Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does the symbol of the countryside dominate Chapter 53 of Oliver Twist?

Unlike the dark, dirty city—darkness and dirtiness both being associated with misery and crime in Oliver Twist—the countryside, which Dickens presents as sun-drenched and verdant, symbolizes happiness and goodness. In the countryside Oliver finds a loving family, is educated, and engages in true charity toward the poor. Chapter 53 summarizes the future lives of many of the characters in the book. All these characters met and interacted in the city. But in Chapter 53 most of them end up in the countryside. The few who do not—Monks, the Bumbles, and Noah Claypole—do not lead happy lives. Monks continues his criminal ways and dies in prison. The Bumbles, having lost their jobs, become inmates of the workhouse they used to run. Noah becomes a professional informer who, if a person does nothing he can inform on, uses Charlotte to set that person up. Charley Bates, in contrast, decides to go straight; he moves to the country, where he happily works raising and fattening grazing livestock. The Maylies, Mr. Brownlow, Oliver, Mr. Losberne, Giles, Brittles, and even Mr. Grimwig also go to live in and around a country village, where they are truly happy.

In Chapter 50 of Oliver Twist, why is Charley Bates so upset with Bill Sikes?

Charley has enjoyed his life as a pickpocket. He has companionship and, because Fagin praises the boys a lot, a sense of accomplishment. For Charley Fagin's gang is like a family, and he's relaxed and happy with them. Readers know from Fagin's "number one" talk with Bolter (Noah Claypole) that the welfare of the gang comes first. This is the principle by which Charley lives, and as long as he follows it, he feels he's doing the right thing. He trusts that the rest of his "family" has his back, too. Charley also has a crush on Bet and spends time with her and Nancy, who is Bet's closest friend. So when Nancy is murdered, Charley is angry on two counts: Sikes has killed someone Charley cares about, but even more importantly, Sikes has broken the gang's code. Charley knows Nancy would never betray them (and the reader knows she refused to do so), so Bill was not defending the gang when he killed her. This is a betrayal that rocks Charley's world. Suddenly he can't trust the members of his "family," and what's worse, people he trusted might actually be a danger to him.

How are Fagin and Noah Claypole alike and different in Oliver Twist?

At first Fagin and Noah seem very different. Fagin is old, and Noah is young. Fagin is a master criminal feared by everyone who knows him, whereas Noah is an apprentice who is largely overlooked. But the two men have a number of unpleasant similarities: Both are manipulators. Fagin shapes and controls the children and adults in his gang through his knowledge of human nature. Noah does the same with Charlotte. Both are out for themselves, so neither can be trusted. Fagin hides his wealth so he can pay his gang less; he informs on people he sees as a threat; he claims the gang's interests should come first, but he uses the gang to serve his own interests. Noah is ready to let Charlotte take the blame for stealing from Mr. Sowerberry and sees no reason why anyone's interests should come before his own; in the end he makes his living informing on others even if he has to frame them to do it. Both are cowards who will do anything in their power to avoid paying for their crimes. It's easy to imagine that Noah will end up like Fagin—with his head in a noose.

How do male characters in Oliver Twist tend to view women?

Oliver Twist was published in the early 19th century, when women were believed not to have the same emotional depth or intellectual capabilities as men. Dickens's male characters speak and act accordingly. This is seen in Fagin's response to Nancy's concern for Oliver and her distress after the failed burglary. In the former situation, Fagin considers her angry defense of the boy a passing fancy; he later observes, "The worst of these women is, that a very little thing serves to call up some long-forgotten feeling; and, the best of them is, that it never lasts" (Chapter 19). In the latter situation, he misinterprets her desperate worry as drunkenness. In Chapter 31 Mr. Losberne comments on women's lack of intellect when he says that women's eyes "never see, whether for good or bad, more than one side of any question ... the one which first presents itself to them." In Chapters 23 and 27, Mr. Bumble sees Mrs. Corney not as a thinking and feeling human being, but as a sort of business deal. In Chapter 17 Mr. Brownlow discounts Mrs. Bedwin's faith in Oliver as gullibility, preferring to believe the pessimism of his friend Mr. Grimwig, who has barely met the boy. The male characters that Dickens created for Oliver Twist are very much products of the time, reflecting the attitudes and sensibilities of Victorian England.

How does Dickens characterize women in Oliver Twist?

Most characters in Oliver Twist are flat; that is, they are not fully developed. This is as true of the women as of the men. With few exceptions the women fall into one of two categories: those with kind, maternal natures and those without them. Mrs. Mann is the best example of the latter; even her name—Mann—implies that she does not have feminine characteristics. She's in charge of a baby farm, but the job for purely mercenary reasons and starves and abuses the children in her care. Others in this category are Mrs. Corney, who is completely inured to the sufferings of the paupers in her workhouse, and Mrs. Sowerberry, who views Oliver as a weapon to use against her husband. Maternal women are deeply compassionate. Mrs. Bedwin tends to Oliver and refuses to believe ill of him. From the moment she meets Oliver, Rose Maylie feels the same way; Rose's compassion extends to others, too, notably Nancy, whom she offers to help leave life on the streets. Finally, there is Nancy herself, who—despite her upbringing with Fagin—is willing to sacrifice everything to ensure Oliver does not become a criminal. Nancy is a more rounded character than most in Oliver Twist. When readers first meet her, she seems to be a typical young prostitute. Her clothes are dirty, and she spends her time drinking and laughing with Bet, Charley, and Jack. But as the story progresses, levels are added to her character. She defends Oliver, she worries about and nurses Bill, and she tricks Fagin. Nancy proves herself to be crafty and courageous, but kind, too. She is also self-aware; when she visits Rose in Chapter 40, she speaks openly of her debauched lifestyle and inability to break free of it. Still her innate goodness shows through in her sincere desire to help Oliver and later in how she keeps her promise to meet Rose despite the danger to herself. Dickens's portrayal of a prostitute as good-hearted and self-sacrificing was unconventional in the 1830s and contributes to his social criticism. Dickens himself was involved in charity work for prostitutes.

