Oliver Twist is perhaps Charles Dickens’s most famous novel. It first appeared in instalments in 1837 and was later published as a book. The novel fictionalises the economic insecurity and humiliation the novelist himself experienced when he was a boy.
The name Twist, given to the protagonist by accident, represents the disgraceful reversals of fortune that he will experience. Oliver Twist is a poor orphan who is brought up in a workhouse in an inhuman way, he is underfed and receives no education. He is later sold to an undertaker as an apprentice, but the cruelty of his new master force him to run away to London. There he falls into the hands of a nasty gang of young pickpockets led by Fagin, an old Jew who is one of Dickens’s best characterizations. They force Oliver to help them in their criminal activities. The boy is temporarily rescued by Mr Brownlow, a benevolent gentleman. Then Oliver is kidnapped by the gang. After many incidents, the gang is eventually caught by the police. Mr Brownlow adopts Oliver and shows kindness and affection towards him.
Oliver Twist is a perfect example of the best qualities of Dickens’s art: he combines the sentimental, melodramatic story of an orphan child exploited by a gang of thieves with social realism and satire. This enables him to deal with important social issues, such as the 1834 Poor Law which assigned poor people to workhouses in which living conditions resembled those of a prison - labour was required, families were almost always separated and rations of food and clothing were scanty. Moreover, as Dickens points out, instead of alleviating the sufferings of the poor, the officials who ran workhouses, abused their rights as individuals and caused them further misery. Dickens is also very good at mixing social criticism with lively portraits of universal characters, combining the pathetic with the comic - he succeeds in drawing popular attention to public abuses, evils and wrongs by mingling terrible descriptions of London misery and crime with the most amusing sketches of the vast, crowded city.