Metaphors

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Metaphors 3 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver's Resurrection:

Oliver's evolving relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds throughout the novel is an extended metaphor for his upward trajectory. He is born on his mother's deathbed and nearly dies himself in Chapter 1:

The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence,—and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next, the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.

For Victorians, birth and death often happened in the same bed, so the "little flock mattress" represents a threshold between heaven and earth. Oliver defies everyone's expectations by failing to follow his mother out of "this world." Throughout his early childhood, the only thing anyone seems to expect of him is that he will waste away and die like his friend Dick. In Chapter 4, Mrs. Sowerberry underscores this expectation by asking him whether he will mind sleeping under the counter with the undertaker's inventory of coffins:

"[...] it doesn't much matter whether you will or not, for you won't sleep any where else. [...]"

The Sowerberrys have only taken a halfhearted chance on Oliver's future, failing to make space for him in a real bed. The parish and the Sowerberrys toss him in with coffins as though they expect that they will have to put him in one eventually anyway. High childhood mortality rates in Victorian England partially explain this behavior, even if it is cruel. Oliver's frequent encounters with coffins and deathbeds from a young age symbolize his especially abysmal odds of making it far in life.

When Oliver is taken in by the Maylies, he gets a real bed, where:

He felt calm and happy, and could have died without a murmur.

Oliver's health is gradually restored, and he finds that his new bed is not for dying, but for sleeping. This change reorients Oliver's relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds. In Chapter 32, Oliver visits a graveyard near the Maylies' house:

Oliver often wandered here, and, thinking of the wretched grave in which his mother lay, would sometimes sit him down and sob unseen; but, as he raised his eyes to the deep sky overhead, he would cease to think of her as lying in the ground, and weep for her sadly, but without pain.

Oliver learns in this passage to imagine the graveyard as a place to grieve and as a place where neither he nor his mother belong permanently. He understands that his mother has departed the graveyard for heaven, and that he will eventually leave the graveyard to go home. Later, when Rose Maylie falls ill and the narrator describes her as "tottering on the deep grave's edge," it becomes even clearer that Oliver, by contrast, has risen from his mother's deathbed. He has his whole life ahead of him.

Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver's Resurrection:

Oliver's evolving relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds throughout the novel is an extended metaphor for his upward trajectory. He is born on his mother's deathbed and nearly dies himself in Chapter 1:

The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence,—and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next, the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.

For Victorians, birth and death often happened in the same bed, so the "little flock mattress" represents a threshold between heaven and earth. Oliver defies everyone's expectations by failing to follow his mother out of "this world." Throughout his early childhood, the only thing anyone seems to expect of him is that he will waste away and die like his friend Dick. In Chapter 4, Mrs. Sowerberry underscores this expectation by asking him whether he will mind sleeping under the counter with the undertaker's inventory of coffins:

"[...] it doesn't much matter whether you will or not, for you won't sleep any where else. [...]"

The Sowerberrys have only taken a halfhearted chance on Oliver's future, failing to make space for him in a real bed. The parish and the Sowerberrys toss him in with coffins as though they expect that they will have to put him in one eventually anyway. High childhood mortality rates in Victorian England partially explain this behavior, even if it is cruel. Oliver's frequent encounters with coffins and deathbeds from a young age symbolize his especially abysmal odds of making it far in life.

When Oliver is taken in by the Maylies, he gets a real bed, where:

He felt calm and happy, and could have died without a murmur.

Oliver's health is gradually restored, and he finds that his new bed is not for dying, but for sleeping. This change reorients Oliver's relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds. In Chapter 32, Oliver visits a graveyard near the Maylies' house:

Oliver often wandered here, and, thinking of the wretched grave in which his mother lay, would sometimes sit him down and sob unseen; but, as he raised his eyes to the deep sky overhead, he would cease to think of her as lying in the ground, and weep for her sadly, but without pain.

Oliver learns in this passage to imagine the graveyard as a place to grieve and as a place where neither he nor his mother belong permanently. He understands that his mother has departed the graveyard for heaven, and that he will eventually leave the graveyard to go home. Later, when Rose Maylie falls ill and the narrator describes her as "tottering on the deep grave's edge," it becomes even clearer that Oliver, by contrast, has risen from his mother's deathbed. He has his whole life ahead of him.

