Oliver Twist: An Introduction

Wherein we are introduced to the second of Dickens’ serial novels, Oliver Twist (the third read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23); with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations; Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 12 April through 16 May, 2022; with a look ahead to the coming week.

By George Cruikshank

“As soon as Dickens had hit upon his ‘captial notion’ of the deprived and abused child, the whole conception caught fire in his imagination…and it has been said, rightly, that Oliver Twist is the first novel in the English language which takes a child as a central character or hero…”

~ Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 216

We meet again, friends, on our first day of Oliver Twist! Based on our group’s exploration of Sketches and Pickwick, I’m certain we’ll be in for a deep dive with Oliver, and I’m excited for the perspectives which I know will help many of us appreciate it more, whether you’re rereading it, or reading it for the first time!

I’ve not gone into details about the story, so have no fear of spoilers; but whether you’ve read it or not, if you’d rather not read anything ahead of time, feel free to skip right to the end for the schedule!

But before we dive in…

General Mems

If you’re counting, today is Day 99 (and Week 15) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of Oliver Twist, our third read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us.

And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the overall 2-year reading schedule is in my intro post here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.

“Please, sir, I want some more”: Oliver Twist in Context

Mr. Bumble, by “Kyd”

Oliver’s very existence, born as he is into the workhouse, is a challenge to a hated system. Is Dickens, too, demanding more from the system?

Like Little Dorrit born into the Marshalsea, Oliver knows little else ~ yet he manages, like her, to maintain an innocence and purity of heart within its walls. The subtitle of Oliver Twist is “the Parish Boy’s Progress,” and it will be interesting to see how or whether it continues the traditions that Lenny has particularly been writing of: the Bildungsroman, or even a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress through these different facets of society: the law, the workhouse, the violent criminal underworld, industrial London versus the quiet country air outside it.

We’ll meet friends and enemies: the kindly Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie, the fearful but ultimately buffoonish Mr. Bumble, Fagin and the Artful Dodger, brutal burglar Bill Sikes and his reluctant accomplice, Nancy.

Here’s a little context on Dickens’ life at the time, and his writing of Oliver:

Dickens’ Life in 1837-38

Claire Tomalin: “Dickens drawn by Cruickshank [sic] at home in Doughty Street, 1837.” Sussex PhotoHistory writes that it is from a sketch of ’36: “George Cruikshank’s pencil sketch was later worked up into a finished drawing and then engraved for publication.”

If you recall from our introduction to The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was having an extraordinarily busy year (1836), a year that really put him “on the map” in a big way, especially since the fourth number of Pickwick and the first appearance of Sam Weller. Besides the enormous success in his writing career, he was editing a periodical and writing works for the stage, too, including a comic opera! He’d married Catherine Hogarth in April of 1836; now, at the opening of 1837, as he still has half of Pickwick yet to write for Chapman and Hall, he and Catherine had their first child in January ~ after which Catherine suffered from postpartum depression. Soon after, Dickens was to begin the first number of Oliver Twist for Bentley’s Miscellany, which would be published in February.

And these were only a few of his projects. From Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Dickens:

“He was now of course an editor, and he estimated that he was reading some sixty or eighty manuscripts a month for possible publication in Bentley’s Miscellany. But that was only one aspect of his editorial work, which also included proofreading as well as the revising and cutting of articles. He arranged the payments for each contributor, and worked upon his own article each month” (214).

Of course, we’ve discussed in our introduction to Pickwick that it was early on in Oliver (and just past half-way through Pickwick) that Dickens experienced the enormous and unexpected loss of his sister-in-law, the seventeen year old Mary Hogarth, a death that would haunt him forever; the memory of Mary was to influence many of his female characters throughout his writing career, and he cancelled the May/June numbers of his two novels, for the first and the last time.

“Thank God she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me.”

“So perfect a creature never breathed. I knew her inmost heart, and her real worth and values. She had not a fault.”

~Charles Dickens

(On this note: I’m adding a brief section on the theme of Memory to our “Considerations” below, as this seems to be of importance in Oliver Twist, and in Dickens’ own life, and would come ’round again often in his writing.)

Dickens had met his lifelong friend and biographer, John Forster, in late-1836, but their friendship really developed around this time in 1837, as Dickens shared his grief with him.

48 Doughty Street

Around this time, too, Dickens’ earnings were sufficient to enable him to take a three-year lease on the home in Doughty Street, where the beloved Dickens Museum is located. He was truly moving up in the world.

