Imagery

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Imagery 2 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Death-Like Trees:

In Chapter 7, Oliver resolves to run away from the Sowerberry house after he is punished for defending his late mother from Noah Claypole's insults. The narrator uses dark and light imagery and a simile comparing trees to gravestones to emphasize the interplay between Oliver's desperate situation and his hope for a better life:

It was a cold dark night. The stars seemed to the boy’s eyes further from the earth than he had ever seen them before; there was no wind, and the sombre shadows thrown by the trees on the earth looked sepulchral and death-like, from being so still. He softly reclosed the door, and, having availed himself of the expiring light of the candle to tie up in a handkerchief the few articles of wearing apparel he had, sat himself down upon a bench to wait for morning.

As Oliver decides that he will set out on his own, away from his apprenticeship with the undertaker, he notices how cold, dark, and dead his surroundings are. The dark and cold imagery underscores the bleak life Oliver has lived thus far. As the undertaker's apprentice, he has been sleeping among literal coffins. The simile comparing the trees' shadows to tombstones heightens the dark and cold imagery, emphasizing that the environment Oliver has been born into is full of death. He does not only need to escape the Sowerberry house to have a lighter life. He needs a radical change in his circumstances. The idea that Oliver will still be in a graveyard when he leaves the Sowerberry house indicates that his upward social climb will be challenging. In fact, as readers discover when Oliver stumbles into a criminal enterprise in the city, things will get worse before they get better.

In addition to dark and cold imagery, the narrator also emphasizes the glimmers of light that punctuate the darkness. The stars are far away, but Oliver's eyes still go to their pinpricks of light. The light of the candle is "expiring," or dying, but he can use that light to prepare his pack for his journey toward the stars. The flame, the stars, and the morning light Oliver awaits all represent the flickering hope Oliver has always, amazingly, managed to hold onto through difficult times. The narrator's use of a simile rather than a metaphor to compare the trees' shadows to tombstones plays into this hope. There is still some chance that the trees are only trees and that Oliver will make it out of his childhood alive instead of falling into the coffin that always seems to be awaiting him.

As readers will later see, Oliver does make it out of his childhood alive, partly because it is discovered that he was always supposed to have a wealthier upbringing. There is some sense in the novel that miracles happen and that children with enough pluck might do well for themselves after being born in a workhouse. (And yet, at the same time, it's worth noting that the novel is a critique of the Poor Laws and not simply a feel-good story, meaning that Oliver is an exception in his ability to rise from poverty.)

Chapter 28
Explanation and Analysis—Unwholesome Wind:

An instance of imagery that relies on personification occurs in Chapter 28, when the narrator finally describes what happened to Oliver after the attempted burglary at the Maylies' house several chapters before. The narrator returns to Oliver lying injured in the ditch where Sikes left him:

The air grew colder as day came slowly on, and the mist rolled along the ground like a dense cloud of smoke; the grass was wet, the pathways and low places were all mire and water, and the damp breath of an unwholesome wind went languidly by with a hollow moaning. Still Oliver lay motionless and insensible on the spot where Sikes had left him.

In actuality, mist and wind do not have any kind of volition. Here, though, the narrator describes them with human-like traits. The mist "rolls" and the wind has "damp breath," a "hollow moan," and "unwholesome" intentions. There is an interplay between this personification of the predatory elements and the sensory imagery the narrator uses to describe Oliver's experience. If little Oliver were awake and not "insensible," readers can imagine that he would feel the cold air and wet grass. He would hear the cruel wind, see the water blocking the pathways out of his misery and threatening to drown him. He would notice the thick cloud of humidity that might as well be smoke choking his lungs. There is a battle here between Oliver and his "unwholesome" environment. Oliver, unconscious in the ditch, has all but lost this battle, succumbing to the assault on his senses.

For Oliver and other poor characters in the novel, fate is often determined by environment. Environment does not always mean nature. In fact, for Dickens, environment is often more accurately described as a confluence of social circumstances such as the circumstances that drive Oliver, the Artful Dodger, and other children into Fagin's lair in the city. Here, environment is literal: Oliver has been dropped into a ditch where the elements themselves have almost destroyed his very body. The gloomy imagery reflects the near-hopeless state he is in. It also sets the stage for the dramatic shift in environment Oliver is about to experience when he is discovered and taken in by the well-off Maylies in the countryside. Readers see how close the natural environment comes to killing Oliver in this scene and are primed to understand how a change in environment—a change in social circumstances as much as a change in location—can redirect the entire course of a person's life.

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