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Oliver Twist | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In the first two chapters of Oliver Twist, what is Dickens's attitude toward the treatment of the poor in 19th-century England, and how does he express it?

Dickens makes it clear that, despite the many organizations set up to help the poor, the poor received little care. Although it is doubtful that Oliver will survive, the newborn boy is left alone by the surgeon and the nurse until he manages to breathe on his own. He is then raised in a baby farm where the children receive very little food and are left largely unwashed and poorly clothed; Mrs. Mann, who runs it, pockets most of the money she is given for the children's care. At the workhouse the children are fed three meals a day of gruel (a thin soup of grain and water or milk) and the occasional bit of bread. Beginning at the age of nine, they work to earn their keep. At both the baby farm and the workhouse, many children die of disease and accidents. Dickens expresses his opinion through verbal irony and sarcasm. For example, in Chapter 2, Dickens explains that whenever the death of a child at the baby farm was investigated, the surgeon "always opened the body and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed), and the [beadle] invariably swore whatever the parish wanted; which was very self-devotional." Saying that it "was very probable indeed" that nothing would be found during a child's autopsy is an example of verbal irony because the surgeon finds the same thing in every autopsy he performs on a child—absolutely nothing. Probability is never a factor because the results of the autopsies are rigged. The surgeon intends from the beginning to cover up any evidence of wrongdoing he may find. The beadle's testimony is equally corrupt. He says exactly what the parish tells him in order to protect the parish from prosecution. The term "self-devotional" means to be self-sacrificing, especially in order to care for others. The beadle is not self-sacrificing, but rather self-interested, and he fails the children on his watch by helping cover up the abuse they suffer, a position Dickens clearly finds worthy of contempt.

What does the reader learn about Oliver's mother in Chapter 1 of Oliver Twist?

Because Agnes Fleming dies after giving birth to Oliver, the reader has this one opportunity to meet Oliver's mother, whose name and identity are not discovered until Chapter 52. However, even in these few pages, the reader learns some physical information about her and gains an impression of her personality. Physically, Oliver's mother is young, pale, and weak. Mrs. Thingummy explains that she was found lying in the street with "her shoes ... worn to pieces" from walking a long way. That a heavily pregnant woman walked such a long distance gives an impression of both determination and desperation. Her persistence in demanding to see her baby before she dies reinforces this impression of determination, but it also demonstrates an ability to accept reality: she realizes she is dying and faces it squarely. It also shows that she has a loving heart. After the young woman's death, the surgeon looks at her left hand and comments that hers is "the old story ... no wedding ring." Of course there may be reasons she would not wear her ring, but it seems most likely that she is indeed unmarried.

In Chapter 3 of Oliver Twist, why does "the gentleman in the white waistcoat" consider Mr. Gamfield a good choice to take on Oliver as an apprentice?

From the first moment he met Oliver (in Chapter 2), the gentleman in the white waistcoat, who is a member of the workhouse board, has disliked Oliver, considering him a "fool" and predicting that "he will be hung." (It is worth noting that twist was a synonym for hang.) He is very invested in getting Oliver off the parish's hands by indenturing the boy as an apprentice. He observes the chimney-sweep beating his donkey and extrapolates (rightly) that the man must treat his apprentices similarly. In this way "Mr. Gamfield was exactly the sort of master Oliver Twist wanted." The gentleman would no doubt say that Oliver needs a strong hand to keep him in line and help him grow up to be a law-abiding citizen, but the board member more likely just wants to see Oliver punished for what he perceives as ingratitude and lack of proper subservience toward the workhouse authorities.

In Oliver Twist how does Oliver's life change when he goes to live with the Sowerberrys, and how do these changes affect him?

The Sowerberrys do not treat Oliver well; they feed him the scraps they would otherwise give the dog and send him to sleep in the shop among the coffins. Still the food is better than it was at the workhouse, where Oliver never got meat of any sort. On top of that, his work is more interesting. At the workhouse he picked oakum day in and day out, unraveling old ropes into strands, but the undertaker gives him a variety of tasks, and he even meets people in the town. Moreover the undertaker recognizes Oliver's potential and grooms him to become a mute—a professional mourner—for children's funerals. With better nutrition and some positive recognition of his abilities, Oliver becomes stronger and healthier as well as less fearful and more self-confident. This transformation offers a preview of how he will develop later in the novel.

According to the narrator of Oliver Twist, what is the significance of Noah's family history?

Noah's father was a bitter ex-soldier who drank heavily. Because the family was poor, Noah was sent to a charity school. As a result it is likely he suffered abuse at home, and the narrator tells the reader that he was regularly bullied on the streets for wearing charity-school leathers. Because he was called "Leathers" and "Charity," Noah in turn calls Oliver "Work'us," and bullies him incessantly. The narrator remarks in response to Noah's history "how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy," suggesting that people tend to perpetuate the poor treatment they receive. This viciousness is what the narrator ironically refers to as "amiable qualities," and he is making the point that perpetuating mistreatment is a quality that can appear in a charity boy such as Noah, but equally in someone born to the upper class. It is worth noting, however, that Oliver does not treat others with the viciousness perpetrated on him. His innate goodness seems to make him immune to this pattern of abuse, which places him in opposition to the narrator's theory.