After finishing Pickwick‘s installments in October of 1837, he had a few months without an overlap in serial publications, until he started on Nicholas Nickleby for Chapman and Hall. The first installment of Nickleby would be published in March of 1838. Once the two novels were going simultaneously, “Forster said later that he never knew him work so much after dinner or such late hours” (Tomalin 95).

Though Oliver‘s publication in serial form was not to finish until the Spring of 1839, Dickens exhausted himself trying to get it finished for a publication in book form by September of 1838. He didn’t quite manage this, but he did complete it by October.

Writing and Illustrating Oliver

“Don’t be afraid! We won’t make an author of you, while there’s an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to turn to.”

~Oliver Twist
From Sussex PhotoHistory: This 1837 lithograph, from a drawing by Phiz, is here “reversed to show the original orientation of the artist’s drawing of the young author.”

Claire Tomalin writes in Charles Dickens: A Life:

“The two serial numbers [Pickwick and Oliver] would be running simultaneously for ten months, and Dickens would have to work like a juggler to keep them both spinning. He said later that he was warned against serial publications ~ ‘My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes’ ~ but whoever these friends were he triumphantly proved them wrong, and readers were as pleased with the pathos, horror and grand guignol of Oliver as with the comedy of Pickwick” (74).

As we discussed in our group re: Dickens’ “writing lab,” he was, partway through Pickwick, really beginning to develop a more cohesive plot, and “Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start” (Tomalin 74).

More perspective from Claire Tomalin, for those interested in the nitty-gritty of the writing process of Oliver, and the challenges of serial publication ~ especially of two very different novels at once:

Manuscript of the preface to the 1850 edition of Oliver Twist. Source: The British Library.

“There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves time to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time. He wrote in a small hand, with a quill pen and black (iron gall) ink at this stage ~ later he favoured bright blue ~ on rough sheets of grey, white or bluish paper, measuring about 9 x 7 1/2 inches, that he’d fold and then tear in half before starting to write; he called these sheets ‘slips’. For Oliver he spaced the lines quite widely, fitting about twenty-five lines on each sheet where later he would cram forty-five. Something like ninety-five slips made up one monthly number. In the course of a day he might produce eleven or twelve slips, and if pushed up to twenty” (Tomalin 74-75).

Of course, Dickens was also dealing with illustrations. We witnessed the emergence of a great literary collaboration in Pickwick of Dickens with his illustrator, “Phiz”; George Cruikshank, however, was Bentley’s illustrator, but he and Dickens had already worked together on the Sketches.

From Peter Ackroyd:

“It ought to be remembered, too, that [Dickens] was collaborating closely with George Cruikshank, who, as the official illustrator of the magazine, had a position of some significance; they worked together amicably enough, however, despite their recent arguments over the Sketches, the general plan being that Dickens suggested which articles ought to be illustrated and then left it to Cruikshank to decide upon a particular passage or scene. There is no doubt that he enjoyed his work. On one occasion he compares being an editor to that of being a stage manager, and it is clear that he brought the same skills to this editorial venture which he had brought to bear upon his management of amateur theatricals” (Ackroyd 214).


A Personal “Echo Chamber”; the Religious Significance of Memory

Fred Barnard’s depiction of Charles Dickens in the blacking factory

“Thus does Dickens seem able to work through his own childhood in disguised form, both in its troubled reality and in its disturbed fantasies of escape. The life of Warren’s, the foul streets of London, the sheer helplessness of the lost child resound through a narrative which becomes the echo chamber of Dickens’s own childhood. In the March number of The Pickwick Papers Tony Weller had mentioned ‘Warrens’s blackin’ and in the following month’s episode of Oliver Twist a ‘blackin’ bottle’ is mentioned by the notorious beadle. The associations come flooding back as Dickens writes.”

~Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 217

Though I don’t have the same clarity about Oliver that I do of Pickwick and some of Dickens’ other works as we venture in, I’d like to put in a word about the importance of the theme of “memory” in Dickens, which perhaps takes a more crucial role here than it has done before. But it will always make its way into his works hereafter, and will play a vital role in such works as A Tale of Two Cities: memory that haunts our characters; memory that heals and strengthens and inspires; Memory as almost a character, a haunting spirit.

“The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.”

