Dickens’s story revolves around young Oliver Twist, an orphan brought up at a “charitable” institution “where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about on the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing.” After nine years Oliver graduates to a workhouse for young orphans. There his starving fellow sufferers elect him to ask for more food, in punishment for which Oliver is sold to an undertaker. Eventually Oliver runs away, making his painful way to London. Penniless and hungry, Oliver is befriended by a young thief, the Artful Dodger, who introduces him to Fagin and his gang, the evil Bill Sikes, and Sikes’s lover, Nancy. Steadfastly resisting the criminals’ attempts to corrupt him, Oliver eventually escapes, discovers his true parentage, and receives the respect he deserves. Dickens does a creditable job of making Oliver’s unshakable goodness believable. Despite the book’s title, however, Oliver has less to do with the story’s action than do most protagonists. Other characters act toward him or around him more than he acts on his own; his essentially passive role in the novel makes him less interesting than some of the other, more fully drawn characters.
The villains of Oliver Twist are the novel’s most memorable characters. Bill Sikes is stupid, strong, insensitive, and thoroughly evil. With no respect for human life, he insults, threatens, or beats every living thing that gets in his way. Fagin, the clever and devious master of the young thieves, shrewdly manipulates Sikes to his own advantage. Although he apparently retains some shreds of kindness and humanity, Fagin appears primarily as a grotesque, though at times humorous, devil figure. Fagin specializes in corrupting the young. Another evil character, Monks, works behind the scenes for most of the book but exerts an influence.
The truly good characters in the novel are Dickens’s least satisfying. Rose Maylie represents Dickens’s early version of the ideal Victorian woman. She is sweet, unselfish, giving, loving, submissive, completely good-and unbelievable. Harry Maylie’s condescending sacrifice for Rose seems unnecessary at best. Mr. Brownlow fares better; he champions Oliver’s cause, leads the fight against Oliver’s enemies, and has enough personal foibles to make him believable.
Nancy, a prostitute, combines good and bad traits. She lives with Bill Sikes and has stolen for Fagin since her childhood, but she has many admirable qualities. She becomes Oliver’s advocate and defender while Fagin holds him prisoner, and she even betrays her friends to protect him. Dickens ultimately judges Nancy’s sins to be an indictment against Fagin and others who shaped her during her youth. Dickens writes in the book’s preface that Nancy’s character “involves the best and worst shades of our nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility; but it is a truth.” By the end of the book, Nancy receives earthly punishment but heavenly reward.
Dickens’s thematic concern with the nature of good and evil-and the factors that make a person choose one or the other-pervades the novel. Rose Maylie has little temptation to be bad, while Nancy has little opportunity to be good. Oliver is rescued before hunger and desperation force him to compromise his values, and Charley Bates manages to overcome his unfortunate upbringing, although not without great struggle. Others, however, seem doomed from the beginning. Dickens writes that such men as Bill Sikes “would not give the faintest indication of a better nature. Whether every gentler human feeling is dead within such bosoms, or the proper chord to strike has rusted and is hard to find, I do not pretend to know; but that the fact is as I state it, I am sure.”
Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to identify social problems such as the workhouse system, the ineffective legal establishment, and the suffering caused by poverty. But, as always, Dickens’s deepest concern is with individuals. He champions self-sacrifice, benevolence, and charity, and he suggests that personal happiness and social progress can occur only as individuals develop these traits.