This tale of the orphan who is reared in a workhouse and runs away to London is a novel of social protest, a morality tale, and a detective story. Oliver Twist presents some of the most sinister characters in Dickens: the master thief, Fagin; the leering Artful Dodger; the murderer, Bill Sikes…along with some of his most sentimental and comical characters. Only Dickens can give us nightmare and daydream together.
According to George Orwell, “in Oliver Twist…Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have welcomed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.”
With an Introduction by Frederick Busch
and an Afterword by Edward Le Comte
About the Author
Distinguished writer, teacher, and critic Frederick Busch is the author of more than twenty works of fiction, including North, Girls, and The Mutual Friend, a novel about Charles Dickens.
Edward Le Comte (1916-2004) was professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany, and he also taught at Columbia, his alma mater, and the University of California at Berkley. He was the author of more than twenty books, including novels, a biography of John Donne, and two memoirs. His specialty, both in teaching and in numerous influential articles and books, was Milton.
Date of Birth:February 7, 1812
Date of Death:June 18, 1870
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, England
Place of Death:Gad's Hill, Kent, England
Education:Home-schooling; attended Dame School at Chatham briefly and Wellington
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Excerpted from "Oliver Twist"
Copyright © 2005 Charles Dickens.
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Table of Contents
Chronology of Dickens's Life and Work
Historical Context of Oliver Twist
Questions for Discussion
Suggestions for the Interested Reader
Reading Group Guide
1. Oliver Twist has been called a social satire, a melodrama, a cheaply sentimental novel, and a masterpiece. How would you categorize the novel and why?
2. Some critics have observed that Oliver Twist is merely a passive pawn in the deadly match between good and evil. It is further stipulated that the “good” characters, such as Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies, pale in comparison to the villains Fagan and Bill Sikes. Do you agree? Which characters are the most vivid and why?
3. According to the novelist George Gissing, “Oliver Twist had a twofold moral purpose: to exhibit the evil working of the Poor Law Act, and to give a faithful picture of the life of thieves in London.” How effective is Dickens in capturing these two worlds and what is the relationship between them? How does the author use social satire to advocate social reform?
4. In The Author’s Preface to the Third Edition Dickens staunchly defends his decision to depict low-life characters in a realistic manner. Drawing on the author’s arguments, what can you glean about Victorian sensibilities at the time Oliver Twist was published?
5. In 1863, a reader chided Dickens for his anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin. Dickens responded, “If there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people, that I have done them what you describe as ‘a great wrong,’ they are a far less sensible people than I have always supposed them to be . . . Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a Jew, because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” Should novelists be held accountable for invoking negative stereotypes? Can you think of additional examples of stereotypes in classic literature? Discuss.