Crime was a huge problem in London in the 1830s, when Dickens was writing. Novels and plays about crime were hugely popular. Some novelists wrote about crime because they had a particular point to make about the source of criminal behavior, or possible solutions to the crime wave. Other novelists wrote about crime just because they knew it would sell.
Oliver Twist was hugely popular, but Dickens definitely had a point to make: he wanted to show how criminals really lived, in order to discourage poor people from turning to crime. He also wanted to show how external influences created criminal behavior as much or more than natural criminal urges.
Questions About Criminality
- Members of Fagin’s gang aren’t the only thieves in this novel. Who else steals? From whom?
- Do any thieves go unpunished? Why do you think that is?
- Oliver doesn’t understand thieves’ cant, and the Dodger or Charley always has to translate. Why does Dickens keep pointing this out?
- In the world of Oliver Twist, what causes an individual to turn to crime?
Chew on This
In Oliver Twist, Dickens seems to be arguing that influence and environment, rather than inherent vice, cause criminal behavior; however, that position is undermined by several characters.
Criminality in Oliver Twist is not limited to the lower classes: characters like Monks and Mr. and Mrs. Bumble show all levels of Victorian society are equally culpable.