Irony

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Narratorial Sarcasm:

The narrator makes frequent use of verbal irony, both for humor and as a way of criticizing unjust people and institutions. A good example of the narrator's verbal irony is in Chapter 2, when the narrator describes the woman who is charged with caring for Oliver and other orphaned children in the parish:

Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny—quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children, and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, [...] proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

This passage seems at first to have a logical structure and tone. It congratulates the woman, Mrs. Mann, on her choice to keep most of the money the state provides for the children. Although the passage literally praises Mrs. Mann, though, its real meaning is the opposite: it is a biting criticism of her choice to profit off of orphans by starving them. The narrator leaves a couple of clues for the reader that this commentary is sarcastic.

In addition to the implausibility of the idea that the state is overfeeding orphans, the narrator also uses deliberately bad logic. The decision not to feed the children much is supposedly "proof" that Mrs. Mann is an "experimental philosopher," but her decision is not based on any kind of thought experimentation at all. On the contrary, she goes into the decision with her mind made up about what is best for everyone (especially her) and acts in her own best interest. It is flat-out wrong to claim that this decision proves her an experimental philosopher. What's more, many Victorian readers would have found it amusingly incongruous to imagine a woman who takes care of orphans as an intellectual figure. The passage invites the reader to trip up on its bad logic and absurdity, ultimately coming to criticize Mrs. Mann for pretending that there is a good reason for her selfishness.

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Unjust Situations:

The novel makes frequent use of situational irony, especially in the first half, as a way of currying sympathy for Oliver and commenting on the unfairness of his circumstances. For example, in Chapter 11, situational irony arises when the magistrate asks Mr. Brownlow if he paid for the book he is holding:

"Dear me, I forgot all about it!" exclaimed the absent old gentleman, innocently.

Mr. Brownlow and Oliver are both before the magistrate because Mr. Brownlow has accused Oliver of stealing his pocket handkerchief. Mr. Brownlow has since been convinced that Oliver is innocent. Now, he realizes that he himself has, in fact, stolen the book he was perusing when the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates made off with the handkerchief and left Oliver to take the fall. This moment functions as situational irony because the plaintiff in the case turns out to be the guilty one—the opposite of what a reasonable person would expect to happen in a magistrate's court. There is humor in the situation, and everyone laughs it off. But this light treatment of Mr. Brownlow's accidental theft also demonstrates that the criminal justice system often ignores the crimes of the wealthy while threatening to gobble up someone like Oliver, regardless of whether or not he's guilty.

Situational irony in the novel often puts the reader in a position to see what privileged characters within the novel cannot. In Chapter 3, for instance, Mr. Bumble makes a tone-deaf comment to Oliver when he fetches him from solitary confinement (punishment for Oliver's infamous request for more food):

"Don’t make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food, and be thankful," said Mr Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity. "You’re a-going to be made a ’prentice of, Oliver."

Mr. Bumble derives a sense of "pomposity," or self-importance, out of the idea that he is caring for Oliver and arranging for him to have a promising future. But Oliver is locked in what is essentially a jail cell. If Bumble were really looking out for Oliver, wouldn't he have refused to lock him up for simply trying to get enough food? This situational irony invites the reader to critique Mr. Bumble and the Poor Law he is enforcing. Neither Mr. Bumble nor the system he represents understands how to care for a child, but the reader knows better. Situational irony thus appeals to the reader's own sense of intellect and self-importance, turning the reader into a critic of the Poor Laws.

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Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Unwitting Criminal:

Instances of dramatic irony often emphasize Oliver's inherent innocence and the fact that he is clueless about crime. In Chapter 10, for example, Oliver is horrified to discover what has been obvious to the readers and other characters:

What was Oliver's horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off, looking on with his eye-lids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into this old gentleman's pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief, which he handed to Charley Bates, and with which they both ran away round the corner at full speed.

The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates have been scoping out the old gentleman (who turns out to be Mr. Brownlow) and have pointed him out as a "prime plant." Oliver has the same context clues that have already made it clear to the reader that the plan is for the boys to pick Mr. Brownlow's pockets. Oliver's "horror and alarm" emphasizes that he is such a good-natured child that stealing has not even occurred to him as a possibility in this moment.

Even after Oliver knows that Fagin is operating a criminal enterprise, he still figures out very late in the game that he has been recruited to burglarized the Maylies' house. In Chapter 22, he has already been hoisted over a wall by the time he realizes what is going on:

And now, for the first time, Oliver, well-nigh mad with grief and terror, saw that housebreaking and robbery, if not murder, were the objects of the expedition. He clasped his hands together, and involuntarily uttered a subdued exclamation of horror. A mist came before his eyes, the cold sweat stood upon his ashy face, his limbs failed him, and he sunk upon his knees.

