Oliver Twist


Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist: Personification 3 key examples

Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Institutions as People:

In Chapter 5, Mr. Bumble drops in on Mr. Sowerberry. To explain why Mr. Bumble doesn't ask about Oliver while he is there, the narrator personifies the parish Oliver was born into as an overwhelmed parent:

[Oliver] needn’t have taken the trouble to shrink from Mr Bumble’s glance, however; for that functionary [...] thought that now the undertaker had got Oliver upon trial, the subject was better avoided, until such time as he should be firmly bound for seven years, and all danger of his being returned upon the hands of the parish should be thus effectually and legally overcome.

With Oliver, his peers in the workhouse, and the "ungrateful behavior" of people like the dead woman, the parish has its "hands" too full of needy wards. It is a relief not only to Bumble but to the parish itself to have Oliver foisted off on Mr. Sowerberry. The passage makes clear that the closest thing Oliver has to a family—the parish—needs him to stay out of the way for good. Essentially, he is being disowned.

It is worth noting that the personification of the parish in the passage above is part of Bumble's thought process. Bumble benefits from the idea that the parish, and not Bumble himself, is the one that doesn't have time for Oliver. That way, Bumble can conceive of his own neglect of the child as protectiveness toward the parish, which is struggling to uphold the Poor Law. In this way, Dickens critiques characters who fantasize that social and political institutions either need their protection or limit their ability to strive for higher morality. People like Bumble, who operate institutions, should use all the power they have to protect the people who depend on them.

Chapter 24
Explanation and Analysis—Death Discriminates:

An instance of personification occurs in Chapter 24, when Old Sally is dying. One of the women Mrs. Corney finds tending to her says:

We have none of us long to wait for Death. Patience, patience! he’ll be here soon enough for us all.

In one of the most classic examples of personification, death is figured here not just as an event, but as a person who eventually shows up to take everyone away from the land of the living. Mrs. Corney calls the woman who says this a "doting idiot." One interpretation of Mrs. Corney's scorn is that she does not find this worn-out, grim-reaper image of death particularly compelling. More than the tired imagery though, she seems to be rejecting the woman's sentimentality about the very concept of death. Mrs. Corney has spent years helping run the workhouse. Conditions there are bleak, and she has seen a lot of people die. To her, death is not someone you ever have to wait for. Old Sally's dying will be a routine event in the workhouse, and to pretend otherwise is to live in the clouds.

Mrs. Corney's perspective partly encapsulates the commentary Dickens is making in this novel on poorly-implemented social welfare systems: whereas rich people might have to be patient when waiting for death, it comes especially early and often for poor people in Victorian England. Oliver makes the same observation in Chapter 5, when he is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry and helps bury someone who died prematurely in poverty. Whereas Mrs. Corney is uncritical of death's frequent drop-ins on the workhouse, Dickens's readers (most of whom were wealthy and relatively safe from death) are left to consider how poor living conditions can lead to high mortality rates in the workhouse and similar places.

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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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