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Oliver might be the main character, but he’s not all that complicated (he's an innocent little dude, after all)… but the way he is interpreted and shuffled around by all the other characters sure gets uber-messy. And even considering how "not complicated" Oliver’s character is, there sure are a lot of unresolved questions about him. Time to look for answers.
Here's the thing about kiddie protagonists: we can't really sympathize with 'em.
But when we say that Oliver’s being a child means that we don’t "sympathize with him" the same way we do with adult protagonists, that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel sorry for him. We’re using "sympathy" to mean something more precise than "pity." It means that we don’t react to events in the novel the same way Oliver does. And that difference between the reaction Dickens is trying to create in us, the reader, and the reaction he shows in Oliver, creates some distance. Let’s look at some examples.
When Oliver first meets the Artful Dodger, Oliver doesn’t understand his cant, or criminal slang—but then, neither do we. Dickens doesn’t expect the reader to understand it, and so our reaction to the Dodger parallels Oliver’s. It’s one instance in which the reader is in sympathy with Oliver, and you can tell from the text that that’s the reaction Dickens was after.
But then, the reader figures out pretty quickly that the Dodger is a seedy character and that Fagin is bad news bears. For example, right when Oliver arrives at Fagin’s house, the narrator tells us that "one young gentleman […] was so obliging as to put his hands in [Oliver’s] pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed" (8.50).
Even though the narrator doesn’t come right out and say that the boys are picking Oliver’s pockets as soon as he comes in the door, the reader is able to pick (no pun intended) up on it. Oliver, on the other hand, doesn’t figure it out until he actually sees the Dodger and Charley picking Mr. Brownlow’s pockets. At this point, we’re not in sympathy with Oliver—we’re not reacting to events in unison with him. And that disparity between what the reader sees is actually going on, and what seems to be going on to Oliver, is 100% irony.
Ignore any definitions of irony you’ve picked up from listening to the classic song by Alanis Morissette. Most of the situations she describes are unfortunate—say, meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife—but not necessarily ironic. But Oliver Twist is just dripping with Grade-A, pure, cold-pressed irony.
Since irony can be defined loosely as a gap between what seems to be going on, and what is actually going on, you can see how the presence of a child protagonist makes room for lots of ironic commentary. The narrator can innocently pretend to be describing things from Oliver’s point of view, in order to say things like "one young gentleman […] was so obliging as to put his hands in [Oliver’s] pockets […]" (8.50). Obviously the "young gentleman" isn’t really being "obliging"—he’s trying to see if Oliver has anything in his pockets worth stealing (spoiler: he doesn’t). But from Oliver’s point of view, the boy isn’t just a thief, he’s a "young gentleman," and he’s being very polite and "obliging." See the disparity? That’s irony.
When Oliver is born, the narrator tells us that he could be anybody—the "the child of a nobleman or a beggar" (1.14). But then the parish authorities step in, wrap him in the parish clothes that are like a uniform, and just like that, he is "badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse" (1.14).
There’s a constant struggle in the novel between the imposed and exterior identity that the parish authorities want to press on him, and his own natural and interior identity that the authorities want to suppress.
Oliver’s name is an important marker of his identity, too: his mother dies before she can name him, and his father is dead before he’s even born. So again, it’s up to the parish authorities to name him, and Mr. Bumble chooses the name "Oliver Twist." Mr. Bumble tells Mrs. Mann that the name was pretty much arbitrary—he just "made it up" because it was time for a "T" name. He doesn’t explain what the inspiration was.
Which means we have to go digging. What is going on with the word "Twist?" Well, basically, "Twist" implies death by hanging – think about the body "twisting" on the rope at the gallows, the "twisting" that goes into making the rope, and the rope "twisting" around the neck of a soon-to-be-very-dead person. "Twist" is just full of gallows implications, even if it weren’t a common slang term for hanging, (which, by the way, it is).
It’s fitting that almost everyone Oliver meets assumes that he’s going to be hanged. Do they assume as much because workhouse orphans often end up in the gallows, or because of the unfortunate name Oliver’s been assigned as a baby? It’s unclear. The parish authorities in the novel are certainly blinded by their prejudice against Oliver, but it’s hard to say whether that prejudice stems from Oliver’s poverty and his status as a workhouse orphan, or from the implications of the name that Mr. Bumble assigned him.
It’s important to remind ourselves that Oliver’s name doesn’t really have much of an impact on our interpretation of his character, because we see him through the narrator’s sympathetic eyes, and we know he’s a good egg from the beginning. But once we start to notice how other people react to his name, and what kind of emphasis is placed on knowing his right name, we start to see how his name can be seen as a stand-in for his whole identity.
Let’s look at another example of a scene in which Oliver’s name (and whole identity) is suppressed by the authorities. When Oliver is brought before Fang, the magistrate, on suspicion of being a pickpocket, he’s too sick to give his own name. The officer who brings him in doesn’t even care to ask—he just calls Oliver "young gallows" (11.3). As we’ve already realized, "Twist" is more-or-less a synonym for hanging, anyway, so "young gallows" isn’t too far off the mark.
