• Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870)
was an English writer and social critic who is generally regarded
as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period and the creator
of some of the world's most memorable fictional characters.
During his lifetime Dickens's works enjoyed unprecedented
popularity and fame, and by the twentieth century his literary
genius was fully recognized by critics and scholars. His novels
and short stories continue to enjoy an enduring popularity among
the general reading public.
• Born in Portsmouth, England, Dickens left school to work in a
factory after his father was thrown into debtors' prison.
Though he had little formal education, his early impoverishment
drove him to succeed. He edited a weekly journal for 20 years,
wrote 15 novels and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction
articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an
indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for
children's rights, education, and other social reforms.
• Oliver Twist opens with a bitter invective directed at the
nineteenth-century English Poor Laws. These laws were a
distorted manifestation of the Victorian middle class’s
emphasis on the virtues of hard work. England in the 1830s
was rapidly undergoing a transformation from an
agricultural, rural economy to an urban, industrial nation.
The growing middle class had achieved an economic
influence equal to, if not greater than, that of the British
• In the 1830s, the middle class clamored for a share of
political power with the landed gentry, bringing about a
restructuring of the voting system. Parliament passed the
Reform Act, which granted the right to vote to previously
disenfranchised middle-class citizens. The middle class was
eager to gain social legitimacy. This desire gave rise to the
Evangelical religious movement and inspired sweeping
economic and political change.
• In the extremely stratified English class
structure, the highest social class belonged
to the “gentleman,” an aristocrat who did
not have to work for his living. The middle
class was stigmatized for having to work,
and so, to alleviate the stigma attached to
middle-class wealth, the middle class
promoted work as a moral virtue. But the
resulting moral value attached to work,
along with the middle class’s insecurity
about its own social legitimacy, led English
society to subject the poor to hatred and
• Many members of the middle class were
anxious to be differentiated from the lower
classes, and one way to do so was to
stigmatizethe lower classes as lazy good-
for-nothings. The middle class’s value
system transformed earned wealth into a
sign of moral virtue. Victorian society
interpreted economic success as a sign that
God favored the honest, moral virtue of the
successful individual’s efforts, and, thus,
interpreted the condition of poverty as a
sign of the weakness of the poor individual.
• Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse in 1830s England. His
mother, whose name no one knows, is found on the street
and dies just after Oliver’s birth. Oliver spends the first nine
years of his life in a badly run home for young orphans and
then is transferred to a workhouse for adults. After the
other boys bully Oliver into asking for more gruel at the end
of a meal, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, offers five pounds
to anyone who will take the boy away from the workhouse.
Oliver narrowly escapes being apprenticed to a brutish
chimney sweep and is eventually apprenticed to a local
undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry. When the undertaker’s other
apprentice, Noah Claypole, makes disparaging comments
about Oliver’s mother, Oliver attacks him and incurs the
Sowerberrys’ wrath. Desperate, Oliver runs away at dawn
and travels toward London.
Outside London, Oliver, starved and exhausted,
meets Jack Dawkins, a boy his own age. Jack
offers him shelter in the London house of his
benefactor, Fagin. It turns out that Fagin is a
career criminal who trains orphan boys to pick
pockets for him. After a few days of training,
Oliver is sent on a pickpocketing mission with two
other boys. When he sees them swipe a
handkerchief from an elderly gentleman, Oliver is
horrified and runs off. He is caught but narrowly
escapes being convicted of the theft. Mr.
Brownlow, the man whose handkerchief was
stolen, takes the feverish Oliver to his home and
nurses him back to health. Mr. Brownlow is struck
by Oliver’s resemblance to a portrait of a young
woman that hangs in his house. Oliver thrives in
Mr. Brownlow’s home, but two young adults in
Fagin’s gang, Bill Sikes and his lover Nancy,
capture Oliver and return him to Fagin.
• Fagin sends Oliver to assist Sikes in a burglary. Oliver is
shot by a servant of the house and, after Sikes escapes, is
taken in by the women who live there, Mrs. Maylie and her
beautiful adopted niece Rose. They grow fond of Oliver, and
he spends an idyllic summer with them in the countryside.
