Oliver Twist: a patchwork of genres

Oliver Twist: a patchwork of genres

Dr Claire Wood examines how Dickens blends multiple genres in Oliver Twist, including melodrama, the Gothic, satire and social commentary.

Many readers are shocked on their first encounter with Oliver Twist. Iconic scenes and characters are found to have a strangeness that is lost in adaptations such as Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! The hunger and violence are sharper, the criminality more sordid. Realism is juxtaposed with melodrama, caricature and gothic elements. Comic scenes and grotesques sit alongside biting political and social commentary. Extremes of good and bad are contrasted so sharply that some critics have described Dickens’s vision as ‘Manichean’, a struggle between the spiritual forces of good and evil: Fagin is likened to the devil while Rose Maylie is described as an angel, ‘enthroned in mortal form’ (ch. 29). At the same time, Dickens gives many of his characters a complexity that evades such stark categorisation. Fagin is a ‘devil’ but also a nurturing father-figure, at once attractive and sinister.

Colour illustrations from 1911 edition of Oliver Twist

George Cruikshank’s illustration of Fagin and the group of children under his ‘care’, from a 1911 colour edition of Oliver Twist. Note the execution broadside depicting three hanged men pinned to the wall, left.

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The novel’s composition

Part of the novel’s strangeness arises from the circumstances of composition. Charles Dickens was just 25 when the first chapters appeared in monthly parts, published in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. As a young author he wanted to build upon the runaway success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, while also developing his craft. At the same time, Dickens was overcommitted, writing instalments of two other novels alongside Oliver Twist (1837–9), and starting a family. Later in his career, Dickens carefully plotted the details of each instalment, but in this case he wrote the episodes at a frantic pace, often improvising scenes instead of planning them out beforehand. This is possibly what makes it such an exhilarating read, filled with imaginative set pieces, dramatic plot twists, and curious inconsistencies.

Record of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist contributions to Bentley's Miscellany

Record of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist contributions to Bentley's Miscellany [folio: 2r]

Entry noting the first instalment of Oliver Twist from Richard Bentley’s records for Bentley’s Miscellany, 1837-40.

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A patchwork of genres

Oliver Twist can also be seen as a deliberately experimental novel through which the young writer developed his skills by exploring various literary techniques and forms. The novel is a patchwork of different genre conventions, which Dickens manipulates to challenge his readers’ expectations. For example, readers are prompted to expect a Pilgrim’s Progress-style narrative by the subtitle ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’. The novel can be read in this way if we see Oliver as a two-dimensional hero-figure who must overcome obstacles on his path to salvation (or in this case, a happy ending). However, at the same time, characters like Nancy have a psychological depth that resists allegory, and Dickens insisted in his Prefaces that the descriptions of poverty were realistic.

Manuscript of the Preface to the 1850 edition of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist

Manuscript of the Preface to the 1850 edition of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist [folio: 7r]

Charles Dickens’ manuscript draft of the Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition of Oliver Twist where he argues that his depictions of poverty and squalor were truthful.

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Held by © Mark Charles Dickens, Head of the Dickens Family

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan [page: title page]

Oliver Twist’s subtitle ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’ alludes to Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, one of the most influential works of Christian literature in English. First published 1678, this edition estimated 1815.

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Satire and sentimentality

Dickens also presents similar problems using different genres in order to intensify the readers’ emotional response. Satire characterises Dickens’s portrayal of the workhouse and the effects of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which sought to discourage applicants by making workhouse life as unpleasant as possible. As this passage demonstrates, the inmates were fed on a meagre diet that often resulted in premature death:

It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin, as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies. (ch.2)


Colour illustrations from 1911 edition of Oliver Twist

George Cruikshank’s famous illustration of ‘Oliver asking for more’, from a colour edition of Oliver Twist, 1911.

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In depicting another victim of institutional abuse, Dickens adopts the sentimental mode, which focuses on the distress of the virtuous. Oliver’s childhood companion, Dick, is implausibly angelic and surprisingly well-spoken considering his brutal upbringing at a parish baby farm for poor orphan children. On parting, this young boy tells Oliver that they will only meet again in heaven; he knows that his death is imminent because ‘I dream so much of heaven, and angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake’ (ch. 7). Thus satire provokes appalled laughter at the treatment of the poor, whereas sentimentality can move the reader to pity.

Colour illustrations from 1885 edition of Oliver Twist

Frederick Pailthorpe’s illustration of Oliver Twist bidding farewell to the angelic orphan Dick, 1885.

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The Gothic

Elsewhere Dickens adapts elements of the Gothic tradition. Monks and Sikes exude a sense of menace, and pursue violent, tyrannical ends, while the former’s name evokes The Monk, a prominent 18th-century example of the genre. Nancy is an imperilled heroine who navigates the labyrinthine slums of London like her more passive, innocent Gothic predecessors traversed ruined castles. Nancy has vivid premonitions of her death, Sikes is haunted by her ghost, and Oliver has a vision of Monks and Fagin plotting his recapture. However, these Gothic manifestations seem more solid than spectral: Nancy’s ghost moves ‘like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life’ (ch. 48).