Later, in the same scene, Mr. Fang asks Oliver what his name is. Oliver’s about to faint, so another officer just makes up a name for him —"Tom White" (11.49). Why Tom White? "Tom" is about as generic a name as he could come up with—it was one of the most common boy names of the period. But "Tom" had other implications, as well (surprise, surprise). A very popular play about criminals and the London underworld during the period was called Tom and Jerry (no, it wasn’t about a cartoon cat and mouse). So the name "Tom" could have criminal implications, even if the man didn’t mean for it to.
And the name "White"—again, totally random and generic, right? It’s like he was making Oliver a white, blank slate. If Oliver’s a blank slate, he can be made into anything, depending on who has access to him. For a novel that’s all about innocence and corruption, light and dark, white and black (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on that), the name "White" is obviously not a random choice on Dickens’s part.
So, again, a name is assigned to Oliver from an outside source—and it’s a name that has some pretty heavy symbolic weight associated with it. The underlying tension in these scenes isn’t just over what to call a nameless orphan—it’s about what kind of role the authorities want Oliver to play. It’s up to Oliver, who is only a child, to assert his own interior and natural identity against the external influences of the authorities.
"White" wouldn’t actually be a bad name for Oliver. He is a child of goodness and light. Somehow, he seems totally immune to the corruption and crime around him. What’s the deal with that? Did someone give him a crime vaccine when he was a baby? Is he just inherently good? That's a serious question, guys. Why is he so freaking perfect?
Oliver’s constantly surrounded by darkness and death, and his own innocence and commitment to life forms a stark contrast to his surroundings. He’s the child living among coffins and funerals at Mr. Sowerberry’s, and the one innocent child locked up at Fagin’s house and among Fagin’s gang. He’s so innocent that he doesn’t even realize that Fagin is training the boys up to be pickpockets, until he actually sees them in action.
Does Oliver lose his innocence as he progresses? Nope, not really. His bright, shiny goodness just doesn’t seem to tarnish, and all the bad stuff he’s been through just makes his virtue seem shinier. He’s just as squeaky clean at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning.
(Morally speaking, that is. Physically, he’s pretty grimy at the beginning of the novel from all the dirt and filth at the workhouse.)
This is the question that’s at the front of our minds for most of the novel. The questions of Oliver’s innocence, his status as a child protagonist, and the importance of his name all come back to the central question of where criminality comes from. Is criminality something you’re born with, or something you develop from your environment? In other words, is it a natural part of your identity, or something imposed from the outside?
Turning kids into criminals is pretty much Fagin’s M.O., and corrupting Oliver in particular turns out to be the main goal of Monks’s life. So why isn’t Fagin able to corrupt Oliver? What’s so special about this particular orphan?
The obvious answer to this question would be that Oliver is just inherently good. He feels naturally repulsed by the idea of crime, despite his rough childhood. Look at his gut reaction when he sees the Dodger and Charley pick Mr. Brownlow’s pocket:
In one instant the whole mystery of the handkerchiefs, and the watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy’s mind. He stood for a moment with the blood tingling so through all his veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burning fire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels, and, not knowing what he did, made off as fast as he could lay his feet to the ground. (10.15)
This is a climactic moment—it could mark the loss of Oliver’s innocence (it certainly does open his eyes to the real characters of Fagin and his gang), but instead, it reinforces his innocence. He doesn’t pause to reflect or to philosophize on the nature of crime, or the unfortunate conditions that must have driven the Dodger and Charley to pick pockets for a living, but responds by instinct—he runs away. He’s terrified. He seems to recognize the danger of being associated with thieves on some gut level, and his first response is to run off. That kind of automatic, instinctive revulsion to crime suggests that Oliver is naturally good.
Oliver's response to the book of criminal biographies that Fagin offers another example:
In a paroxysm of fear the boy closed the book and thrust it from him. Then, falling upon his knees, he prayed Heaven to spare him from such deeds, and rather to will that he should die at once, than be reserved for crimes so fearful and appalling. (20.17)
After reading about the grisly murders and famous heists and escapes of various famous criminals listed in the Newgate Calendar (see "In A Nutshell" for more on what that was), Oliver’s response is to "thrust [the book] from him." He seems to want to distance himself physically from those criminals, the way his gut response was to run away from Charley and the Dodger when he realized they were pickpockets.
It seems like this passage just reinforces the "Inherent Good Hypothesis," but if you look at the preceding paragraph, in which Oliver first picks up the volume, it gets a little bit messier:
He turned over the leaves carelessly at first, but, lighting on a passage which attracted his attention, soon became intent upon the volume. It was a history of the lives and trials of great criminals, and the pages were soiled and thumbed with use. Here, he read of dreadful crimes that make the blood run cold; of secret murders that had been committed by the lonely wayside […] (20.16)
When Oliver first picks up the book, he’s fascinated—his response is initially the same as the earlier readers of the book, who "soiled" the pages "with use." His attention is "attracted" to the "dreadful crimes." His terror and his fascination are like the combination of terror and fascination that attract us to horror movies and mystery novels and violent video games. Does this initial attraction to the book suggest that his inherent goodness has some cracks in it?