~Oliver Twist

Ackroyd has a beautiful passage here about Dickens’ faith in connection to memory and the death of Mary Hogarth:

“It is known that [Dickens] started regularly to attend the chapel of the Foundling Hospital in Great Coram Street nearby…He was consoled ‘above all’ by ‘the thought of one day joining her again where sorrow and separation are unknown’; when we come to consider Dickens’s Christianity it is as well to remember from what private roots of suffering and relief it sprang. And hence, too, the religious significance which he attached to the concept of memory; as soon as [Mary] was dead he was reminiscing about their lives together. ‘I can recall everything we said and did in those happy days,’ he said, and for him the memory became a blessed faculty aligned with fancy and the imagination, linking the living with the dead and thus earth with heaven; it became a way of infusing reality with spiritual grace, and there can be no doubt that it was the death of Mary Hogarth which awakened those elements in his nature which had up to this time been overshadowed by his appetite for fame. Dickens had learned another hard lesson early ~ he was still only twenty-five ~ but in a sense it was his good fortune that the profound experiences which shape a writer’s imagination happened to him sooner rather than later” (228).

The New Poor Law, the Workhouse, and the Parish System

“Just as the insanely sane Modest Proposal resulted from Swift’s rage at the English Government’s policy towards Ireland so the presentation of the workhouse in Oliver Twist results from Dickens’s outrage at Malthusian chatter about the ‘surplus population’ and the Government’s ‘workhouse-as-deterrent’ policy.”

~Michael Slater, “On Reading Oliver Twist

The New Poor Law of 1834, hated by Dickens and other humanitarians, made the workhouse the be-all, end-all system of relief ~ a dreaded possibility, to be avoided at all costs. A punishment for poverty.

In the passage on Oliver Twist and the Workhouse,” Ruth Richardson writes:

“The Poor Law (Amendment) Act of 1834, otherwise known as the ‘New’ Poor Law, established the workhouse system. Instead of providing a refuge for the elderly, sick and poor, and instead of providing food or clothing in exchange for work in times of high unemployment, workhouses were to become a sort of prison system. The government’s intention was to slash expenditure on poverty by setting up a cruelly deterrent regime. The old parish poorhouses and almshouses were to be completely changed, no cash support whatever would henceforth be given out – whatever the hardship or the season – and the old gifts in kind (food, shoes, blankets) which could help a family survive together, were now disallowed. The only option would be hard work, forced labour, and only inside the workhouse (which meant entering there to live, full time) in exchange for a thin subsistence. Homes were broken up, belongings sold, families separated.

“Groups of parishes – called Poor Law Unions – were formed under the new system, and a network of workhouses was established across the country. They were run by ‘Guardians’ who were usually local business people. The regime inside these places was deliberately intended to deter everyone but the most desperate. Children were separated and sent away, heads were shaved, clothes boiled, uniforms issued. Although centrally-controlled through the Poor Law Board, each workhouse was administered locally. Dickens shows that the administration was run by self-satisfied and heartless men: the ‘man in the white waistcoat’ personifies the smug viciousness of the guardians in Oliver Twist‘s workhouse.”

~Ruth Richardson, “Oliver Twist and the Workhouse”

From The Circumlocution Office’s website:

“Workhouses were intended to discourage people from applying for poor relief…The infirm and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as gruel (a watery porridge), or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories, with supervised baths were given once a week.”

This is a theme which will come ’round again, as so much in Dickens does, even to his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, in the character of Sloppy, raised in the workhouse, and in Betty Higden, child-minder who risks death by exposure to the elements rather than risk the possibility of the workhouse.

Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Imagery, Narrative Flow/Structure, Depicting Violence

As noted above, Pickwick continued the “writing lab” ~ an image that Lenny first used in relation to Dickens’ Sketches ~ and almost concurrently with the beginning of the more consciously-structured Oliver Twist, Pickwick too began to take form with a more concrete plot and narrative structure. One might say that the deliberation that was brought to bear on Oliver, influenced the plotting of Pickwick.

And yet, what a difference in tone. Is Dickens giving his new fans a sample of his versatility, in embarking on a novel of such a different atmosphere and color? Here, we feel the filth and misery of the London underworld, and see vividly the red blood that comes from a violent bludgeoning. Whereas the lights in Pickwick are stronger than its contrasting shadows, it will be interesting to discuss whether they are so here, based on the language used to depict both.

Explicit and Implied Antisemitism

I am hugely grateful to our wonderful Dickensian, Boze H., for graciously responding to my plea for help in introducing a subject which I don’t feel I have the knowledge to tackle. His thoughtfulness, his extensive reading on antisemitism, his enormous love of Dickens and Victorian literature, make him a perfect person to introduce this subject for discussion and reflection. Thank you, Boze! This will be coming in a separate post.

UPDATE: Boze’s marvelous post can be found here! We’d love to have you join the conversation!

Other Themes that *Might* be Introduced, or Come ‘Round Again…

And these are only a few to add to the conversation, many of which we’ve discussed in Sketches and Pickwick:

1.) Light and Shadow, Comedy and Tragedy

2.) Crime and Violence

3.) Theatricality (The latter related to stage melodrama, perhaps?)

