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Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist | Symbols


Dickens develops many symbols in Oliver Twist. The overarching ones relate closely to his social criticism, tying into concepts of criminality, poverty, and the class system. However, the novel also features symbols that attach to individual characters or events, such as Mr. Bumble's hat, Agnes's locket, London Bridge, and Nancy's eyes.


In Oliver Twist, darkness is associated with crime and evildoing. Criminals' work is best done at night; their crimes are planned in smoky rooms with boarded-up windows, and they scurry through the city along narrow, fog-filled passages. The darkness of the setting reflects the darkness of their thoughts and deeds.


In contrast to the dark streets of the poor quarters of London, the countryside is bright with sun-drenched open spaces and colorful flowers. In Oliver Twist it is a place of health, happiness, and security, while the city is a place of disease, desperation, and danger.


In contrast to the hunger and leanness of the poor, the comfortably off are "portly," "fat," or "by no means slim." In many cases, as with Mr. Bumble and the members of the workhouse board, obese people are also greedy and pompous, but readers should recognize that Mr. Losberne, Giles, and Brittles are overweight, too. Dickens even points out that Oliver becomes healthy and gains weight once he has moved in with the Maylies. Obesity ultimately is a symbol of membership in the prosperous middle class, indicating a condition in which people have more than enough. As with the poor, the middle class encompasses both the virtuous and the evil.

Dirt and Dilapidation

Dirt and dilapidation represent poverty. But as with obesity, dirt and dilapidation link to a darker theme as well—criminality. The baby farm children are seldom washed, which stems from Mrs. Mann's neglect. The thieves wear dirty clothes and live in dilapidated surroundings; it is true that this stems from poverty, but other characters in Oliver Twist are both poor and clean. Thus a character's level of cleanliness can be seen as a measure of that person's virtue and strength of spirit.

Questions for Symbols

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