Oliver Twist is, among other things, a meditation on the nature of criminality in 1830s England: an examination of who commits crimes; of the spectrum of crimes (from petty thievery to murder); and of the idea of criminality as a learned behavior or an innate quality. Oliver is born a poor orphan; he is raised in a workhouse and makes his way to London, where is "rescued" by a group of young thieves controlled by Fagin. Thus Oliver, according to Victorian ideas about the link between poverty and criminality, is seen as being "naturally" predisposed to crime, because he was brought up poor, and was not school educated. Oliver is also at risk of learning criminal behavior from Fagin, Charley Bates, the Artful Dodger, and Sikes.
One of the novel's great questions, therefore, is: will Oliver succumb to this "natural" predisposition and learned criminal behavior, or will he retain his innate virtue? Dickens presents a full range of criminality as a means of describing English criminal society at the time of his writing. Sikes and Fagin are both shown to be "natural" criminals—meaning they are men for whom crime is an organic outgrowth of their innate badness or evil. But although Dickens is clear in his disapproval of Sikes and Fagin, he nevertheless reserves a certain amount of room for moral complication as regards the "criminality" of other characters in the novel. Dickens acknowledges that Nancy has been forced to commit crimes, but Dickens has a certain amount of sympathy for Nancy's condition, as she was forced to work for Fagin from a young age. The Artful Dodger and Bates are entertaining and funny characters, and there is a despair Dickens ascribes to their condition, as Fagin's servants and partners in crime (not out of choice, but out of necessity). The Dodger ends up going to a penal colony, and Charley decides he ought to find honest work, and begins a series of menial jobs after renouncing his life of crime. Monks is given part of his inheritance by Brownlow, in the hopes that he will change, but he, too, returns to crime.
Oliver's purity and strength of spirit are never compromised throughout the novel; it is implied that his "gentlemanly" parentage makes it more likely that he will end up part of a stable family structure, and that he will become educated and find legal employment. Thus Dickens seems to indicate that criminality is, after all, a mixture of moral disposition and of circumstances. Bates transcends his circumstances to live a "legal" life, but his rewards are few, and his job training poor. Oliver is virtuous and strong, but also aided by the help of members of the middle class, and by the fact that he is of noble birth.
Thievery and Crime ThemeTracker
Thievery and Crime Quotes in Oliver Twist
Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!
For more! . . . Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?
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That boy will be hung . . . I know that boy will be hung.
He wore a man's coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back . . . to get his hands out of the sleeves . . . . He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in his bluchers.
Oliver wondered what picking the old gentleman's pocket in play, had to do with his chances of being a great man. But thinking that the Jew [Fagin], being so much his senior, must know best, he followed him quietly to the table; and was soon deeply involved in his new study.
The cry was repeated—a light appeared—a vision of two terrified half-dressed men at the top of the stairs swam before his eyes—a flash—a loud noise—a smoke—a crash somewhere . . . .
Bill had him [Oliver] on his back and scudded like the wind. We stopped to take him between us; his head hung down; and he was cold. . . . We parted company, and left the youngster lying in a ditch. Alive or dead, that's all I know about him.
Say it again, you vile, owdacious fellow! . . . How dare you mention such a thing, sir? And how dare you encourage him, you insolent minx! Kiss her! . . . Faugh!
It was but an instant, a glance, a flash, before his eyes; and they were gone. But they had recognized him, and he them; and their look was as firmly impressed upon his memory, as if it had been deeply carved in stone . . . .
Do not close your heart against all my efforts to help you . . . I wish to serve you indeed.
You would serve me best, lady . . . if you could take my life at once; for I have felt more grief to think of what I am, tonight, that I ever did before . . . .
You'll pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something. I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!
You have a friend in me, Nance; a staunch friend. I have the means at hand, quiet and close. If you want revenge on those that treat you like a dog . . .come to me. I say, come to me.
She goes abroad tonight . . . and on the right errand, I'm sure; for she has been alone all da, and the man she is afraid of, will not be back much before daybreak . . . .
You must do more than that . . . make restitution to an innocent and unoffending child, for such he is, although the offspring of a guilty and most miserable love . . . .
The noose was at his neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as bow-string . . . there was sudden jerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hand.