This ambiguity leads us to hypothesis number two…
The main problem with the "Inherent Goodness Hypothesis" is that Dickens spends so much time and energy describing the conditions of poverty and social injustice that drive people to crime. So, if Oliver can’t be corrupted because he’s inherently good, isn’t the flip side of that that other people can be corrupted because they’re inherently bad? The "Inherent Goodness Hypothesis" would kind of take the wind out of Dickens’s argument that criminality is something that comes from outside influence, and not from inherent wickedness.
The last passage we looked at for the "Inherent Goodness Hypothesis" was slightly ambiguous—Oliver seems to be struggling between a fascinated "attraction" to the "dreadful crimes" described in the Newgate Calendar, and his natural repulsion. There are other passages that suggest that Oliver’s natural goodness could potentially be cracked by the bad environment in which he’s brought up:
The simple fact was, that Oliver, instead of possessing too little feeling, possessed rather too much, and was in a fair way of being reduced to a state of brutal stupidity and sullenness for life, by the ill usage he had received. (4.36)
"Stupidity" here doesn’t mean "unintelligent," but rather, unresponsive and unfeeling. In other words, Oliver is responding to all the bad treatment the way anyone would—he’s becoming numb to it as a coping mechanism. And becoming less sensitive to bad treatment from other people could make him less sensitive to bad treatment in general. Maybe Oliver could be corrupted. If that’s the case, then Oliver’s escape from Mr. Sowerberry and his later rescue by Mr. Brownlow come only just in time.
This hypothesis certainly makes the conflicts of the novel over the fate of Oliver seem more dramatic—if he’s immune to corruption because of his inherent goodness, there wouldn’t be a lot of suspense in the novel.
Choose wisely, young sparrow: the hypothesis you choose affects your interpretation not only of Oliver, but of the entire novel. If Oliver just can’t be corrupted, Dickens’s whole argument about how the parish system for dealing with poverty makes more criminals and just perpetuates the cycle of crime is undermined. If Oliver is a good kid, but could still be corrupted if left in the system or in Fagin’s hands for too long, Dickens’s argument is backed up.
However, one might argue that Oliver’s character isn’t as unambiguously good and innocent as he at first seems.
So our interpretation of Oliver Twist (the character) is central to our interpretation of Oliver Twist (the novel). If you don’t believe us, just look at how often other characters discuss Oliver’s character, misread him, or make up wrong versions of his story. Dickens seems to be consciously making the process of interpreting Oliver Twist’s character one of the themes of the novel.
Take, for example, Noah Claypole’s version of the scene in which Oliver knocks him down:
"Mr. Bumble! Mr. Bumble!" cried Noah, with well-affected dismay, and in tones so loud and agitated that they not only caught the ear of Mr Bumble himself who happened to be hard by, but alarmed him so much that he rushed into the yard without his cocked hat […] "Oliver has […] tried to murder me, sir; and then he tried to murder Charlotte, and then missis. Oh, what dreadful pain it is! such agony, please sir!" and here Noah writhed and twisted his body into an extensive variety of eel-like positions […] (7.3-6)
Noah’s version of the story is immediately believed by all the parish officials, who never want to believe anything good about Oliver, and are always happy to believe the worst. So Oliver’s character is constantly in discussion—is he bad, as the parish officials, the Sowerberrys, Mr. Grimwig, Mr. Fang, and many others want to believe? Or is he actually a pretty good kid, as Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Bedwin, the Maylies, and the narrator (and the reader) want to believe?
Even poor Oliver himself seems conflicted on this point: he is "[…] overpowered by the conviction of the bystanders that he was really the hardened little wretch he was described to be" (15.63). In other words, the unflattering stories that are circulating about him are overpowering his own sense of self.
The reader never has much doubt about Oliver’s character, of course. We see all the negative and unflattering stories that circulate about Oliver, but we know that they’re false, because the narrator gives us an inside view into what Oliver’s thinking and feeling. So even if Oliver feels, at certain points, "overpowered" by the negative stories that are going around about it, the reader is still on his side. But the importance of understanding Oliver’s character is still a bone of contention in the novel—it’s constantly under discussion.
So even though Dickens lets the reader know that Oliver isn’t really the "hardened little wretch he was described to be" (15.63), he still doesn’t make it clear what it is about Oliver that keeps him from being corrupted. He’s certainly a good kid from the get-go, but whether that goodness makes him immune to corruption is left ambiguous. The quotations above certainly make it seem that, given enough time, Fagin would be able to turn him to crime.
Either way, though, the tension between these two hypotheses about why Fagin can’t corrupt Oliver keeps Dickens’s central question—where does criminal behavior come from?—at the front of readers’ minds.