Foil

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Foil 4 key examples

Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver and Dick:

Dick is a relatively minor character, but he is well-remembered by readers because he is an important foil for Oliver. In Chapter 7, when Oliver is on his way to London, Dick tells him that the doctor has predicted Dick's death but that he hopes they will meet again in heaven:

"I know the doctor must be right, Oliver; because I dream so much of heaven, and angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake. Kiss me," said the child, climbing up the low gate, and flinging his little arms round Oliver’s neck. "Good-b’ye, dear! God bless you!"

Later on, Oliver will find out that Dick has indeed died. Dick's resignation to his death at such a young age emphasizes how lucky Oliver is to survive long enough to inherit a fortune. Oliver and Dick both start out their lives as poor orphans. Temperamentally, they are similar. Both are remarkably kind, unlike Noah Claypole and others who have learned through childhood to look out only for themselves. Both also have as rosy an outlook as can be on their terrible circumstances. Oliver is striking out for London with no plan or resources other than stubborn optimism that there is a better life out there for him. Likewise, although Dick accepts that he is going to die, he is heartbreakingly excited to meet angels, kind people, and eventually Oliver in heaven. According to Christianity, Dick is probably right that he and Oliver will meet in heaven: both have impeccable moral character in spite of a world that treats them cruelly. They are near copies of one another, and still only one manages a happy ending on earth.

As a foil for Oliver, Dick is integral to Dickens's critique of the Poor Law. If "good" orphans like Oliver were guaranteed prosperity in the end, readers could stay complacent about the system that drives so many orphans to crime and early deaths. Oliver's character is partly responsible for his eventual prosperity—he does a miraculous job of avoiding culpability for any of the many crimes that take place throughout the novel. But Dick serves as proof that even "good" orphans can't always be so lucky. Readers who would be inclined to accept a system that pushes "bad" children like the Artful Dodger toward unhappy endings may be less inclined to accept a system that punishes someone like Dick.

Chapter 29
Explanation and Analysis—Nancy and Rose:

Nancy and Rose function as foils for one another, emphasizing the drastic difference that a person's surrounding circumstances can make in who they turn out to be. In Chapter 29, the narrator introduces 17-year-old Rose as the picture of perfect femininity:

Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould, so mild and gentle, so pure and beautiful, that earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions.

Dickens was interested in the popular pseudo-science of physiognomy, which held that people's character was reflected in their looks. Rose's outer beauty matches her inner perfection. She seems to be the embodiment of good nature, to the point that Oliver and Harry Maylie (rightly) have a difficult time believing that she could truly carry a "stain" on her family's reputation.

In Chapter 40, Nancy goes to Rose to tell her that she has learned of a plot to keep Oliver from learning his true identity. Nancy, who is similar in age to Rose, draws a distinction between the type of woman she is and the type of woman Rose is:

"[I]f there was more like you, there would be fewer like me,—there would—there would!"

Nancy has an air of self-loathing in this scene. She thinks poorly of herself in comparison to Rose. And yet, right before Nancy enters the room to speak with Rose, there is also the sense that she may have been more like Rose had her life gone differently:

The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets, [...] but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still; and when she heard a light step approaching the door opposite to that by which she had entered, and thought of the wide contrast which the small room would in another moment contain, she felt burdened with the sense of her own deep shame, and shrunk as though she could scarcely bear the presence of her with whom she had sought this interview.

Nancy can hardly stand to enter Rose's presence, not only because of the "wide contrast" between them, but also because the remainder of her "original nature" makes her ashamed of and sorrowful about her failure to be like Rose. This passage makes it clear that Nancy's circumstances are to blame for her "corruption," and for the tragic end she is about to meet. Nancy attached herself to Fagin and Sikes from a young age out of a need for their support to survive a childhood in the streets. Her reliance on them eventually results in her murder. Rose, by contrast, has always been cared for by loving parental figures who have made sure she had the resources she needed to thrive. When the people who took her in as a young child could no longer care for her, they placed her in the care of benevolent Mrs. Maylie. Through Mrs. Maylie, Rose meets the man she will come to love and eventually marry. Nancy and Rose may easily have swapped fates had they swapped circumstances. Through this pairing of women, Dickens emphasizes that moral perfection and happiness are more available to the wealthy than to the poor.

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Chapter 40
Explanation and Analysis—Nancy and Rose:

Nancy and Rose function as foils for one another, emphasizing the drastic difference that a person's surrounding circumstances can make in who they turn out to be. In Chapter 29, the narrator introduces 17-year-old Rose as the picture of perfect femininity:

Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould, so mild and gentle, so pure and beautiful, that earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions.

