at any cost, to get his own way - and he seems not to care who stands in his path. 

Chapter 49 Quotes

You must do more than that . . . make restitution to an innocent and unoffending child, for such he is, although the offspring of a guilty and most miserable love . . . .

Related Characters: Mr. Brownlow (speaker), Oliver Twist, Monks
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

Brownlow has remained a staunch and dedicated defender of Oliver's throughout the novel, even as other characters have attempted to convince him that Oliver is only using Brownlow for his money and goodwill. Brownlow seems to sense that Oliver has "good" or "noble" (really, wealthy) blood in him - and that, though Oliver might have been the child of an unwed mother, he is nevertheless "deserving," based on his "high birth," of a far greater lot in life than he has already achieved.

That Monks and Brownlow know and have known each other is a surprise to the reader at this stage in the novel - but really should not be, as Dickens has primed the reader to expect coincidences at every turn. The characters in Oliver Twist, as in many Dickens novels, are drawn together in a "net" of overlapping relationships that is often knotted up, or unwound, at the close of the novel - when those relationships are revealed and explained, or else destroyed. 

Chapter 53 Quotes

I believe that the shade of Agnes sometimes hovers round that solemn nook [in the country church]. I believe it none the les, because that nook is in a Church, and she was weak and erring.

Related Characters: Agnes Fleming
Page Number: 346
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a somewhat strange ending to the novel. Dickens has reserved a good deal of shame for Oliver's unwed mother - going so far as to blame her, implicitly, for Oliver's difficulties in life as an orphaned boy. Dickens and his narrator are unable to consider Agnes as being anything but guilty for her "crime" of giving birth to Oliver outside of wedlock. This, for the time in England, was an unpardonable sin, and Dickens does not excuse Agnes' behavior for any reason.

It is also striking that, in a novel so concerned with Oliver's development from young boyhood into young adulthood, the final paragraph should be reserved for a continued statement on the moral status of his mother. It is as though Dickens wishes to remind his audience that, despite everything, some choices - even made innocently, or having mitigating circumstances - can produce ill effects for other people involved. In this case, Dickens argues that Oliver's fate - the things in his life beyond his control, the social disadvantages he has had to endure - have a cause, and that is his mother's decision so many years before. Although it seems preposterous to a contemporary reader, this, for Dickens, was an important point to make at the close of the book.