Charles Dickens wrote tens of thousands of words in his life on a handful of subjects, returning again and again to the questions that first compelled him to write. These subjects -- primarily poverty and the ways in which its tentacles spread injustice through all levels of society -- are taken up in both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. The two novels run in parallel lines in terms of theme and symbolism, but diverge as well in terms of their structure and some of the more technical devices. The overall effect of this combination of similarity and dissimilarity leave the reader with the sense of having read the same tale told in two distinct dialects.
As is the case in every novel written by Dickens, the plot of Oliver Twist is so highly complex that any summary of it is (to reference another British writer) to pop down a rabbit-hole. Dickens's plots are, in fact, notorious for their labyrinthine quality, a quality that has often been attributed to his having been paid by the word for his novels. However, reading these novels generations after they were written helps one analyze to what extent he needed such complex plots to embody the themes that he wished to express.
This paper argues that Dickens's themes and morals were so simple that he had to counter them with highly complicated plots. Only plots so thick with numerous characters, multiple coincidences, and amazing turns of fate laid upon other amazing turns of fate would have enough strength to hold up to themes so simple and stark. This might seem to be a contradiction, that simple themes would fit best into a simple plot. For Dickens, this was clearly not the case. He may have felt that to hammer home his messages about poverty and injustice he had to lure his readers in with a complex story that was long enough and deep enough to embed his message in.
As in Great Expectations, which will be the subject of greater analysis later, the complexity of Dickens's work on the level of plot (or storytelling) can be seen as a counterbalance to the way in which he constructed his characters and limned his themes. While his characters are more than two-dimensional (at least in some cases), they have a flattened quality, flaring into fully formed individuals only occasionally.
Dickens's characters in Oliver Twist are in general little more than two-dimensional, sometimes barely strong enough to swim in the stew of his plots. Dickens seems to delight in the ways in which such a multitude of twisted characters dropped into such a flurry of coincidence can be used to manipulate his readers. The major theme of Oliver Twist is that poverty twists people in fundamental ways, usually for the worse, something that is true regardless of whether one is the direct victim of poverty or merely involved in the enforcement of a system that enforces punishment on those who have been trapped by a system that allows horrifyingly few ways to evade or escape from poverty. Everything about this book, from the characters to the overall narrative arc, to the detailed descriptions of both person and place builds to convince his readers that these are themes that must be attended to.
As is the case with Pip in Great Expectations, Oliver is defined both by those who show him undeserved kindness and those who show him undeserved hate. Oliver (again like Pip), meets up with people who are kind to him despite the fact that they do not know him. Dickens uses Oliver to show the reader that characters (like people) react to ideas more than to the people themselves. Both Pip and Oliver are useful to the other characters in the novels because they justify what those characters want to do anyway: They serve not so much as foils but (to borrow language from modern twelve-step programs) enablers.
Those who want to act badly use Oliver as an excuse to do so. Fagin in particular even attempts to ruin Oliver so that he does not feel that he is any worse than anyone else. Those who feel that they are good people also use Oliver to prove to themselves that they are in fact good people because they extend charity to the poor. Oliver becomes for nearly every other character an unwilling and even an unknowing token in the game that those other characters are playing.
Oliver Twist is based on a serious of identities that are false in different ways, a layering upon layering that is pulled apart at the end of the novel that reveals an identity and a theme that seems at odds with the one that Dickens has been proffering all along. Dickens created Oliver as unsullied and unsully-able: Someone who by virtue of his own character is able to pass through the worst conditions that exist in London in an era in which London's worst could have been described as hellish.
Dickens uses the character of Oliver as a way to set up a contrast to all of the other people in his world. By doing so, Dickens makes it clear from the very beginning of the novel Dickens describes Oliver to us as a sort of ruby gleaming out of the mud. While the book is not religious in tone (Dickens makes fun of religious characters in the same way that he makes fun of every other type of character in Victorian England), Dickens presents Oliver as a sort of angelic figure, a person who manages not to be contaminated by the evil intentions and evil deeds of those with whom he interacts every day
Oliver maintains his goodness even when those people who have power over him punish him for his goodness and would reward him for coming down to their level. By placing Oliver in the clutches of characters like Fagin, Dickens underscores the strength of Oliver's goodness and therefore can be seen as proof of the fact that even in the worst of circumstances there can be enduring and unsulliable goodness.
Oliver has an ally in his goodness: The parents he did not know about. In the final scenes of the novel, Dickens reveals to his readers (along with revealing it to Oliver himself) that he is descended from country gentry, and this good breeding is what has helped Oliver be the angelic creature that he is. Oliver is not so much virtuous as lucky: He remains pure because he comes from the kind of family that represents the best of traditional (that is, pre-urban) England.
Oliver is set apart from characters like Mr. Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry because his morality he acts selflessly. He is good for goodness's sake, because he is good through and through. Other characters, by contrast, are good because there is some pay-off for them. Rather, they act as if they were good because the outer appearance of goodness provides advantages for them. But this goodness is never more than surface deep, something that is very different from the way that goodness permeates Oliver.
Dickens demonstrates this difference between Oliver's true goodness and the ersatz goodness of characters who are simply putting on the appearance of goodness to benefit themselves:
Mr. Bumble: You'll make your fortune Mr. Sowerberry.
Mr. Sowerberry: The prices allowed by the board are very small.
Mr. Bumble: So are the coffins.
Oliver is never seduced by such moral machinations.
Dickens has led his readers on -- through many and many thousands of words -- to believe that Oliver Twist can be the master of his own fate. In contrast to characters like Fagin, Dickens suggests that Oliver's true goodness gives him the ability to escape the worst that fate seems to have in store for him. Oliver appears through most of the novel to be a sort of British Horatio Alger, a young man saved from his past by his ability to let his dreams draw him to the future. Oliver, unlike Pip or any of the other characters in either of the books, seems to be a character about whom Dickens truly wants us to be hopeful. Oliver represents the possibility of change.
In the ending of the book, in which everything works out for the best for Oliver, Dickens is retelling for his reader, a version of one of the most ubiquitous stories of childhood. How many of us have lain awake at night, staring up at the ceiling and hoping that the family that we had always been told was our own was in fact a group of entirely unrelated people? Have we not all wondered if it were not the case that somehow these people we had grown up with had stolen us away from our own family, a family that was kind and wise and noble? And have we not all hoped that one day this real family would come back and find us and…