Oliver Twist

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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
City and Country Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oliver Twist, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Thievery and Crime Theme Icon

Oliver Twist is, among other things, a meditation on the nature of criminality in 1830s England: an examination of who commits crimes; of the spectrum of crimes (from petty thievery to murder); and of the idea of criminality as a learned behavior or an innate quality. Oliver is born a poor orphan; he is raised in a workhouse and makes his way to London, where is "rescued" by a group of young thieves controlled by Fagin. Thus Oliver, according to Victorian ideas about the link between poverty and criminality, is seen as being "naturally" predisposed to crime, because he was brought up poor, and was not school educated. Oliver is also at risk of learning criminal behavior from Fagin, Charley Bates, the Artful Dodger, and Sikes.

One of the novel's great questions, therefore, is: will Oliver succumb to this "natural" predisposition and learned criminal behavior, or will he retain his innate virtue? Dickens presents a full range of criminality as a means of describing English criminal society at the time of his writing. Sikes and Fagin are both shown to be "natural" criminals—meaning they are men for whom crime is an organic outgrowth of their innate badness or evil. But although Dickens is clear in his disapproval of Sikes and Fagin, he nevertheless reserves a certain amount of room for moral complication as regards the "criminality" of other characters in the novel. Dickens acknowledges that Nancy has been forced to commit crimes, but Dickens has a certain amount of sympathy for Nancy's condition, as she was forced to work for Fagin from a young age. The Artful Dodger and Bates are entertaining and funny characters, and there is a despair Dickens ascribes to their condition, as Fagin's servants and partners in crime (not out of choice, but out of necessity). The Dodger ends up going to a penal colony, and Charley decides he ought to find honest work, and begins a series of menial jobs after renouncing his life of crime. Monks is given part of his inheritance by Brownlow, in the hopes that he will change, but he, too, returns to crime.

Oliver's purity and strength of spirit are never compromised throughout the novel; it is implied that his "gentlemanly" parentage makes it more likely that he will end up part of a stable family structure, and that he will become educated and find legal employment. Thus Dickens seems to indicate that criminality is, after all, a mixture of moral disposition and of circumstances. Bates transcends his circumstances to live a "legal" life, but his rewards are few, and his job training poor. Oliver is virtuous and strong, but also aided by the help of members of the middle class, and by the fact that he is of noble birth.

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Thievery and Crime Quotes in Oliver Twist

Below you will find the important quotes in Oliver Twist related to the theme of Thievery and Crime.
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. 


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Chapter 8 Quotes

He wore a man's coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back . . . to get his hands out of the sleeves . . . . He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in his bluchers.

Related Characters: The Artful Dodger
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

The Artful Dodger is one of the most colorful of Dickens' creations throughout the entirety of his works. Here, the Dodger is defined as a man before his time - although he is a very young child, he is adept at the world of pickpocketing and petty crime and has, from a young age, largely fended for himself. Oliver is in awe of the Dodger's city ways, of his knowledge of London, and of his ability to mix in with different groups of people. In this sense, Oliver will look up to the Dodger, and in the Dodger's cavalier attitude toward life, he is a foil of Oliver.

But the Dodger also has no scruples. He is perfectly willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get his way - things that Oliver is decidedly not willing to do. And while the Dodger is mostly interested in working to better his own circumstances, Oliver has a pronounced soft spot for the lives of other people, and for their own particular anguish. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Oliver wondered what picking the old gentleman's pocket in play, had to do with his chances of being a great man. But thinking that the Jew [Fagin], being so much his senior, must know best, he followed him quietly to the table; and was soon deeply involved in his new study.

Related Characters: Oliver Twist, Fagin
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the text, Oliver is still very naive - he does not entirely understand that Fagin is interested in grooming him to become a pickpocket, a child he can let out onto the street in order to fetch goods. And Fagin is not interested in doing this so that Oliver can make a living. Instead, he works primarily so that he, Fagin, can enrich himself. Oliver is merely a means to an end for Fagin - a new, guileless worker whom he can train to do his bidding.

Fagin's depiction, here as in elsewhere in the novel, is deeply unsympathetic, and Dickens makes no bones about his own racism in describing Fagin using anti-Semitic stereotypes. This is an aspect of the novel that it is important to critique: Dickens, like a great many other famous authors in the history of the English language, have ascribed to Jewish characters traits that, according to contemporary consideration, would be considered defamatory and offensive. 

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 22 Quotes

The cry was repeated—a light appeared—a vision of two terrified half-dressed men at the top of the stairs swam before his eyes—a flash—a loud noise—a smoke—a crash somewhere . . . .

