Study Guide

Oliver Twist Society and Class

By Charles Dickens

Society and Class

Chapter 1

And what an excellent example of the power of dress young Oliver Twist was. Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; – it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have fixed his station in society. But now he was enveloped in the old calico robes, that had grown yellow in the same service; he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none. (1.14)

This passage shows several things: first of all, it shows that when Oliver is born, he could be anybody, and of any social rank – but marking him as a parish child and an orphan is as simple as swapping his blanket for yellow calico robes. It shows how superficial class distinction is, for starters. Saying that the difference between a nobleman and a beggar is only in the clothes that they wear is a pretty radical statement, if you think about it. And marking a person’s place and rank in the world while they’re only a baby and making it a permanent, unchangeable condition ("badged" and "ticketed") seems pretty cruel, as well – especially to modern readers, who like to believe that social rank can change, through a combination of good luck and hard work (check out the "Seven Basic Plots" section for more on the rags-to-riches plot).

Chapter 5

Noah was a charity-boy, but not a workhouse orphan. […] The shop-boys in the neighborhood had long been in the habit of branding Noah in the public streets with the ignominious epithets of ‘leathers,’ ‘charity,’ and the like; and Noah had borne them without reply. But now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, at whom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him with interest. This affords charming food for contemplation. It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature is, and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy. (5.26)

This passage shows that there are subtle distinctions of rank even at the very bottom of the social ladder: Noah might be a "charity-boy," and his father a "drunken soldier," but unlike Oliver, at least he knows who his father is. This is another place where Dickens clears away superficial distinctions between classes – the desire to kick the people below you on the social ladder is common to "the finest lord" and the "dirtiest charity-boy."

Chapter 14

[…] as Oliver looked out of the parlour window, and saw the Jew roll [his old clothes] up in his bag and walk away, he felt quite delighted to think that they were safely gone, and that there was now no possible danger of his ever being able to wear them again. They were sad rags, to tell the truth; and Oliver had never had a new suit before. (14.8)

Look, another passage about clothing. Why does Dickens keep harping on it? Why is it so important that Oliver be in control of the clothes he wears? Other people are always putting Oliver into pigeonholes – calling him "young gallows," or "work’us," and "badging" him as soon as he’s born with the yellowed calico clothes of a parish boy. Choosing his own clothes becomes as important as being called by the right name – it’s a way for Oliver to assert his independence over the system.

Chapter 16

Master Bates […] led Oliver into an adjacent kitchen, where there were two or three of the beds on which he had slept before; and here, with many uncontrollable bursts of laughter, he produced the identical old suit of clothes which Oliver had so much congratulated himself upon leaving off at Mr. Brownlow’s, and the accidental display of which to Fagin by the Jew who purchased them, had been the very first clue received of his whereabout [sic]. (16.91)

Yeah, yeah, another "Master Bates" joke. The point of this passage, though, is that once again, Oliver’s clothes are important – the people he’s with choose his clothes for him, and his clothes seem to stand in for the kind of person he is becoming. Will he be good? Or will he give in to the bad influence of Fagin and his gang? Just change his clothes and take a guess. It’s like the passage from the first chapter, when the doctor at the workhouse puts him in the little parish boy blanket, "badging" him as a pauper.

Chapter 27

He […] hastens to pay them that respect which their position demands, and to treat them with all that duteous ceremony which their exalted rank and (by consequence) great virtues imperatively claim at his hands. (27.1)

Dickens sure knows how to lay on the irony when talking about Mr. Bumble, doesn’t he? What’s really great about it is how he works in the most scathing remarks into parentheses. Like here, the fact that the "by consequence" is in parentheses seems to make the comment look innocuous and obvious – like it’s a given – but the parentheses also call attention to the remark, and make the reader think twice. Do "great virtues" necessarily follow from "exalted rank"?

Chapter 36
Mr. Losberne

"But, to speak seriously, Harry, has any communication from the great nobs produced this sudden anxiety on your part to be gone?" (36.5)

Mr. Losberne uses the slang word "nobs" to refer to the rich and fancy people Harry has been living and working with. It’s obviously a derogatory term, and although it seems unlikely that Mr. Losberne means to insult those people (Harry’s uncle, after all, is one of them), it just highlights the fact that the Maylies, Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Losberne, and Mr. Grimwig, as members of the middle class, are the moral center of the novel.

Chapter 37

A field-marshal has his uniform, a bishop his silk apron, a counselor his silk gown, a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his cocked hat and gold lace, what are they? Men,– mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine. (37.3)

Dickens comes right out and says it here: social rank and station – for people in the army, the church, or whatever – is marked more by clothes than by anything else. Everyone, at bottom, is the same. Like the orphaned Oliver in the first chapter – he could have been a prince. But then they "badged" him with his parish clothes, and he became a pauper and a parish boy, and fell into place accordingly.

The laced coat and the cocked hat, where were they? He still wore knee-breeches and dark cotton stockings on his nether limbs, but they were not the breeches. The coat was wide-skirted, and in that respect like the coat, but oh, how different! The mighty cocked-hat was replaced by a modest round one. Mr. Bumble was no longer a beadle. (37.2)

They say that clothes don’t make the man, but we’ve already seen that, in Oliver Twist at least, they kind of do. And Mr. Bumble is no exception – he’s been a pompous, self-important jerk for the whole book, but now that he’s changed clothes, and is no longer a beadle, suddenly his ego is totally deflated, too.

Chapter 40

But struggling with these better feelings was pride, – the vice of the lowest and most debased creatures no less than of the high and self-assured. […] even this degraded being felt too proud to betray one feeble gleam of the womanly feeling which she thought a weakness, but which alone connected her with that humanity, of which her wasting life had obliterated all outward traces when a very child. (40.52)

This passage shows, once again, how superficial class distinctions are – pride is another characteristic that’s common to people on any rung of the social ladder. Even Nancy is too proud to admit to a feeling that she considers weakness.

Chapter 52

With what a rattling noise the drop went down; and how suddenly they changed from strong and vigorous men to dangling heaps of clothes! (52.17)

Once again, Dickens whacks us over the head with the idea of clothes. Once the individual in them is dead, all you’re left with is clothes? What, the dead body disappears, Yoda-style? No, but once the person is dead, all social rank and status is completely done away with – death is the ultimate social leveler, so all you’re left with are the clothes, which, as Dickens has shown us earlier, are only a superficial marker of social distinction, anyway.