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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Failure of Charity

Much of the first part of Oliver Twist challenges the organizations of charity run by the church and the government in Dickens’s time. The system Dickens describes was put into place by the Poor Law of 1834, which stipulated that the poor could only receive government assistance if they moved into government workhouses. Residents of those workhouses were essentially inmates whose rights were severely curtailed by a host of onerous regulations. Labor was required, families were almost always separated, and rations of food and clothing were meager. The workhouses operated on the principle that poverty was the consequence of laziness and that the dreadful conditions in the workhouse would inspire the poor to better their own circumstances. Yet the economic dislocation of the Industrial Revolution made it impossible for many to do so, and the workhouses did not provide any means for social or economic betterment. Furthermore, as Dickens points out, the officials who ran the workhouses blatantly violated the values they preached to the poor. Dickens describes with great sarcasm the greed, laziness, and arrogance of charitable workers like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann. In general, charitable institutions only reproduced the awful conditions in which the poor would live anyway. As Dickens puts it, the poor choose between “being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.”

The Folly of Individualism

With the rise of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution, individualism was very much in vogue as a philosophy. Victorian capitalists believed that society would run most smoothly if individuals looked out for their own interests. Ironically, the clearest pronunciation of this philosophy comes not from a legitimate businessman but from Fagin, who operates in the illicit businesses of theft and prostitution. He tells Noah Claypole that “a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.” In other words, the group’s interests are best maintained if every individual looks out for “number one,” or himself. The folly of this philosophy is demonstrated at the end of the novel, when Nancy turns against Monks, Charley Bates turns against Sikes, and Monks turns against Mrs. Corney. Fagin’s unstable family, held together only by the self-interest of its members, is juxtaposed to the little society formed by Oliver, Brownlow, Rose Maylie, and their many friends. This second group is bound together not by concerns of self-interest but by “strong affection and humanity of heart,” the selfless devotion to each other that Dickens sees as the prerequisite for “perfect happiness.”

Purity in a Corrupt City

Throughout the novel, Dickens confronts the question of whether the terrible environments he depicts have the power to “blacken [the soul] and change its hue for ever.” By examining the fates of most of the characters, we can assume that his answer is that they do not. Certainly, characters like Sikes and Fagin seem to have sustained permanent damage to their moral sensibilities. Yet even Sikes has a conscience, which manifests itself in the apparition of Nancy’s eyes that haunts him after he murders her. Charley Bates maintains enough of a sense of decency to try to capture Sikes. Of course, Oliver is above any corruption, though the novel removes him from unhealthy environments relatively early in his life. Most telling of all is Nancy, who, though she considers herself “lost almost beyond redemption,” ends up making the ultimate sacrifice for a child she hardly knows. In contrast, Monks, perhaps the novel’s most inhuman villain, was brought up amid wealth and comfort.

The Countryside Idealized

All the injustices and privations suffered by the poor in Oliver Twist occur in cities—either the great city of London or the provincial city where Oliver is born. When the Maylies take Oliver to the countryside, he discovers a “new existence.” Dickens asserts that even people who have spent their entire lives in “close and noisy places” are likely, in the last moments of their lives, to find comfort in half--imagined memories “of sky, and hill and plain.” Moreover, country scenes have the potential to “purify our thoughts” and erase some of the vices that develop in the city. Hence, in the country, “the poor people [are] so neat and clean,” living a life that is free of the squalor that torments their urban counterparts. Oliver and his new family settle in a small village at the novel’s end, as if a happy ending would not be possible in the city. Dickens’s portrait of rural life in Oliver Twist is more approving yet far less realistic than his portrait of urban life. This fact does not contradict, but rather supports, the general estimation of Dickens as a great urban writer. It is precisely Dickens’s distance from the countryside that allows him to idealize it.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Disguised or Mistaken Identities

The plot of Oliver Twist revolves around the various false identities that other characters impose upon Oliver, often for the sake of advancing their own interests. Mr. Bumble and the other workhouse officials insist on portraying Oliver as something he is not—an ungrateful, immoral pauper. Monks does his best to conceal Oliver’s real identity so that Monks himself can claim Oliver’s rightful inheritance. Characters also disguise their own identities when it serves them well to do so. Nancy pretends to be Oliver’s middle-class sister in order to get him back to Fagin, while Monks changes his name and poses as a common criminal rather than the heir he really is. Scenes depicting the manipulation of clothing indicate how it plays an important part in the construction of various characters’ identities. Nancy dons new clothing to pass as a middle-class girl, and Fagin strips Oliver of all his upper-class credibility when he takes from him the suit of clothes purchased by Brownlow. The novel’s resolution revolves around the revelation of the real identities of Oliver, Rose, and Monks. Only when every character’s identity is known with certainty does the story achieve real closure.

