Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist, born into a workhouse and orphaned at birth, escapes to London at the age of ten. The innocent Oliver becomes friends with young Jack Dawkins, who teaches him survival skills. 

Oliver’s corrupting influences grow when Jack draws him into a gang of juvenile pickpockets, tutored by the unscrupulous Fagin. For a boy who has only been taught wrong, Oliver must cling to what he believes is right.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

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Plot Summary

A young orphan suffers a life of abuse and crime until he is adopted by a kind old man and inherits money that bad been willed to him by his father.

Chapters 1–3 

In the early 1800s, a young woman whose features indicate high birth arrives penniless and exhausted at a workhouse (a place where poor people are given work) in a small English town north of London. 

She gives birth to a boy and then dies. The child is given the name Oliver Twist and is put into a workhouse orphanage run by the ill-natured Mrs. Corney. At age nine, Oliver is transferred to the workhouse itself by Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle (i.e., a minor church officer). At the workhouse, where all the young boys are mistreated and half-starved, the boys draw straws and Oliver is designated as the spokesperson who must ask for more gruel (“Please, sir, I want some more”).

His request shocks the authorities, who decide to put him in solitary confinement and offer five pounds to anyone who will take him away.

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Chapters 4–7 

Oliver soon becomes apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, the local undertaker. When Oliver arrives at Sowerberry’s home, he is placed under the supervision of the unpleasant Mrs. Sowerberry and her mean servant girl, Charlotte. Both mistreat Oliver, giving him meat scraps usually reserved for the dog, and having him sleep under a counter in the coffin display room. 

The next day, Oliver experiences even worse treatment at the hands of Noah Claypole, a charity boy also employed by Mr. Sowerberry. About a month later Oliver is trained as a “mute” or silent attendant at children’s funerals. 

After many months of abuse, Oliver can no longer stand the insults that Claypole makes concerning Oliver’s dead mother, so he attacks Claypole and is punished by being locked in a cellar by Mrs. Sowerberry. Mr. Bumble is summoned, but can offer no solutions. Finally, Oliver runs away to London.

Chapters 8–11 

After a week of walking and begging, Oliver reaches the outskirts of London and runs into Jack Dawkins, who likes to be called “the Artful Dodger.” The Dodger, who is Oliver’s age, leads him through filthy streets and back alleys to the London home of a Jewish crook named Fagin (Dickens calls him “the Jew”), who will give Oliver lodgings “and never ask for the change.” 

Oliver learns that the Artful Dodger is a member of a pickpocket gang of children run by Fagin. On the first morning of his stay at Fagin’s den, Oliver awakes to discover Fagin poring over glittering jewels that he keeps hidden in a small box. 

Fagin threatens Oliver with a knife for spying on him, but later acts jovially as he and his gang instruct Oliver in the pickpocket scheme.

Both the Dodger and Charley Bates, another apprentice thief in the gang, serve as models for Oliver in his training. Oliver spends days perfecting his ability and is then sent out with the other two boys for his first actual contact with a victim.

But Oliver is horrified when he sees the Dodger pick the pocket of an old gentleman browsing through books at an outdoor bookstall. Frightened and confused, Oliver runs away from the scene, but an angry mob of people corner him, suspecting that Oliver is the thief. The crowd will not listen to Oliver’s pleas of innocence, so he is locked in jail. 

At Oliver’s trial, presided over by a cruel judge, Mr. Fang—who refuses to give Oliver a fair hearing—old Mr. Brownlow, the pickpocket victim, is convinced that Oliver could not have been one of the robbers. Rather than press charges, he takes Oliver home with him.

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Chapters 12–22 

Oliver becomes ill but is nursed back to health by Mr. Brownlow and his friendly housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin. For the first time in his life, Oliver is treated with kindness and compassion. But Fagin and his gang plot to recapture Oliver. When Oliver runs an errand for Mr. Brownlow, he is captured by Nancy, a young prostitute associated with Fagin’s gang. 

She takes Oliver to a boarded-up shop, where he meets Fagin, the Dodger, and Charley Bates once again. They strip him of his new clothes and money, but Oliver makes a sudden dash to escape. He is recaptured, but Nancy protects him when Fagin wants to club him as punishment. He is then locked up for the night.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bumble notices a reward offered by the kindly Mr. Brownlow for information about Oliver. Bumble goes to Brownlow’s house and informs him of Oliver’s lowly background and “vicious” behavior. Brownlow, disappointed, never wants to think of Oliver again, but his housekeeper refuses to believe that Oliver is bad.