The sensationalism and suspenseful plotting that underpins Gothic fiction overlap with Twist’s other dominant influence: Victorian stage melodrama. This genre relied upon extreme contrasts, portraying villains as thoroughly wicked and heroines as spotlessly good. These contrasts culminate in the novel’s melodramatic high point, Nancy’s murder, with the girl reaching towards heaven and uttering a prayer as Sikes clubs her down. Dickens adapted this sensational scene for his final public readings in 1869, ‘tearing himself to pieces’ in front of audiences that were enthralled and horrified. At times Dickens’s pulse rose to 112[1] as he enacted Nancy’s innocence and Sikes’s brutality by turns, and the emotional and physical strain of this powerful solo performance is thought to have hastened his death. On the stage these melodramatic contrasts work; Monks’s cries of ‘Throttle the girl!’ and ‘Wither his flesh!’ heighten the drama, and even the extraordinary chain of coincidences needed to bring about a happy ending – such as Rose and Oliver being related – seem more believable. 

Colour illustrations from 1885 edition of Oliver Twist

Frederick Pailthorpe’s illustration of the brutal murder of Nancy, 1885.

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Extract from Charles Dickens’s 'Sikes and Nancy' reading with annotations reproduced by the actress Adeline Billington

Extract from Charles Dickens’s Sikes and Nancy reading with annotations reproduced by the actress Adeline Billington

A copy of the version of 'Sikes and Nancy' from which Dickens read at a live performance in 1868. The notes and underlining show where the novelist heightened the horror of the scene.

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While modern readers of the novel often find it difficult to reconcile these melodramatic devices with Dickens’s satire, social realism and sentimentality. Dickens did not see melodrama as antithetical to realism: instead he felt that he could harness the power of melodrama’s extreme contrasts to reinforce his social critique. At one point in Oliver Twist, Dickens interrupts the story to explain how he deliberately adopts the juxtapositions of tragedy and comedy, typical of melodrama. He uses the metaphor of contrasting colours in a piece of streaky bacon:

It is the custom on the stage, in all good, murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and comic scenes in as regular alternation as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; and, in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song. We behold with throbbing bosoms the heroine in the grasp of a proud and ruthless baron, her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and, just as our expectations are wrought up to the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall of the castle, where a grey-headed seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals, who are free of all sorts of places from church vaults to palaces, and roam about in company, carolling perpetually

Such changes appear absurd; but they are by no means unnatural. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling, only there we are busy actors instead of passive lookers-on ... (ch.17)

Dickens argues that in everyday life we experience the same rapid alternation between tragic and comic scenes, but that we accept as natural what appears artificial on the stage because in real life we take part in the action. The passage insists that these clashing moods and genres are both real and constructed, and works to make the reader an active participant in the reading process by drawing attention to the constructed nature of fiction.

A social ‘truth’

Dickens was particularly keen to show his readers the ‘truth’ about the squalid details of poverty at the heart of 19th-century cities, which forced many into a life of crime. He was therefore appalled to find that, contrary to his intentions, Oliver Twist was lumped in with the popular romanticised tales of criminal life known as ‘Newgate Novels’. These fictions glamorized the exploits of notorious criminals and were accused of encouraging vice. Dickens responded in his 1841 Preface, arguing that the novel’s ‘miserable reality’ was intended as a deterrent:

Here are no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack-boots, no crimson coats and ruffles, none of the dash and freedom with which ‘the road’ has been, time out of mind, invested. The cold, wet, shelterless midnight streets of London; the foul and frowsy dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn; the haunts of hunger and disease; the shabby rags that scarcely hold together; where are the attractions of these things?

The author also defended the literal truth of his fiction in his 1850 Preface , challenging Sir Peter Laurie’s dismissal of Jacob’s Island, the infamous South London slum where Sikes hides from his pursuers. Laurie had claimed Jacob’s Island ‘ONLY existed in a work of fiction’; Dickens hit back by stating that it did exist in reality, that London contained many such slums, and that reforms were desperately needed.

Dickens wanted to show poverty and its consequences in their true light to move his readers to compassion, and if possible action. To make this message more effective, he refracts his portrayal of ‘true’ life through the media of melodrama, Gothic fiction, satire, sentiment, and allegory. Throughout, aspects of different genres are skilfully woven together to enhance the power of the writing, maintain reader interest, and move the audience to tears and laughter. Perhaps most importantly, the use of different genre conventions challenges readers’ expectations and prompts them to reconsider their initial judgements.

The Newgate Calendar

The Newgate Calender [page: 129]

Gruesome illustration and account of a murder from The Newgate Calendar, 1824-26. This edition is among numerous reprints from the 18th and 19th centuries.

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[1] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.492.

Further reading

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. by Philip Horne (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

  • Claire Wood
  • Dr Claire Wood is a Research Associate at the Centre for Modern Studies, University of York, where she specialises in Victorian literature and death culture. Her first book, A Profitable Undertaking: Dickens, Death and Commodification, is forthcoming.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.