4.) Rich versus Poor; Dickens’ Social Conscience

5.) Dickens’ Women (How are they portrayed here, including in the contrast from one to another?)

6.) The Law/Institutional Shortcomings–or Evils? (The workhouse, the New Poor Law, the police, etc.)

7.) City versus Country

8.) Voice/Language in Creating Character (“Do you know this here voice, Oliver? Ain’t you afraid of it, sir? Ain’t you a trembling while I speak, sir?” ~Chapter VII)

9.) Mutability and Mortality

10.) Memory

11.) Change/Redemption in Suffering

12.) Benevolence as the Reconciling Influence

13.) The Child as Hero ~ and Victim of Society

14.) Surrogate or Honorary Parents

Additional References

I’ll just link a couple of really interesting short-ish videos, on specific issues in Oliver. The first is Professor John Bowen on Depicting Crime and Poverty in the novel:

Another, recommended by Dr. Christian Lehmann, is part of The Dickens Project, and includes a close reading of a passage from a section late in the novel which Dickens was famous for reading aloud to horrified and mesmerized audiences. (Hence, SPOILER ALERT, if you’re not familiar with it!)

Oliver Twist Reading Schedule

Oliver Twist Reading Schedule

Week One: 12-18 Apr1-11Chapters 1-11 constitute the first five monthly “numbers” published Feb, Mar, April, May, and July of 1837.
Week Two: 19-25 Apr12-22Chapters 12-22 constitute the monthly numbers VI-X, published in Aug, Sept, Nov, and Dec 1837, and Jan of 1838.
Week Three: 26 Apr-2 May23-34Chapters 23-34 constitute the monthly numbers XI-XV, published Feb-June 1838.
Week Four: 3-9 May35-46Chapters 35-46 constitute the monthly numbers XVI-XX, which were published July, Aug, Oct, Nov, and Dec of 1838.
Week Five: 10-16 May47-53Chapters 47-53 constitute the monthly numbers XXI-XXIV, published Jan-April 1839.
Oliver Twist Reading Schedule, 12 Apr-16 May 2022, for The Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23

A Look-ahead to Week One of Oliver Twist (12-18 April)

This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-11, which constitute the first five monthly “numbers,” published Feb, Mar, April, May, and July of 1837.

You can read the text in full at The Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.

If you’re an audiophile, there are some wonderful versions available, one of them read by one of my heroines, Miriam Margolyes, and another by the always-brilliant Jonathan Pryce. The recording quality of the latter is better, but you really can’t go wrong with either.

See you in the comments, friends!

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Slater, Michael. “On Reading “Oliver Twist”.” Dickensian 70.373 (1974): 75. ProQuest.

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.

“WORKHOUSES IN THE VICTORIAN ERA”: Circumlocution Office website. https://www.thecircumlocutionoffice.com/times/poverty/workhouses.


  1. Workhouse??? Man Oh Man! Sounds exactly like a Nazi Concentration Camp to me. Again…”The Horror, The Horror!”

    Jeeze, Rach, you’ve set up all this next reading of TWIST so beautifully. The sources, the resources, the drawings and prints, the wonderful use of history and biography–all of it so delicious, sad, informative and, ultimately, energizing and tantalizing! You’ve set the bar high, and we’ll all have fun contributing to the dialogue as we make out how to understand this third volume in our reading. Thanks again with a ton of appreciation for all the work you’ve put in on this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aw Lenny, thank you SO much!! I truly appreciate it!! But honestly, all these themes are in many ways carryovers from the amazing work our group has done already, just reapplying them here for possible use…our discussions just “force” (or rather, inspire) one to tackle these issues at another level…Loving it SO much!! Yes, workhouses, crime, some seriously creepy and horrific segments…you name it…argh, we’re in for it now!


      1. Oh, absolutely nuts, here in Salem. Dark, dank, cold, rainy, BLEAKHOUSE days! Spent most of my day yesterday in my jammies. Marilynn went out for a while to stack wood and take Daphne (our cat) for a spin. But I was to much of a chicken to join her. But today, I’ve got to get dressed and head out into the elements. No wind so far, and that is excellent. It’s the wind that’s been so awful; it just cuts right through one. Have you gotten snow in Ashland? PDX had some, but not a sign of it here. Where is old Sol when you need him? As Eliot said, “April is the cruelest month.” He’s right so far!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh absolutely, Lenny, it was a regular winter wonderland waking up this morning, though the snow is melting now…gosh, I hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, but it really kind of IS the cruelest month!! Yikes that wind sounds nasty…stay warm & safe up there!!!


