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Literature: Oliver Twist

"Please, sir, I want some more."
Oliver Twist

Novel by Charles Dickens, originally published as a serial in Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1839. Oliver Twist is born an orphan and raised to a young age in a cruel workhouse that exploits the poor. Eventually he escapes the workhouse, only to run afoul of the London underworld. He's recruited into a pickpocket gang, but rescued by a kindly gentlemen who discovers Oliver's real identity and finally finds him a happy home.

The story is one of Dickens' most famous tales and includes some of his most enduring characters, including the crooked Jewish ringleader Fagin and the sly Artful Dodger. Like many of Dickens' works, the novel contains a great deal of social criticism on the way British society at the time treated its poor. Of particular note is the famous scene in which the starving Oliver begs for more gruel from the workhouse cook and is harshly punished.

The story has been adapted many times throughout the years, including:


This book contains examples of:

  • Adorkable: Mr. Brownlow at times seems to give off this vibe.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Played with. Nancy is fiercely loyal to the abusive Sikes, though she has no illusions about what he is. On the other hand, Rose falls for the Incorruptibly Pure Harry.
  • Adults Are Useless: Played straight then later subverted. This includes the magistrate who refuses to give Oliver over to a chimney sweeper (who is obviously going to use him to clean chimneys until he gets stuck in one and can't get out just like every other boy he's adopted) when he sees Oliver is obviously terrified by the man. This is the first time an adult actually shows genuine kindness and concern for Oliver, a poor, sweet little orphan boy. Then there was Mr. Brownlow, who pretty much offers to adopt the young boy, his lovely housekeeper, his grumpy friend Mr. Fang, and then of course the Maylie family.
  • The Artful Dodger: The Trope Namer
  • Badass Longcoat: The Artful Dodger has one. To make it more badass, the reason it's so long is that he stole it from someone twice his size.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: The Three Cripples, an inn where Fagin and his various criminal associates hang out.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Dickens is quite bad for this. All of the adult male criminals are explicitly described as being ugly or disfigured save for "Flash" Toby Crackit. Rose the Purity Sue is beautiful, and Agnes, Oliver's sympathetic mother, was apparently attractive in her youth.
  • Being Evil Sucks
  • Being Watched: Sikes suffers from this after he murders Nancy.
  • Berserk Button: Don't even think about insulting Oliver's mother.
  • Bigger Bad: Although Sykes is usually portrayed as the main villain, Monks usually serves as the Bigger Bad.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: Just check out what Oliver's dad, Edwin Leeford, had to deal with.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Oliver is happy and living with his wealthy family, Dodger is caught and deported to Australia, Fagin is caught and executed, and both Sykes and Nancy are dead. Make of that what you will.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • This is exactly what the bad guys want to do to Oliver. They almost succeed.
    • Also, Agnes's Death by Childbirth is the end to one of these.
  • Broken Bird: Nancy, Agnes at the time of her death.
  • The Bully: Noah Claypole.
  • Cain and Abel: Oliver and his half-brother, Monks/Edward Leeford.
  • Catchphrase: Lots of the characters have them. Perhaps the most memorable is "I'll eat my head!"
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Nancy, Noah . . .
  • Children Are Innocent: Played straight and subverted. The pickpockets are streetwise crooks, but they're desperate for survival and guided by malicious adults who exploit them.
  • Cliff Hanger: Since the novel was published as a serial, Dickens was naturally fond of this - how else are you going to make sure the readers buy the next issue?
  • Consummate Liar: Nancy is perfectly capable of fooling police officers, her lover Bill, and even Fagin.
  • Contrived Coincidence: By an amazing stroke of luck, Sikes and Oliver set out to rob the home of Oliver's aunt Rose. Having previously attempted to pick the pocket of Oliver's dad's best friend, Brownlow.
  • Cool Old Guy: Mr Brownlow.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs Maylie, in a Purity Sue kind of way.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: It turns out that most of the business with Fagin and Oliver was part of Monks's plan to make the kid a criminal thus robbing him of his inheritance.
  • Crapsack World: Played straight, with London and the Workhouse, but subverted when Oliver lives in the country with the Maylies.
  • Death by Childbirth: Oliver's mother Agnes. Who also is Rose's deceased older sister.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Monks prefers to get others to do his dirty work for him, and he's shown to be easily intimidated when Mr Brownlow questions him.
    • Noah Claypole is even worse. Fagin and Sikes may be criminals, but at least they're willing to be bold about it. Noah considers stealing the bags from old ladies too dangerous for him, despite acting The Bully whenever he's alone with someone younger and weaker than him. When he's captured, he immediately sells out Fagin to escape prison.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Oliver asks for a second helping of food and is severely punished for it. (This was intended as a cutting satire on social conditions, of course.)
    • To modern eyes, having a kid deported because you found a stolen snuffbox on him seems a tad harsh.