Hidden Family Relationships

The revelation of Oliver’s familial ties is among the novel’s most unlikely plot turns: Oliver is related to Brownlow, who was married to his father’s sister; to Rose, who is his aunt; and to Monks, who is his half-brother. The coincidences involved in these facts are quite unbelievable and represent the novel’s rejection of realism in favor of fantasy. Oliver is at first believed to be an orphan without parents or relatives, a position that would, in that time and place, almost certainly seal his doom. Yet, by the end of the novel, it is revealed that he has more relatives than just about anyone else in the novel. This reversal of his fortunes strongly resembles the fulfillment of a naïve child’s wish. It also suggests the mystical binding power of family relationships. Brownlow and Rose take to Oliver immediately, even though he is implicated in an attempted robbery of Rose’s house, while Monks recognizes Oliver the instant he sees him on the street. The influence of blood ties, it seems, can be felt even before anyone knows those ties exist.

Surrogate Families

Before Oliver finds his real family, a number of individuals serve him as substitue parents, mostly with very limited success. Mrs. Mann and Mr. Bumble are surrogate parents, albeit horribly negligent ones, for the vast numbers of orphans under their care. Mr. Sowerberry and his wife, while far from ideal, are much more serviceable parent figures to Oliver, and one can even imagine that Oliver might have grown up to be a productive citizen under their care. Interestingly, it is the mention of his real mother that leads to Oliver’s voluntary abandonment of the Sowerberrys. The most provocative of the novel’s mock family structures is the unit formed by Fagin and his young charges. Fagin provides for and trains his wards nearly as well as a father might, and he inspires enough loyalty in them that they stick around even after they are grown. But these quasi-familial relationships are built primarily around exploitation and not out of true concern or selfless interest. Oddly enough, the only satisfactory surrogate parents Oliver finds are Brownlow and Rose, both of whom turn out to be actual relatives.

Oliver’s Face

Oliver’s face is singled out for special attention at multiple points in the novel. Mr. Sowerberry, Charley Bates, and Toby Crackit all comment on its particular appeal, and its resemblance to the portrait of Agnes Fleming provides the first clue to Oliver’s identity. The power of Oliver’s physiognomy, combined with the facts that Fagin is hideous and Rose is beautiful, suggests that in the world of the novel, external appearance usually gives a fair impression of a person’s inner character.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Characters’ Names

The names of characters represent personal qualities. Oliver Twist himself is the most obvious example. The name “Twist,” though given by accident, alludes to the outrageous reversals of fortune that he will experience. Rose Maylie’s name echoes her association with flowers and springtime, youth and beauty. Toby Crackit’s name is a lighthearted reference to his chosen profession of breaking into houses. Mr. Bumble’s name connotes his bumbling arrogance; Mrs. Mann’s, her lack of maternal instinct; and Mr. Grimwig’s, his superficial grimness that can be removed as easily as a wig.


Bill Sikes’s dog, Bull’s-eye, has “faults of temper in common with his owner” and is a symbolic emblem of his owner’s character. The dog’s viciousness reflects and represents Sikes’s own animal-like brutality. After Sikes murders Nancy, Bull’s-eye comes to represent Sikes’s guilt. The dog leaves bloody footprints on the floor of the room where the murder is committed. Not long after, Sikes becomes desperate to get rid of the dog, convinced that the dog’s presence will give him away. Yet, just as Sikes cannot shake off his guilt, he cannot shake off Bull’s-eye, who arrives at the house of Sikes’s demise before Sikes himself does. Bull’s-eye’s name also conjures up the image of Nancy’s eyes, which haunts Sikes until the bitter end and eventually causes him to hang himself accidentally.

London Bridge

Nancy’s decision to meet Brownlow and Rose on London Bridge reveals the symbolic aspect of this bridge in Oliver Twist. Bridges exist to link two places that would otherwise be separated by an uncrossable chasm. The meeting on London Bridge represents the collision of two worlds unlikely ever to come into contact—the idyllic world of Brownlow and Rose, and the atmosphere of degradation in which Nancy lives. On the bridge, Nancy is given the chance to cross over to the better way of life that the others represent, but she rejects that opportunity, and by the time the three have all left the bridge, that possibility has vanished forever.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



Which theme is illustrated by the depiction of workhouses in Oliver Twist?
The failure of charity
Purity amid corruption
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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Oliver Twist Blog

by DanMitchell23, January 01, 2013

This is my favourite ever book!


10 out of 16 people found this helpful

Dickens Disappointed

by alyviaperkins, July 19, 2013

Oh, Dickens, I expected much more from you: bad men go to prison or die, and good men live happily ever after with much money? I just... I don't know. I wanted something more.


13 out of 39 people found this helpful


by Spark_Ninja, October 04, 2013

Poor Oliver I feel so bad for him.


4 out of 7 people found this helpful

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