Read a character sketch of Oliver Twist
As protagonists of highly regarded and enduring novels go, Oliver is uninteresting and uninspiring. Unlike other child protagonists like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the characters in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, he is not memorable, apart from his asking for more gruel: he is passive: and even that act of confronting the workhouse’s master is not from some inner sense of rebellion or daring, or inspiration, but because he has been elected to do so by the other boys, who are using him as a tool.
Throughout the rest of the novel, apart from the decision to run away from Mr Sowerbury’s funeral home, he takes no action himself and continues to be used as a tool. He exists as a light in a shady world inhabited by characters who act out a struggle between relative light and darkness around him. The interest in the novel is that struggle and the drama performed by well-rounded, fully realized, characters. In this, only his second novel, Dickens has already created immortal fictional characters, like Fagin and Mr Bumble, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, and so on, something he goes on to do, ending up with hundreds of the most famous and memorable characters in English Literature.
Dickens deliberately creates Oliver to be a type rather than a person. He is not a fully realized fictional character and has very much a wishy-washy personality. Although the novel is a page-turner, that is because of the other elements of the novel rather than the interest in and identification with, the main protagonist. The main theme of the novel is poverty and its effects like crime, homelessness, and all the other things that go along with poverty. Oliver represents any child in that condition in Victorian England. The narrator tells us that this child could be any such child, “the child of a nobleman or beggar.”
He has no father, and his mother dies before she can name him. The beadle names him Oliver Twist and he admits that he just made it up because, going through the alphabet, it was time for a “T” name. The child is dressed in the uniform that marks him as a parish child, an orphan of a workhouse. He is thereby branded and his fate is sealed. Even the name “Twist’ suggests his probable fate, which is to twist at the end of a rope on the gallows, something frequently remarked on by the other characters who well know what “twist” in Victorian England means. He is just one of the written-off children who have either been abandoned or whose parents are themselves starving.
Oliver is an innocent, gentle, sweet child. He is not an active agent but more like a ball passed between two teams – a corrupt group of people and a more or less beneficent group. The ball is just an object and the attention is more focused on those catching or dropping it.
Oliver’s innocence is virtually unaffected throughout the novel. Although it is difficult for a reader to identify with him – because he is a child, and also because Dickens does not intend us to, and uses dramatic irony to achieve that – there is one moment when we see things as Oliver does. The incident is written without irony. It is when Oliver first meets the Artful Dodger. When the Dodger talks he uses London street slang, which Oliver doesn’t understand. And neither does the reader, so at that point we are experiencing the moment as Oliver does.
However, when the boys are practicing their pickpocketing skills Oliver sees it as a game, while the reader knows what’s going on. Oliver does not see until quite far into the novel, that the attractive Dodger is a bad one. He likes the boys, and he likes Fagin, who is friendly and attention-giving: he is grateful for Fagin’s kindness.
When Oliver first arrives at Fagin’s house, the narrator says “one young gentleman… was so obliging as to put his hands in his pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed.” That’s how Oliver sees it but the reader knows exactly what’s going on. It is only when Oliver sees Charley and the Dodger picking Mr Brownlow’s pocket that he gets it, even though they were picking his pockets from the minute he arrived at Fagin’s.
Oliver does not change throughout the novel – he never loses his innocence, no matter what happens. He is too good to believe. He doesn’t react to his experiences and doesn’t learn from them. His goodness shines through everything, even though he’s surrounded by darkness and death, which only emphasizes his shining goodness. He is left unmoved by having lived with coffins and corpses at Mr Sowerberry’s, and then with vicious criminals. It’s mainly that lack of reaction that makes him such an unusual protagonist of a novel.
Regarding the characteristics that Dickens gives Oliver, he is a kind and honest child, who, in spite of the abuse he is subjected to, is quick to forgive. He has the makings of a socially productive adult as he is keen to help those in need and has the ability to show gratitude to those who go out of their way to help him. He has compassion for those who have abused him and holds no grudges. Dickens has created an enviable human being, possessing only good qualities, as though he were a saint.
His personality is engaging: he is never aggressive, generally shy and quiet, and obliging. He has an affectionate nature that earns him the compassion and love of the good people he encounters.
As far as the reader is allowed into Oliver’s mind, what we see is a strong desire to learn something about his mother. He believes that she is watching over him, and intuitively feels that she must have been a good person. Even though Oliver is surrounded by evil it’s almost as though he doesn’t recognise it, so far above it, and saintly, he is.
That’s our Oliver Twist character analysis. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!