Dickens was interested in the popular pseudo-science of physiognomy, which held that people's character was reflected in their looks. Rose's outer beauty matches her inner perfection. She seems to be the embodiment of good nature, to the point that Oliver and Harry Maylie (rightly) have a difficult time believing that she could truly carry a "stain" on her family's reputation.

In Chapter 40, Nancy goes to Rose to tell her that she has learned of a plot to keep Oliver from learning his true identity. Nancy, who is similar in age to Rose, draws a distinction between the type of woman she is and the type of woman Rose is:

"[I]f there was more like you, there would be fewer like me,—there would—there would!"

Nancy has an air of self-loathing in this scene. She thinks poorly of herself in comparison to Rose. And yet, right before Nancy enters the room to speak with Rose, there is also the sense that she may have been more like Rose had her life gone differently:

The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets, [...] but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still; and when she heard a light step approaching the door opposite to that by which she had entered, and thought of the wide contrast which the small room would in another moment contain, she felt burdened with the sense of her own deep shame, and shrunk as though she could scarcely bear the presence of her with whom she had sought this interview.

Nancy can hardly stand to enter Rose's presence, not only because of the "wide contrast" between them, but also because the remainder of her "original nature" makes her ashamed of and sorrowful about her failure to be like Rose. This passage makes it clear that Nancy's circumstances are to blame for her "corruption," and for the tragic end she is about to meet. Nancy attached herself to Fagin and Sikes from a young age out of a need for their support to survive a childhood in the streets. Her reliance on them eventually results in her murder. Rose, by contrast, has always been cared for by loving parental figures who have made sure she had the resources she needed to thrive. When the people who took her in as a young child could no longer care for her, they placed her in the care of benevolent Mrs. Maylie. Through Mrs. Maylie, Rose meets the man she will come to love and eventually marry. Nancy and Rose may easily have swapped fates had they swapped circumstances. Through this pairing of women, Dickens emphasizes that moral perfection and happiness are more available to the wealthy than to the poor.

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Chapter 42
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver and Fagin's Boys:

Virtually all of the other boys who work for Fagin—the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates, and even Noah Claypole—serve as foils to Oliver by falling into the life of crime he manages to resist. In Chapter 42, Noah's admission that he would like to earn money through crime allows Fagin to blackmail Noah into working for him:

Whether Noah Claypole, whose rapacity was none of the least comprehensive, would have acceded even to these glowing terms, had he been a perfectly free agent, is very doubtful; but as he recollected that, in the event of his refusal, it was in the power of his new acquaintance to give him up to justice immediately, (and more unlikely things had come to pass,) he gradually relented, and said he thought that would suit him.

Noah comes from a similar background to Oliver, having worked for Mr. Sowerberry as well. Noah spent longer there than Oliver and had already "soured" into a mean-spirited young man when Oliver met him. This difference in temperament is the main difference between Oliver and Noah, especially given their uncannily parallel encounters with Fagin immediately upon coming to the city. The fact that Noah has no choice but to work for Fagin, lest Fagin turn him into the police, suggests that Oliver may not have been so resistant to criminality had he stayed in the Sowerberry house long enough to have his inherent goodness bullied out of him.

Noah is not the only young man who is different than Oliver only in caving to Fagin's pressure. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates have already become thieves by the time Oliver meets them, driven by Fagin's predatory "fathering" and similarly desperate circumstances to those Oliver finds himself in. Whereas Oliver has chance encounters with Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies before he gives in to Fagin's pressures, the other boys are not so lucky. In Chapter 43, Charley describes what happens to the Dodger when he is caught for a series of thefts:

"They’ve found the gentleman as owns the box; two or three more’s a coming to ’dentify him, and the Artful’s booked for a passage out," replied Master Bates.

The Dodger is set to be transported to a penal colony, ripped away from home and made to labor on behalf of the English empire as punishment for his crimes. This moment illuminates what may easily have happened to Oliver if he had gone through with the burglary at the Maylies' house, or even if the Maylies had not chosen to direct the investigators away from him. By including Fagin's other boys as foils for Oliver, Dickens emphasizes that Oliver gets his happy ending by the skin of his teeth.