In what ways is theft a motif that runs through Oliver Twist?

The first theft occurs shortly after Oliver's birth when Mrs. Thingummy steals Agnes's locket. This locket exemplifies the three types of theft in Oliver Twist. Theft by the poor. Mrs. Thingummy is a poor woman who sees a gold locket and steals it to pawn it. Much of the theft in Oliver Twist is carried out by poor people, such as the young pickpockets, who have been driven to crime by need. Theft from the poor. When Mrs. Thingummy dies, Mrs. Corney, the workhouse matron, steals the pawn ticket from her body and redeems it. She then sells the locket to Monks for a tidy profit. Dickens shows that the poor are often the victims of theft. For example Mrs. Mann steals the money she is given to feed and care for the children in her care at the baby farm; they starve and die while she lives well. Fagin, too, is guilty of stealing from the poor criminals in his gang by shortchanging them while hoarding his own riches. Identity theft. The locket is a clue to Oliver's identity, which Monks works hard to conceal. In doing so he also steals Rose's true identity.

How is the concept of family portrayed in Oliver Twist?

Oliver spends his young life moving from one "family" to another. Few have the characteristics of a real family. The baby farm mimics one: the children fight, but close relationships develop, as shown by the fondness between Dick and Oliver. However, the "mother," Mrs. Mann, is abusive. The workhouse can also be seen as an extended family with the master and matron as the pseudo-parents, but it is dysfunctional and destructive. The parish forcibly divorces husbands and wives and separates children from their real parents. Oliver goes from there to another dysfunctional family, the Sowerberrys. His next stop is Fagin's. Fagin acts as a father figure who superficially cares for the boys but who actually intends to line his pockets through their labor. Some of the boys, notably Charley, view the gang as a family; Charley feels deeply wounded when he learns that this family cannot be trusted. In the end Oliver has an extended family that really works. Mr. Brownlow adopts him, and they live a stone's throw from the most loving people he has met, one of whom is really his aunt. In Oliver Twist a family is not defined as parent(s) plus children, but as a mutually supportive group.

How does Dickens characterize marriage in Oliver Twist?

Most of the marriages in Oliver Twist are unhappy. The unhappiness seems to result from selfishness and a basic dishonesty between the partners. Monks's parents, the Sowerberrys, and the Bumbles are good examples. The reader is in on the inception of the Bumbles' marriage and knows it is founded not on love but on Mr. Bumble's greed. It is no wonder that Mrs. Bumble despises and henpecks her husband. When Mr. Brownlow says to Mr. Bumble in Chapter 51 that the law assumes that he is responsible for his wife's actions, Mr. Bumble replies bitterly, "If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience." Wishing marriage on anyone seems to the be the worst curse he can imagine. The one good marriage in the book, which has not been ended by one partner's death, is that of Rose and Harry Maylie. This marriage is based on love and self-sacrifice. However, such relationships appear rare.

How does the gallows develop as a motif in Oliver Twist?

The gallows is first introduced by the gentleman in the white waistcoat in Chapter 2 when, after Oliver asks for more gruel, he predicts, "That boy will be hung." At this point the idea is so exaggerated that the reader finds it humorous. Oliver himself hears a great deal about hanging on his first morning at Fagin's in Chapter 9; Fagin talks about five men who have gone to the gallows without "peaching" on him and says, "What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men ... never bring awkward stories to light." This event is no longer humorous, and Fagin's pleasure makes the reader shudder. His comments also foreshadow Fagin's own execution, which results from Noah's testimony against him. As Nancy brings Oliver back to Fagin in Chapter 16, she talks about the impending hangings of men she knows, worrying that Bill might someday be one of those men. This is another instance of foreshadowing, as Bill will hang—albeit accidentally—in Chapter 50. When Oliver visits Fagin in prison, he hears the scaffold being built on his way in and passes the completed structure as he leaves. Had his life gone differently, readers realize, it might have ended there.

What is the significance for Oliver of Dick's death when Oliver returns to his birthplace in Chapter 51 of Oliver Twist, intending to take Dick home with him?

Dick's death reminds readers that the lives of poor children are fragile and that there was no time to be lost in changing the laws that allowed children to live under those conditions. From the first chapters of Oliver Twist, in which Dickens describes and, using his trademark irony, scathingly comments on the provisions made by law for the care of the poor in the early 19th century, he hammers away at this theme. At the end of the book, however, he is busy wrapping up the characters' stories and resolving the novel's mysteries. With the one line "Poor Dick was dead!" Dickens effectively and poignantly calls readers' attention back to the plight of poor children, who suffered institutional abuse and starvation.

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