“There was the little church, in the morning, with the green leaves fluttering at the windows: the birds singing without: filling the homely building with its fragrance. The poor people were so neat and clean, and knelt so reverently in assembling there together; and though the singing might be rude, it was real, and sounded more musical (to Oliver’s ears at least) than any he had ever heard in church before.”
This passage exemplifies the idealism with which the novel sees the countryside. Whereas descriptions of the city, and especially the slums, are always negative and bleak, here even the poor are desirable and healthy. This passage also gives the country a genuineness that is lacking in the city: discussion of religion there is usually about the hypocrisy of those who consider themselves Christian, while in this passage, the singing is the best Oliver has heard, not because it is done well—it isn’t—but because it comes from true Christians, not hypocritical ones.
"'Stop thief! Stop thief!' The cry is taken up by a hundred voices, and the crowd accumulate at every turning. Away they fly, splashing through the mud, and rattling along the pavements: up go the windows, out run the people, onward bear the mob, a whole audience desert Punch in the very thickest of the plot, and, joining the rushing throng, swell the shout, and lend fresh vigour to the cry, 'Stop thief! Stop thief!'"
This passage provides a central example of the danger of mob mentality, a concept so important to the book as a whole. When the cry is first taken up against Oliver, it is carried by individuals - Mr. Brownlow, the Dodger and Charley Bates, the butcher, the baker. Once enough people are participating, however, the individuals are lost. People are only described in the communal, and the only body individually described is an entire audience. The mob dominates completely, and with the loss of any individualism comes the loss of any individual culpability: no one considers it his/her responsibility to be sure that Oliver is really a thief; no one asks for evidence or details of the situation. Dickens' repetition of the cry at the beginning and end of the paragraph emphasizes the feeling of the inevitability of the cry, once enough voices have joined in.
“The shop-boys in the neighbourhood had long been in the habit of branding Noah, in the public streets, with the ignominious epithets of ‘leathers,’ ‘charity,’ and the like; and Noah had borne them without reply. But, now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, at whom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him with interest. This affords charming food for contemplation. It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature may be made to be; and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy.”
This passage is significant for a few reasons. First, it exemplifies a theme that often comes up in the novel—that of the passing on of mistreatment. Noah, who has been looked down upon and mistreated for being a charity boy, rather than exhibiting empathy towards Oliver because of this, only takes advantage of the fact that he is now higher than somebody and so can mistreat him. Those who are badly off just look for those who are worse off to mistreat. This passage is also important in that it is a great example of the deep sarcasm the narrator often uses when discussing the more hypocritical or immoral characters, who society often either rewards for or allows to get away with such hypocrisy and immorality.
“Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main.”
This passage exemplifies Dickens’s perspective of London in Oliver Twist. It is bleak, seedy, poor, and filled with immoral people. These scenes of urban description throughout the novel are often set at night, or in the rain—the weather is rarely kind to the slums of London. Here the problem of children without caring parents is exemplified, too, for there are children everywhere, yet no sign of any adults taking care of them. Instead, all of the adults seem to be busy drinking in the pubs. In the city, the poor gather in the pubs, while in the country they gather in the church, and this seems to symbolize the great difference between the two communities - why in one setting people can be picturesque and in another they are repulsive.
“She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief—Rose Maylie’s own—and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.”
This passage, describing Nancy’s death, does not allow the reader to forget how completely society has failed Nancy. Because she had no one but Fagin to care for her as a child, she has not been able to live morally or comfortably, as Rose has - even though she exhibits the same core of kind-heartedness as Rose. (The reference to Rose’s handkerchief reminds us of this explicitly.) Similarly, the description of Nancy’s “feeble strength" underscores her powerlessness in society because of her gender; her agency is so limited that she is barely able to pray. This passage is also striking in the violence it depicts, which is meant to, and does, disturb greatly. It is to this brutality that Dickens’s society has left Nancy.
"Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter."
The opening sentence of Oliver Twist displays Dickens' slyly satirical style at full tilt. The extensive verbiage, the florid diction, the sheer length of the sentence all conspire to lend a sense of authority to the proceedings. Ironically, it is that very sense of authority that Dickens will proceed to lambast (and, in more openly emotional and earnest terms, condemn) throughout the book. Here, Dickens opens with a touch of humor, a sense of the storyteller as wit, while hinting - via the reference to the workhouse - the darker vision that lies ahead.
"Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarreling, joking. Everything told of life and animation but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death."
This passage seems to express an ambivalence about the death penalty. Fagin is certainly guilty of many crimes, but Dickens here makes it clear that death is always ugly, and that there is something deeply disturbing in the way people turn it into a spectacle. This passage highlights just how profound Fagin's punishment is by positioning the looming specter of his death next to a scene that is full of life. This makes it hard to forget that although Fagin's actions contributed to Nancy's death, he did not in fact kill anyone, and yet he has to pay with his life. And the ease and excitement of the people in the scene around him raises the worry that he is not paying his life for justice, but for the enjoyment of the masses.
Oliver Twist Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Oliver Twist is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.