But Fagin and a mysterious man named Monks are set on
recapturing Oliver. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Oliver’s
mother left behind a gold locket when she died. Monks
obtains and destroys that locket. When the Maylies come to
London, Nancy meets secretly with Rose and informs her of
Fagin’s designs, but a member of Fagin’s gang overhears
the conversation. When word of Nancy’s disclosure reaches
Sikes, he brutally murders Nancy and flees London.
Pursued by his guilty conscience and an angry mob, he
inadvertently hangs himself while trying to escape.
• Oliver is arrested as a thief.
• Oliver doesn’t realize at first that the Dodger and Fagin are
thieves—he’s pretty slow. Once he does realize it, he tries
to run away. But it’s as though the very fact of consorting
with criminals somehow rubbed off on him, or made him
look or seem criminal, himself.
• The question at this stage isn’t so much whether or not
Oliver will actually turn criminal, but whether it even
matters—if he can be arrested as a thief without having
done anything wrong, does it matter whether he’s
corrupted, or innocent?
• Oliver is taken in by Mr. Brownlow, but never returns from his
• Oliver finally has a friend he can trust, but never gets to tell him
his story. In part to prove to Mr. Grimwig that Oliver is
trustworthy, Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver off on an errand in the
city, from which Oliver never returns. Not, of course, because he
was trying to rob Mr. Brownlow, but because he was kidnapped by
Sikes and Nancy.
• But Mr. Brownlow doesn’t know that, and Oliver knows he doesn’t
know. Will Mr. Brownlow lose faith in Oliver? Again, does it matter
whether Oliver actually is a thief or not, if he looks and acts like a
thief? Everyone seems to assume he’s a thief.
• The attempted robbery of the Maylies’ house.
• Oliver is forced to participate in the attempted robbery of
the Maylies’ house, and has just about made up his mind to
risk being shot by Sikes, and go wake up the household to
warn them. But he’s trapped between Sikes and his gun on
one side, and Giles and his gun on the other. Again—he’s in
a position in which everyone assumes he’s a thief because
he’s been hanging out with thieves.
• Oliver’s been the victim of a giant conspiracy from the
• After the Maylies have taken Oliver in and he’s been reunited
with Mr. Brownlow, Nancy tells Rose what she overheard
between Fagin and Monks. Oliver’s been the victim of a
conspiracy, and Monks is behind it all. But they’re not really
sure what to do about it.
• Nancy’s information enables Mr. Brownlow and the Maylie
group to force a confession from Monks.
• After Nancy overhears the second conversation between
Monks and Fagin, she reports back to Mr. Brownlow and Rose.
She gives them enough information to be able to find Monks,
and bully a confession out of him. The result is a couple of
chapters in which Mr. Brownlow forces Monks to tell all. And
what Monks doesn’t know, Mr. Brownlow does, so he is able to
throw in the necessary bits
• All the loose ends get tied off, and we do mean
all: Nancy gets murdered by Sikes, and Sikes
accidentally hangs himself, saving the
executioner the trouble. Monks’s confession
enables Oliver to inherit a bit of his father’s
• Knowing that Oliver is the son of his dead best
friend, Mr. Brownlow decides to adopt him
(although he probably would have adopted him
anyway). Rose gets to marry Harry Maylie. Fagin
is arrested and hanged, and the rest of his gang
is arrested and transported.
• Mr. Brownlow, with whom the Maylies have reunited Oliver,
confronts Monks and wrings the truth about Oliver’s
parentage from him. It is revealed that Monks is Oliver’s half
brother. Their father, Mr. Leeford, was unhappily married to
a wealthy woman and had an affair with Oliver’s mother,
Agnes Fleming. Monks has been pursuing Oliver all along in
the hopes of ensuring that his half-brother is deprived of his
share of the family inheritance. Mr. Brownlow forces Monks
to sign over Oliver’s share to Oliver. Moreover, it is
discovered that Rose is Agnes’s younger sister, hence
Oliver’s aunt. Fagin is hung for his crimes. Finally, Mr.
Brownlow adopts Oliver, and they and the Maylies retire to a
blissful existence in the countryside.
Characters of the Plot
The Artful Dodger
Mr. Fang 20
The novel’s protagonist.
