Oliver Twist (1837) by Charles Dickens

A Brief Summary and Review

By Charles Edmund Brock (Sotheby's) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It would be easy to say that Oliver Twist is a Victorian story about an orphaned boy who has to join a gang of ruffians in order to survive life on the streets but then, through some dues-ex-machina, is saved and rewarded beyond imagination. The truth is, Oliver Twist is not about any one boy’s plight; in fact, the character Oliver is probably not directly engaged in the story for more than perhaps half of the novel.


So, what is this story about?  It is about every orphaned boy or girl, and the misery they are forced to endure. It is about the hypocrisy of a Christian society that prides itself on the “charity” it provides to the poor, all the while blaming the poor for their own unfortunate circumstances and punishing any who dare to ask for more aid or better care. 

Charles Dickens manages to tell a nation’s story through the life of one boy; he exposes a dark, seedy underbelly to the public eye and forces shame upon those who would stand by and do nothing while innocents suffer.

As with many Dickens novels, the characters in Oliver Twist tend to be more like caricatures than believable people. The “bad” guys are purely bad, and the innocent Oliver is almost saint-like in every possible way. These binaries are so pure and distinct as to be unbelievable at times. Still, the point is taken: there is good and there is bad.

Good people are used and taken advantage of, bad people will scheme and plot with little regard for consequences, and often come to bad ends. Be good, don’t be bad.

What redeems the book in terms of characterization are the few very interesting and multi-layered characters, like Mr. Brownlow and Nancy.

Both of these two have dark, dangerous sides, but turn out to be genuinely good people who sometimes have to go to extreme measures either to survive or to protect the ones they love. Mr. Losberne, too, who is an incredibly decent man, turns out to have a temper that can spoil any progress that Oliver or the others make in resolving their major issues. Most of the characters are flat and static because they need to be, and because the story does not span a great length of time; but the characters who do change and who interact with one another are fun to watch and to laugh at.

Discussing Dickens's prose can be problematic. Dickens was a great writer who happened to live in a time when serial novelists were paid for output and not necessarily based on the quality of their pieces. This means Dickens’s prose can be highly distracting. He is often long-winded, devoting paragraphs at a time to describing menial things that could have been more purposefully and poignantly described in a few words or sentences. 

Of course, Dickens does this because he was paid by word, so using ten words to describe “red hair” would have been highly advantageous. Unfortunately, this makes his books chunky and burdensome at times, and turns-off many readers.

Fortunately, Dickens is a great writer despite this handicap, and his satire and sarcasm are what truly carry his works, Oliver Twist included.

What makes this book so great is that it is so much more than a story about a boy named Oliver Twist who has it rough. It is about human nature and a whole society which has gone ridiculously awry in its priorities, a society that has lost track of or forgotten how to read its moral compass.

There is a judge, for instance, perfectly willing to convict a boy of pick-pocketing, sending him to prison for life without any evidence whatsoever that the boy committed the crime. There is also a community Beadle, the man responsible for caring for the local poor and homeless, who takes advantage of them, blames them for putting themselves into poverty, and sets the youth out to work hard labor at the slightest impetus.

The book is highly cynical, but balances the critical with the satirical, painting this portrait of ridiculousness over the whole society. The low are made lower, and the high are brought down to Earth.

Had this been simply a book about a boy in trouble, it could have been interesting, sad, and heartwarming, but it would have lacked that larger affect: the condemnation of a people’s attitudes and actions towards the underprivileged and the needling-at of social consciousness. Many have found fault in Dickens’s use of certain derogatory terms for people of particular races or religions, such as “The Jew” or “niggers,” and in his descriptive depiction of the murder of one of the prostitutes; this is an understandable critique. Yet, it is important to note that each of these descriptors is appropriate to the purpose of the novel, which is to depict a realistic, gritty story about a damaged and soiled society.