Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Oliver Twist—first published in serial form between 1837 and 1839—was Charles Dickens's second novel and is perhaps his best-known and best-loved. Focusing on the plight of poor children, it was written at a time in British history when the impoverished were being punished by the government for their poverty. Dickens's depictions of life in the workhouse and on the streets of London both shocked and fascinated his audience at the time and continue to do so today.

The novel also helped propel the orphan as an iconic literary figure. The character of Oliver Twist became the forerunner of many other famous orphans in literature struggling to survive in a heartless world, including Little Orphan Annie, Frodo Baggins, and Harry Potter.

1. Oliver's mother was likely dissected after she died.

The real workhouse that probably inspired the one in Oliver Twist was near a hospital. Under the Anatomy Act of 1832, unclaimed or unidentified bodies from workhouses could be used for dissection in hospitals to teach anatomy to medical students. Since Oliver's mother died in the workhouse and her body was unclaimed, she likely would have been sent to the hospital for dissection.

2. A murder in the book is based on a real-life murder.

Decades before Jack the Ripper's killing spree in 1888, the Grimwood murder was one of the grisliest in Victorian England. Eliza Grimwood, a 25-year-old prostitute whose boyfriend was her pimp, was murdered in her bed in 1838. The similarity between their murders leads experts to believe that Grimwood's killing influenced Dickens when he wrote the scene of Nancy's murder. Like Eliza, Nancy was a prostitute whose boyfriend, a burglar rather than a pimp, was also a member of London's criminal underworld. Both women were murdered in their homes, were forced to kneel by their killers, and were treated with extreme physical brutality.

3. Dickens was forced into child labor to help support his family after his father went to jail.

Dickens was only 12 when his father was imprisoned for debt. Young Charles had to leave school and work in a factory to help his family survive. The hours in the boot-blacking factory, which produced shoe polish, were long and the pay low. Dickens later wondered "how [he] could be cast away at such a young age," and he felt that his time in the factory marked the end of his childhood innocence.

4. Almost everyone overlooks the novel's subtitle, A Parish Boy's Progress.

The novel's subtitle refers to Oliver Twist as a "parish boy." A parish boy was a child who had become the responsibility of his local parish, often due to being a penniless orphan. A "progress" can describe a type of journey in which a hero faces a series of challenges, progressing toward a better life or state of mind.

5. Dickens likely had epilepsy.

In Oliver Twist, the villainous character Monks has epilepsy. Dickens's descriptions of his seizures were accurate enough to impress readers and critics. Some believed that the author himself had epilepsy, though there is no definitive proof to support this.

6. Bill Sikes, a vicious thug in the novel, was probably named after a real person.

When Dickens was a teenager, he lived on Norfolk Street in London. Nearby were many shops, including a shop owned by a William Sykes. The merchant sold tallow and oil for lamps. He wasn't a thug in charge of a group of thieving boys, but Dickens used his name for that character in the novel, slightly altering its spelling.

7. Oliver Twist was written as a response to an inhumane law.

Dickens considered the Poor Law, passed by Parliament in 1834, completely unchristian. Oliver Twist, with its devastating depictions of workhouses and their effects on the poor, was in part a response to the law. The law broke up families, closed parish poorhouses, and required that the poor live in workhouses and work at forced labor. These workhouses were more like prisons than homes, and Oliver Twist helped expose their evils to an unknowing public.

8. When Oliver said, "Please, Sir, I want some more," he really meant it.

Workhouses did not provide much food for their residents. At the Cleveland Street Workhouse, across the street from where Dickens lived as a child, the diet included breakfast gruel and boiled meat three times a week. Otherwise, residents ate soup, except for Saturdays, when they got only cheese. If a doctor prescribed it, they could have tea, sugar, ale, or mutton. The rules stated that "no addition to the above allowance in any case."

9. A musical stage version of Oliver Twist has been performed in more than 20 languages.

The musical Oliver!, based on Dickens's novel, has been performed in more than 20 languages, including Basque, Faroese, and Icelandic. Musicians who have played the part of the Artful Dodger include Phil Collins and Davy Jones of the Monkees.

10. The 1968 musical film version of Oliver Twist won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The movie Oliver! was nominated for 11 Oscars and won five, including Best Director and Best Picture, despite the fact that reviews for it were somewhat mixed. The New York Daily News called it a "timeless classic," but the New York Times said, "Oliver himself, dutifully played by 9-year-old Mark Lester, gets flattened out and almost lost, as if he had been run over by a studio bulldozer."

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