For a week, Fagin keeps Oliver confined but sends members of his gang in to visit Oliver and convince him that the life of crime is rewarding. Even Fagin visits him, and in his kindest way tries to make Oliver feel at home again. 

The reason for this behavior is that Nancy’s lover, a brutal thug and housebreaker named Bill Sikes, is planning a robbery at a house and needs someone as small as Oliver to enter through a tiny window. Nancy continues to help Sikes, but tells Oliver that one day she will help him escape. In the middle of the night, Sikes and his henchmen take Oliver to the house in Chertsey that will be robbed.

Sikes pushes Oliver through the small window, but once inside Oliver cries out in hopes of warning the people inside. Shots are fired, Oliver is wounded, and he loses consciousness as the gang drags him from the house.

Chapters 23–27 

To prolong the suspense, Dickens does not immediately reveal Oliver’s fate after being wounded, but instead changes the scene back to the workhouse where Oliver was born. Mrs. Corney, the matron there, is being wooed by Mr. Bumble, for Bumble decides that this widow has ample material possessions that would become his in the marriage. 

During the wooing, Mrs. Corney is called away to tend to old Sally Thingummy, the midwife who was present at Oliver’s birth and who is now on her deathbed. 

Before old Sally dies, she informs Mrs. Corney that she had stolen a locket and ring from Oliver’s dying mother many years ago and has the pawn ticket for the items in her hand.

Meanwhile, Fagin is frantic because he has not heard from Sikes or Oliver since the robbery. He inquires at numerous places, including Nancy’s, but learns nothing. Returning home at midnight, Fagin meets a man who whispers to him from the shadows; Monks, as he is named, has some early connection with Oliver and is angry because Fagin had not kept Oliver and made him a pickpocket. It is clear that Fagin and Monks have “business” dealings together.

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Chapters 28–32 

Only now does Dickens return to the night of the robbery and reveal that the wounded Oliver had been left in a ditch while Sikes and the others fled. Oliver crawls back to the house where the robbery took place. 

There, the friendly owner, Mrs. Maylie, and her adopted daughter, Rose Maylie, take him in and send for the doctor, Mr. Losberne (in England, physicians generally do not use the title “Doctor”). Dickens introduces some comic relief with Giles and Brittles, servants at the Maylie house who brag of their bravery during the robbery in capturing the “dangerous” Oliver. 

Upon hearing Oliver’s story, Rose Maylie believes that he could not possibly be a criminal and insists on his living with them. Dickens then offers a humorous caricature of Blathers and Duff, two incompetent detectives who come to investigate the burglary. 

When Oliver recovers from his wound, he tries to seek out Mr. Brownlow again but discovers that the old gentleman, his friend Mr. Grimwig, and Mrs. Bedwin have moved to the West Indies.

Chapters 33–36 

Rose Maylie suddenly becomes ill and it appears that she will die. Mrs. Maylie’s 25-year-old son, Harry Maylie, arrives from the country, having been summoned by his mother. After several days of high fever, Rose gradually returns to health. Harry, who has loved Rose for years, asks her to marry him. 

But Rose, adopted years ago by Mrs. Maylie from a baby farm, fears that she may be illegitimate; she therefore declines his proposal until she can discover who her real parents were. This way, she will not risk bringing disgrace on the Maylie family.

For Oliver, life with the Maylies is as wonderful as his brief stay at Mr. Brownlow’s. But one night, Oliver is suddenly awakened by a nightmare in which he dreams that he has been imprisoned at Fagin’s house. To his horror, he looks out his window, after awakening, and sees Fagin and Monks peering through the Maylies’ window at him.

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Chapters 37–41 

Meanwhile, at the workhouse, Mr. Bumble regrets his decision to marry Mrs. Corney. After only two months of marriage, he has become completely henpecked and even abused. 

One night, Monks, who wants to know about “the hag that nursed Oliver’s mother years ago at the workhouse,” meets with Bumble and his wife at an abandoned building by the waterfront.

Monks pays Mrs. Bumble 25 pounds in exchange for her telling him what old Sally had revealed about Oliver’s mother. She complies, but also gives Monks the items she had redeemed with the pawn ticket—a gold locket with two locks of hair and a gold wedding ring engraved with the name AGNES. 

Monks, who wants to destroy any evidence that may identify Oliver’s mother, immediately drops the items through a trapdoor into the river below.

