The cruelty of institutions and bureaucracies toward the unfortunate is perhaps the preeminent theme of Oliver Twist, and essentially what makes it a social novel. Dickens wrote the book largely in response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which represented the government's both passive and active cruelty to the poor and helpless. Although institutions show both passive and active cruelty in Oliver Twist, active cruelty is more prevalent, a move that serves to exaggerate and thus satirize this cruelty and make it seem intentional.
The cruelty of these institutions, however, is not separated from the cruelty of individuals. Although the parochial board that decides Oliverâs future carelessly and without sympathy is largely anonymous, the man in the white jacket generally voices the specific cruel sentiments, so that they are not presented as having come from nowhere, or just from laws, but from the individuals in power. Similarly, Mr. Bumble is often directly involved in the institutional unkindness that Oliver faces. This cruelty is not nameless or faceless, it is just so prevalent that not all the perpetrators can be named.
The horrifying power of mob mentality is also an important theme in Oliver Twist, and one that is closely related to that of institutional cruelty. Institutional cruelty can be seen to be an example of a specific kind of mob mentality—not literally, but a mob in which individuals are not held accountable for their actions, and so can be as heartless as they like, with the blank face of the bureaucracy to cover them.
Similarly, the mobs in Oliver Twist all take on lives of their owns, so that the individuals within them can display their cruelest character. We see mobs act against Oliver, the most striking example of which is when he is accused of stealing Mr. Brownlow’s handkerchief. We also see mobs act against the antagonists in the novel. Bill Sikes becomes a victim of a mob, and although we know that he is guilty, as opposed to Oliver, there is still an eerie similarly between Sikes’s mob and Oliver’s, that reminds us how easily such a mob can turn against anyone, whether or not that someone is truly guilty. Thus even when the mob is on the side of justice, and is "correct", Dickens illuminates the danger of the mentality.
The importance of upbringing
Proper upbringing, posited as essential throughout the novel, is illuminated best in the scene where Nancy and Rose first meet. In this scene, Dickens juxtaposes the prostitute Nancy to the angelic and utterly perfect Rose. Nancy’s potential for goodness is clear, made so by her very presence there among other things, but from youth she has been surrounded by liars and thieves, and although she transcends their ranks morally, she cannot escape from them, nor become the person she could have had she had any of the advantages that Rose did. Rose, too, comes from a rather ignominious background, but from an early age she was raised by the kind and loving Mrs. Maylie, who also offered her all the resources she could desire - and so she became an example of the "perfect" female.
Oliver manages to rise above his upbringing. Surrounded by selfish, ignorant and cruel people for most of his childhood, given no love, care, or tenderness, he still manages to maintain his kind disposition, and never gives into the low morals of those around him. He is, however, meant to be the exception that proves the rule. The fact that his happy ending is so very miraculous proves how important it is to be loved and cared for in childhood.
The powerlessness of children
Dickens is deeply interested in the plight of the powerless in Oliver Twist, and children are the primary symbol of this. Oliver is continually reliant on and overpowered by others—Mr. Bumble, Fagin and Sikes, the mobs and people in the street, even Nancy. Although he works hard to survive, it is only because he is taken in by wealthy and powerful adults that he is able to escape the immoral and dangerous world into which he is born.
This powerlessness is not just represented in Oliver being physically overtaken or forced into things, but in his constant failure to communicate with adults. Until he meets Mr. Brownlow, the adults who have total control of Oliver in his life seem to fail completely to understand him. This is exemplified in the court room scene, where Oliver loses his ability to speak, and so is given a name arbitrarily, but there are countless examples of adults either ignoring or misunderstanding what seem to be clear and direct statements. This powerlessness, however, is not insurmountable, as once Oliver has kind and intelligent people who are willing to listen to him he gains agency.
The powerlessness of women
Like children, women, too, are presented as at the mercy of the more powerful in society. This is especially exemplified in Nancy, who ends up giving her life in her attempt to act against the men who hold power over her. When Nancy is put in charge of taking Oliver to Sikes, she tells him that she would help him if she could, but she doesn’t have the power. This ends up not being completely true—she does help Oliver in going to Rose, but even then Rose must turn to Mr. Brownlow and Mr. Losberne to accomplish anything. It is telling to consider that Nancy must give her life for just this small show of agency.
The limits of justice
Justice and its various forms are very important in Oliver Twist. By the end of the novel, almost all of the characters have faced justice, in one way or another. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are in a workhouse, Oliver, Rose, and all of the good characters live happily and comfortably, and Sikes and Fagin have both been hanged. Yet, Dickens does not seem completely comfortable with the way that justice has been meted out. Although the good characters clearly deserve the happiness they get, and the bad characters certainly have done plenty to deserve their own ends, the novel seems ambivalent about the methods and degree of justice involved.
The reader is already wary of the justice system because of how close Oliver comes to becoming an innocent victim of it. Thus, although Fagin’s guilt is clear, the court room is mobbed in such a way as to make the justice system seem to blend with the mob mentality of the audience. This brings up the question of who has the right to deliver justice, as well as whether any system mired in bureaucracy and relying on human purity should have such extreme power as that of life and death.
City versus countryside
In Oliver Twist, the city and the countryside each take on symbolic meaning, and stand in clear dichotomy. The city is corrupt, dirty, and seedy, while the country is pure, clean, and healthy. It is in the city that Oliver is forced into immorality, while it is in the country that Oliver is able to recover his health, to get an education, to find peace and happiness, and to live morally. Repeatedly Dickens describes the seediest parts of London using wholly negative language, while in scenes of the country, even the poor are presented as clean and pleasant to be around.
This dichotomy is likely related to the danger of the mob mentality that is so prevalent in the novel. In the city, where everyone is so close together, it seems to always be the immoral contingent that wins out and drowns out the few moral voices - just as in a mob the voice of reason is always overwhelmed. In the country, conversely, the people are not a mob, but a community.
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.
Oliver Twist, Dickens’s second novel and his first real social novel, critiqued the harm public institutions inflicted on the poor. Dickens would come to be known as the master of this form, and would continue it in Nicholas Nickleby, which...
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