  3. Having fallen a little behind on Pickwick, as sadly ‘real’ life got in the way, I’m still jumping into Oliver Twist immediately and reading both in parallel (after all, that’s what they did in 1837) In trying to hurry with Pickwick, I’ve realised that Dickens is impossible to speed-read, as every word is there for a reason, and missing something important is a real danger.
    Growing up in 80s Britain, my first exposure to any of Dickens’ works was the musical Oliver! – It always seemed to be shown on cold and wet bank holidays, but the songs and exciting set pieces always glued me to the tv. How horrified I was, when turning to the book at 17, that I found there were no songs and Fagin wasn’t a jolly old man who surely did just want the best for Oliver. I’m looking forward to revisiting it as an older, hopefully wiser reader, fully aware of social injustice and child poverty issues that still exist today.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Beautifully said, Steve!! I grew up watching the musical too, and the Finney Scrooge…it’s so fascinating to see the many creative ways people adapt Dickens, particularly into musicals. I’ve watched clips of a stage A Tale of Two Cities musical when I can find it, just out of sheer curiosity…

      As to the reads, I’m just so happy you’re along for the ride!! 🙂 And I love your insights, and the pictures you’ve shared. Boze and I have been discussing possible ways to slow things down a bit, as to the reading schedule, and/or maybe do a little break between reads. I think we’ll probably make a separate post about this for discussion in the coming week and see how everyone is feeling 🙂


  4. Even though it’s not necessarily important to the plot, I adore Chapter 3, mostly because of the hilarious passage where it seems like the board is looking out for Oliver’s interests for once-and then they reveal they just want more money. And it’s cathartic to read about the old gentleman telling Mr. Bumble to put a sock in it, and actually does look out for Oliver.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Every time I read “Oliver Twist” I am blown away. First, by the power of the story, the narrative, the description and the commentary. Each gives pause: the horror story with a child at center stage; the narrative with its pointed sarcasm and facetiousness; the un-sugar-coated descriptions of callousness and the soul-wrenching misery it causes; and the commentary on Society’s inhumane treatment of those most in need. Hovering over all this is “[t]he wrong that Dickens recognizes in what he attacks . . . [which] lies simply, irreducibly, undeniably in its violation of humanity, in its offense against life” (Marcus 59). Dickens does not ask what is our duty to each other but rather how did we forget that duty? The horror of these opening chapters is unbelievable, except for the fact that Dickens was all too familiar with the seamy side of London to have concocted them.

    Which brings me to the second reason “Oliver Twist” blows me away – Dickens was only 25 years old when he wrote it. In full “angry young man” mode Dickens pours out all his anger, frustration, disillusionment, disgust with/about the treatment of the poor and the behavior of those whose job it is to minister to them. These feelings no doubt come from his early experience as a 12-year-old working, living and fending for himself in a pretty bad section of London. [Are we all familiar with the Blacking factory story?] Every time I read “Oliver Twist” I wonder exactly what happened to him while he was on his own – at 12 – and I wonder how much of what he writes, describes, reports is simply firsthand knowledge. But because we only have a brief autobiographical fragment about this period of his life (and there is some debate as to the accuracy of his reminiscence), his fiction is perhaps a better source for gleaning what he saw, witnessed, and experienced. The scenes in “Oliver Twist”, which mirror some “Sketches” and some incidents in “Pickwick”, are just too raw to be made up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lordy, Chris, your first paragraph is so powerful and a wonderful summing up of the wonders of TWIST. I simply have to repeat your phrasing, just to get a keen sense of how important it is: “Each gives pause: the horror story with a child at center stage; the narrative with its pointed sarcasm and facetiousness; the un-sugar-coated descriptions of callousness and the soul-wrenching misery it causes; and the commentary on Society’s inhumane treatment of those most in need.” this is SO beautifully stated. And sets up a critical, analytical study guide for us to follow! Great stuff, here!


  6. CLAUSTROPHOBIA: The first word that I come to when I think about the early “lodgings” of the young Oliver Twist. Chapter after chapter we see the poor boy literally thrown into dungeon-like settings which solidify the many ways in which he is entrapped by the various “establishments” which contain him, and which also serve to expressionistically stand for his psychological states. But in their very presence–and misuse– they also signify the EXTREME lack of humanity embedded in the consciousnesses of those who are his supposed caretakers/jailers and who use these spaces to torment our hero. These “people,” really, are killers, antagonists who care little for human life, feel that the surviving child is simply an accidental anomaly that is expendable; these incarcerators are governed solely by their supposedly “ADULT,” cynically centered and sadistically limited sphere of “knowledge.” One early example of this inhumane treatment takes place in the second chapter of OLIVER.

