If the villain of Oliver Twist is the meta-character of urban setting, then the protagonist must be the meta-character of country setting, of which Oliver is as much a chief as Fagin is of the urban setting. The principle characteristic of the country setting is its goodness, in direct opposition to the corruption of the urban setting. The incorruptible goodness, which Oliver bears, is that which permits him to remain unchanged and moral despite his deep immersion in the urban setting.
In many ways Oliver Twist might be read as a refutation of Dickens's contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, who asserted that destiny is the product of historical forces driving each from his birthing station to an unavoidable end. Oliver Twist, rather, presumes that despite the terrible circumstances in which Oliver is reared, goodness prevails in his character and actions. So can we read the character of Nancy, who though corrupted by her long association with the urban setting, retains enough vestiges of her own inherent goodness to die while saving Oliver. and, we have the character of Monks, Oliver's half-brother, who, though reared in the most affluent and advantageous of circumstances, finds his way to villainy in despite. Indeed, perhaps because they are related by blood, Monks has in common with Oliver a certain tenacity of character, in that, despite the intervention of Brownlow and others, he persists -- even into the epilogue -- in a life of crime; just as Oliver, despite every temptation of circumstance, persists in a life of goodness.
The justice of the country setting is also set in opposition to that of the urban setting, and might be described as spiritual justice. This justice is best illustrated by the incidents of chapters 30 and 31, wherein the residents of the Maylie estate endeavor to alibi against officers of the law Oliver's part in the attempted break in. Mrs. Maylie herself exclaims, "This poor child can never have been the pupil of robbers," despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. What we see is a tendency to judge with the eyes of the heart, and a strong devotion to the maxim "Mercy is better than justice." Whereas governmental justice is mechanical, spiritual justice is seen to be fluid and involves even a few white lies on the parts of Giles and Brittles.
The climax of spiritual justice found in the book comes in the circumstances surrounding Sikes's accidental death. Immediately after Nancy's murder, we see Sikes tormented not by pursuers but by his own conscience. A reader might even suppose a fault of characterization in the extreme guilt which the hitherto psychopathic Sikes suddenly begins to display. Sikes is tortured by his own mind, and he flees it, but finds no recourse; governmental justice he has, so far, escaped, but it is spiritual justice which plagues him and, ultimately hangs him. "The eyes again!" he screeches and falls, loop 'round his neck, to his death and we know that it was no mere accident. No, a hand has reached from the other world -- the world which whispered in Mrs. Maylie's heart about Oliver's innocence -- and that hand has chosen its moment and hung Sikes from a pole as surely as any government could do it. In this situation, even the crowd -- the people of London who are one with the bridges burgeoning under their weight, with the muddy banks and the oily Thames and the labyrinthine streets -- even the setting has risen up and cried out for justice which, by the hand of god, is delivered. Sikes has invaded and defiled their goodness too long, and now stepped beyond the bound where he can be tolerated. The country goodness which is in the people of London -- though mixed with the urban bloodlust -- rises up and cries out against him.
So the plot tension essentially occurs between the goodness of the country setting, personified in Oliver, and the desire of the urban setting, personified in Fagin, to corrupt that goodness. Dickens's intent, as per his 1841 foreword, is to present a fable of sorts, a cautionary tale, wherein the romances are stripped back from poverty and crime and the reader may glimpse truly what it is to be a Robin Hood. Dickens even alludes to kinship with Cervantes and perhaps the comparison is appropriate because the outlaws of that author's canon are of precisely the type which were in vogue in Victorian England. So, at the center of this outlaw story is not the wild freedom of Sherwood Forrest, as Robin Hood enjoyed, but a gray, confining progression of prisons in which Oliver is born and raised.
The story begins with prisons for the poor, albeit of a sociably acceptable kind. In Mrs. Mann's juvenile farm we find Oliver celebrating his ninth birthday while "locked up" in a "coal cellar" for "presuming to be hungry." Very well, then. The reader is acquainted with Dickens's ironic style and gains a sense that justice -- and its misappropriations -- will be one element of the meta-characters of setting present in the novel. Oliver's incarceration continues in the larger parish workhouse, in fact, Dickens makes it visceral when, after famously asking for more gruel, Oliver is locked up again "in a dark and solitary room." His crime, as in the farm, was that of hunger and the willingness to express it, and here we must see Dickens taking aim at His Majesty's Poor Law of 1834. The poor of Dickens's time were, like Oliver, imprisoned for their hunger, and starved in the prisons thereafter.
Oliver's imprisonment continues in Mr. Sowerberry's workshop, where, despite ostensibly increased freedom, the image of prison is reinforced by the confined quarters, by the imposing "death-like" coffins, by the unfinished wood-boards "looking in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches-pockets," and by the jailors themselves: the Sowerberrys and Claypole, who have replaced Mrs. Mann and Mr. Bumble, are facets of the meta-character, pieces of scenery to an extent. Ironically, Oliver wishes then, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep.
The image of the coffin as a prison -- the ultimate and final prison found after a trip to the gallows -- is inverted somewhat by association with freedom from the anxiety of Oliver's everyday life, and also by association with the churchyard, the grass and open, country spaces.
By which we enter the liberating episode of his escape from Sowerberry's workshop. This is only the second truly willful act perpetrated by Oliver yet -- the first being the famous request for more -- and it is an expression of Oliver's true, better, "country" nature against the oppression of the urban setting. Where does Oliver escape to but to the country, and, though he finds hardship on the road to London, we can take that he has perpetrated a willful act of self-improvement by this enterprise, he has done all that is capable in a nine-year-old boy, to re-align his nature with his circumstances. For Oliver Twist, as many critics would have it, is a novel of identities, of the disparity, in one respect, between who Oliver is within and what he might appear to be without. Oliver endeavors to align the two, while the antagonists of the urban setting devise to so far disjunction Oliver from his nature that his fate would be as their own.
So Oliver escapes, and yet the devil is persistent; unwilling to lose Oliver at such a childish stroke, he finds the orphan again before long. The denouement of Oliver's adventure on the road to London is that he is picked up by the Artful Dodger, taken in by Fagin and his gang, and graduated into a new and more secure prison, the streets of Middlesex. Thus far Oliver's story has been a graduation from prison to prison; from the childhood coal-cellar, where a mean governess might send an unruly child, to the "dark solitary room" where he is sentenced by a board, to Sowerberry's workshop where seven years minimum seems to be the term and now into Fagin's labyrinthine rooms, set amidst the labyrinthine streets and having at their center only one logical conclusion.
The labyrinth is one of the oldest symbols of mythology, explains Joseph Campbell, "denoting the plunge and dissolution of consciousness in the darkness of non-being," or, more colloquially, death. The classical labyrinth was that of King Minos, which was itself a prison both to its monster and…