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Chapter 43
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver and Fagin's Boys:

Virtually all of the other boys who work for Fagin—the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates, and even Noah Claypole—serve as foils to Oliver by falling into the life of crime he manages to resist. In Chapter 42, Noah's admission that he would like to earn money through crime allows Fagin to blackmail Noah into working for him:

Whether Noah Claypole, whose rapacity was none of the least comprehensive, would have acceded even to these glowing terms, had he been a perfectly free agent, is very doubtful; but as he recollected that, in the event of his refusal, it was in the power of his new acquaintance to give him up to justice immediately, (and more unlikely things had come to pass,) he gradually relented, and said he thought that would suit him.

Noah comes from a similar background to Oliver, having worked for Mr. Sowerberry as well. Noah spent longer there than Oliver and had already "soured" into a mean-spirited young man when Oliver met him. This difference in temperament is the main difference between Oliver and Noah, especially given their uncannily parallel encounters with Fagin immediately upon coming to the city. The fact that Noah has no choice but to work for Fagin, lest Fagin turn him into the police, suggests that Oliver may not have been so resistant to criminality had he stayed in the Sowerberry house long enough to have his inherent goodness bullied out of him.

Noah is not the only young man who is different than Oliver only in caving to Fagin's pressure. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates have already become thieves by the time Oliver meets them, driven by Fagin's predatory "fathering" and similarly desperate circumstances to those Oliver finds himself in. Whereas Oliver has chance encounters with Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies before he gives in to Fagin's pressures, the other boys are not so lucky. In Chapter 43, Charley describes what happens to the Dodger when he is caught for a series of thefts:

"They’ve found the gentleman as owns the box; two or three more’s a coming to ’dentify him, and the Artful’s booked for a passage out," replied Master Bates.

The Dodger is set to be transported to a penal colony, ripped away from home and made to labor on behalf of the English empire as punishment for his crimes. This moment illuminates what may easily have happened to Oliver if he had gone through with the burglary at the Maylies' house, or even if the Maylies had not chosen to direct the investigators away from him. By including Fagin's other boys as foils for Oliver, Dickens emphasizes that Oliver gets his happy ending by the skin of his teeth.

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Chapter 52
Explanation and Analysis—Fagin and Sikes:

Fagin and Sikes, two of the novel's villains, are foils for one another. It becomes clearest that they represent two sides of the same coin (criminality) in chapter 52, when Mr. Brownlow justifies taking young Oliver to see Fagin in prison:

[M]y business with this man is intimately connected with him, and as this child has seen him in the full career of his success and villany, I think it better—even at the cost of some pain and fear—that he should see him now.

It is important to Mr. Brownlow that Oliver witness prison, and the horrifying scaffold that awaits Fagin outside it, as the natural end a criminal is supposed to meet at the hands of the government. Mr. Brownlow takes responsibility at the end of the book for Oliver's moral education and for fully extracting him from the immoral life of crime he almost fell into when he was "intimately connected" with Fagin. Fagin has been figured throughout the novel in dehumanizing, anti-Semitic language. His inhumanity and lack of qualms about mistreating others have made him a highly successful villain up to the point of his capture, suggesting that inhumanity and criminality go hand-in-hand. Through watching Fagin come to his violent end, Brownlow thinks Oliver will understand the full arc of the inhuman, morally bankrupt criminal, who must eventually meet with prison and capital punishment. As a visitor to the prison instead of an inmate, Oliver is cemented in his position as a moral, law-abiding citizen who belongs to the free world.

But Sikes, Fagin's one-time henchman, complicates the simple narrative of evil criminal vs. virtuous citizen that Brownlow is trying to construct for Oliver. Ultimately, Sikes's crimes land him in a similar place as Fagin: death by hanging. This death reinforces the idea that criminals tend to die for their crimes eventually. Sikes, though, cannot be said to be quite as inhuman as Fagin. It is Sikes's own guilty conscience, rather than the state, that punishes him for murdering Nancy. This is not an intentional suicide, which Dickens's Victorian readers might have taken as further evidence of Sikes's immorality. Rather, Sikes accidentally hangs himself when he fumbles with a rope because he can't stop imagining that his dog is chasing him and holding him accountable for murder. Fagin, on the other hand, never has such a guilty conscience.

Even Sikes's murder of Nancy is more emotional than any of Fagin's crimes, which (true to Fagin's anti-Semitic depiction) are all premeditated and calculated for financial gain. Sikes murders Nancy in a spontaneous fit of jealous rage into which Fagin has manipulated him. The fact that Sikes is an emotional murderer and dies because he is emotional about what he has done does not excuse his actions, but it does contrast Fagin's straightforward villainy. Through the contrast between these two criminal types, Dickens preserves the idea that criminality might be easier for people to stumble into than Mr. Brownlow and many of Dickens's wealthy readers might like to believe.

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