Study Guide

Oliver Twist Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Charles Dickens

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Labyrinths and Mazes

Fagin goes into "a maze of the mean dirty streets which abound in that close and densely-populated quarter" (19.4), and Sikes and Nancy drag Oliver "into a maze of dark, narrow courts (15.63). Just from these two examples, you can see that the labyrinth motif recurs frequently in Oliver Twist and, in both of these examples, it’s in descriptions of the city. Hmm, now why might that be? Well, besides the fact that the streets of London were (and still are) pretty difficult to navigate if you didn’t know your way around, it could be that the idea of the labyrinth just adds to the sense of confinement in the city. The original labyrinth of Greek mythology (you know, the one on Crete that was guarded by the Minotaur?) was used as a prison. So the labyrinthine and maze-like streets of London could suggest that the entire city is part of the same system of control and incarceration as the judicial system that literally imprisons people, and the parish system that confines poor people in workhouses.

Or perhaps the maze motif has more to do with criminality: Dickens seems to suggest that once a person turns to crime, it’s impossible to get back on the right track – just like in a maze. Take Nancy, for example: even when she’s repeatedly offered the opportunity to escape her life of crime, she refuses, saying, "I am chained to my old life. I loathe and hate it now, but I cannot leave it. I must have gone too far to turn back, – and yet I don’t know […]" (46.74). In this quotation, Nancy uses the metaphor of paths and crossroads, too – she says she’s "gone too far to turn back." So it could be that this later quotation is referring back to the earlier motif of labyrinths and mazes, and relating it to her life of crime. If that’s the case, then perhaps Dickens is suggesting that once you become a criminal, it’s like entering a maze – it’s difficult or impossible to get back out again.

Whether the mazes are suggesting that the city is a prison, or that criminality is inescapable once you turn to crime, the maze and labyrinth motif seems pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it?

Bill Sikes’s dog

Sikes’s dog (whose name is Bull’s-Eye, but we only hear the name mentioned once or twice) is like Sikes’s shadow. He has some of the same personality flaws as Sikes, including a violent temper. Because the dog is always with him, it’s tempting to read the dog as a kind of stand-in for some part of Sikes’s psyche. The only time the dog leaves him is when Sikes is almost out of his mind with guilt after having killed Nancy – maybe the dog represents Sikes’s violent and criminal impulses? The dog even kills itself by jumping after Sikes off of the roof, and smashing its head on the rocks below. The dog can’t exist without Sikes, because he’s a part of him.

Bridges and Water

A lot of important scenes happen over or around water in Oliver Twist: the locket and ring are thrown into a river, Nancy meets Rose and Mr. Brownlow on London Bridge, and the final pursuit of Sikes is in a neighborhood surrounded by the Thames at high tide.

The water imagery is ambiguous – water should clean the neighborhood of Jacob’s Island, but it actually just carries more filth into the area. The water level is also inconstant, because the Thames is a tidal river (meaning its level goes up and down depending on the tide). Jacob’s Island isn’t surrounded by water in that final scene with Sikes’s attempted escape, but by mud, because the tide is out. And mud is kind of a sticky halfway point between water and land. It’s as though Sikes were in a sticky halfway point as well – he’s been hunted (and haunted) for so long that he feels like he’s halfway dead already.

The London Bridge could represent the same thing: it’s a halfway point for two extremes to come together. It would be hard to come up with two women more opposite than Rose and Nancy, but they’re able to meet at London Bridge, over the river Thames. Rose offers to let Nancy step over the bridge to the other side (metaphorically speaking, since they both actually live on the same side of the river), by offering her a place to stay far from her old life of crime, but Nancy refuses.

The river is also an appropriate place to bury Agnes’s ring and locket. Because she had a baby but was never actually married, she was in an odd halfway position between unmarried and married. The ring, which had her first name, but not her last, engraved on it, represents that liminality (which is a fancy word for "in-betweenness"). Since the river represents the same thing, it makes sense for Monks to drop the ring into the raging torrent.

Light and Dark

Light and dark, and white and black are important symbols in Oliver Twist. Notice how often Oliver’s trapped someplace dark? Notice how the sun always comes out? No matter how dark things get for Oliver (metaphorically speaking), you know things are going to brighten up eventually.

