Oliver Twist is a seminal work that profoundly impacted Victorian society and literature. Twist was Charles Dickens‘ second novel, but was first published as a serial between 1837 and 1839 in Bentley’s Miscellany, a monthly magazine. It was later published in book form in 1838 by Richard Bentley across 3 volumes. This social novel – a story of an orphan boy and his navigation of the criminal underworld – has left an indelible mark on the literary world. It set the tone for a career which would see Dickens expose the public to themes and characters that society would rather have turned a blind eye to.
Overview of Oliver Twist
- Author – Charles Dickens
- Other Names – Also known as ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress‘
- Publish Date – Serialized between 1837 and 1839; book form in 1838 (3 volumes)
- Publishing House – Richard Bentley
- Genre – Social novel
As I’ve touched on above, the story of Oliver Twist follows the life of an orphan, Oliver. From his grim upbringing in a workhouse to his involvement with a gang of juvenile pickpockets in London, led by the elderly Fagin. It follows him through a series of unfortunate events until ultimately his fate is revealed. The narrative in this story is both a tale of adventure and misfortune but also a sharp critique of the many social ills of the time. Particularly the treatment of the poor and the young.
The novel, while centred on Oliver, is rich in characters around him. It is this incredible richness and the complex narrative that Dickens employs that really grabs hold of the audience. In this depth, the story becomes a masterpiece.
Reflection of Society
Oliver Twist is, in some ways, Dickens’ mission statement. It serves as an honest mirror to Victorian society, warts and all. Exposing the brutal realities of workhouses, the corruption within and the plight of the poor. It sheds light on the exploitation of children. Not only in work, but in how the harsh realities of society can push them into a life of crime. Like a self fulfilling prophecy.
The novel also starkly portrays the disparities between social classes, the struggles and injustices faced by the lower class. Perhaps more covertly, it reveals the anonymity of a person at the low end of society. That a child born to wealth, unaware of their value and a victim of circumstance, could fare just the same as a child born in the slums.
The novel was very popular, and helped to raise awareness of the dire conditions of the poor. It also drew attention to the urgent need for reform. Through influencing public opinion it could be argued that it helped to bring in changes in legislation, particularly concerning the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. With this law, the poor would only receive public assistance if they lived and worked in established workhouses.
This needed to change. The workhouse, while maybe well intended, often held down the poor and were very corrupt within. And many poor people were not ‘lucky enough’ to live there. A poor homeless beggar, would get no assistance, and could be imprisoned for begging. That just wasn’t right.
Oliver Twist also helped change societal views towards the underprivileged. It helped to create more sentiment toward fostering a more empathetic and humane approach, especially towards children.
Reception of Oliver Twist
Upon its initial release, Oliver Twist faced criticism for its portrayal of criminal elements, with concerns about its potential corrupting influence. It also received criticism for antisemitism in it’s portrayal of Jews as being evil. The criminal under lord ‘Fagan’ is identified many times as being Jewish, whereas the religion of other characters is barely mentioned. Dickens defended this position initially, having plenty of experience and understanding of this level of society.
He had himself, been a resident of a blackening workhouse for 3 years as a child and had observed that criminals in the position of his ‘Fagan’ more often than not, turned out to be Jewish. He did later amend the book to remove many of the references to Fagan’s religion.
Despite the criticism from some quarters, Oliver Twist did quickly gain acclaim and popularity for its compelling storytelling and incisive social commentary. Most reviews at the time were positive, praising the novels ‘realistic depiction of social conditions’. Some were more critical, believing the content to be well over-exaggerated, however public opinion was very positive.
Today, Oliver Twist stands as one of Dickens’ most famous and widely read novels. The book is celebrated for its style, realism, and narrative prowess. It has been adapted many times over the years, for both stage and screen.
Significance in Dickens’ Career
Charles Dickens remains one of the Victorian era’s most famous writers. As his second novel, Oliver Twist was pivotal in establishing a reputation as a leading writer and social commentator of his time. Dickens was the first editor chosen by Richard Bentley for his monthly magazine ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’, and he used this platform to give access to his work to a wide audience. Oliver twist was serialised over three years. It was an ambassador to both the narrative style of fiction, and to the use of cliff-hangers at the end of ‘episodes’.
Through it’s focus on social issues, combined with vivid characterisations and fresh narrative style, Oliver Twist set the foundation for Dickens’ subsequent works and his enduring legacy as a literary giant.
Oliver Twist’s enduring popularity underscores Dickens’ extraordinary talent. It is a window into Dickens’ deep compassion for the ‘underdog’. For those marginalised most in society. It is a core example of the Victorian eras challenges and growing movement of philanthropy and charity.