One of the chief features that helm Dickens’s skill as a novelist is his poignant characterization. And Oliver Twist, with its host of realistic, complicated, vibrant characters, reflecting vividly the then sordid London, is no exception. Dickens intended his work to effectively mirror society; consequently, we have characters that are stripped of all romantic illusions, they behave as they actually are, thereby imbibing the crucial element of new realism.
A Study of the Major Characters
Dickens’s sole idea behind the creation of the main character, Oliver Twist, was to uphold the age-old belief of good triumphing over evil. It is seen that Oliver, an orphan, born and brought up in a warehouse, does not allow himself to be swayed away by vile temptations. When The Dodger asks him to steal money from Mr. Brownlow, he cannot do so. Again he abstains from breaking into Mrs. Maylie’s house. It is his innocence that proves to be his boon, thereby allowing chances of his development. Thus, both Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie believe him, despite discovering him amidst criminal circumstances. To some extent, Oliver’s modesty seems farfetched. But, taking into consideration the period of the novel’s composition and the principle behind his creation, it is justified. Oliver’s pressing situations, his stubbornness in remaining moralistic, earn him the reader’s sympathy.
If Oliver epitomizes truthfulness and chastity, Fagin stands for all that vile and corrupt. A crafty, scheming Jew, he makes children follow a life of crime, only to revel in the wealth, procured by them. And he does not feel a wee bit repentant. He lives a selfish life and is inhumanly bent upon securing his objective. He sets Noah Claypole as a spy to watch over Nancy’s actions, to serve his purpose of using her against the man he fears, Bill Sikes. But, when he discovers that she is in fact, loyal to Sikes, he infuriates him against Nancy by accusing her of betraying him. He remains unmoved till the end, sadistically supporting his rotten ideas and actions.
Though Nancy is a minor character, yet she serves an important role in the progression of the plot; she reveals the plot of Monks and Fagin so as to warn Oliver. Nancy’s character is unmistakably the most shaded one in the novel; despite leading a criminal life, she bears a compassionate heart and even loathes her situation. In this context, it’s important to note that the words “whore” or “prostitute” are never used by Dickens in her descriptions. This is because, in keeping with the temperament of his age, Dickens wanted his readers to sympathize with Nancy, something which had been prevented, had her base profession been made public before the upstanding Victorians. Nancy does not embrace the prospect of a better lifestyle offered by Rose Maylie or Mr. Brownlow. Having resigned to her fate, she faces a gruesome death at the hands of her lover, Bill Sikes.
Oliver’s half-brother, Monks, appears to be a willed victim of malice. It is his indomitable spite that propels him to hire Fagin so as to ruin Oliver’s character, conveniently following his father’s will, which says that Oliver would not receive any money if his character is found questionable. His villainous mind gets aptly reflected by his hideous disease, (fits) and distorted face. However, as goes the saying, evil begets evil, his heinous ministrations are found out by Mr. Brownlow, and he finally ends up in prison in America.
Dickens’s personal views regarding the creation of a stubborn villain as Bill Sikes was plain and straightforward – through him, offer a true image of the thugs of London. Yet, at some level, Sikes’s strength, his derision of Fagin, purely brutal ways, help him in earning a lot of admiration if not sympathy.
Among the virtuous characters of the novel, the primary one is Mr. Brownlow. He is the first person who is kind towards Oliver and provides him a decent lifestyle. He also never loses faith in Oliver, when the latter fails to return his books on time. A benevolent and upright man throughout, he reaffirms man’s inherent goodness.
Oliver’s long lost aunt, Rose Maylie, is another character, who stands as a foil against the host of morally corrupted characters of the novel. She has a humble origin, and it is this that urges her to have a soft corner for the helpless and the downtrodden; she requests her adopted mother to protect Oliver and later feels sorry for Nancy.
If the characters, Fagin, Monks or Mr. Brownlow efficiently uphold the novel’s seriousness, then the character who despite being crafty, helps in instilling the much-sought humor, is Mr. Bumble. A parish beadle by profession, he shamelessly misuses his position, relentlessly ill-treats Oliver and himself get beaten by his wife. And in the process, what he utters and how he behaves provides the novel its lightened mood.
A Sketch of Some of the Minor Characters
Mr. Brownlow’s friend, Mr. Grimwig succeeds in remaining alive in our memory by dint of his unique expression, “I’ll eat my head!” Invariably bent on speaking harshly, he conceals a soft heart within and wishes well for Oliver.
Noah Claypole, unlike Oliver, comfortably embraces evil ways and adds his vital input to the plot, when serving as Fagin’s spy, he informs him about Nancy’s meeting Rose and Mr. Brownlow. Being dominating and vain, he represents those unfortunate children of the Victorian Age, whose innocence had long left them to suffer in the wicked hands of treachery and falsehood. In the end, however, he gives witness against Fagin and becomes a police informer.
The Artful Dodger
Again the fact that intelligent and dedicated children were morally butchered by the flourishing slum houses and secretly active criminal gangs is effectively portrayed by the singularly striking behavior of The Artful Dodger. Originally known as Jack Dawkins, The Dodger’s chief work concerns selecting abandoned kids and luring them into the gang. He depicts his unwavering honesty to Fagin when, in spite of being repeatedly questioned, he does not blame the latter for having him brought into the path of crime. And, it is his sauciness and rigidity that compel the reader to think about the various possibilities how he might have proved worthy, had he chosen an unsoiled life.
Dickens’s characters, with their candid realism, dynamic characteristics, were a shock to the prudent Victorians. However, they were also engaging and endearing; something that has aided them to remain immortal even today.