Oliver Twist: Plot and Characters in Dickens' Social Novel

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  • 0:05 Background
  • 1:03 Characters
  • 3:34 Plot
  • 8:45 A Social Novel
  • 10:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

It's Oliver Twist, the tale of an orphan boy who's mistreated, kidnapped once or twice, and saved once or twice, but all along never loses his plucky optimism. Watch this lesson to find out more!

'Please, sir; I want some more.' Now I'm fortified to talk about Oliver Twist.


Oliver Twist is Charles Dickens' second novel. Like many of his books, it was first published in monthly installments. Its first installment came out in 1837, and its final chapters eventually came out in 1839. It is a gritty, realistic novel that is full of Dickens' trademark satire on class and whatnot. Even if you haven't read it, you've probably seen one of the dozen or so movies based on it. Or maybe you saw Oliver & Company, the kind of awful, kind of wonderful Disney cartoon starring Joey Lawrence of Blossom fame and Billy Joel of, uh, Billy Joel fame. That's a great movie.

It's from Dickens' paid-by-the-word period, so he does not skimp on the language. He's a bit wordy in this one. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit and solidified his growing reputation as a very good writer.


We're going to go over the main characters first. We've got Oliver Twist (obviously, because that's the name of the book). His mother dies shortly after giving birth to him, so he's an orphan. He's nine when the main story begins. He's naïve, innocent and easily taken advantage of. He's our protagonist, and he's one of those protagonists where it's really more about the things that are done to him than what he actually does (kind of like Bella Swan of Twilight in a lot of ways). So, he's good. He's virtuous.

Next, we get a bunch of despicable people who are a lot more interesting. We've got Mr. Bumble, who, despite the cheerful-sounding name, is an awful person. He's a church official at the workhouse where Oliver has to live. Dickens makes him unlikable in pretty much every way, from his arrogance to his mistreatment of the boys. He's just an awful person.

Next, we've got Fagin, who is a career criminal. He takes in homeless boys, and he employs them as pickpockets. He's kind of like a 19th-century version of Stringer Bell if you watch The Wire. He pulls the 'strings' (ha, ha, pun) and is always a step or two removed from the crimes themselves, so he can't get thrown in jail. Fagin is Jewish and - because of a bunch of negative stereotypes that Dickens employs - pretty regularly criticized as a very anti-Semitic portrayal of a character. That's Fagin.

One of his best pickpockets is a guy named Jack Dawkins, who's also known as the Artful Dodger. He's a really fun character. He dresses and talks like an adult even though he's actually not any older than Oliver.

We've got Bill Sikes and Nancy, who are two lovers, and they're associates of Fagin. Sikes is a nasty, violent criminal. Nancy graduated from being one of the pickpockets to being a prostitute, so that's really nice. They're not the best, most charming couple that you can imagine.

There's a guy named Monks, who is another bad guy. There are a lot of bad guys in this book. He partners with Fagin. He's violent and angry, a lot like Sikes. There's something mysterious about him; we don't know what it is. We do figure it out, and I will tell you eventually, but I'm just going to hang that out there for suspense.

There are some good people too. There's a guy named Mr. Brownlow. He's wise and wealthy. There's Rose, who is just your typical perfect, virtuous young woman. She's taken care of by the wealthy Mrs. Maylie. And, that is it for key people, so there are a lot more villains than there are good people, but that's why it's interesting. (None of them are animals, though, which you might have learned from Disney. This is not a beast fable!)


The novel starts with Oliver in a workhouse. Basically, his workhouse is part orphanage, part sweatshop. (It's like Kamp Krusty from The Simpsons or the old folks' home in Happy Gilmore, except worse.) The kids are fed gruel, which is a really thin, nasty porridge, but not that much. They're always hungry. One day, Oliver and several boys draw lots to see who's going to have to ask for extra gruel. Oliver loses, so he has to be the one to ask. This leads to the famous line I enacted previously: 'Please, sir, I want some more.' In the movie version at least, the guy is like 'More? He wants more?' and he gets all upset, and then, of course, they break into song. That's not what happens in the book. In the book he just doesn't get any more. Mr. Bumble offers five pounds for anyone to take Oliver away from the workhouse.

Mr. Sowerberry, who's an undertaker, takes Oliver on as an apprentice. Unfortunately, another apprentice ends up bullying Oliver, saying all sorts of mean things about his mother. Oliver lashes out, things go south pretty quickly with the Sowerberrys, and he runs away to London.

There he meets the Artful Dodger, Jack Dawkins. Jack offers to help and give him a place to live, which sounds great until it turns out that it is the home of Fagin, and Oliver gets trained in the art of pickpocketing. But because he's so virtuous and unable to be wrong, he gets totally freaked out just watching two boys steal a handkerchief, not even money or anything. The man who is being robbed is Mr. Brownlow, who's one of those good guys I mentioned before. He recognizes that Oliver is freaked out and doesn't want to do it - so he recognizes the good in Oliver - and he ends up taking him home. He also recognizes that Oliver looks just like a woman who is in a portrait that hangs in his home, which is weird, right? I don't know. Coincidence? Maybe it's foreshadowing! We're going to find out.

From there, of course, they all live happily ever after. Ha, no; I'm only halfway through this video. Bill Sikes and Nancy snatch Oliver and bring him back to Fagin. As you might imagine, Oliver is not any better at burglarizing than he used to be (he's supposed to help Sikes rob somebody). He's terrible at pickpocketing; he's terrible at burglary. He actually ends up getting shot while Sikes escapes. The victims of the crime take pity on Oliver again; they think he doesn't seem like such a bad kid. This time it's Rose and Mrs. Maylie, who are those two other good characters I told you about. Oliver has a great time with them; they take care of him. And again, happy ending? No! Not a chance. Fagin is still after Oliver.

Around this time, we learn that Oliver's mother had left him a gold locket. Intrigue! Where's the gold locket? Maybe she wasn't that poor after all, right? Why would a poor person have gold? This is where Monks (who is that other weird, bad guy I told you about) comes in. He apparently had found the locket and had thrown it in the river so Oliver would never know it existed. Nancy, who might just be a whore with a heart of gold, tells Rose that Fagin is out to get Oliver (Rose is the person Oliver is now staying with), but it gets back to Sikes that she squealed. He murders her, and then, while running away from an angry mob of people, he trips and accidentally hangs himself. If this were a Shakespearean tragedy, this is when you'd expect the body count to really start rising. Fortunately, it's not and Oliver just gets reunited with Mr. Brownlow, and all the pieces seem to fall into place.

It turns out that Monks (the bad guy) and Oliver actually have the same father. Their father had an affair with Oliver's mother and then died. He left an inheritance that, apparently, Monks had been trying to keep Oliver from finding out about, and that's why he got rid of the necklace. Mr. Brownlow, though, forces Monks to get Oliver his share.

But wait; there's more! Fagin gets arrested and hanged (so I guess that's one more in the body count). And the bad Mr. Bumble (the guy who wouldn't give Oliver any more) loses his job and ends up destitute in the same workhouse he once presided over. So, there's justice for everyone.

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