  • Disney Villain Death: Bill Sikes technically dies by falling off a roof. But he never hits the ground, because he gets a rope tangled around his neck on the way down. Bullseye the dog then gives a straight example.
  • Domestic Abuser: Bill Sikes, to Nancy; Noah Claypole, to Charlotte (to a certain extent, anyway; it's verbal, not phsyical); Widow Corney, to Mr Bumble; and Mrs Sowerberry, to Mr Sowerberry. The last two probably qualify more as Henpecked Husband, but it's still portrayed as somewhat abusive.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Charley may be a pickpocket and street urchin, but he's VERY upset when Sikes kills Nancy.
  • Evil Mentor: Fagin.
  • Evil Redhead: Fagin and Toby Crackit.
  • The Fagin: Trope Namer.
  • Females Are More Innocent:
    • Most of the women are wholesome, decent people (special mention goes to The Ingenue Rose), save for Nancy, who is a Love Martyr for Bill Sykes, someone who is less than pleasant. But Nancy, compared with the other members of Fagin's gang, is still the most moral of them.
    • To be fair with the use of this assumption, male members of Fagin's gang get to live Tom Sawyer's dream, and the females get to be sluts in the eyes of the public.
    • Oliver's father stipulates in his will that Agnes' child, should it be a girl, will get an inheritance unconditionally. If the child was born a boy, he could only claim his inheritance provided that he should not have done anything to publicly dishonor his name during his minority. Which is why Edwin's first son Edward/Monks wants to completely discredit his half-brother Oliver, who is said child.
    • Subverted, somewhat humorously, with the Bumbles. While Mr Bumble is by no means innocent, the fact that his wife would be seen by law as 'acting under his influence', thus less guilty, is shown to be absurd since he's a Henpecked Husband subjected to Domestic Abuse from her. Bumble even lampshades it, stating that the law must be a bachelor and an idiot.
    • Subverted hard with Mrs Mann, the baby farm keeper. While the farm gets enough money to feed them, she keeps most of it to herself while underfeeding the children to the edge of starvation. Mortality rate due to neglect and starvation is a staggering 85 percent. Even the otherwise neglectful parish is disturbed by the rumors, but nothing is ever proven.
  • Film of the Book: Multiple.
  • Foil/Good Counterpart:
    • Rose Maylie, a virtuous, pure, innocent, beloved seventeen-year-old ingenue to Nancy, a miserable, alcoholic, unloved, hardened prostitute who happens to be seventeen years old.
    • Mr. Brownlow to Fagin
    • Harry Maylie to Bill Sykes
    • And let's not forget Oliver to the Artful Dodger
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • Charley Bates, who is always going around with his hands and is prone to fits of laughter, is frequently referred to as "Master Bates." This might be interpreted as simply an instance of Have a Gay Old Time, but as the term "masturbate" was already in use when Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, and had the same meaning then as it does today, it seems more likely it was completely intentional.
    • In one scene, Nancy rages at Fagin for corrupting her when she was a child. While Fagin explicitly employs several individuals in different illegal activities (pickpockets, housebreakers, spies), Dickens had to confirm later that, yes, he's also a pimp, and Nancy (and probably Bet) are prostitutes.
  • Greedy Jew:
    • Dickens indulges in this trope to the hilt with Fagin, however it does not appear that Dickens himself held any grudge against Jews. Creating exaggerated characters out of all walks of life was simply his stock in trade. He also claimed that he only made Fagin Jewish because he legitimately believed that most London "kidsmen" were Jewish. Later in life, Dickens befriended some Jewish people and discovered that they were, rather understandably, offended by the character; by way of apology, he want back and excised many references to Fagin's faith.
    • Perhaps even more offensive than Fagin is Barney, the barman at The Three Cripples, who gets no characterisation beyond that he's Jewish, greedy, ugly, evil, and has a speech impediment.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Nancy, though the also shows shades of The Alcoholic. Fagin gets all his female wards addicted to alcohol. Though the reason is never given, it's most likely so that they'll be more dependent and/or more pleasant company.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Charley Bates is frequently called "Master Bates." Unless you view that as a deliberate attempt at Getting Crap Past the Radar, it might be an instance of this trope. The intended humor then lies in the fact that Charley is a street urchin unlikely to deserve such an honorific.
  • Heartwarming Orphan
  • Heel-Face Turn:
    • After helping kidnap him, Nancy starts to care for Oliver and betrays Fagin in order to protect the child. Note: she does not turn on Sikes, and refuses to leave him. If only he knew that . . .
    • Charley Bates is the only one of Fagin's associates who fully reforms.
  • Henpecked Husband:
    • The eventual outcome of Mr. Bumble's marriage to the Widow Corney.
    • Also Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners:
    • The Dodger and Charley Bates, Brownlow and Grimwig, the Doctor and Grimwig (they become this after the events of the book, anyway).
    • If the fact that Bet cried and screamed over Nancy's death to the point where she was sent to a mental institution is any indication of their closeness/friendship, they probably were.
    • Also Brownlow and Oliver's Disappeared Dad Edwin Leeford, to the point of becoming his Secret Keeper.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Nancy. Charles Dickens stated in a preface written for the full novel that "the girl is a prostitute."
