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Oliver Twist- Cheat Sheet


Some background information
-Charles Dickens (1812-1870); Dickens used the
penname “Boz” for this publication.
-The complete title was Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy’s Progress
-Oliver Twist was published in serial form at irregular
Intervals and in installments (also called “numbers”) of
irregular length from February 1837 to April 1839.
(Asterisks in your text at the end of certain chapters indicate
the end of a number.) This serial method of publication
encouraged Dickens to provide his numbers with
“cliff-hanger” endings (to ensure that people would buy the
next number). Strong characterization ensured that readers would
remember his characters from one installment to the next.

An important point
Oliver Twist is a piece of social satire (a work in which social vices,
follies, and/or institutions are held up to ridicule.) A favorite device in
satire is the use of irony—stating the opposite of what is intended.

Big Questions
How should a society treat its poorest members?
What role does an individual play in a society?
Are people shaped by nature (their genes) or nurture (the way they are brought up)?
.
Themes
(A theme is a fundamental concept, or main idea, that the author is addressing in his or her work. It often will
not be discussed directly but will be demonstrated through the words and actions of the characters.)
-Types of Theft
-Nature versus Nurture
-The Superiority of Country Life Over City Life
-The Evils of Individualism

Motifs
(A motif is a device, contrast, or structure that occurs repeatedly and which helps to demonstrate or develop the
themes.)
-The Contrast between Good and Evil
-Names as a Reflection of Personality
-Mistaken Identity
-Women as Either Saints or Sinners, But Rarely In-Between
Oliver Twist Background (from Dickens’ London, by Steven Marcus)
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the
late 1700s and quickly transformed England from a rural,
agricultural nation to an urban, industrialized one. One side
effect of this transformation was an increasingly populous
and powerful middle-class. By the early 1800s, the middle
class began to rival the aristocracy in economic might. The
aristocrats, however, did not need to work for their wealth
(which was mostly inherited), and they looked down upon
members of the middle class who obtained wealth only by
hard work. Rather than acknowledge their inferiority, the
middle class began to associate work with moral virtue.
Earned wealth (rather than inherited wealth or no wealth at
all) came to be regarded by the middle class as a sign of
superiority. This association of work with morality (along with the middle class’s insecurity about its own
social legitimacy) caused the middle class to stigmatize the poor as weak, too lazy to work, and therefore
immoral.
The middle class began to enact harsh laws that essentially punished poor people for their poverty.
(Note that in 1830s England, wealth determined voting rights. Thus, the poor could not vote and had no say in
the passage of laws.) One such law was
The New Poor Law of 1834. Prior to the
passage of this law, poor people were
allowed to beg and could receive public
assistance from their local parish
(community/township) while still living in
their own homes. With the passage of the
New Poor Law in 1834, however, begging
carried the punishment of imprisonment and
poor people were allowed to receive public
assistance only by going to live in
established workhouses.
Workhouses were designed to be
brutal and miserable places. Since people
who could not support themselves were
considered to be immoral and lazy, it was
thought that such people should not enjoy
comfort or luxury in their reliance on public assistance. Husbands and wives were allowed no contact (so that
they would breed no more paupers). Mothers were separated from their children (so that they could not pass on
their immoral ways to their children). Meals were deliberately inadequate, in order to encourage the residents
of the workhouse to find work and to support themselves. The workhouses were little more than brutal prisons
for the poor in which human dignity was destroyed. Many poor people chose to die in the streets rather than to
receive such public “aid.”
It was in outrage at the New Poor Law that Dickens began to write Oliver Twist. In the mid 1830s,
Dickens was a young, wealthy, and hugely popular writer. However, as a child, Dickens himself had endured
periods of harsh poverty. His family had been imprisoned for debt, and Dickens, who had hoped to become an
educated gentleman, was sent to work in a factory at the age of twelve. This experience haunted him for the
rest of his life and he never spoke of it to anyone, except, late in life, to his best friend John Forster. The misery
of impoverished childhood, however, became a recurrent theme in his novels, including Oliver Twist.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens scathingly attacks not only the workhouse
system but also the hypocrites of the middle classes whose own insecurities
cause them to despise the poor. The workhouse was supposed to demonstrate
to the poor the value of gainful employment; in Oliver Twist, however,
Dickens points out that rather than encouraging the “lazy” poor people to
work, the New Poor Law simply punished the most defenseless and helpless
members of the lower classes, namely, the sick, the old, and the very young.
The title character, Oliver Twist, is a young orphan born into and harshly
treated by the workhouse system. His story demonstrates the hypocrisy of
members of the middle classes who treat a small child cruelly while voicing
their belief in the Christian virtue of giving charity to the less fortunate.
In England in the early 1830s, the poor had no voice, either politically or
economically. And the most voiceless of the poor—the most helpless
members of the lower classes—were, of course, children. In Oliver Twist,
Dickens not only brought attention to the plight of the poor, he also made
literary history. Prior to Oliver Twist, the heroes of literature tended to belong
to the upper classes; poor people were usually portrayed in literature as
somewhat comical, happy, and entirely satisfied with their condition. In
Oliver Twist, however, Dickens portrays the real and often miserable
experiences of the working poor. Oliver Twist is also the first novel whose protagonist is a child. Poverty is a
terrible thing, but to be poor and a child is worse still—as Oliver, alone in the world, finds out, and as Dickens
himself discovered as a child, and never forgot