Oliver Twist

by: Charles Dickens

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
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.