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Oliver and the Maylies.
  • Jerk Ass: Near the beginning, most authority figures.
  • Kill the Cutie: Dick, the younger Heartwarming Orphan who was Oliver's Only Friend at the workhouse, is briefly mentioned to have died off-page, just to make the reader feel bad.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After years of tyrannizing over the workhouse, the Bumbles end the novel in it.
  • Lemony Narrator: Dickens' authorial voice is well known for this trope.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Or better said, "Oliver, I'm your Disappeared Dad's best friend".
  • May-December Romance.
  • Meaningful Name: Many, as Dickens is known for this. The most obvious include Bumble, Crackit, Grimwig and Fang.
  • Missing Mom: Oliver's mother Agnes dies at the beginning of the novel.
  • Nice Hat: The Artful Dodger is mentioned to wear a hat which (like the rest of his attire) doesn't quite fit, but which stays on his head at all times because he's developed the habit of jerking his head just right to keep it on. One early illustrator decided that the hat should be a slightly-battered top hat, which has since become a beloved icon of the character.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mr. Fang is based on the hot-tempered magistrate Allan Laing.
  • Obviously Evil: Dickens describes Sikes in these terms. He even says that his legs alone wouldn't look right without manacles on them.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Though it's actually a workhouse, Oliver Twist features probably the most infamous orphanage in literature. And this is AFTER surviving the horrors of the baby farm...
  • Orphan's Ordeal
  • Parental Abandonment: And how.
  • Parental Substitute: Many, good and bad, including: Fagin, Nancy, Mr. Brownlow, his housekeeper, Rose Maylie, and Mrs. Maylie.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Justified.
  • Purple Prose: As is typical for a Dickens novel, the writing is quite purple and filled with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, often to produce a wry effect.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Nancy, who goes from kidnapping crook to martyr through her death.
  • Red Right Hand: Monks has a red mark on his face. He also suffers from fits which occasionally discolour his face further. Some of the other criminals are mentioned to have scars and the like.
  • Revealing Cover Up: If Sikes et al hadn't been so concerned about getting Oliver back so he couldn't implicate them, then they probably would have continued unnoticed and lived. Of course as soon as they kidnap him the whole house of cards starts to collapse.
  • Right-Hand Attack Dog: Bill Sikes' dog Bull's Eye who is as vicious as his owner, probably because Sikes abuses him. Bull's Eye is pathetically loyal to Sikes though, and jumps to his death after Sikes hangs himself.
  • Right on the Tick: Used in a bit of foreshadowing when Nancy pays attention to clock striking eight p.m. Eight a.m. was when friends/colleagues of hers were to be executed the next day.
  • Sentenced to Down Under: The Artful Dodger's final fate. Probably. The book doesn't explicitly state it beyond some vague references to him being "sent away" or similar.
  • Signature Line: "Please, sir, I want some more."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The book was famously quite cynical and critical about the plight of the poor in England at the time, yet is also typically idealistic in its regard for incorruptible youth.
  • Slut Shaming: Poor Nancy is trying to help the Maylies with information on Monks, but almost every time, someone of higher status than herself shames her for being a prostitute.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Agnes and Edwin, who don't get better. Later Rose and Harry Maylie — who do.
  • Street Urchin:
    • The Artful Dodger, Charley Bates and the rest of Fagin's pickpockets, including Oliver.
    • Nancy was this once, as well, before Fagin put her on the street and became her pimp.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Mr. Brownlow started to have thoughts about Oliver's true identity when he noticed that he looked a LOT like the portrait of Agnes that he kept at his home...
  • The Summation: At the end, Mr. Brownlow assembles everyone in a room to explain the mystery of Monks' relationship to Oliver.
  • This Bed of Rose's: Nancy takes Oliver under her wing and is determined to raise him to be a respectable young man.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Comes very close to playing this straight with Rose but ultimately subverts it.
  • Trap Door: Monks meets Mr and Mrs Bumble in his derelict warehouse hideout, and after their conversation reveals that they had been sitting on a trapdoor that he could have used to drop them in the river had he wished.
  • Truth in Television: Charles Dickens wrote the book based on many problems that were prevalent in English society at the time. Fagin was a representative of a type of criminal found in the slums of that day, called a "kidsman." They would train young runaways and "throwaway" children to pick pockets, and pay them for the proceeds, as well as providing a place to sleep. Oliver Twist himself gets used as what was called a "snakesman"—-a young child or very small adult who could insinuate himself into places where an adult could not pass, to open doors and allow older, larger confederates to enter.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sikes after murdering Nancy; Fagin while awaiting execution.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Sikes, who physically abuses Nancy. This includes the fatal beating of her toward the end of the novel.

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alternative title(s): Oliver Twist; Oliver Twist
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