In this case, the reader has been privy to a conversation between Fagin and Sikes that Oliver missed. This conversation makes clear that Oliver is going to be used to break into a small space. Still, Oliver has plenty of context to infer that something dicey is happening long before this moment. The fact that he does not suspect until he has already begun breaking and entering both demonstrates his innocence and heightens the stakes of what happens next. He is the tiniest bit complicit, which for many characters (such as Noah Claypole) would lead them further down the criminal path. Oliver, though, refuses to facilitate the burglary no matter the personal cost. His resolve nearly gets him killed, but it also saves him by keeping him morally pure enough for the Maylies to come to his rescue later in the novel.

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Unjust Situations:

The novel makes frequent use of situational irony, especially in the first half, as a way of currying sympathy for Oliver and commenting on the unfairness of his circumstances. For example, in Chapter 11, situational irony arises when the magistrate asks Mr. Brownlow if he paid for the book he is holding:

"Dear me, I forgot all about it!" exclaimed the absent old gentleman, innocently.

Mr. Brownlow and Oliver are both before the magistrate because Mr. Brownlow has accused Oliver of stealing his pocket handkerchief. Mr. Brownlow has since been convinced that Oliver is innocent. Now, he realizes that he himself has, in fact, stolen the book he was perusing when the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates made off with the handkerchief and left Oliver to take the fall. This moment functions as situational irony because the plaintiff in the case turns out to be the guilty one—the opposite of what a reasonable person would expect to happen in a magistrate's court. There is humor in the situation, and everyone laughs it off. But this light treatment of Mr. Brownlow's accidental theft also demonstrates that the criminal justice system often ignores the crimes of the wealthy while threatening to gobble up someone like Oliver, regardless of whether or not he's guilty.

Situational irony in the novel often puts the reader in a position to see what privileged characters within the novel cannot. In Chapter 3, for instance, Mr. Bumble makes a tone-deaf comment to Oliver when he fetches him from solitary confinement (punishment for Oliver's infamous request for more food):

"Don’t make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food, and be thankful," said Mr Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity. "You’re a-going to be made a ’prentice of, Oliver."

Mr. Bumble derives a sense of "pomposity," or self-importance, out of the idea that he is caring for Oliver and arranging for him to have a promising future. But Oliver is locked in what is essentially a jail cell. If Bumble were really looking out for Oliver, wouldn't he have refused to lock him up for simply trying to get enough food? This situational irony invites the reader to critique Mr. Bumble and the Poor Law he is enforcing. Neither Mr. Bumble nor the system he represents understands how to care for a child, but the reader knows better. Situational irony thus appeals to the reader's own sense of intellect and self-importance, turning the reader into a critic of the Poor Laws.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 22
Explanation and Analysis—Unwitting Criminal:

Instances of dramatic irony often emphasize Oliver's inherent innocence and the fact that he is clueless about crime. In Chapter 10, for example, Oliver is horrified to discover what has been obvious to the readers and other characters:

What was Oliver's horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off, looking on with his eye-lids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into this old gentleman's pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief, which he handed to Charley Bates, and with which they both ran away round the corner at full speed.

The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates have been scoping out the old gentleman (who turns out to be Mr. Brownlow) and have pointed him out as a "prime plant." Oliver has the same context clues that have already made it clear to the reader that the plan is for the boys to pick Mr. Brownlow's pockets. Oliver's "horror and alarm" emphasizes that he is such a good-natured child that stealing has not even occurred to him as a possibility in this moment.

Even after Oliver knows that Fagin is operating a criminal enterprise, he still figures out very late in the game that he has been recruited to burglarized the Maylies' house. In Chapter 22, he has already been hoisted over a wall by the time he realizes what is going on:

And now, for the first time, Oliver, well-nigh mad with grief and terror, saw that housebreaking and robbery, if not murder, were the objects of the expedition. He clasped his hands together, and involuntarily uttered a subdued exclamation of horror. A mist came before his eyes, the cold sweat stood upon his ashy face, his limbs failed him, and he sunk upon his knees.

In this case, the reader has been privy to a conversation between Fagin and Sikes that Oliver missed. This conversation makes clear that Oliver is going to be used to break into a small space. Still, Oliver has plenty of context to infer that something dicey is happening long before this moment. The fact that he does not suspect until he has already begun breaking and entering both demonstrates his innocence and heightens the stakes of what happens next. He is the tiniest bit complicit, which for many characters (such as Noah Claypole) would lead them further down the criminal path. Oliver, though, refuses to facilitate the burglary no matter the personal cost. His resolve nearly gets him killed, but it also saves him by keeping him morally pure enough for the Maylies to come to his rescue later in the novel.

Unlock with LitCharts A+