    ” Be this as it may, however, it was his ninth birthday; and he was keeping it in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young gentleman, who, after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be hungry….”

    Such vicious, sadistic treatment, which involves beatings and starvation, can only be seen as the actions of depraved people who have totally been swallowed by the darker sides of their personalities, venting their angers and frustrations on the innocent subjects who are readymade victims for their wrath. Our Oliver, by chance, is sadly one of them.

    The second example expands more on the physical setting and how it becomes even a more dire illustration of Oliver’s state of mind. In it, he contemplates suicide. Lacking the means, however, he can only huddle in the far dark corner of this dungeon and cry during the day and, probably with the exhaustion of that effort, sleep when he finds “solace” in the “cold hard” surface of the wall. In this way, the wall, itself, becomes his protective “womb.” This is one of the more notable passages in Chapter 3:

    “For a week after the commission of the impious and profane offence of asking for more, Oliver remained a close prisoner in the dark and solitary room to which he had been consigned by the wisdom and mercy of the board. It appears, at first sight not unreasonable to suppose, that, if he had entertained a becoming feeling of respect for the prediction of the gentleman in the white waistcoat, he would have established that sage individual’s prophetic character, once and for ever, by tying one end of his pocket-handkerchief to a hook in the wall, and attaching himself to the other. To the performance of this feat, however, there was one obstacle: namely, that pocket-handkerchiefs being decided articles of luxury, had been, for all future times and ages, removed from the noses of paupers by the express order of the board, in council assembled: solemnly given and pronounced under their hands and seals. There was a still greater obstacle in Oliver’s youth and childishness. He only cried bitterly all day; and, when the long, dismal me on, spread his little hands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching in the corner, tried to sleep: ever and anon waking with a start and tremble, and drawing himself closer and closer to the wall, as if to feel even its cold hard surface were a protection in the gloom and loneliness which surrounded him.”

    Once again, only in a more elaborate way, the confined, dark, cold setting both causes his depression and operates to mirror the horrible and empty feelings he has about his circumstances. As readers we keep hoping that this incarceration motif will only be temporary, and that soon this young boy’s circumstances will improve. But as we can see in the next excerpt, Mrs. Sowerberry’s treatment of him is as sadistically vicious as his other tormentors; here in Chapter 4, she, too, takes up the theme of starvation and in her actions carries forth what has been typical thus far–the cynical theme of adults versus children, especially “parish” children, or, rather, children she would just as soon watch perish; her verbal and physical abuse is symbolic of the latter:

    “‘Ah! I dare say he will,’ replied the lady pettishly, ‘on our victuals and our drink. I see no saving in parish children, not I; for they always cost more to keep, than they’re worth. However, men always think they know best. There! Get downstairs, little bag o’ bones.’ With this, the undertaker’s wife opened a side door, and pushed Oliver down a steep flight of stairs into a stone cell, damp and dark: forming the ante-room to the coal-cellar….”

    Later, in the following chapter, Oliver’s “bedroom” environment is even more dire. Here his very existence is more directly associated with death and total disintegration–all the accoutrements of the undertaker–so that Oliver, at least figuratively, is seen existing in a kind of death in life experience, or, perhaps, a life in death existence. His “bed” is virtually a grave:

    “Oliver, being left to himself in the undertaker’s shop, set the lamp down on a workman’s bench, and gazed timidly about him with a feeling of awe and dread, which many people a good deal older than he will be at no loss to understand. An unfinished coffin on black tressels, which stood in the middle of the shop, looked so gloomy and death-like that a cold tremble came over him, every time his eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almost expected to see some frightful form slowly rear its head, to drive him mad with terror. Against the wall were ranged, in regular array, a long row of elm boards cut in the same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches pockets. Coffin-plates, elm-chips, bright-headed nails, and shreds of black cloth, lay scattered on the floor; and the wall behind the counter was ornamented with a lively representation of two mutes in very stiff neckcloths, on duty at a large private door, with a hearse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop was close and hot. The atmosphere seemed tainted with the smell of coffins. The recess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave.”

    In Chapter 7, Oliver is once again in the clutches of Mr. Bumble who has been summoned by Mrs. Sowerberry to devise a punishment for Oliver who, they feel, needs to be disciplined for his attack on Noah. Again, the motifs of isolation and starvation are selected as the very solution in subjugating this unruly boy:

    “‘Ah!’ said Mr. Bumble, when the lady brought her eyes down to earth again; ‘the only thing that can be done now, that I know of, is to leave him in the cellar for a day or so, till he’s a little starved down; and then to take him out, and keep him on gruel all through the apprenticeship. He comes of a bad family.”

