Study Guide

Oliver Twist Religion

By Charles Dickens


Chapter 2

"I hope you say your prayers every night," said another gentleman in a gruff voice, "and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you, like a Christian."

"Yes, sir," stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian, too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him. (2.53-54)

This is the first time religion is ever mentioned in terms of private practice (praying for people) instead of as a big institution (the parish authorities, the beadle, the baby farm, et cetera are all run by the institutional Church of England). And we learn here that although they expect Oliver to practice religion, no one has ever taught him to do so, in spite of being brought up by the Church’s institutions. So there’s a big difference in this book between religion as a private practice, and religion as an institution.

Chapter 7

The blessing was from a young child’s lips, but it was the first that Oliver had ever heard invoked upon his head; and through all the struggles and sufferings of his after life, through all the troubles and changes of many weary years, he never once forgot it. (7.59)

Little Dick, Oliver’s friend and fellow-sufferer at Mrs. Mann’s baby farm, is the first person ever to bless Oliver? Seriously? For an orphan who is at least ostensibly being raised by the Church of England, Oliver’s had remarkably little religious training.

This sentence, although it sounds pretty dreary, suggesting that Oliver will "struggle," and "suffer," and have "troubles and changes" through "many weary years," actually does give a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel: at least we know he survives for many years after this moment, and considering what he’s been through already, survival hasn’t always seemed likely. Are we grasping at straws here? Maybe.

Mr. Bumble

"What have paupers to do with soul or spirit either? It’s quite enough that we let ’em have bodies." (7.32)

…says Mr. Bumble, as he explains why it’s better to keep paupers half-starved. Mr. Bumble sure does think a lot of his own power over the poor people in his parish – he controls their bodies, souls, and spirits? Dickens is establishing really early on his theme of universal, institutional control – those with power use it to control the lives (and souls and spirits, apparently) of those without it.

Chapter 18

In short, the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils; and, having prepared his mind by solitude and gloom to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it and change its hue for ever. (18.58)

Even though the stereotypes against Fagin tend to be more racial than religious, our discussion of the theme of "religion" in Oliver Twist can’t ignore the only character who isn’t a Christian. The constant references to Fagin as "the Jew" are certainly painful to modern readers, and they didn’t slip past contemporary readers, either – a Jewish acquaintance of Dickens’s pointed out to him how bad it was to casually play into the common racial prejudice against Jewish people, so in a later edition (1867, to be exact – thirty years after it first came out), Dickens started changing some of those references to "he" or to "Fagin."

Chapter 23
Mrs. Corney

"I’m sure we have all on us a great deal to be grateful for – a great deal, if we did but know it. Ah!" ["all on us" in the original]

Mrs. Corney shook her head mournfully, as if deploring the mental blindness of paupers who did not know it, and, thrusting a silver spoon (private property) into the inmost recesses of a two-ounce tin tea-caddy, proceeded to make the tea. (23.3-4)

Mrs. Corney is very pleased with her piety, moral strength and sense of gratitude – not hard to do on a cold night if one has a warm fire in a comfortable room with a cup of tea. You know the expression "to be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth?" Yeah, that’s Mrs. Corney here. And what’s she doing with that silver spoon? She’s delving into the "inmost recesses" of a "two-ounce" container of tea – if it’s only two ounces, she doesn’t have to dig very far to get to its "inmost recesses." So why did Dickens put it that way? Because that’s about the extent of Mrs. Corney’s reflections – they don’t dig deeper than the surface, and she can’t see past her own her own immediate needs and desires.

Chapter 32

There was the little church in the morning, with the green leaves fluttering at the windows, the birds singing without, and the sweet-smelling air stealing in at the low porch, and filling the homely building with its fragrance. (32.54)

The church in the Maylies’ country village doesn’t close people in, like the workhouses of the big institutionalized parishes that we’ve seen elsewhere. Nature seems to be in harmony with it – the windows let in light, and you can see the leaves outside, and hear the birds, and smell the flowers. So even though it’s a building – and associated with the same institutions that imprison and control poor people elsewhere – this particular building is designed to create a balance between culture and nature.

And, when Sunday came, how differently the day was spent from any manner in which he had ever spent it yet! (32.54)

Even though he’d grown up in and among religious institutions, Oliver doesn’t go to a "real" church until he’s living in the country with the Maylies. It’s another example of the difference between the organized, institutionalized religion that the workhouse system represents, and the personal religion that the Maylies represent.

Chapter 51
Oliver Twist

"He said ‘God bless you’ to me when I ran away," cried the boy with a burst of affectionate emotion; "and I will say ‘God bless you’ now, and show him how I love him for it!" (51.9)

Oliver still remembers little Dick’s parting blessing, and everything he’s experienced between then and now has made him appreciate what he didn’t then understand – the difference between institutionalized religion, and individual piety.

[…] but there are smiling fields and waving trees in England’s richest county, and by one village church – mine, Rose, my own – there stands a rustic dwelling which you can make me prouder of than all the hopes I have renounced. (51.99)

We can’t discuss the theme of "religion" in Oliver Twist without mentioning the fact that one of the main characters becomes a clergyman for the Church of England at the end. The Church of England is condemned in the early chapters as being too institutionalized and distant from everyday people and their needs. But here, the church is a part of the landscape – and it’s a country landscape – and it’s directly next to a home. In one breath, Harry announces his plans to be a clergyman, and his hopes of marrying Rose, and so unites everyday human life with the life of the church. But apparently that kind of harmony only works in the country?

Chapter 53

I do believe that the shade of that poor girl often hovers about that solemn nook – ay, though it is a church, and she was weak and erring. (53.16)

Last lines of the book, everyone! Must be important. And if you look at the "What’s Up With the Ending?" section, you’ll see more about this. Agnes was an outcast during her life because she was "weak and erring" (i.e., she had sex and got pregnant without being married). She wasn’t welcomed into the church or forgiven while she was alive, but Dickens suggests in these last lines that her ghost would be able to hang out there after she was dead. Does that mean that a "fallen woman" can only be forgiven by the church after she’s dead, or that while she was alive, the church was wrong to shun her?