Oliver is an orphan born in a
workhouse, and Dickens uses his
situation to criticize public policy
toward the poor in 1830s England.
Oliver is between nine and twelve
years old when the main action of the
novel occurs. Though treated with
cruelty and surrounded by coarseness
for most of his life, he is a pious,
innocent child, and his charms draw
the attention of several wealthy
benefactors. His true identity is the
central mystery of the novel.
Fagin is pretty clearly a bad guy. For a
long time, people thought that Fagin was
based on a real guy who sold stolen goods
named Ikey Solomon. Ikey Solomon
happened to be Jewish, but the stereotype
was there before Solomon or Fagin came
along – the limited number of careers open
to people of Jewish descent did indeed
drive some Jewish people to illegal activity.
As a child of the streets, Nancy has been a
thief and drinks to excess. The novel is full
of characters who are all good and can
barely comprehend evil, such as Oliver,
Rose, and Brownlow; and characters who
are all evil and can barely comprehend
good, such as Fagin, Sikes, and Monks.
Only Nancy comprehends and is capable of
both good and evil. Her ultimate choice to
do good at a great personal cost is a
strong argument in favor of the
incorruptibility of basic goodness, no
matter how many environmental obstacles
it may face.
The Artful Dodger
The Artful Dodger is one of the most famous and
memorable characters in the novel. The Dodger’s real
name is Jack Dawkins. He provides comic relief in part
because of his anti-establishment, devil-may-care
attitude, but also because of the odd juxtapositions of
opposites that he provides. He can’t be more than
twelve, but he acts like a full-grown man, and even
wears men’s clothes (with the sleeves rolled way up).
He talks and walks like a man, and the contrast
between his attitude and his size is pretty funny. He
also is one of the main "canters" of the novel – he
speaks almost entirely in thieves’ cant, which gives
Dickens a chance to show off what he knows, and
gives the reader the titillating impression that he or she
is glimpsing some authentic view of the criminal
Charley Bates serves the same role as the
Dodger – comic relief – but in a slightly
different way. The Dodger is funny because he’s
so knowing, and knows too much for his age, so
that the contrast creates the comedy. Charley is
just his dumb sidekick. He thinks everything is
hilarious, and that crime is just one long joke
against the system. That is, until Sikes murders
Nancy. You could say that Charley is the one
character in the novel that undergoes a major
change: after the murder, Charley decides that
crime isn’t actually so funny after all, and goes
straight. In the final chapter, Dickens tells us
that Charley became a farm hand and was pretty
happy with a country life.
Sikes is brave and strong, for sure, and he’s a
straight shooter. He doesn’t like it when Fagin talks
around the point or tries to cover things up. He’s no
liar, whatever else he might be. So, reluctantly, we
have to admit that Sikes has a few admirable
qualities. But he’s also stubborn, distrustful, and
has what one might call some anger management
issues.He is also a brutal professional burglar
brought up in Fagin’s gang. Sikes is Nancy's pimp
and lover, and he treats both her and his dog Bull’s-
eye with an odd combination of cruelty and
grudging affection. His murder of Nancy is the
most heinous of the many crimes that occur in the
Mr. Brownlow is Oliver’s first friend and
mentor. He’s had a rough life – he was going to
marry his best friend’s sister, but she died on the
morning of their wedding day. And then his best
friend died far from home, too. So one would
think that Mr. Brownlow would be a bitter,
cynical old man, but he’s not. He still has faith in
people. He’s kind of a book worm – the first time
we see him, he’s so absorbed in reading a book at
a bookseller’s stand in the street that he doesn’t
notice the Dodger and Charley trying to pick his
pocket. But he’s no wimp, either. When Mr.
Fang, the magistrate, insults him, he stands up for
himself immediately. He’s also a loyal friend, and
dedicated to doing what’s right. Generally, he’s a
Mrs. Maylie is a very kind and
wealthy woman. She apparently makes a
habit of taking in questionable orphans,
even though she already had a son of her
own. Once, when she was on a holiday in
Wales, she saw a cute little girl who was
being brought up by the villagers and,
despite the stories that had been circulating
about how this girl was bad news, Mrs.
