Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Chapters 11–12 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11

At the police station, Oliver is locked in a dismal cell, and the gentleman contemplates why Oliver looks so familiar. Soon Oliver appears before the police magistrate, Mr. Fang. The gentleman whose handkerchief was stolen identifies himself as Mr. Brownlow and says he cannot be sure Oliver was the thief; he expresses concern that the boy is gravely ill. Oliver is in fact so ill that he cannot answer any questions and soon passes out. Mr. Fang sentences Oliver to three months' hard labor. As Oliver is being carried from the room, the bookstall keeper rushes in and testifies that Oliver's companions were the thieves and that Oliver himself "was perfectly amazed and stupefied" to see what they did. Mr. Fang voids his previous decision and releases Oliver. When Mr. Brownlow and the bookseller leave the station, they find Oliver lying in the street, bathed in sweat and shivering. Mr. Brownlow calls for a coach, and the two men depart, taking Oliver with them.

Chapter 12

Oliver wakes up in a clean, soft bed and is attended by Mrs. Bedwin, who is Mr. Brownlow's housekeeper. Oliver is in Mr. Brownlow's house. Three days later Oliver is strong enough to be taken downstairs where he is fascinated by a portrait of a young woman with a "beautiful, mild face." The way the eyes seem to look at him "makes my heart beat ... as if it was alive, and wanted to speak to me, but couldn't." Mr. Brownlow looks at Oliver and then at the portrait and realizes that the boy's features and expression are the same as those of the young woman.

After escaping with Mr. Brownlow's handkerchief, Jack Dawkins and Charley Bates return to Fagin's. Charley finds the whole thing riotously funny, especially how they chased Oliver crying, "Stop, thief!" But Jack asks, "What'll Fagin say?"

Analysis

Readers will notice throughout Oliver Twist that a character's face tends to reveal his or her personality. Oliver's face is sweet and open. This is one reason Fagin believes he would be a valuable asset if only he could be subverted; it is also part of the reason Mr. Brownlow believes the boy must be innocent. Fagin's face, in contrast, is "villainous-looking" and "repulsive." Mr. Fang's face is "stern" and "flushed," as if he drinks too much; his expression and color may, of course, indicate that he's angry over the article he's reading. He is certainly short-tempered with everyone in the court, including the victim, Mr. Brownlow. Dickens based Mr. Fang, whose name implies that he has a nasty bite, on a real London magistrate named Laing, who was famous for being bad-tempered and rude.

The belief that a person's features indicate their character is not a literary conceit. In the 19th century many people subscribed to the centuries-old "science" of physiognomy. Even the ancient Greeks believed they could read a person's character in his or her head size or facial shape. The 18th century Swiss writer and philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater broke the face down into sections—eyes, nose, mouth, etc.—and discussed what different characteristics of each section meant. Terms such as highbrow, lowbrow, and stuck-up originate with physiognomy. A related "science" is phrenology, which can be traced back to Franz Josef Gall, an Austrian doctor, and was based on his belief that the shape of the skull reflects the shape of the brain and thus the intelligence and character of the person. Phrenology was in vogue in Britain and America when Dickens was writing Oliver Twist.

Oliver's brief trial takes place in a police court. The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act gave the power of prosecution to the police. Petty criminals were therefore taken before a magistrate, or more commonly two magistrates, where they would act as their own defense against the accusation of their victim, who acted as the prosecutor. There was no jury, and decisions often were not formally recorded.

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