Since his escape from the robbery, Bill Sikes has been cared for by Nancy in an undesirable room near his former habitation. The evening after Monks meets with the Bumbles, Nancy goes to Fagin’s house to collect Bill Sikes’s pay.

There, she is disturbed by a conversation she overhears between Fagin and Monks. She quickly returns home and slips a sleeping potion into Sikes’s drink so that she can sneak out and visit Rose Maylie. 

Rose has never met Nancy, but treats her kindly. Nancy tells her all she knows about Oliver’s background, including the fact that Monks is Oliver’s half brother and that Monks has paid Fagin to turn Oliver into a thief—for reasons yet to be revealed. 

Rose swears that she will keep Nancy’s revelation a secret, and begs Nancy to stay with her, promising protection. Nancy refuses, knowing that she cannot leave Sikes since this would arouse suspicion. Rose and the doctor, Mr. Losberne, promise Nancy that if Monks is brought to justice, Fagin and Sikes will not be arrested. 

Nancy says that she can be found walking on London Bridge every Sunday night from 11:00 P.M. until midnight. Later, when Rose hears that Mr. Brownlow has returned from the West Indies, she arranges for the joyful reunion of Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin with Oliver. She then reveals to Brownlow all that Nancy has told her.

Chapters 42–47 

Noah Claypole and Charlotte, Mrs. Sowerberry’s nasty servant girl, have robbed the Sowerberrys and arrive at the Three Cripples, a London public house (i.e., bar). Fagin overhears Claypole boast about his crimes, and convinces Noah to work for him. Because Noah is an unknown face, Fagin sends him to the trial of the Artful Dodger, who has been accused of pickpocketing. 

There, Noah—who now uses the assumed name of Morris Bolter—watches the Dodger make a complete shambles of the judicial proceedings. In the meantime, Nancy has behaved peculiarly for a few days, which causes Fagin and Sikes to become suspicious. 

On Sunday night, Sikes forces her to stay home with him instead of going out as she wishes to do. Nancy therefore misses a chance to speak with Rose Maylie on London Bridge.

The following Sunday night, Fagin sends Noah, now in his gang, to spy on Nancy, since he believes that she is about to betray them. Noah trails Nancy to the steps of London Bridge, where he overhears her tell Rose the whereabouts of all the gang members, except Sikes. 

He reports this conversation to Fagin, who repeats it with fanatic intensity to Sikes. Sikes, enraged over Nancy’s treachery, rushes back to his own room, where he finds Nancy asleep on the bed. He awakens her, then clubs her to death.

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Chapters 48–50 

Sikes flees to the countryside north of London, suffering hallucinations caused by fear and conscience. But he later decides that London is the best place to hide, so he returns to his old neighborhood, followed by his faithful dog, Bull’s Eye. 

He tries to drown the dog because the animal could jeopardize him by revealing his identity. But Bull’s Eye escapes and returns to the gang’s headquarters. When Sikes discovers that there has been a police raid in which Fagin and Noah Claypole have been arrested, he attempts to flee across the roofs. 

While using a rope to lower himself from a rooftop, he loses his balance and falls to his death, hanging himself. Bull’s Eye, who has been following his brutal master, tries to leap for the dead man’s shoulders and falls to his own death.

Chapters 51–53 

Oliver is once again in the care of Mr. Brownlow, who begins to explain the plots planned against the boy. Monks, who has confessed all that he knows to the police, turns out to be Edward Leeford, Oliver’s half brother (their father having seduced Agnes Fleming, Oliver’s mother, while still married to Leeford’s mother). 

The provisions in the father’s will state that Oliver can collect his inheritance only if his reputation is spotless; thus, Monks has tried to keep Oliver in Fagin’s gang in order to discredit him, thereby inheriting all the money himself. Moreover, it is discovered that Oliver’s dead mother and Rose Maylie were sisters, and that Rose is therefore legitimate. This clears the way for Rose to marry Harry Maylie.

Fagin is put on trial for his heinous crimes, and the jury finds him guilty. He is hanged, but only after revealing to Oliver that the papers which Monks had entrusted to him, explaining Oliver’s heritage, are in a canvas bag in Fagin’s house. 

Soon afterward, the Artful Dodger is deported from England, but Charley Bates reforms himself and Noah Claypole receives a full pardon since he has testified against Fagin for the Crown. Monks receives his share of the legacy, goes to America and becomes bankrupt, resumes a life of crime, and dies in jail there. Mr. and Mrs. 

