In Oliver Twist, Dickens mixes grim realism with merciless satire to describe the effects of industrialism on 19th-century England and to criticise the harsh new Poor Laws. Oliver, an innocent child, is trapped in a world where his only options seem to be the workhouse, Fagin's gang, a prison, or an early grave. From this unpromising industrial/institutional setting, however, a fairy tale also emerges. In the midst of corruption and degradation, the essentially passive Oliver remains pure-hearted; he steers away from evil when those around him give in to it, and in proper fairy-tale fashion, he eventually receives his reward – leaving for a peaceful life in the country, surrounded by kind friends. On the way to this happy ending, Dickens explores the kind of life an outcast, orphan boy could expect to lead in 1830s London.
Poverty and social class
Poverty is a prominent concern in Oliver Twist. Throughout the novel, Dickens enlarges on this theme, describing slums so decrepit that whole rows of houses are on the point of ruin. In an early chapter, Oliver attends a pauper's funeral with Mr. Sowerberry and sees a whole family crowded together in one miserable room.
This ubiquitous misery makes Oliver's few encounters with charity and love more poignant. Oliver owes his life several times over to kindness both large and small. The apparent plague of poverty that Dickens describes also conveyed to his middle-class readers how much of the London population was stricken with poverty and disease. Nonetheless, in Oliver Twist he delivers a somewhat mixed message about social caste and social injustice. Oliver's illegitimate workhouse origins place him at the nadir of society; as an orphan without friends, he is routinely despised. His "sturdy spirit" keeps him alive despite the torment he must endure. Most of his associates, however, deserve their place among society's dregs and seem very much at home in the depths. Noah Claypole, a charity boy like Oliver, is idle, stupid, and cowardly; Sikes is a thug; Fagin lives by corrupting children; and the Artful Dodger seems born for a life of crime. Many of the middle-class people Oliver encounters—Mrs. Sowerberry, Mr. Bumble, and the savagely hypocritical "gentlemen" of the workhouse board, for example—are, if anything, worse.
On the other hand, Oliver—who has an air of refinement remarkable for a workhouse boy—proves to be of gentle birth. Although he has been abused and neglected all his life, he recoils, aghast, at the idea of victimising anyone else. This apparently hereditary gentlemanliness makes Oliver Twist something of a changeling tale, not just an indictment of social injustice. Oliver, born for better things, struggles to survive in the savage world of the underclass before finally being rescued by his family and returned to his proper place—a commodious country house.
One early 21st century film adaptation of the novel dispenses with the paradox of Oliver's genteel origins by eliminating his origin story completely, making him just another anonymous orphan like the rest of Fagin's gang.
Dickens makes considerable use of symbolism. The many symbols Oliver faces are primarily good versus evil, with evil continually trying to corrupt and exploit good, but good winning out in the end. The "merry old gentleman" Fagin, for example, has satanic characteristics: he is a veteran corrupter of young boys who presides over his own corner of the criminal world; he makes his first appearance standing over a fire holding a toasting-fork; and he refuses to pray on the night before his execution. The London slums, too, have a suffocating, infernal aspect; the dark deeds and dark passions are concretely characterised by dim rooms and pitch-black nights, while the governing mood of terror and brutality may be identified with uncommonly cold weather. In contrast, the countryside where the Maylies take Oliver is a bucolic heaven.
The novel is also shot through with a related motif, obesity, which calls attention to the stark injustice of Oliver's world. When the half-starved child dares to ask for more, the men who punish him are fat. A remarkable number of the novel's characters are overweight.
Toward the end of the novel, the gaze of knowing eyes becomes a potent symbol. For years, Fagin avoids daylight, crowds, and open spaces, concealing himself most of the time in a dark lair. When his luck runs out at last, he squirms in the "living light" of too many eyes as he stands in the dock, awaiting sentence. Similarly, after Sikes kills Nancy, he flees into the countryside but is unable to escape the memory of her dead eyes. In addition, Charley Bates turns his back on crime when he sees the murderous cruelty of the man who has been held up to him as a model.
In the tradition of Restoration Comedy and Henry Fielding, Dickens fits his characters with appropriate names. Oliver himself, though "badged and ticketed" as a lowly orphan and named according to an alphabetical system, is, in fact, "all of a twist." However, Oliver and his name may have been based on a young workhouse boy named Peter Tolliver whom Dickens knew while growing up. Mr. Grimwig is so called because his seemingly "grim", pessimistic outlook is actually a protective cover for his kind, sentimental soul. Other character names mark their bearers as semi-monstrous caricatures. Mrs. Mann, who has charge of the infant Oliver, is not the most motherly of women; Mr. Bumble, despite his impressive sense of his own dignity, continually mangles the king's English he tries to use; and the Sowerberries are, of course, "sour berries", a reference to Mrs. Sowerberry's perpetual scowl, to Mr. Sowerberry's profession as an undertaker, and to the poor provender Oliver receives from them. Rose Maylie's name echoes her association with flowers and springtime, youth and beauty, while Toby Crackit's is a reference to his chosen profession of housebreaking.
Bill Sikes's dog, Bull's-eye, has "faults of temper in common with his owner" and is an emblem of his owner's character. The dog's viciousness represents Sikes's animal-like brutality, while Sikes's self-destructiveness is evident in the dog's many scars. The dog, with its willingness to harm anyone on Sikes's whim, shows the mindless brutality of the master. Sikes himself senses that the dog is a reflection of himself and that is why he tries to drown the dog. He is really trying to run away from who he is. This is also illustrated when Sikes dies and the dog does immediately also. After Sikes murders Nancy, Bull's-eye also comes to represent Sikes's guilt. The dog leaves bloody footprints on the floor of the room where the murder is committed. Not long after, Sikes becomes desperate to get rid of the dog, convinced that the dog's presence will give him away. Yet, just as Sikes cannot shake off his guilt, he cannot shake off Bull's-eye, who arrives at the house of Sikes's demise before Sikes himself does. Bull's-eye's name also conjures up the image of Nancy's eyes, which haunts Sikes until the bitter end and eventually causes him to hang himself accidentally.
Dickens employs polarised sets of characters to explore various dual themes throughout the novel; Mr. Brownlow and Fagin, for example, personify "good vs. evil". Dickens also juxtaposes honest, law-abiding characters such as Oliver himself with those who, like the Artful Dodger, seem more comfortable on the wrong side of the law. Crime and punishment is another important pair of themes, as is sin and redemption: Dickens describes criminal acts ranging from picking pockets to murder, and the characters are punished severely in the end. Most obviously, he shows Bill Sikes hounded to death by a mob for his brutal acts, and sends Fagin to cower in the condemned cell, sentenced to death by due process. Neither character achieves redemption; Sikes dies trying to run away from his guilt, and on his last night alive, the terrified Fagin refuses to see a rabbi or to pray, instead asking Oliver to help him escape. Nancy, by contrast, redeems herself at the cost of her own life, and dies in a prayerful pose.
Nancy is also one of the few characters in Oliver Twist to display much ambivalence. Although she is a full-fledged criminal, indoctrinated and trained by Fagin since childhood, she retains enough empathy to repent her role in Oliver's kidnapping, and to take steps to try to atone. As one of Fagin's victims, corrupted but not yet morally dead, she gives eloquent voice to the horrors of the old man's little criminal empire. She wants to save Oliver from a similar fate; at the same time, she recoils from the idea of turning traitor, especially to Bill Sikes, whom she loves. When he was later criticised for giving a "thieving, whoring slut of the streets" such an unaccountable reversal of character, Dickens ascribed her change of heart to "the last fair drop of water at the bottom of a dried-up, weed-choked well".