Some examples: Oliver, the child of light, is locked into an involuntary apprenticeship with a coffin maker, Mr. Sowerberry. Oliver is asked to join the funeral processions as a paid mourner (although Mr. Sowerberry gets paid for his services, as an apprentice, Oliver doesn’t see a penny of it). Oliver’s commitment to life is contrasted with the darkness and death that surrounds him. The parish authorities had originally wanted to apprentice Oliver to a chimneysweeper – a job that would have caused Oliver to spend however long he survived blackened with soot and ash. When Oliver is arrested for picking Mr. Brownlow’s pocket, the officer who makes up a name for Oliver unconsciously picks an appropriate one: "White." Oliver is as pure as the driven snow, while all of the areas of London associated with the criminal class are stained black.

Or take a look at these two passages: "[…] the heavy bell of St Paul’s tolled for the death of another day. Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse; the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness; the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child – midnight was upon them all" (46.4). This is another moment of social leveling through the use of darkness: Dickens lists a lot of contrasting places – palaces, night-cellars (bars that didn’t have liquor licenses), jails, madhouses, etc. – and also juxtaposes a lot of extremes: birth and death, sickness and health, corpses and sleeping children. Time passes for all of these extremes, and it’s equally dark at midnight whether you live in a palace or a madhouse.

Now compare that with this passage about light:

"The sun – the bright sun, that brings back not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man – burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray. It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did." (48.2)

The sun, like midnight, is a social leveler – it shines equally on everybody, whether through expensive stained glass, or through a window mended with paper or duct tape. He even uses the word "equal" – the sun "shed its equal ray" – after juxtaposing a bunch of extremes ("costly-coloured glass" and "paper-mended window," and "cathedral dome" and "rotten crevice"). And no matter how dark it was, you can bet the sun is going to come out. Dickens even makes the parallel between "light" and "life" explicit here – the sun "brings back" both.

Agnes’s ring and locket

You just know that Agnes’s ring and locket are going to be important because so much mystery is associated with them. When Agnes first shows up at the workhouse to give birth to Oliver before dying, one of the very few things we learn about her is that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The question of who she was, and whether there were ever a wedding ring at all, is always hanging around in the back of everyone’s mind.

The first piece of the puzzle we pick up is that old Sally had stolen some kind of jewelry from Oliver’s dying mother the night that he was born – and that it was something that contained a clue as to his parentage and identity. This gold jewelry, we finally learn in Book III, Chapter One, included a gold locket with two locks of hair, and a wedding ring. The locket represents the physical union between Agnes Fleming and Edward Leeford, Oliver’s father – it contains a lock of each of their hair, physically bound together. But a locket is designed to be "locked" and kept a secret. The kind of union it represents isn’t the kind of union that the world recognizes. The ring would represent a union that the world would recognize, but the ring was never completed: it has Agnes’s name carved into it, but only her first name. Her maiden name, "Fleming," was given up when she lost her, um, maidenhood; and she never took the next step to become "Agnes Leeford" by marrying Edward. So the ring, which should (and usually does) represent unity, in Oliver Twist, represents only an incomplete union.

Agnes’s portrait

Oliver’s resemblance to Agnes’s portrait at Mr. Brownlow’s house is what first gives Mr. Brownlow a clue that Oliver might actually be the son of Agnes and Edward Leeford. Of course, that clue isn’t shared with us, the readers, until later. This is important: all we see is that Oliver feels some kind of connection to the lady in the portrait, and we’re left guessing what the connection actually is (OK, cards on the table: how many people guessed that the lady in the portrait would turn out to be his mother?). In any case, it seems that the portrait represents the kind of gut connection people are supposed to feel for their families. That kind of familial tie is especially important for Oliver, who never knew his parents. Even though he’d never seen his mother (at least, not that he’d remember), he still has some kind of instinctive feeling of attachment to her face in the portrait. But for characters like Monks, that sense of connection with family is completely broken, which makes Oliver’s heightened sense of connection with his mother’s portrait, and with Rose Maylie (who turns out to be his aunt) all the more important.