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Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—Anti-Semitism:

Oliver Twist has often been accused of anti-Semitism, and for good reason: the text uses anti-Semitic stereotypes to turn Jewishness, especially Fagin's Jewishness, into a metaphor for corruption and criminality. One instance of this comparison occurs in chapter 19, when Fagin goes to Sikes to arrange the burglary on the Maylies' house:

It was a chill, damp, windy night [...]. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved, crawling forth by night in search of some rich offal for a meal.

This passage and many other passages describing Fagin are difficult to read because they are so intensely anti-Semitic. Dickens uses a simile to compare Fagin to a reptile, a longstanding stereotype that dehumanizes Jewish people. Fagin is not a human being in this passage, but rather "such a being as the Jew." Indeed, the novel often refers to Fagin not by name, but rather by "the Jew," as though he is a creature unto himself. The term "Jew" is not generally considered a slur, but it seems to have a pejorative sense in this novel. The damp and dark conditions "befit" and even "engender" the type of being Fagin is (a malicious criminal), whereas the same conditions threaten to destroy Oliver's body and soul.

The anti-Semitic metaphor linking Jewishness to corruption and criminality stretches beyond this comparison of Fagin to a reptile. Barney, another minor Jewish character, always speaks in an extremely pronounced dialect, as if human speech is difficult for him. Elsewhere, Fagin is compared to a goblin. Whereas other characters are driven to crime by desperate circumstances, Fagin hoards stolen money and goods because he is cheap and greedy (another anti-Semitic stereotype). Even his motivation for turning Oliver into a criminal is that Monks has promised to pay him.

Dickens may not have received the immediate push-back he would surely face today for such blatant dehumanization of Jewish people, but it would not have gone unnoticed to readers that Fagin's Jewishness was being used to contrast and threaten the humanity of other characters (especially Oliver). In the instance above, the way Fagin "glides" and "creeps" evokes the image not just of any reptile, but specifically of a snake. The idea of the novel's main villain as a snake out for a meal recalls the biblical story of Adam and Eve's fall after Satan, in the form of a snake, tempts Eve into eating the fruit God has declared off limits. The snakelike description of Fagin is more than a reflection of Dickens's own feelings about Jews. It reinforces Oliver's status as innate human and not innate criminal: where even the first human woman failed to resist temptation, Oliver never allows himself to be corrupted. By putting his life on the line to protect the Maylies from the burglars, he avoids becoming Fagin's "rich offal." Fagin's inhumanity makes Oliver seem like a superhuman paragon of good.

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Chapter 30
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver's Resurrection:

Oliver's evolving relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds throughout the novel is an extended metaphor for his upward trajectory. He is born on his mother's deathbed and nearly dies himself in Chapter 1:

The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence,—and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next, the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.

For Victorians, birth and death often happened in the same bed, so the "little flock mattress" represents a threshold between heaven and earth. Oliver defies everyone's expectations by failing to follow his mother out of "this world." Throughout his early childhood, the only thing anyone seems to expect of him is that he will waste away and die like his friend Dick. In Chapter 4, Mrs. Sowerberry underscores this expectation by asking him whether he will mind sleeping under the counter with the undertaker's inventory of coffins:

"[...] it doesn't much matter whether you will or not, for you won't sleep any where else. [...]"

The Sowerberrys have only taken a halfhearted chance on Oliver's future, failing to make space for him in a real bed. The parish and the Sowerberrys toss him in with coffins as though they expect that they will have to put him in one eventually anyway. High childhood mortality rates in Victorian England partially explain this behavior, even if it is cruel. Oliver's frequent encounters with coffins and deathbeds from a young age symbolize his especially abysmal odds of making it far in life.

When Oliver is taken in by the Maylies, he gets a real bed, where:

He felt calm and happy, and could have died without a murmur.

Oliver's health is gradually restored, and he finds that his new bed is not for dying, but for sleeping. This change reorients Oliver's relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds. In Chapter 32, Oliver visits a graveyard near the Maylies' house:

Oliver often wandered here, and, thinking of the wretched grave in which his mother lay, would sometimes sit him down and sob unseen; but, as he raised his eyes to the deep sky overhead, he would cease to think of her as lying in the ground, and weep for her sadly, but without pain.

Oliver learns in this passage to imagine the graveyard as a place to grieve and as a place where neither he nor his mother belong permanently. He understands that his mother has departed the graveyard for heaven, and that he will eventually leave the graveyard to go home. Later, when Rose Maylie falls ill and the narrator describes her as "tottering on the deep grave's edge," it becomes even clearer that Oliver, by contrast, has risen from his mother's deathbed. He has his whole life ahead of him.