Maylie decided to take the girl in. Although
an old lady, she’s very firm and vigorous –
she goes on long walks, and her posture is
Rose is the sweetest, loveliest,
most virtuous young lady ever.
She’s pretty much a stock Victorian
heroine. She’s self-sacrificing,
loving, kind to animals and small
children, and blond. She is
occasionally prone to fevers, but
doesn’t die of them.
Harry doesn’t actually
appear all that much in the novel,
but from what is able to gather,
he’s the typical Victorian hero:
young, attractive, active, devoted
to his mother and lover, nice to
children, good with horses, and
blond. He shows up for the first
time just as Rose is over the worst
of her illness, and it is learnt that
he’s been in love with her for
pretty much his entire adult life.
His devoted adoration of Rose
Maylie is pretty much his defining
Mr. Grimwig is a typical Dickens character:
he is eccentric, and his eccentricity takes the form
of a frequently repeated verbal or physical tick. His
favorite expression is, "I’ll eat my head!" – and he
repeats that phrase so often, and so oddly, that
that’s pretty much all there is to his character. He’s
reducible to his own eccentric expression. He has
other characteristics – he’s stubborn, contrary,
abrupt, hard on the outside, but marshmallow-y soft
on the inside, and very fond of Rose. But he’s
memorable primarily as the "I’ll eat my head!" guy,
and that’s one of the striking things about how
Dickens writes minor characters – they’ll often be
reducible to some odd or eccentric expression or
Mr. Losberne is a country
doctor and old family friend of the
Maylies. He’s unmarried and he’s
very attached to that family, and
actually moves to the country when
they leave Chertsey because the
neighborhood is too boring with
them gone. He’s friendly and
gregarious, always ready to pity the
unfortunate, but he’s also abrupt
and reckless, and occasionally
stubborn. No wonder he gets along
so well with Mr. Grimwig.
Mr. Bumble is the beadle in the
town where Oliver is born. As beadle,
he’s responsible for running all of the
"charitable" institutions in the parish
– including the baby farms and the
workhouse. He also gets to wear a
special cocked hat, of which he is
very proud. If Mr. Grimwig is the
kind of one-sided character who can
be reduced to an expression, Mr.
Bumble can be reduced to his beadle
Mrs. Corney is cautious,
distrustful, cruel, and power-hungry.
We first meet her when she’s fixing
herself tea in her snug little room on a
blustery winter’s day. The snugness
of her little room is in sharp contrast
to the bitterness of the rest of the
workhouse, where the paupers have to
live. She feels sorry for herself,
though, despite the snugness, because
she’s a widow, and kind of lonely.
Edward Monks is the primary
villain of the novel, in that he’s
the one who’s really out to get
Oliver, but because he appears in
so few scenes, he’s listed lower
than some of the arguably more
"minor" characters. George
Gissing, another Victorian
novelist, argued that one
"blemish" of Oliver twist
Agnes gets the first and the
last words of the novel, so even
though she’s only alive for about
five minutes at the beginning, we
figure she’s actually pretty
important. Agnes is Oliver’s
And that’s where the story
picks up in the first chapter: she
arrives at a workhouse, has her
baby, and dies.
Oliver and Monks’s father,
who dies long before the events of
the novel. He was an intelligent,
high-minded man whose family
forced him into an unhappy
marriage with a wealthy woman.
He eventually separated from his
wife and had an illicit love affair
with Agnes Fleming. He intended
to flee the country with Agnes but
died before he could do so.
• An heiress who lived a
decadent life and alienated her
husband, Mr. Leeford.
Monks’s mother destroyed
Mr. Leeford’s will, which left
part of his property to Oliver.
Much of Monks’s nastiness is
presumably inherited from
Noah’s another typical minor
Dickens character, in that he’s
grotesque, absurd, and exaggerated.
He’s skinny, lean, and eel-like, and
has a taste for oysters and sneaking.
Noah’s a pretty fun character. He
starts out the novel as an apprentice
in Mr. Sowerberry’s shop. He was a
charity boy, and the other kids made
fun of him.
The Sowerberry’s maid.
romantically involved with
Noah Claypole and follows
him about slavishly.
The harsh, irrational, power-
hungry magistrate who
presides over Oliver’s trial