Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Chapters 18–20 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 18

After spending a week locked in the kitchen, Oliver is left alone with the run of the house. The shutters are nailed closed, and the place is dark and dirty. The house is old, and Oliver imagines that people once lived there happily. One day Jack Dawkins and Charley Bates come home, and while Oliver polishes Jack's boots, the two boys try to convince him that he can make a good living as a thief. Soon Fagin arrives, along with Tom Chitling and Bet, and they all pass the evening talking about the benefits of a life of crime. After that Oliver's days are spent with Fagin, Jack, and Charley playing the old pickpocketing game and listening to Fagin tell tales of his early career. His stories are so funny that even Oliver has to laugh.

Chapter 19

Fagin visits Bill Sikes to discuss plans for a burglary at Chertsey. Sikes explains that the servants cannot be bribed to let them in, but he offers to break in for a larger cut of the take. All he will need is a drill bit and a small boy. Nancy suggests Oliver as the boy for the job, and Fagin agrees. It's time, he says, for Oliver "to work for his bread." Bill expresses less confidence, but Fagin assures him that once Oliver has helped rob the house, he will view himself as one of the gang. They decide the robbery will take place two nights later. Bill drinks until he passes out, and Fagin leaves, congratulating himself that Nancy has forgotten her concerns for Oliver.

Chapter 20

Fagin tells Oliver that he will be going with Bill Sikes and warns the boy to do what he's told because Bill is a "rough man." Fagin has given Oliver a book to read while waiting; it is a graphic true crime book, and it frightens Oliver so much that he soon puts it aside and starts praying to be saved from a life of crime. Nancy arrives and takes Oliver to Bill, who holds a pistol to Oliver's head and threatens to shoot him if he crosses him. After a few hours' sleep and a quick breakfast, Bill and Oliver head out into the early morning hours.

Analysis

In Chapter 18 Fagin proves himself to be an adept psychological manipulator. He uses solitary confinement to make Oliver susceptible to a sort of brainwashing. This is a corruption of an experimental method being used on prison inmates at the time Dickens was writing. Prisoners were left in isolation with Bibles to read and occasional visits from the prison chaplain. It was hoped that through reflection they could be rehabilitated.

In the late 17th century, philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) argued that the mind is more or less a tabula rasa, or blank slate. General principles of morality, logic, and so forth are learned (through sensory experience and reflection) rather than innate (something people are born with). However, philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) felt that such principles are innate, rather than coming from sources outside the individual, such as experience. This opposition forms the basis of the ongoing debate on nature (innateness) versus nurture (tabula rasa).

Dickens places Oliver squarely in the midst of this debate. Clearly Oliver was born with a kind, sweet nature that somewhat insulates him from the wiles and meanness of Fagin, Sikes, and the others. But for how long? Will his nature be subsumed over time by an unremitting evil and criminal environment?

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