    Finally, much to the reader’s relief, Oliver manages to escape the confines of the Sowerberry’s and journey to London. At least momentarily, the novel provides some solace for both Oliver and the reader. The claustrophobia and sadistic treatment which he and the reader have felt on so many levels so keenly, seems to have passed. Freedom at last! Yet, sadly, there is more to come, the respites are only temporal, and gathered in by the Dodger, Oliver gets his first taste of Fagin’s residence. More welcoming, perhaps, but just as suspect as his other places of confinement. One might say, a more “refined,” but equally as cynical and deadly environment. This is Fagin’s den as Oliver first examines it closely in Chapter 9:

    “The walls and ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt. There was a deal table before the fire: upon which were a candle, stuck in a ginger-beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, a loaf and butter, and a plate. In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor.”

    One is tempted to mutter something like, “the same old story'” because the environs are dark and forbidding and only slightly more satisfactorily furnished and lighted and warmed with a fire and the room is probably filled with the smell of food. But the descriptive words “black with age and dirt,” and the beds “made of old sacks” are definitely reminiscent of the earlier squalid caves where Oliver has been forced to inhabit; the whole scene, lorded over by the central figure of Fagin, is definitely forbidding, to say the least! One can only dimly see some possibilities for Oliver in this new space. But one also suspects that there will be more claustrophobia and sadistic treatment in the chapters ahead. The signs are not optimistic.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Such wonderful reflections here, “my flash com-pan-i-ons,” and again I find myself commenting a little late in the week, as it has been a busy (but good!) one…

    I agree with our Stationmaster member that it IS satisfying when Bumble gets put in his place by the well-meaning magistrate. (Still, I put myself in anyone’s position here, and am baffled by how everyone can look at Oliver and not be instantly like, “I’ll take him!” and save him from such malnourishment and mistreatment! It is NOT enough…I, like Oliver, want MORE from all of them…from the whole mangled, inhuman system.) I love it how Oliver’s very existence, born in the workhouse as he is (like Little Dorrit to the Marshalsea) is a judgement against the system. The system tries to move him along, to get rid of him (let’s farm him out, apprentice him, send him off to sea…) just as they would try to hide a crack in the system.

    I love what Chris says about Dickens being in his “‘angry young man’ mode” ~ it is palpable! The irony, the sarcasm, the horror of it all, is just intense! And the dark, dark humor, the “hideous merriment” (chapter five); the “ragged boys” playing “a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones” or “jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin” (ditto); all the accoutrements of Death. Then, I think of the conversation between Bumble and Sowerberry about profit in the coffin industry: “Well, well, Mr. Bumble…there’s no denying that, since the new system of feeding has come in, the coffins are something narrower and more shallow than they used to be; but we must have some profit, Mr. Bumble.”

    What “Dickensian” characters. I’ve always loved about Dickens how one’s position/work is so often inextricably bound to someone’s character…almost, a part of their personality. I suppose this is the way of all work, but Dickens takes it to another level. Here we have the bumbling official, Mr. Bumble. Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker, and looking every inch what a Victorian undertaker should be: “a tall, gaunt, large-jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same color, and shoes to answer. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect…”

    And Lenny’s essay about the confinement/entrapment is just perfect. And he ends up literally in a cell by the end of this week’s read. What a contrast again with Pickwick: there, until the Fleet, we had these expansive, sunlit, rambling adventures ~ so much outdoors, chases and breakdowns in carriages, hunting parties, etc. Here, in Oliver, we are confined within dark, dank, dismal walls; as Lenny says, we keep hoping for a way out, but we’re going from one sort of “prison” to another…or to, as in chapter four, “a new scene of suffering,” and to sleep among the coffins. Here, even the rare sunlight only serves to illumine Oliver’s loneliness and entrapment: “The sun was rising in all his splendid beauty; but the light only served to show the boy his own lonesomeness and desolation, as he sat, with bleeding feet and covered with dust, upon a cold door-step” (chapter eight). Here, perhaps, we could almost reverse the Pickwickian phrase “there are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast” to: “there are rays of sunlight on the earth, but its shadows are stronger in the contrast.”

    And speaking of that…to be able to convey such a ghostly, atmospheric scene! From chapter five: “Against the wall were ranged, in regular array, a long row of elm boards cut into the same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches pockets. Coffin-plates, elm-chips, bright-headed nails, and shreds of black cloth, lay scattered on the floor: and the wall behind the counter was ornamented with a lively representation of two mutes in very stiff neck-cloths, on duty at a large private door, with a hearse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop was close and hot; and the atmosphere seemed tainted with the smell of coffins. The recess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave.”