Bumble are convicted for their role in the plot against Oliver; they lose their position of trust, and become inmates in the very workhouse that they had once run so tyrannically. Oliver, now a young teenager, is adopted by Mr. Brownlow, and Rose marries Harry Maylie, who becomes a country clergyman.

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Key Characters

Oliver Twist: Child hero of the novel who represents pure innocence. However, he may seem rather one-dimensional and unrealistic as he is a pawn in the struggle of good vs. evil and has little role in determining his own future. Throughout much of the novel, he remains passive, but finds happiness in the end.

Fagin: A hideous old Jewish crook who deals in stolen goods and trains boys to be pickpockets. Though evil, Fagin is clever and imaginative. He fails to convert Oliver to a life of crime and is caught and hanged. Dickens’s anti-Semitic portrait of Fagin would not have offended his 19th-century Christian readers as it does modern readers.

Nancy: A prostitute who shares her life with Bill Sikes. Though a member of Fagin’s group, she has compassion for Oliver and tries to help him. When she is caught betraying the gang to ensure Oliver’s escape to a better life, she is brutally murdered by Sikes. Through her character, Dickens emphasizes that goodness and sacrifice can be found in even the most wretched circumstances.

Bill Sikes: A brutal robber involved with Fagin. His evil is more vicious than Fagin’s, and Dickens does not treat him with any humor or lightness. He murders Nancy and is tracked down by an angry mob. He accidentally hangs himself while trying to escape and is followed everywhere by his dog, Bull’s Eye.

The Artful Dodger (Jack Dawkins): A streetwise boy from Fagin’s gang who befriends Oliver.

Brownlow: A kindly old gentleman who rescues Oliver when he is unjustly accused of robbery and adopts Oliver in the end.

Bumble: A fat parish beadle (i.e., a minor church officer) who marries Mrs. Corney for her money but ends up a miserable pauper.

Noah Claypole: A brutal charity boy who is apprenticed to the same man as Oliver. He treats Oliver viciously and later betrays Nancy to Fagin.

Rose Maylie: A kind young woman who helps Oliver. She fears she is illegitimate and, therefore, refuses to marry Harry Maylie (son of her adoptive mother). Later, she discovers that she is the sister of Oliver’s late mother and marries Harry.

Themes and Ideas

1. Social Criticism

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens passionately criticizes the harsh and unfair treatment of the poor by society. He directs his ire towards the new Poor Law of 1834, which deemed poverty a crime and relegated the destitute to miserable workhouses.

Dickens vividly depicts the inhumane conditions of these workhouses, as experienced by Oliver and others. Though realism is not the dominant style of the novel, the author emphasizes the importance of moral justice. Evil is ultimately defeated and punished in the end.

2. Mistreated Child

Oliver Twist is the first English novel to feature a child as the title character. Dickens uses Oliver’s plight to highlight the suffering of innocent children across England. Throughout his works, the author employs pathetic child characters to elicit strong emotions and inspire social reform.

Dickens saw the English government as a bad parent, with all of its citizens mistreating the children of this neglectful parent. Although some may view the portrayal of Dickens’ pathetic children as sentimentalized, the novel was groundbreaking for its use of children and their vulnerability.

3. Death

The death of Oliver’s mother during childbirth initiates the novel’s plot. Death is a recurring theme throughout Oliver Twist, with Dickens introducing Oliver to it early on in the story. Oliver’s apprenticeship to the undertaker Sowerberry brings him even closer to the idea of death.

Threats of death continue as Fagin wields a bread knife to scare Oliver into silence. Old Sally’s deathbed scene reveals significant plot secrets, while Nancy’s dramatic death at the hands of Bill Sikes contributes to the novel’s dark and threatening atmosphere. Dickens aims to demonstrate to readers that death is a constant companion to the poor and unfortunate.

4. Parentage

Oliver Twist is structured around Oliver’s gradual discovery of his true identity. He lives with both evil, false families (Fagin’s gang) and loving, true ones (Mr. Brownlow, the Maylies) before uncovering his actual parentage. The theme of parentage is further explored through Rose Maylie’s fear of illegitimacy. Dickens ultimately rewards the virtuous characters with the discovery of their upper-class ancestors and parents.

5. Satire of England’s Legal System

As a former court reporter, Dickens witnessed the injustices of the law and its practitioners firsthand. In Oliver Twist, he specifically targets the legal system’s prejudice against the poor through the cruel judge Mr. Fang, who denies Oliver the right to a fair defence.

