Similes

Oliver Twist

by

Charles Dickens

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Oliver Twist can help.

Oliver Twist: Similes 3 key examples

Definition of Simile
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like" or "as," but can also... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often... 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 16
Explanation and Analysis—Sikes's Dog:

Sikes's dog is a motif that comes to symbolize the idea of loyalty and the dangers of unquestioningly following powerful leaders. This motif occurs in Chapter 16, when Sikes and Nancy have taken Oliver away from Mr. Brownlow's house. Sikes has just told his dog to lunge at Oliver's throat if he says anything to prevent his being taken back to Fagin:

The dog growled again, and, licking his lips, eyed Oliver as if he were anxious to attach himself to his windpipe without any unnecessary delay.

"He's as willing as a Christian, strike me blind if he isn't," said Sikes, regarding the animal with a kind of grim and ferocious approval.

The dog wants to attack Oliver. The fact that he does not simply lunge indicates that pleasing Sikes is even more important to him. The ideal situation for the dog, it seems, would be if Sikes gave him the go-ahead to attack. The dog's eagerness to please Sikes through violence thus represents the way Fagin's crew behaves toward him, carrying out reprehensible acts in his service. For instance, kidnapping Oliver is not necessarily consistent with Nancy's own character—once her loyalty to Fagin begins to crumble later in the novel, she comes to see herself as Oliver's protector. Here, though, she acts against his best interest by kidnapping him from Mr. Brownlow because this is what Fagin has told her to do. What's more, Fagin has created a hierarchy among his crew members. Just as obedience to Sikes might "reward" the dog with the chance to hurt Oliver, Nancy and Sikes receive the reward of power over Oliver for their obedience to Fagin.

Furthermore, the simile that Sikes uses to compare the dog to a Christian underscores how devoted Fagin's followers are to him, and also how much power he has over them. Nancy and Sikes are essentially Fagin's disciples. They will do whatever he says without question, much as a good Victorian Christian tries to carry out God's will. But neither Sikes nor Fagin is God. They do not deserve such loyalty because they are simply using their followers for their personal gain and do not care much what happens to them.

This idea appears again at the end of the novel, when—in Chapter 50—the dog jumps off a roof after Sikes, following him to his death. Sikes, Nancy, and the Artful Dodger are all examples of people whose loyalty to Fagin got them killed or arrested. The dog's loyalty to Sikes gets him killed, too. But there is another facet to this motif. When he is on the run after killing Nancy, Sikes comes to see the dog as a liability. At first this is because having a dog at his side makes him more recognizable. The dog even gets blood on his paws during the murder, so he is literal evidence of Sikes's law-breaking. By the time of Sikes's death, he sees the dog more as a witness holding him accountable for his terrible crime against morality:

"The eyes again!" he cried in an unearthly screech. Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet [...].

Sikes is running not just from the law at the end of his life, but from his dog's eyes. Similarly, Fagin is brought down and held accountable by people like Oliver, whom he once groomed into submission.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
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.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Chapter 50
Explanation and Analysis—Sikes's Dog:

Sikes's dog is a motif that comes to symbolize the idea of loyalty and the dangers of unquestioningly following powerful leaders. This motif occurs in Chapter 16, when Sikes and Nancy have taken Oliver away from Mr. Brownlow's house. Sikes has just told his dog to lunge at Oliver's throat if he says anything to prevent his being taken back to Fagin:

The dog growled again, and, licking his lips, eyed Oliver as if he were anxious to attach himself to his windpipe without any unnecessary delay.

"He's as willing as a Christian, strike me blind if he isn't," said Sikes, regarding the animal with a kind of grim and ferocious approval.

The dog wants to attack Oliver. The fact that he does not simply lunge indicates that pleasing Sikes is even more important to him. The ideal situation for the dog, it seems, would be if Sikes gave him the go-ahead to attack. The dog's eagerness to please Sikes through violence thus represents the way Fagin's crew behaves toward him, carrying out reprehensible acts in his service. For instance, kidnapping Oliver is not necessarily consistent with Nancy's own character—once her loyalty to Fagin begins to crumble later in the novel, she comes to see herself as Oliver's protector. Here, though, she acts against his best interest by kidnapping him from Mr. Brownlow because this is what Fagin has told her to do. What's more, Fagin has created a hierarchy among his crew members. Just as obedience to Sikes might "reward" the dog with the chance to hurt Oliver, Nancy and Sikes receive the reward of power over Oliver for their obedience to Fagin.

Furthermore, the simile that Sikes uses to compare the dog to a Christian underscores how devoted Fagin's followers are to him, and also how much power he has over them. Nancy and Sikes are essentially Fagin's disciples. They will do whatever he says without question, much as a good Victorian Christian tries to carry out God's will. But neither Sikes nor Fagin is God. They do not deserve such loyalty because they are simply using their followers for their personal gain and do not care much what happens to them.

This idea appears again at the end of the novel, when—in Chapter 50—the dog jumps off a roof after Sikes, following him to his death. Sikes, Nancy, and the Artful Dodger are all examples of people whose loyalty to Fagin got them killed or arrested. The dog's loyalty to Sikes gets him killed, too. But there is another facet to this motif. When he is on the run after killing Nancy, Sikes comes to see the dog as a liability. At first this is because having a dog at his side makes him more recognizable. The dog even gets blood on his paws during the murder, so he is literal evidence of Sikes's law-breaking. By the time of Sikes's death, he sees the dog more as a witness holding him accountable for his terrible crime against morality:

"The eyes again!" he cried in an unearthly screech. Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet [...].

Sikes is running not just from the law at the end of his life, but from his dog's eyes. Similarly, Fagin is brought down and held accountable by people like Oliver, whom he once groomed into submission.

Unlock with LitCharts A+