Most of the characters in Oliver Twist are very flat. Provide evidence of this, and explain why Dickens might have chosen to write the novel in this way.
Suggested answer: Describe how Oliver, Rose, Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Mr. Bumble are flat characters, and Nancy is one of the only complex characters. This makes the story much more black and white morally, which allows for Dickens to give an explicit moral message. In this case, the explicit goodness or badness of the main characters makes the social messages about the failings of society to take care of the poor and helpless more clear and more powerful.
Close read the scene where Nancy and Rose meet for the first time in Chapter 40. How does ths scene show the precarious position of women in Dickens’s time?
Suggested answer: This scene juxtaposes Nancy and Rose, thereby emphasizing both their similarities and their differences. Nancy is a prostitute, crude, and with questionable morals, while Rose is angelic and pure. Yet in this scene Nancy’s good core is emphasized, and thus so is the effect her upbringing has had on her. Nancy’s inability to leave her current situation, even with Rose’s offer of assistance, in turn demonstrates how little power women in her situation have: she is completely reliant on Bill, even though he abuses and mistreats her. Yet even though Rose is considerably better off, she too is reliant on men: she does not do anything on her own with the information that Nancy gives her but goes to Mr. Brownlow with it instead.
Using evidence from the text, argue that the novel is either for or against the death penalty.
Suggested answer: Oliver Twist presents a world in which the justice system is highly irregular and unreliable. Oliver is almost sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, and the trials we see seem dangerously close to being run by a mob mentality, rather than by any unbiased system. Thus, even though the characters do finally get what they deserve, for a man’s life to be decided by such an unreliable system is dangerous. Additionally, the executions themselves become spectacles, more about entertaining the crowd than about meting out justice.
Is Fagin truly a flat character, or is there any complexity in Dickens’s portrayal of him?
Suggested answer: Fagin, at times, is a kind of father-figure for Oliver, and takes him in when he is on the verge of dying from exhaustion and starvation. There are also moments when he seems to care about Nancy. All of Fagin’s good moments, however, are later shown to be motivated purely by self-interest: he encourages Nancy not to take Bill’s brutality because it would serve him to be rid of Bill; he worries about Oliver because Monks is paying him well to do so. Thus, Fagin can indeed be argued to be a flat character.
Two of the most memorable scenes in Oliver Twist have to do with mobs - when Oliver is thought to have stolen the handkerchief, and when the police and the mob descend on Bill Sikes. How does the scene with Oliver inform the scene with Sikes?
Suggested answer: Dickens is preoccupied with the danger of the mob mentality, which both of these scenes portray. Oliver is innocent, and a young, weak, and scared boy, but he is hunted by the crowd as if he were the most hardened villain. Sikes is a hardened villain, who has committed the worst crime, but because we have seen that the mobs are rarely interested in the truth, it seems to be more luck than anything else that the correct man is punished in this case. Thus, although the latter scene shows justice being served, the latter mob is not a moral one: it is as amoral as the first, and as all mobs inherently are.
The richer characters in Oliver Twist are, on the whole, happier than the poor characters. Is Dickens arguing that money leads to happiness? Why or why not?
Suggested answer: Money is only good in Oliver Twist in the hands of characters who do not care about it. The most moral characters in the novel each renounce money in some way, or show generosity with it—Oliver splits his inheritance with the half-brother who tried to destroy him, Harry Maylie chooses the humble life of a country cleric rather than an ambitious life, and Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie are both very generous with their resources. Poverty is dangerous, not because money leads to happiness but because poverty often leads to desperate attempts to get money, often through immoral means.
Choose an urban and a rural description scene, and compare and contrast them.
Suggested answer: In both his urban and his rural descriptions, Dickens is very one-sided. The descriptions of areas of London are always bleak, presenting a poverty-stricken, corrupt, at best amoral and at worst immoral city. Rural descriptions are much more romantic, cheerful, pure, and moral. There are poor in the country too, but they are clean, happy, and religious. The distinction between rural and urban seems to reflect a distinction between community and mob.
What is the importance of Sikes’s visions of Nancy’s eyes?
Suggested answer: Nancy’s eyes, and looking and seeing in general, are important motifs in the plot line surrounding Nancy’s death. The sight of Nancy praying as she is about to die is so ghastly that Sikes cannot stand it, and so he covers his eyes with his hands as he delivers the fatal blow. He is then haunted by the vision of Nancy's eyes, which symbolizes his inability to forget what he has done, to look away from it. Thus, he does indeed have a conscience. This is finally important in the way that he dies; although it is an accident, he hangs himself as he slips with fear because of the ghost eyes; his conscience therefore delivers its own justice.
What is the importance of physical appearance in the novel?
Suggested answer: For the most part in Oliver Twist, a character’s appearance reflects his moral fiber. Oliver is noted for having an especially innocent looking face, and Fagin is described as horribly ugly. Sikes is hulking, and Rose is perfectly beautiful. This reflects the novel’s general tendency towards flat characters and moral extremes, but also the idea that morality and character are essential, for they affect even your outward appearance.
Loyalty, and the lack thereof, comes up often in the novel. How does Dickens portray this trait?
Suggested answer: Loyalty in Oliver Twist is complicated. Nancy is, on the one hand, loyal to Fagin and Sikes, for which she pays her life, but she also betrays them, and it is this act of betrayal that makes her a moral character. Fagin’s boys are for the most part loyal to him, and Sikes’s dog is so loyal as to jump to its death after Sikes. Oliver does not always exhibit loyalty—he runs away from the Sowerberry’s, he does his best to desert Fagin—but he is eternally loyal to the characters with moral fiber. Loyalty is thus a virtue that is allowed to even the most base characters, but it is also not inherently a virtue—only when it is given to those who deserve it.