The trial of the Artful Dodger is a comical send-up of the law’s pretentiousness. Dickens aims to expose the inadequacy and absurdity of the legal system of his time.

6. Dreams vs. Reality

After being rescued from Fagin’s gang, Oliver is transported into the caring homes of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies while unconscious and ill. When he awakens, he realizes that his pleasant dreams have become a reality.

In a powerful reversal of this pattern, Oliver dreams of Fagin spying on him while safe at the Maylies’ home, only to wake up and discover Fagin peering in his window. Dickens blurs the lines between dream and reality to heighten the novel’s suspense.

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1. An Engaging Plot

The story of “Oliver Twist” is an engaging one that follows the life of an orphan boy who is sold to an undertaker and mistreated until he runs away to London. The tale takes a number of unexpected turns, with Oliver falling in with a gang of thieves before being rescued by the man who was his father’s best friend.

The story is full of reversals of fortune and coincidences that keep readers hooked till the end. While the novel has a happy ending, there are also moments of genuine tragedy that tug at the heartstrings.

2. Memorable Characters

Another aspect of “Oliver Twist” that I love is the memorable characters that populate the novel. From the titular character of Oliver himself to the conniving Fagin and the brutal Bill Sikes, Dickens has created a cast of characters that are both unique and compelling. Even minor characters like Charley, who reforms and leaves London to become a grazier, leave a lasting impression on the reader.

3. Dickens’ Writing Style

Finally, I appreciate Dickens’ writing style in “Oliver Twist”. Though some may find Victorian fiction ornate and verbose, I find it delightful. Dickens’ wry and ironic sense of humor shines through in his writing, and his sentimental moments are balanced by a sense of realism that keeps the story grounded.

Furthermore, the book was written in serial form, which allowed Dickens to gauge the reception of his work with his readers and revise the story accordingly. This process of refinement resulted in a story that is both polished and accessible to a wide audience.


1. Contrived Coincidences

One of the first things that may strike readers of Oliver Twist is the number of coincidences in the plot. While life does indeed have its share of serendipitous moments, it can be argued that the number of connections between Oliver’s life and his tragic birth feels contrived.

It seems as though every person in Oliver’s life is somehow connected directly back to his past, making the story feel less authentic and more like a contrived melodrama.

2. Dated Depictions of Social and Racial Issues

Another issue that some readers have with Oliver Twist is the way that social and racial issues are depicted in the novel. The character of Fagin, frequently described as “the Jew,” is portrayed as evil incarnate, which can be seen as a blatant anti-Semitic depiction.

Moreover, the social and racial bumbling throughout the novel makes it feel dated, which may make it difficult for modern readers to relate to the story.

3. Inflated Dialog and Poor Editing

Finally, some readers have pointed out issues with the writing style and editing of Oliver Twist. The dialog in the novel can be described as stunningly saccharine and inflated, which may make it difficult for some readers to connect with the characters.

Furthermore, the editing in some editions of the book can be poor, with the wrong form of a word used multiple times and a random sprinkling of punctuation marks throughout the text. This can make it frustrating for readers to make sense of what they are reading.


“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens is not just a classic piece of literature but also a powerful commentary on the enduring problem of poverty and its impact on society.

Through vivid descriptions of the filth, crime, and hopelessness of the poor in mid-1800s London, Dickens reminds us that poverty is not just an economic issue, but a moral one as well.

His portrayal of the public outrage and determination to bring justice for the murder of a poverty-stricken woman stands in stark contrast to the indifference and neglect that too often characterizes our response to similar tragedies today.

Despite its challenges in terms of language and cultural differences, I highly recommend “Oliver Twist” as a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the complexity of poverty and its impact on society across time and place.

As we grapple with these same issues in our own time, Dickens’ insights and lessons remain as relevant and urgent as ever.

About The Author

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 near Portsmouth where his father was a clerk in the navy pay office. The family moved to London in 1823, but their fortunes were severely impaired. Dickens was sent to work in a blacking-warehouse when his father was imprisoned for debt. Both experiences deeply affected the future novelist. 

In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines, and in 1836 started the serial publication of Pickwick Papers. 

Thereafter, Dickens published his major novels over the course of the next twenty years, from Nicholas Nickleby to Little Dorrit. He also edited the journals Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens died in June 1870.

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