Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty

In Oliver Twist, Dickens paints a vivid picture of London’s criminal underworld, a subject he harnesses both to excite the reader and to explore the effects of social deprivation. Professor John Bowen discusses these themes with reference to Dickens’s original manuscripts.

So here we have a passage from the original manuscript of Oliver Twist and this is just the moment when Oliver suddenly is trapped into criminality, so he’s being led into this world by Fagin and the Artful Dodger, he goes out for a walk with them and suddenly the Artful Dodger starts pick pocketing. He runs away and poor Oliver is left to take the rap, and Dickens says the police officer arrives, who’s always the last person to arrive in such cases, so he’s already making that sharp, satirical edge to it. And then you see the suffering of Oliver, the indifference of the law to him, and then at the end of it, ‘Don’t hurt him,’ said the old man compassionately. So the victim of the crime who turns out to help Oliver is on Oliver’s side. But the law and the police are brutally indifferent to his pain.

So crime is at the centre of Oliver Twist and there is a group of novels in the period called Newgate fiction and in some ways Oliver Twist is like Newgate fiction, in other ways different. Newgate fiction is often accused of glamorising crime, of making it look too exciting, as if these figures who can transgress against the norms of respectable society are somehow morally admirable. And Dickens is fascinated by that and the possibility that there might be a kind of life outside respectable, bourgeois life, but at the same time also he wants to give a moral purpose to it.

So there’s constantly a war within Oliver Twist about a side that wants to be fascinated and entranced by what crime can do and the freedom it allows one, on the other hand the wish to give a moral purpose or design to it. And you also see Dickens who is clearly at this point, you know, he’s a young man, he’s experimenting with different kinds of fiction. Within the novel itself he describes what it is that he’s trying to do. Melodrama, he says, alternates comic and tragic scenes like the red and white in the side of a streaky bacon. And that’s what he wants to do too, so he’ll often move from very comical moments to very tragic or dangerous or threatening moments. And Dickens wants to say not just that melodrama does that and that he does that, but also that’s a form of realism ‘cause he says that’s what life is like. We do that in our own lives, we might move from a scene of merriment to a funeral almost instantaneously and he says just as we do that in life so too the novel must reflect that.

So Oliver Twist is a great success and we know it’s read throughout society, there are popular representations and theatrical adaptations that the poor watch, but it’s also read by Queen Victoria for example who says she finds it excessively interesting. And there’s an interesting exchange between her and Lord Melbourne who’s the Prime Minister and he doesn’t want to read Oliver Twist, he says, ‘It’s set amongst workhouses and pickpockets and coffin makers and people of that sort. I don’t wish to know about them in reality and I don’t wish to read about them in fiction.’ So there you see two very different aesthetic responses to Oliver Twist, one that wants to see it merely as a representation of an unpleasant reality and therefore shouldn’t be seen, and then the much more engaging response and engaged and intelligent response of Victoria who says she finds it excessively interesting.

So Dickens is a deeply theatrical writer and in the later half of his career he has a very, very successful career as a public reader. And what he does is he carves out of his novels these moving, humorous scenes and episodes. And the most famous of these is Sikes and Nancy, which is the moment in Oliver Twist when Sikes, the criminal, bludgeons to death Nancy, the prostitute. Now they’ve always been controversial, his readings. His friend John Forster told him that he shouldn’t do it, that it was the exchange of a higher calling for a lower and particularly he was opposed to the Sikes and Nancy reading because of its violence, because of its sexuality, because of its effect on the audience. So he knew that he could hold an audience absolutely in the palm of his hand with his readings but above all with the Sikes and Nancy reading and you know, would peak himself on the number of women who’d been carried out fainting from the auditorium.

So this is Dickens’s own reading copy of Sikes and Nancy, so the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist, and it’s full of his own markings. So you can see him here adding little bits, more exclamation marks, and then action here, so he’d be acting it out, and then alerting himself to the murder, so the death of Nancy is coming, murder coming, he writes. So here he is building to the climax, action again, unlocking the door, giving us an extra pause, up to three exclamation marks now. All the key words underlined, key phrases, just thinking through everything as a performance, as an enactment of these horrific, terrifying emotions.

Just before Oliver Twist comes out the new Poor Law is passed, and this is the most revolutionary change in the lives of people at the bottom of society that’s ever been seen. And so Oliver Twist begins in a workhouse and there’s a constant campaigning radical social anger in the book against the stripping of dignity of poor people. And you see that both in the novel and also in Dickens’s personal life and in the campaigning journalism that he writes at the same time.

So Oliver Twist has some of the qualities of a parable or an allegory or a moral fable, but it’s also got a documentary side to it, and Dickens is very keen to demonstrate that he’s based in a realistic description of criminal London, and he gets very angry when Sir Peter Laurie complains that this is a novel that’s unrealistic in its depiction of the world of criminal life.

And in the preface to the cheap edition he takes on his critics in the most explicit way possible. He writes at page 267 of the present edition of Oliver Twist, there is a description of, quote, ‘the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, and the name of this place is Jacob’s Island. 11 or 12 years have elapsed since the description was first published. I was as well convinced then as I am now that nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.

Explore further

Related videos

Great Expectations and class

Class mobility in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen discusses class and social mobility in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Ghosts in A Christmas Carol

The origins of A Christmas Carol

Professor Michael Slater MBE explains the background to Charles Dickens’s novel, A Christmas Carol, reveals his reasons for writing it and discusses its monumental success. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Simon Callow on Dickens as a performer

Simon Callow on Dickens as a performer

Simon Callow discusses Charles Dickens’s performances, his abilities as an actor, and the impact of his readings upon his audiences and the wider public. How did they help make him “the most famous man in the world” during his lifetime? Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Related articles

Crime in Oliver Twist

Crime in Oliver Twist

Dickens's Oliver Twist depicts the excitement as well as the danger surrounding the criminal underworld. Here Professor Philip Horne examines how Dickens’s portrayal of crime was influenced by public executions, contemporary criminal slang and other sensational literary works.

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.

Oliver Twist and the workhouse

Oliver Twist and the workhouse

The hardships of the Victorian workhouse led Oliver Twist utter the famous phrase ‘Please Sir, I want some more’. Here Ruth Richardson explores Dickens’s own experiences of poverty and the social and political context in which he was writing.

Orphans in fiction

Orphans in fiction

Why do orphans appear so frequently in 19th-century fiction? Professor John Mullan reflects on the opportunities they provide for authors, considering some of the most famous examples of the period.

Related themes

Crime and crime fiction

Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction?

Poverty and the working classes

Poverty and the working classes

How did writers respond to the social inequalities of Victorian society?