Oliver Twist

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Title Oliver Twist
Cover page of Oliver Twist, this the first novelization which appeared in 1838, six months before the serialization was completed. Dickens name appears as "Boz", although at Dickens request it was changed to his real name a week after this initial version appeared. Art by George Cruikshank titled "Oliver's reception by Fagin and the boys." Source: The New York Public Library, Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Cover page of Oliver Twist, this the first novelization which appeared in 1838, six months before the serialization was completed. Dickens name appears as "Boz", although at Dickens request it was changed to his real name a week after this initial version appeared. Art by George Cruikshank titled "Oliver's reception by Fagin and the boys." Source: The New York Public Library, Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Author Charles Dickens
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Chapman & Hall
Released 1838
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback) (originally as Serial)

Oliver Twist is an 1838 novel by Charles Dickens. It was originally published as a serial.

Like most of Dickens' work, the book is used to call the public's attention to various contemporary social evils, including the workhouse, child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals. The novel is full of sarcasm and dark humour, even as it treats its serious subject, revealing the hypocrisies of the time.

It has been the subject of numerous film and television adaptations, and the basis for a highly successful British musical, Oliver!.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Oliver is an orphan born in a workhouse, who has no idea of his parents' identity, his mother Agnes having died in childbirth. The starving workhouse boys draw straws to decide who will ask for an extra helping at mealtime and Oliver is chosen. ("Please, sir, I want some more.") As a result of this breach of etiquette, he is "sold" by the workhouse to be an undertaker's apprentice. The cruelty he suffers at the hands of an older apprentice named Noah Claypole causes him to run away.

He makes his way to London, where he is taken under the wing of the Artful Dodger, a boy criminal. The Dodger introduces Oliver to his circle of friends, who include the Fagin, a Jewish criminal mastermind, and his brutal ally, Bill Sikes. Oliver is trained to be a criminal, learning such skills as pickpocketing, but never actually commits a crime. He is shown kindness by Bill's 17-year-old mistress, Nancy.

After a robbery that goes wrong, in which Oliver played the part of an unwitting lookout, he is taken into the home of a wealthy man, Mr Brownlow. Unknown to them, Oliver's half-brother, Monks, is trying to find him, in order to prevent him from obtaining his inheritance, but Mr Brownlow soon begins to suspect that Oliver is the illegitimate son of his deceased best friend. Sikes and Nancy snatch Oliver back, and Sikes takes him on a burglary, planning to get him a criminal record as a favour to Monks. But Oliver is left behind when the burglary goes wrong, and is taken in and cared for by Rose Maylie and her family, who realize that Oliver was forced to take part in the robbery.

Meanwhile, Monks and Fagin are plotting to try to go after Oliver again and either kidnap or kill him. Nancy, fearing their intentions, goes to Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow to reveal their plot. She manages to keep her meetings secret until Noah Claypole (he had fallen out with the undertaker and moved to London to seek his fortune) agrees to spy on Nancy and then tells Fagin. Angry at the notion of his plot being foiled, Fagin passes it on to Sikes, twisting the story just enough to make it sound as if Nancy had informed on him. (In actuality, she had shielded Sikes, whom she loves despite his occasional ill-treatment, as much as possible.) Believing that she has betrayed him, Sikes murders Nancy in a fit of rage, and is himself killed when he accidentally hangs himself while being pursued by an angry mob. Monks is forced to divulge his secrets and give half of his inheritance to Oliver. Then Monks moves to America, where he quickly spends his money, reverts to crime, and ultimately dies in prison. Fagin is arrested and hanged for his misdeeds. Rose Maylie turns out to be the long-lost sister of Oliver's mother Agnes; she is therefore Oliver's aunt. She marries her long-time sweetheart Harry, and Oliver lives happily with his saviour, Mr Brownlow.

Characters in "Oliver Twist"

  • Oliver – the main protagonist, a boy born in a workhouse
  • Fagin – a Jew who recruits and trains boys for thievery
  • Bill Sikes – a violent thief
  • The Artful Dodger aka John Dawkins – one of Fagin's boy pickpockets
  • Charley Bates; another of Fagin's boy pickpockets
  • Nancy – barmaid and Bill's girl
  • Noah Claypole – apprentice to Mr Sowerberry
  • Mr. Brownlow
  • Monks, aka Edward Leeford – Oliver's half-brother
  • Rose Maylie
  • Mr. Bumble – the parish Beadle
  • Mr. Sowerberry – an Undertaker who takes Oliver into his service
  • Mrs. Sowerberry
  • Charlotte – servant to Mrs Sowerberry
  • Gamfireld – a vicious chimney-sweep

Major themes

The novel is characterized by the use of various motifs.

Charity and love are motifs because even though Oliver is treated horribly by most people, he is shown love by a few good people – Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Maylie, and even Nancy.

Greed and corruption are also motifs because of how people take advantage of Oliver. He is taken advantage of by Mr. Bumble at the workhouse and the thieves. Mr. Fagin tries to control Oliver, to use him for his own wealth. Monks tries to steal his identity and his inheritance.

Spoilers end here.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

There have been many theatrical, film and television adaptations of Dickens' novel:

  • The earliest film adaptation is a silent film made in 1909.
  • Oliver Twist, a feature film from 1948 by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness in one of his most defining roles as Fagin and is still considered the classic film version.
  • In 1960, Lionel Bart's musical play Oliver! opened to rave reviews in London. It became the longest-running musical there up to that time, playing six years. Producer David Merrick brought the show to the United States. The show toured nationally in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit before opening at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on January 6, 1963, where it received less ecstatic reviews and did not run nearly as long as it did in London.
  • Lionel Bart's musical was adapted for the big screen in Oliver! ( 1968), and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1969, featuring Mark Lester as Oliver. It received better reviews than the show had. The film also won an Oscar for its director, Sir Carol Reed.
  • A 1985 BBC television drama adaptation in their Classic Serial strand, produced by Terrance Dicks and starring Eric Porter as Fagin.
  • An animated interpretation by Disney called Oliver & Company ( 1988), loosely based on Dickens, about an orphaned cat named Oliver who meets a dog called Dodger.
  • A television movie, Oliver Twist, was released in 1997.
  • An ITV/ PBS production, Oliver Twist, from 1999, adapted by Alan Bleasdale and starring Robert Lindsay as Fagin, and Andy Serkis as Bill Sikes.
  • The 2003 movie Twist by director Jacob Tierney is loosely based on the novel but set in modern-day Toronto with male prostitution and drugs, rather than pickpocketing.
  • Boy called Twist by director Timothy Greene ( 2004) is set in Cape Town, South Africa, in the street-kid scene. With its unglamorous but sympathetic account of city poverty, the film is true to Dickens' story.
  • In 2005 director Roman Polanski released a new big-budget version of Oliver Twist.

Adaptations of the novel tend to simplify the original story. The way the book is normally interpreted on screen causes modern readers to focus on Bill Sikes as the villain. They thus fail to recognise how Fagin has trained Sikes and made him what he is; part of Dickens' message is that he might have done the same with Oliver had chance not intervened.

The renowned comic book creator, Will Eisner, disturbed by the anti-semitism in the typical depiction of Fagin, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.

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