Study Guide

Oliver Twist Introduction

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Oliver Twist Introduction

"Please sir, I want some more."

These are words etched in our imagination. If we want just a little teensy bit more of something—coffee, chicken tenders, cash—we tend to remember the super-pathetic plea of a little orphan in England.

Wait. Why are we, as sophisticated 21st Century citizens, still using a line penned in the 1830's when we want a second helping? The short answer: Charles Dickens is awesome.

Oliver Twist is one of the most famous novels Charles Dickens ever wrote (which is impressive, given that he wrote fifteen super-popular novels during his life). It’s a classic rags-to-riches story about an orphan who has to find his way through a city full of criminals, and avoid being corrupted. People read Oliver Twist in Dickens's day—and are still reading it now—for the gritty realism with which Dickens portrays working class people and the horrible living conditions of the London slums.

Oliver Twist is also the second novel Dickens ever wrote, and it was published in installments between 1837 and 1839. Many novels at the time were published serially, meaning that each chapter was issued separately, once a month, over the space of a year or two. And this only upped the hype of his novels.

The publishing of novels in magazines is similar to TV today: each magazine was like a different channel. The Victorians had magazines with different specialties.  Bentley’s Miscellany was like an early Victorian HBO—it pushed the envelope in terms of the type of content that could be published, and a lot of prominent novelists and essayists started out writing for Bentley’s, including our man Charles Dickens—he started writing the monthly installments of Oliver Twist before he’d even finished writing his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.    

But while The Pickwick Papers was all fun and games, Twist was dark and gritty. Oliver Twist is an example of a style of novel that was incredibly popular (but widely criticized) from the 1820's to the 1840's: the "Newgate novel." The Newgate novel takes its name from the Newgate prison, the main prison for felons (pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes, murderers) in London.

Those Newgate novels sold like hotcakes. It seemed like folks couldn’t get enough of them. But the critics of the Newgate novels thought they were damaging English morals. Because the Newgate novels didn’t shy away from depicting criminal stuff—prostitution, stealing, and even murder—critics said that reading those novels would desensitize people to violence.

(Hmm, sounds an awful lot like the arguments you hear today against first-person shooter video games, or games like Grand Theft Auto, doesn’t it? The next time someone criticizes your taste in videogames, you can try suggesting that, if Dickens were alive today, he might have tried his hand at writing a shooter.)

Oliver Twist is Dickens’s only novel that qualifies as a "Newgate novel," though, so it seems like he just wanted to try his hand at the popular style of writing before turning to other, loftier pursuits. We’re certainly happy that he experimented with the Newgate genre, because we’re left with the totally entertaining fruits of that experiment.

... as well as the catchphrase "Please sir, I want some more."

What is Oliver Twist About and Why Should I Care?

Psst. Hey. Hey, Shmooper. Over here.

You look like the kind of person who enjoys literary journeys into the underbelly of society. You look like kind of person who gets a thrill from texts about the mob. Or from nefarious deeds committed in dark alleys by men with ominous mustaches.

We're betting you like the really good stuff. The premium stuff. And by "stuff" we mean "TV," obviously. Yeah. We bet you like AMC and HBO: meth cooks in New Mexico. Haunted detectives. Grade-A antiheroes. 

Well, how would you like to get your kicks with one of the texts that started this whole seedy trend?

People tend to think of Oliver Twist as an old book about a cherubic orphan, but in reality it's way more creeptastic and peripheral than that. It's about a cherubic orphan, sure. But it's really about the worst possible environment for our sweet lil' Oliver: the original mean streets of London-town and the people that populated them.

Murderers. Pickpockets. Prostitutes. Pimps. Beggars. Drunks. Schemers. Loners. Dreamers. Criminals.

These are the characters at the heart of Oliver Twist—the same cast that shows up every Sunday night on TV. We love them now, and we loved them back in the 1830's. In fact, Oliver Twist's original serialized form made reading the book way back when a lot like tuning in for your favorite cable mayhem today. 

And you know what? It holds up. Even for audiences jaded by too much True Detective, Oliver Twist hits the sweet spot that we know and love: the union of sleazy abjection and great art.

Oliver Twist Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist
This production came out in 2005.

1999 mini-series Oliver Twist
This one has a great cast, including Keira Knightley as Rose, and Andy Serkis as Bill Sikes.

The musical: Oliver!
Oliver Twist was adapted as a musical in 1968. This is the most famous film version of the musical – it won 5 Oscars.


Adapting Oliver Twist for the stage
Here’s a discussion of how Neil Bartlett adapted Oliver Twist for the stage.


Oliver Twist Audiobook
Purchase and download the Audiobook from Random House Audio


Henry Mayhew – London Labour, and the London Poor
Mayhew was a buddy of Dickens. He was also a journalist and kind of an amateur sociologist – he visited all the dodgy parts of London and interviewed real criminals, prostitutes, and various other seedy characters from the London underworld. This book is a collection of a lot of his articles from just around the period of Oliver Twist.

D.A. Miller – The Novel and the Police
This book shows how the novel itself can be seen as a mechanism for a kind of social control. Miller talks a lot about Oliver Twist and some of the issues of confinement and power that are discussed elsewhere in this module.

Keith Hollingsworth – The Newgate Novel
This is a good and readable history of the Newgate novel, and should provide some useful context if you’re interested in crime fiction.

Lucy Moore – Con Men and Cutpurses
This is a history book that focuses more on the eighteenth century than the nineteenth, but it’s easy to read and gives some great background info on crime and punishment during the period.


Newgate Novels-- Britannica
Britannica online has a good entry on Newgate novels, as well, but you’ll need to log in from your school or library in order to access it.

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