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    1. To be fair to the population in general, adopting kids is a lot of work, realistically speaking, and the book implies that a lot of people in this unnamed town have a hard time feeding and taking care of their biological families. (Though, of course, the magistrate presumably doesn’t have that excuse.)


    2. Rach: your contrasting OLIVER to PICKWICK in terms of light and dark is so, true. In the early chapters of OLIVER, the actions of the novel mostly take place indoors, where darkness reigns. All the interior spaces are virtually in the dark, with a small amount of candlelight illuminating the spaces where Oliver resides. And, also in the novel’s early stages, when there IS outdoor activity, it takes place usually at night. On the other hand, given the nature of its Picaresque structure, PICKWICK in the early stages takes place outdoors, while the Pickwickians are on the move. In these early chapters, the interiors are well lit with warm fires and comfortable surroundings. We know that PICKWICK–with only a few intervals of darkness, breaking up the mostly light and festive moments–DOES move toward extreme darkness and claustrophobia. On the other hand, OLIVER is relentless in its presentation of the dark and forbidding nature of interior spaces, and only occasionally becomes illuminated by daytime brightness. When these brief “bright” spaces occur, these is a sense of freedom and release.

      As you suggest, then, the two novels are exactly opposite in their presentation of the light/dark metaphor. But I’m also wondering, since I’ve only read the early chapters of OLIVER, if it will turn out that, in direct contrast with the narrative progression PICKWICK, the second novel will move toward light and freedom, escaping the darkness and confinement of the early chapters?

      Your reference to Chris’ Dickens being in his “angry young man” phase, also fits the light/dark motif perfectly. It’s almost as though Dickens realized, WHILE he was composing PICKWICK, that it was too “light and bright,” and wasn’t doing enough with the social criticism he felt he needed to write about. Therefor in OLIVER, he deliberately and artfully designed a compensatory factor, and in so doing, really poured it on as he “illuminated” Oliver’s plight vis-a-vis the inhumane structures that will govern and make miserable his early years. Here his writing in OLIVER gains in complexity: it is not just the sub-human treatment resulting from the Poor Laws that confine and torture Oliver, it is their equivalency with the dark, London underworld of thieves and murders that Dickens is so fascinated with and that he seems compelled to write about. The “baby farm” and the workhouse are on the same “level” of evil as Fagin and Sykes and their lot. So, two methods of criminal, dehumanizing, murderous activity, rolled up into one novel. Dickens, then, by showcasing these evils, fulfills his need for getting at two socially debilitating structures that are missing in PICKWICK.

      And, I feel, that underpinning both “methods” of crime is the ever present theme of GREED. Ironically, money can be made from the baby farm and workhouse just as fully but maybe more subtly than the more obvious methods of crime involving the stealing of handkerchiefs and wallets. In this way, the novel presents two, greed motivated, “SYSTEMS” or “INDUSTRIES” that kill, maim and fleece the British society of this time in the late 1830’s.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And Lenny I love the assessment about crime/greed…wow, yes. Really, we have arguably **worse** criminals there in the system, than even in the criminal underworld…at least Fagin and Dodger supply a kind of camaraderie, to contrast with the brutal treatment Oliver gets within the workhouse, baby farm, etc, where at every turn he’s not only malnourished and neglected, but literally reminded that he’s unloved.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. So many great insights this week! I guess these opening chapters give us a lot to chew on.

    I wonder what the public reaction was to the first few parts? What humour there is is very, very dark – did people laugh with glee at the comedy, or did the real-life counterparts of the Bumbles and Mrs Sowerberrys of early Victorian society recognise themselves in the way they treated children and profess to change their ways? Was Dickens changing society’s opinions even at this early stage FROM WITHIN? We can only hope. If he was, to me that’s far more valuable than enjoying a cricket match at Dingley Dell.

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  9. Thank you Rach…such an informative introduction that is making my reread of Oliver Twist so much more enjoyable. Reading other club members comments to consider different perspectives and insights also enriches my reading experience.

    For me Dickens has vividly captured the desperate lives of an unfortunate social class of people in London during the 19th century – I wonder how far our society has progressed with so much crime, homelessness and helplessness still evident today.

    Oliver Twist was the first Dickens work I read and for that reason alone it is my favourite. However, it could reasonably be argued that it is not his best work….IMO we have that to look forward to. It does contain what is a strong contender for Dickens most popular and iconic line – “Please sir can I have some more” – definitely “more” Dickens was added to my reading menu upon completing Oliver Twist.

    Have a great day….everyday 😃

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