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Oliver Twist | Themes

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In Oliver Twist, Dickens explores many themes through his characters' thoughts, words, and actions. The narrator also comments at length on the characters, often by creating verbal irony. In addition to the themes listed below, the text explores love and marriage, hypocrisy, and greed.

Virtue versus Evil

Dickens portrays true virtue as invincible even in the face of desperation and compelling evil. Oliver Twist is innately virtuous; he remains selfless, honest, and compassionate throughout the trials and temptations set in his path. The selfish, devious, and ruthless Fagin is his evil nemesis, a corrupter of children and adults alike who hides behind a mask of charm.

The conflict between the two recollects the tradition of "progress" as referenced in the novel's subtitle, The Parish Boy's Progress. John Bunyan's instructive yet entertaining 17th century allegory The Pilgrim's Progress was popular reading in Dickens's time. It traces Christian Everyman's journey to the Celestial City, during which he, like Oliver, meets and overcomes a series of temptations, including promises of money, physical comforts, and power. Just as Christian recognizes the evil behind these temptations, Oliver sees through Fagin and Jack's rosy portrayal of a life of crime and refuses to succumb. Conversely, Hogarth's famous series of engravings A Rake's Progress illustrates its protagonist's journey toward self-destruction—from inheritance and debauchery to debt, imprisonment, and madness. Readers might see reflections of Hogarth's rake in Oliver's half-brother, Monks.

Poverty

Deeply affected by his own poverty as a child, Dickens addresses this theme in Oliver Twist by closely observing its effects on Oliver and those around him—effects that include malnourishment and death. He comments bluntly on the treatment of paupers in workhouses and on the hypocrisy that often characterizes the organizations (and their representatives) who are tasked with their care.

Dickens also describes in detail the atrocious and sometimes deadly conditions in which the poor must live. Housing is often dirty and unsafe, and certain environments, such as housebreaker (burglar) Toby Crackit's neighborhood, are contaminated with toxins. The strong development of the theme of poverty and its consequences through much of Oliver Twist reflects Dickens's social consciousness and his lifelong interest in correcting a major social ill of his period.

Criminality

Closely tied to the ideas of virtue, evil, poverty, and hypocrisy is the theme of criminality. When all else fails, the poor may be driven to crime, especially petty theft. But this is far from the only type of crime Dickens explores in Oliver Twist. He shows how greed leads to petty theft as with Mrs. Corney, to picking pockets as with Fagin's boys, to fencing as with Fagin, and to housebreaking and even murder as with Sikes. And while Fagin's role in taking in boys and training them in criminality may not be strictly illegal, it certainly corrupts these young characters and leads them to lives of crime.

Darker forms of criminality are clearly delineated from theft. Although punished harshly by the authorities, pickpocketing and other forms of thievery seem to be accepted by many of the characters as a way of earning a living. However, most of those same criminals find betrayal and murder detestable.

Child Abuse

In Oliver Twist, child abuse is both individual and institutional. Children are regularly beaten as punishment; Oliver is beaten by both the parish beadle and his master after Noah Claypole accuses him of attempted murder. In Victorian England, a common punishment for child criminals was a public whipping. Dickens seems to find the practice abhorrent. The "good" people in the novel never punish Oliver at all. (It must be noted, however, that he never does anything deserving of punishment.)

Other abuses of children also take place in the novel: they are locked in dark places, publicly shamed, and starved. For poor little Dick, this institutionalized abuse proves fatal.

Other dangerous and harsh activities such as child labor also put children at risk, even though they may not have been looked upon as child abuse during the Victorian era. Oliver's long hours picking oakum and the effort to assign him an apprenticeship as a chimney sweep are just two examples of tasks that modern readers would consider abusive.

Nature versus Nurture

Much of Oliver Twist considers the struggle between nature and nurture. Fagin constantly attempts to corrupt Oliver and turn him into a criminal against his true nature, which is to be kind and good. Dickens also examines how nurture can triumph over nature in characters such as Mr. Sowerberry and Nancy, both of whom have basic decency at their cores but who give in to temptation and outside influences.

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