In 1839, Charles Dickens published Oliver Twist, a novel that depicts an accurate portrait of London’s criminal underworld throughout his young protagonist, Oliver. The success of Dickens’ Oliver Twist resides in its realistic portrayal of the degraded lives of the criminals that dwelled in nineteenth-century London, as well as in its criticism of the falsity and hypocrisy of the Victorian institutions.
When the novel was first published in 1839, critics complained about the graphic representation of violence, misery and thieves, to which Dickens replied in his Preface of Oliver Twist in 1858: “I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream”.
In this essay, I will attempt to analyse the criminal class that inhabited London by focusing on the following characters: Fagin, Sikes, Nancy and Monks. Finally, I will explain the socio-political circumstances associated with the early Victorian period which Dickens describes in Oliver Twist: the Poorlaws and workhouses; and, subsequently, I will address the question of how boys like Oliver were forced to become part of this underworld London.
Even if Oliver is the main protagonist of the story, Fagin, Nancy or Sikes allow Dickens to explore various issues of the early Victorian period such as criminality, abuse and poverty. In this part of the essay, I will focus on the description of these characters mentioned above, as they represent a precise depiction of the underworld.
After running away from Mr Sowerberry, Oliver walks to London until he encounters Jack Hawkins, also known as Artful Dodger, a young delinquent who introduces him to Fagin, otherwise known as the Jew, and his gang of pickpockets. Fagin’s physical appearance was created to produce immediate disgust, as we can observe in this fragment:…and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hands, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair (Dickens 72).
With this description, Charles Dickens ensures that the readers’ first impression would be negative and unpleasant, as well as he provides them with a real representation of an underworld criminal. In addition, the detailed description of Fagin’s dirty hideout introduces the readers to a world of poverty and misery, but also to a world of lies where first impressions are crucial.
The next character I would like to present is Nancy, who is introduced to another young lady called Bet. Dickens depicts them as “not exactly pretty … but they had a great deal of colour in their faces”. Later, Dickens points out their “free and agreeable manners”, which indicates that they are probably mistresses. Based on this portrayal, we can conclude that Nancy is a fallen woman, a woman who transgresses the Victorian conceptions of femininity and domesticity.
As the novel progresses, readers realize that Nancy is a victim of the bad environment in which she has grown up: living in Fagin’s house and being the mistress of another wicked man, Sikes. However, there is still goodness in her, as she acts like a mother to Oliver and warns Rose about Fagin and Monks’ plans of kidnapping him. In conclusion, Nancy’s character is used to portray the unfair circumstances of the lower-class women during Victorian times.
In contrast to Nancy, Bill Sikes is one of Dickens’ nastiest characters. A member of Fagin’s gang and Nancy’s lover, he is described as a cruel and violent man who mistreats Nancy and his dog, Bull’s-eye, without remorse. As the novel progress, Sikes’ violent behaviour increases until he finally ends up murdering Nancy when he finds out that she has betrayed him. Dickens did not make him a redeemable character, and, in the end, his death will be as brutal as his behaviour: he hangs himself while trying to escape from the police.
Even if he did not belong to the underworld, I would like to focus on Edward Leeford, also known as Monks, as he represents how a character can be evil even if they have grown up in a suitable environment. Monks are Oliver’s half-brother, and though he has grown up in a comfortable environment, Monks will put his own wounded feelings before anything else, and that is the reason why Monks perfectly illustrates that more than poverty and a bad environment is required to become a criminal.
And now, I will like to focus on the description upon the contemporary issues of the Victorian era, such as The Poor Law Amendment Act, which was introduced in England just three years before Oliver Twist’s publication; and the Workhouses, “an institution that was intended to provide work and shelter for poverty-stricken people who had no means to support themselves.”
Through the novel, Dickens points out the deficiencies of the workhouse system. Thus, there is no coincidence that Oliver Twist opens with the description of a workhouse in which Oliver has been born:
Among other public buildings in the town of Mudfog, it boasts of one which is common to most towns great or small, to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse, there was born on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, (…) the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
As children feared workhouses’ harsh living conditions, a life of delinquency was the only option left for them. This is the case of Oliver but, sadly, for many other orphan boys who were taught to steal, and later caught and brought in front of a judge. Dickens was aware of this situation while he was in the process of writing Oliver Twist, so he might have been interested in portraying these public punishments to children as he did with Dodger, when he is taken into custody for being in possession of a silver-snuff box.
Even though Oliver’s ending is a happy one, the question that still remains is: if Oliver had been a regular orphan boy, would have he become part of the London underworld? In my opinion, Oliver would have become a thief, even against his own will, because he would not have had a better option.
In conclusion, Dickens’ Oliver Twist is a novel that clearly portrays how the London underworld worked, thanks to remarkable characters such as Fagin, Nancy or Sikes; its realistic description of London, depicted as a cruel and miserable place; and the scenes of crime and negligence, which were a crucial part of the misfortunes of the inhabitants of the underworld.