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Chapter 32
Explanation and Analysis—Oliver's Resurrection:

Oliver's evolving relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds throughout the novel is an extended metaphor for his upward trajectory. He is born on his mother's deathbed and nearly dies himself in Chapter 1:

The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence,—and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next, the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.

For Victorians, birth and death often happened in the same bed, so the "little flock mattress" represents a threshold between heaven and earth. Oliver defies everyone's expectations by failing to follow his mother out of "this world." Throughout his early childhood, the only thing anyone seems to expect of him is that he will waste away and die like his friend Dick. In Chapter 4, Mrs. Sowerberry underscores this expectation by asking him whether he will mind sleeping under the counter with the undertaker's inventory of coffins:

"[...] it doesn't much matter whether you will or not, for you won't sleep any where else. [...]"

The Sowerberrys have only taken a halfhearted chance on Oliver's future, failing to make space for him in a real bed. The parish and the Sowerberrys toss him in with coffins as though they expect that they will have to put him in one eventually anyway. High childhood mortality rates in Victorian England partially explain this behavior, even if it is cruel. Oliver's frequent encounters with coffins and deathbeds from a young age symbolize his especially abysmal odds of making it far in life.

When Oliver is taken in by the Maylies, he gets a real bed, where:

He felt calm and happy, and could have died without a murmur.

Oliver's health is gradually restored, and he finds that his new bed is not for dying, but for sleeping. This change reorients Oliver's relationship to graves, coffins, and deathbeds. In Chapter 32, Oliver visits a graveyard near the Maylies' house:

Oliver often wandered here, and, thinking of the wretched grave in which his mother lay, would sometimes sit him down and sob unseen; but, as he raised his eyes to the deep sky overhead, he would cease to think of her as lying in the ground, and weep for her sadly, but without pain.

Oliver learns in this passage to imagine the graveyard as a place to grieve and as a place where neither he nor his mother belong permanently. He understands that his mother has departed the graveyard for heaven, and that he will eventually leave the graveyard to go home. Later, when Rose Maylie falls ill and the narrator describes her as "tottering on the deep grave's edge," it becomes even clearer that Oliver, by contrast, has risen from his mother's deathbed. He has his whole life ahead of him.

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Chapter 35
Explanation and Analysis—The Stain:

Harry Maylie and Rose Maylie are cousins, but in the context of Victorian England, that is not what gets in the way of them marrying one another for much of the novel. Despite being a perfect match, in Chapter 35, Rose describes a metaphorical "stain" that makes her unfit to marry Harry:

"[T]here is a stain upon my name which the world visits on innocent heads; I will carry it into no blood but my own and the reproach shall rest alone on me."

The stain is not a literal mark, but rather a metaphor for the scandal that has touched Rose's family. It is not clear until the end of the novel what this scandal is. As it turns out, Rose is the much younger sister of Agnes, who became pregnant with Oliver before technically marrying his father. When Rose and Agnes's father died, Rose was taken in by a poor couple. Monks's mother, the jilted former wife of Oliver's father, tracked Rose down and maliciously told the couple a more scandalous version of the family history. When Rose was eventually adopted by Mrs. Maylie, the extra scandal accompanied her as a "stain." Because a spotless reputation for virtue and a good fortune was important to a woman's marketability for marriage in Victorian England, the stain makes Rose an unsuitable prospect for Mrs. Maylie's son or virtually any other wealthy man who might deserve such an otherwise perfect bride. Rose herself does not want to pass the stain on to Harry or their hypothetical children.

The stain is an example of Dickens's reliance on darkness to represent corruption and light to represent inherent good. Although racist, it was common in 19th-century fiction for not only light but specifically racial whiteness to be associated with moral purity. Sickly, delicate, and wealthy with a heart of gold, Rose fits the stereotype of the morally pure white woman in a sentimental novel. Both Oliver and Harry Maylie have a difficult time believing that a "stain" could really stick to angelic Rose. Following Oliver and Harry, readers are skeptical, too. The revelation of the true family history at the end of the novel confirms what Oliver, Harry, and the reader suspected all along: for the most part, the stain can be scrubbed right off. Like Oliver, Rose's inherent goodness makes her impervious to real, lasting corruption.

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