Related Characters: Oliver Twist, Giles and Brittles
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Oliver faces his own death - although of course he survives the attempted burglary. But he blacks out entirely, and all that he sees before him is, as the narrator describes, a flash of light. As in many other scenes, especially in the beginning of the novel, Oliver is entirely at the mercy of the older men around him - he must do what they say or suffer the consequences. And thus, although robbing someone is essentially the last thing Oliver would ever do, he is forced along on this mission, and very nearly killed during it.

If Oliver is currently at the prey of the men, often criminals, who control him, he will not always be this way, and as the novel progresses Oliver's fate will not be quite so drawn out by those around him. Instead, Oliver will increasingly find that his fate is in his own hands - or, that the coincidences and strange twists and turns that occur in his life might have something to do with the choices he, as a maturing young man, makes. 

Chapter 25 Quotes

Bill had him [Oliver] on his back and scudded like the wind. We stopped to take him between us; his head hung down; and he was cold. . . . We parted company, and left the youngster lying in a ditch. Alive or dead, that's all I know about him.

Related Characters: Toby Crackit (speaker), Oliver Twist, Sikes
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

It is interesting that, at this moment in the text, Crackit admits to having "buried" Oliver hastily, in a ditch, not knowing if Oliver will survive - and not particularly caring. Crackit is mostly happy that he has escaped the attempted robbery with his own life, and though Fagin is more concerned with Oliver's fate, it's because Oliver's injury or death would be detrimental to Fagin himself - it would lay him open to the charge that Fagin had endangered the boy and allowed these crimes to happen.

Crackit and some of the other malicious characters in the novel, including Sikes, are mostly concerned with their own safety, and demonstrate time and again their willingness to sacrifice those around them to further their own aims. This, then, is exactly the opposite of Oliver's temperament - Oliver, unlike a great many other characters in the novel, is concerned with the welfare of those around him, and does what he can to improve their circumstances even as he tries desperately, and often fails, to improve his own. 

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 34 Quotes

It was but an instant, a glance, a flash, before his eyes; and they were gone. But they had recognized him, and he them; and their look was as firmly impressed upon his memory, as if it had been deeply carved in stone . . . .

Related Characters: Oliver Twist, Fagin, Monks
Page Number: 214-5
Explanation and Analysis:

Oliver has been attempting to improve himself - to become educated following a lifetime's lack of formal schooling. He does this in the Maylie's home, under their supervision, and in his room there is a space for quiet contemplation and a good deal of work. It is, in short, the life he has always wanted - a life of personal and intellectual freedom. 

But when Monks and Fagin show up, they do so in part,to remind him that they have not forgotten him - that they will hound him for as long as they can. They want to take Oliver back to them as a point of pride - because they believe they are responsible for Oliver's "education," such as they see it. They are also worried that, if Oliver is free, he might be able to point the authorities to them - and that would be the end of their criminal enterprise. 

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 47 Quotes

It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.

Related Characters: Sikes, Nancy
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

The most gruesome passage in the book, and the moment when the foreshadowings of death, which have run throughout the pages of Oliver Twist, become actualized in Nancy's murder. From the beginning, Nancy has attempted to assert herself against, and protect herself from, Sikes, a man who has no moral scruples, no willingness to contain his anger - and who has abused Nancy brutally for years. Sikes is a character with no good in him, and Dickens does not hide the cruelty Sikes is capable of inflicting on those around him. Sikes directs the vast majority of that cruelty against Nancy.

Nancy's death is the book's most upsetting, most graphic, and most jarring moment. It is noteworthy that Rose, in her attempts to encourage Nancy to leave Sikes and stay with them, was not able to convince Nancy of this plan. This is not because Nancy didn't think it would work, but because Nancy felt her rightful place was with Sikes, even if he vowed, ultimately, do to great violence to her. 

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 50 Quotes

The noose was at his neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as bow-string . . . there was sudden jerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hand.

Related Characters: Sikes
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Dickensian universe, bad behavior cannot go unpunished for very long. Sikes has quite literally gotten away with murder -  at least, he has gotten away with murder for a time. But Nancy will be avenged - and in this instance, Sikes dies a painful and very public death, at exactly the moment when he is trying to elude being captured for the heinous crime he has committed. This is another gruesome moment in a novel that has seen increasing violence done to its characters.

Indeed, the relationship of the violent to the comedic, of the serious to the lighthearted, is one of Dickens' hallmarks. Oliver Twist, one of Dickens' earlier novels, is perhaps more lighthearted than others, as evidenced by some of the characters' rather whimsical or unrealistic-sounding names. But Oliver Twist is also a novel about the consequences of decision-making, and of criminal and selfish behavior. And to this end, Sikes' death is representative of a public and severe form of moral justice.

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.