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Oliver Twist - Success and EthicsOliver Twist - Success and Ethics


Oliver Twist (1837-9)


Written by the Englishman, Charles Dickens (1812-70), pictured right.


Fun facts

  • First published in monthly parts.
  • The Oscar winning 1968 film and stage musical, Oliver!, starred Ron Moody as Fagin.
  • Dickens named Fagin after his despised supervisor at the shoe blacking factory where he worked briefly as a boy.


Key characters

Oliver Twist, orphan boy

Fagin, the head of a gang of boy pickpockets

The Artful Dodger (Jack Dawkins), one of the pickpockets

Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar

Nancy, Sikes’s lover


The storyOliver Twist - Success and Ethics

Oliver, a poor orphan, is born and lives in the workhouse after his mother dies in childbirth. He is looked after by Mrs. Mann and  Mr. Bumble whom he famously asks for more food (pictured right in the 1948 film).

He is badly treated and fares no better as an apprentice to an undertaker.

Oliver runs away to Barnet, near London, where he is picked up by Jack Dawkins (the Artful Dodger), a pickpocket in Fagin’s gang.

After being rescued by the kind Mr Brownlow, he is re-captured by:

  • Bill Sikes (an acquaintance of Fagin).
  • Nancy (Sikes' girlfriend and Oliver's kind friend).

Oliver takes part in a burglary with Sikes and gets shot. The lady of the burgled house, Mrs Maylie, is horrified to find that the wounded thief is only a child. So she and Rose, her adopted daughter, take care of him.Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics

But Fagin, Sikes and a mysterious man called Monks, are determined to capture him again. Nancy bravely tells Rose and Mr Brownlow about his plan and where to find Monks.

Sikes discovers Nancy’s betrayal, brutally murders her and then, guilt-ridden and pursued by an angry mob, inadvertently hangs himself.

Mr Brownlow forces Monks to reveal himself as Oliver’s half-brother. His father had an affair with Oliver’s mother, and Monks was trying to stop Oliver getting his share of the family inheritance.

Mr Brownlow makes sure that Oliver gets this money and adopts him. They live happily with the Maylies, having discovered that Rose is Oliver’s aunt.

Fagin is caught and hung for his crimes.


Lessons for success and ethics


1. Protect the poor

The book attacks the view (held by many rich people in Dickens’ time) that the poor are

  • inferior.
  • lazy. Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics
  • immoral.

Instead they;

  • are victims of their circumstances (like the children in the workhouse and Fagin’s gang).
  • can become successful (if given the opportunity like Oliver, pictured right - Mark Lester in the 1968 musical).

The workhouses for the poor were horrible and degrading, and many people preferred to die in the streets than go there.

 Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics

2. Stand up for your principles

Nancy (Shani Wallis, pictured right in the 1968 musical)  sacrifices her life for Oliver.

Rose persuades her aunt not to tell the police about Oliver’s theft, saying:

“Think how young he is, think he may never know a mother’s love”.


3. Long live loveOliver Twist - Success and Ethics

The book’s heroes are all kind and hate violence:

  • Oliver (pictured right with Bill Sikes, Robert Newton, in the 1948 film).
  • Mr. Brownlow.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Maylie.
  • Rose.
  • Nancy


4. Evil destroys people

Fagin and Monks are both destroyed by selfish greed.

Sikes (Oliver Reed, pictured right below in the 1968 musical) is mortified by his murder of Nancy.Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics


5. Snobbery stinks

Mr. Bumble has a miserable marriage because he married only for his wife’s money and social status. .

The same snobbishness nearly ruins the love between:

  • Rose, a poor orphan, and
  • Harry Maylie, Mrs Maylie’s son (who is rich and socially superior).

But they are happily married after Harry:

  • gives up a rich political career
  • becomes a church minister.


6. Beware of stereotypes

Dickens’ portrayal of the Jewish villain, Fagin, has been attacked as anti-Semitic.Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics

But Dickens pointed out that all the other wicked characters were Christian.

 Compare (pictured right) two Fagins - Ron Moody, left (1968 musical) and Alec Guinness (1948 film) 


7. Hate hypocrisy

Mr. Bumble  claims to be a good Christian but treats Oliver cruelly, refusing him more food.Oliver Twist - Success and Ethics

Bumble (Harry Secombe) is pictured right in the 1968 musical. 


8. Fate can be fatal or fantastic

We are driven by circumstance - Oliver is lucky but Nancy isn't.

“I am chained to my old life. I loathe it and hate it, but I cannot leave it”, she says.


Key quotes on happiness

Surprises, like misfortunes, seldom come alone.


Key quote on relationships

But tears were not the things to find their way to Mr Bumble’s soul: his heart was waterproof.


Key quote on the law

If the law supposes that ... the law is an ass - an idiot, Mr. Bumble


Key quote on death and bereavement

The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, Mr. Brownlow


Key quote on success

Self-preservation is the first law of nature, (referring to Oliver’s experience of pickpocketing)


Key quote on influencing people

Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.


Key quotes on health

Please, sir, I want some more, Oliver


Key quote on peace of mind

How slight a thing will disturb the equanimity of our frail minds!


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com

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