Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Oliver Twist why does Mr. Brownlow doubt his first impression of Oliver's honesty?

When he is questioned by Mr. Fang, Oliver is too sick to take in his surroundings and answer the magistrate's questions. A helpful policeman pretends that Oliver is whispering answers to him, telling Mr. Fang that the boy's name is Tom White and that his parents died when he was an infant. (The name is an invention, but the death of his parents is "the usual reply," which adds to the reader's understanding of the boys who fall under Fagin's spell.) When Oliver has recovered from his illness, he is surprised when Mr. Brownlow calls him Tom White, and he tells the gentleman his real name, protesting that he "never told" the magistrate he was called Tom White. This sounds like a lie to Mr. Brownlow, and although he puts it out of his mind for the moment, it sows the seeds of doubt, making him more open to Mr. Grimwig's assertions in Chapter 14 and more ready to think the worst when Oliver does not return from the bookseller's.

What is the relationship between physical appearance and character in Oliver Twist?

A recurrent motif in Oliver Twist is the close relationship between appearance and character. Even before the reader comes to know Bill Sikes, his appearance indicates his criminal nature. His pants and scarf are dirty and ill-fitting, which indicates a dishonest nature. Fagin wears "a greasy flannel gown," Bet and Nancy are "rather untidy about the shoes and stockings," and the Artful Dodger wears an adult's jacket that is much too big for him. Their appearance can be compared to the fastidious appearance of the honest bookstall keeper, who is poor but takes care in his dress, and to Mrs. Bedwin, who is "very neatly and precisely dressed." Sikes also has "scowling eyes" in keeping with his harsh treatment of everyone he meets. Dickens seems to adhere to the idea that people's characters show in their faces: Jack has "little, sharp, ugly eyes"; Fagin is "villainous-looking and repulsive," which accurately reflects his character despite his superficial charm. The belief that physiognomy (the arrangement of facial features) reflects character was popular in the 19th century.

In Chapter 14 of Oliver Twist, how does Mr. Grimwig contribute to the developing conflict?

Mr. Grimwig contributes to the conflict by adding to Mr. Brownlow's doubts about Oliver's goodness. Mr. Brownlow has trouble trusting people. He tells Oliver that people he trusted before have let him down. Mr. Grimwig plants further doubt in Mr. Brownlow's mind about Oliver, adding to the niggling doubt the gentleman had concerning Oliver's name. He makes a grim sort of bet with Mr. Brownlow that Oliver will run off with the books, money, and clothing Mr. Brownlow gave him. Still, only when Mr. Brownlow hears Mr. Bumble's evidence does he accept his friend's interpretation. Of course, he does not realize that Mr. Bumble might have told a completely different—and more honest—story if he had not been prompted to speak against Oliver by Mr. Grimwig's question, "You don't happen to know any good of him, do you?" Neither Mr. Grimwig nor Mr. Brownlow have any knowledge of Oliver's character; they are both trusting only their instincts and observations. Though he is deeply grieved, Mr. Brownlow believes that Oliver is a criminal. As a result Mr. Brownlow stops looking for Oliver, placing Oliver in even greater—and possibly lifelong—danger from Fagin and Sikes.

What does darkness represent in Chapters 14 through 17 of Oliver Twist?

Light and dark are commonly used to represent goodness and evil in literature. In Oliver Twist Dickens uses darkness to represent crime and evildoing. As Mr. Brownlow and Mr. Grimwig sit on either side of the watch, the room grows so dark that they can no longer see its face, and as the light fades, they begin to doubt Oliver's goodness even more than they had before. And just as the darkness takes over the room, Oliver is recaptured on the street by Nancy and Sikes, who drag him back to Fagin and a life of crime. By doing so they also help ensure that Mr. Brownlow will believe that Oliver has betrayed his trust. Oliver is quick to realize this situation, which deepens his despair.

What is the significance of Mr. Grimwig's name in Oliver Twist?

A common motif in all of Dickens's novels is the use of names that reflect the character's physical and personality traits. Mr. Grimwig (grim plus wig) is a good example of this technique. Dickens describes Mr. Grimwig as powdering his hair heavily. A wig, while common for men at the time, creates a kind of disguise or mask for a person—a false façade or outer mark of status. Hence the use of wig in Mr. Grimwig's name. But the more telling description is the word grim, which describes his gloomy, negative, and depressed outlook on life and his tendency to see the bad in every situation and person. This can be seen in his rant about the orange peel when he first appears in Chapter 14. Even when, as with Oliver, he sees evidence to the contrary, Mr. Grimwig will adopt a negative perspective just because he likes contradicting others.

How does Nancy's character develop in Chapters 9 through 16 of Oliver Twist?