What does the reader learn about Noah Claypole from his actions in Chapters 6 and 7 of Oliver Twist?

Noah may not look it, but he is clever and quick-witted. He realizes that Charlotte will do anything for him and that Mrs. Sowerberry does not like Oliver if only because her husband does. So Noah knows he can get away with attacking Oliver when Mr. Sowerberry leaves the house. He goes after Oliver viciously because he envies the workhouse boy's "promotion" after such a short time. By goading Oliver about the boy's mother until Oliver hits Noah to defend her memory, Noah makes himself look like a victim and gets Oliver punished. Then, when Noah goes to report Oliver's attack to the parish authorities, he sees an opportunity to get rid of Oliver entirely by reporting that Oliver has attempted to kill him, Charlotte, and Mrs. Sowerberry. Because Oliver has already shown his "depravity" by asking for more food, Mr. Bumble and the board readily believe Noah's lies. At first Noah probably hopes to make Oliver look bad and reduce the boy's status with Mr. Sowerberry, but in the end, he uses his quick wits to get rid of his rival entirely.

In Oliver Twist what experience of kindness does Oliver have before he leaves the town he was born in?

Oliver is a kindhearted boy, but it is innate kindness stemming from nature, not nurture. As a newborn he experiences kindness briefly in his mother's arms, but before that he experienced indifference from the nurse and surgeon as he struggled to draw his first breath. At the baby farm and workhouse, he experiences no kindness. The inmates of both are regularly treated with indifference and often with cruelty. Oliver first knowingly experiences kindness at age 10. One of the magistrates reviewing his indenture to Mr. Gamfield notices Oliver's "expression of horror and fear" and addresses the boy. The narrator describes Oliver's reaction: "Oliver started at the sound. He might be excused for doing so: for the words were kindly said; and strange sounds frighten one. He trembled violently, and burst into tears." The magistrates take Oliver's fear into account and deny the indenture. Next Oliver experiences kind treatment from Mr. Sowerberry, but it is never wholehearted because the undertaker doesn't dare defy his wife. Finally, as he leaves for London, Oliver experiences great kindness from the dying boy, Dick, who vows to keep his secret, hugs and kisses him, and offers Oliver the first blessing he has ever received.

In Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist, on his way to London, Oliver receives food from two people. Why does this gift affect him more than others' cruelty or indifference?

Cruelty and indifference are familiar to Oliver, so he is not deeply affected by being turned away from shops, farmhouses, or inns, or even by being forced to run uphill after a coach when the riders on the outside offer to give him a halfpenny at the top of the hill. (As the reader has seen with Mr. Gamfield and Noah Claypole, it is often the poorer people in Oliver Twist—the outside seats, which are exposed to the elements, are cheaper—who mistreat those worse off than themselves.) The narrator tells the reader that some people are afraid that Oliver is a thief, but it is unlikely that Oliver himself was aware of that. He is too innocent and naïve to believe that people would set out to steal from others. Having been raised in a country town, Oliver does not learn of such criminality until after his arrival in London. When the turnpike-man and the old lady offer him food and are kind to him, Oliver is deeply affected because he has experienced so little kindness in his life. Kindness and compassion are also a component of Oliver's own innate goodness, so such treatment elicits a particularly positive response within him.

In Oliver Twist how might Fagin be viewed as an embodiment of evil?

When Oliver first sees Fagin in Chapter 8, the old man is holding a toasting fork and cooking sausages over an open fire in a dark room. The narrator points out that Fagin is "villainous-looking and repulsive," has red hair, and is holding a toasting fork while lit by the flickering red cooking fire. The picture the narrator draws is highly suggestive of the devil and must resemble drawings Oliver might have seen of this evil figure. Fagin has other devilish qualities, too, such as superficial charm covering underlying viciousness. Oliver gets a glimpse of this on his first morning at Fagin's when Fagin discovers Oliver watching him examine his hoard of riches. His fury erupts although he masks it again just as quickly. Like the devil Fagin corrupts the innocent—turning needy children into criminals—as Oliver finally realizes in Chapter 10. In case readers are in any doubt, the narrator frequently refers to Fagin as "the merry old gentleman"; since Elizabethan times, the word merry had been use to refer to the devil, so Dickens's readers would have immediately made this association.

In Chapters 11 and 12 of Oliver Twist, how does Mr. Brownlow provide insight into Oliver's personal history?

After briefly meeting Oliver's mother in Chapter 1 and learning about the circumstances of his birth, the reader learns nothing more about Oliver's background. It is clear, however, that Oliver has thought about his mother all his life and imagined what she might have been like. When he sees a portrait of a young woman in Mrs. Bedwin's sitting room, he is particularly attracted to her features and feels as if she wanted to speak to him. In the police station, Mr. Brownlow cannot figure out why Oliver looks so familiar, but when he sees the boy beside the portrait, he immediately recognizes that they share the same features and expression. This association introduces the mystery of Oliver's true identity and his connection to Mr. Brownlow, a motif that runs through the book: Oliver may somehow be related to this woman, whoever she is. Because she cannot tell Oliver who the woman in the portrait is, it would appear that Mrs. Bedwin is not a relation.

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