Death as a Theme in Charles Dickens Oliver Twist Term Paper

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Death as a Theme in Dickens's Oliver Twist

Death as a Theme in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist (1838), his second after his (considerably less dark) the Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) contains dominant themes of social evils and exploitation of the poor (Miller, 1987; Walder, 1993), among others. Another key theme that occurs very often in Oliver Twist, though, although perhaps less overt than some others, is one of death, i.e., including both literal and figurative descriptions, throughout the story, of various characters' deaths; near-deaths; or circumstances having to do with death. Thus within Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens starkly and vividly depicts the degraded and deprivation-filled lives of 1830's London's orphaned; indigent and abused children, and of the many other poor within the London at that time. Further, within this novel Dickens does so, especially, through his detailed and often poignant portrayals of myriad hardships and misfortunes of an orphaned child; thereby causing theme(s) of death and/or near-death, literally and/or figuratively, to be recurring ones within Oliver Twist.

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Dickens's Oliver Twist in fact begins with the author's somber description of the newborn, yet unnamed Oliver Twist: a sickly infant whose own survival for very long after his birth, within the workhouse where his mother has just borne him, then appeared doubtful. As Dickens states: "For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all (Oliver Twist).

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But the sickly infant does, somehow survive despite the fact that shortly after his birth "for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next" (Dickens, Oliver Twist). It is his mother who does not survive long after Oliver's birth. Only much beyond this point in his life will Oliver finally learn his true gentlemanly origins. But for now, especially with his mother also having now died, Oliver seems destined for a life of nothing but unceasing poverty and the continuous deprivation that characteristically dogs the poor of London - babies and small children included (Donovan, 1996; "Oliver Twist," 2005). In fact, the "death," figuratively speaking, of Oliver's own childhood is instantaneous once his mother passes away and he is sent away to the abusive environment of the "baby farm" and his first abusive caretaker Mrs. Mann.

Once there, Oliver endures a miserable and steadily abusive first nine years of childhood inside this "baby farm" mandated by the British Poor Laws of the time as shelters for indigent infants and younger children, apparently one of many such institutions that had in fact been brought about in the 1830's in response to England's Poor Laws (see Miller, 1987, p. 35). Then, when Oliver is first deemed old enough to work (at nine years old), Oliver is then sent to a workhouse for poor older boys, a place where all such boys are (quite literally) nearly starved to death (Donovan, 1968; Miller, 1987).

It is, of course, Oliver's mother's own death very early in the story that provides the earliest and essential conditions of possibility that propel the rest of story. Further, much later (and after many more of Dickens's descriptions of various characters' deaths and near-deaths) the novel concludes, finally, with Fagin, a career criminal and a chronic corrupter of the morals and ethics of young unfortunate boys like Oliver (Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, 1999, pp. 140-141) being hanged on the gallows.

Before that, though, the criminally-minded but good-hearted Nancy is ultimately murdered by the man she loves, Bill Sikes; and Oliver's half-brother Monks plots to kill Oliver, and would have indeed killed his younger half-brother in an instant if only possible. and, in addition to Dickens's numerous literal descriptions of the various deaths and/or would-be deaths of characters, the novel contains various "figurative" death or near-death descriptions on Dickens's part, thereby contributing much to the story's nearly-continuous atmosphere of dark tension; fearfulness and dread. For example, Oliver is nearly 'starved to death' throughout his childhood, first at the "baby farm," and then… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Death as a Theme in Charles Dickens Oliver Twist.  (2007, February 8).  Retrieved December 1, 2021, from

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"Death as a Theme in Charles Dickens Oliver Twist."  February 8, 2007.  Accessed December 1, 2021.