Nancy is one of the few characters in the book who is well-developed. In Chapter 9 she appears to be just another member of Fagin's gang and seems content to drink and play games with Jack, Charley, and Bet. Despite her initial unwillingness, she spies for Fagin, brings back information about Oliver's whereabouts, and goes to retrieve him. But in Chapter 16, the reader receives deeper insight into Nancy. She empathizes with young prisoners scheduled to be hung and fears that Bill might become one of them. She then defends Oliver to Sikes and Fagin, and the reader learns she resents the life of crime that Fagin trained her to lead. The reader realizes that Nancy had no choice in life because she "thieved for [Fagin] when [she] was a child not half as old as [Oliver]!" (Chapter 16)—perhaps at just four years of age. This revelation creates deep sympathy for Nancy, which will make her later death all the more disturbing. Notably, Nancy appears to possess the same innate goodness that Oliver does. She has just learned to be a good actress, as Fagin often points out, so that she can survive in London's criminal underworld.

In Oliver Twist how does Fagin use psychology in dealing with his young apprentices, particularly with Oliver?

Fagin is a consummate psychological manipulator, adept at determining each person's triggers and using those triggers to subtly manipulate his victim. Often, as in the case of the Artful Dodger and Nancy, he uses praise (for Jack's pickpocketing abilities and Nancy's clever acting, for example), but with Sikes he uses threats (especially of the if-I-go-down-you-go-down variety). He uses both techniques on Oliver. In Chapter 8 Fagin recognizes that Oliver has a kind and honest nature, and he plays to that. He seeks to gain Oliver's trust by showing concern for him and playing games with his boys. He offers food and shelter, asking nothing in return. He lies about how the boys make a living and involves Oliver in removing stitching from handkerchiefs by saying it needs to be redone. But after Oliver knows the truth, Fagin makes sure Oliver knows his friends will think him a thief and beat him. Then he softens Oliver up by leaving him alone for weeks in the dark and dismal house. When they finally spend time together again, Fagin reverts again into a charming storyteller and player of games. The final step will be for Oliver to help Sikes commit burglary so he will become a thief.

In Chapter 20 of Oliver Twist, why doesn't Oliver attempt to escape, as he's previously decided, when Nancy takes him to Bill Sikes?

Just as Fagin predicts, Oliver tends to trust Nancy because she has defended him in the past. That's why she is the one sent to get him before the robbery. When she arrives Oliver has just been reading about the lives and trials of famous criminals and has determined that he must try to escape. He even decides that dying would be better than becoming a criminal. But Nancy is pale and upset and clearly afraid. Her neck and arms are bruised, and she tells Oliver, "I have promised for your being quiet and silent; if you are not, you will only do harm to yourself and me too, and perhaps be my death." Bill threatens to kill Oliver if he misbehaves, and based on Oliver's earlier thoughts, this might be an attractive solution for the desperate boy. But because he cannot bear the idea of causing Nancy further harm, he decides he must do as he's told.

What graphic insight into criminality does Dickens provide in Chapters 19 through 22 of Oliver Twist as "a service to society"?

The Chertsey burglary has been well planned. Even before Fagin discusses it with Sikes in Chapter 19, Toby has been surveilling the house to determine its layout and the characters of the servants. Fagin knows exactly what objects he wants, and he mentions the silver plate specifically. Toby and Barney have stocked a nearby safe house with food and drink and assembled all the necessary equipment in advance. Dickens contrasts the burglars' work with that of most other people. While in Chapter 21 Bill and Oliver pass through the streets of London as it grows light and witness the bustle of Smithfield market, the burglars' work in Chapter 22 takes place under cover of darkness—not only at night, but on a moonless night—another aspect of their planning. Although the men take care to dress Oliver warmly and make sure he is fed and rested, this is purely pragmatic. Their plan depends on him. When he wants to back out, Bill reaches for his pistol. Toby stops Bill, but not to save Oliver. He is equally willing to kill Oliver, but would do it quietly. It is clear that these criminals are careful, pragmatic professionals who understand their work. Dickens sees his fictional details as informational to the reading public.

What are Mr. Bumble's motivations for visiting Mrs. Corney in Chapter 23 of Oliver Twist?

Mr. Bumble hopes to secure a nice, comfortable home for himself by marrying Mrs. Corney. He brings her a gift and makes conversation about the weather and the paupers in their care, establishing common ground. He is flirtatious, smiling and sighing a great deal and looking into Mrs. Corney's eyes. He comments on her cat and kittens, saying "that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma'am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma'am." When Mrs. Corney calls him hard-hearted, the beadle moves his chair next to hers, asks whether she is hard-hearted, and kisses her. All this seems to be courtship, and one expects him to propose marriage. However, they are interrupted, and the matron is called away. Left on his own, Mr. Bumble begins to examine Mrs. Corney's silver and tally her furnishings. It appears that he hopes to marry her not because he has fallen in love with her but because he can profit from the marriage.

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