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Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

Chapters 23–28

Summary Chapters 23–28

Analysis: Chapters 23–28

By contrasting two kinds of theft, Dickens shows how his culture is quick to condemn more obvious acts of theft, but ignores theft that occurs in more subtle ways. After presenting Sikes and Crackit’s botched attempt at theft, the novel quickly shifts to the scene of a very different form of thievery. Mrs. Corney, the middle-class matron of the workhouse, enjoys far more luxury than the pauper residents. They are crammed into tiny, unheated spaces, while Mrs. Corney enjoys a room to herself with a blazing fire during the bitterly cold winter. The amenities of her apartment, which draw Mr. Bumble’s eyes and heart in her direction, represent money that would have been more justly spent on the paupers under her care. Thus, her lifestyle is based on theft, but, because she is robbing those who have nothing, her theft will never be acknowledged.

The description of Mrs. Corney implies that the middle class controls conceptions of what is right and wrong, since church officials, intellectuals, and public officers—who have the authority to declare what is right and wrong—are all part of the middle class. With this control, they are able to ignore their own version of thievery—subtly shortchanging the lower classes—and at the same time condemn the lower-class version of thievery—stealing physical objects from the rich. The middle class’s sense of entitlement and belief that the poor are inherently morally wretched allow its members to easily rationalize the many ways in which they make sure the poor remain so.

Dickens uses an ironic dialogue between Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble to demonstrate their hypocrisy. Mr. Bumble remarks that Mrs. Corney’s cat and kittens receive better treatment than the workhouse paupers. The cats bask in front of a blazing fire while the paupers freeze in inadequately heated dormitories. Mr. Bumble remarks that he would drown any cat that was not grateful to live with Mrs. Corney. Mrs. Corney calls him a cruel man for saying that he would drown a cat. Mrs. Corney, of course, ignores her own great cruelty to the paupers, yet bristles at the implication of a drowned cat. By treating the paupers worse than animals, these so-called charitable officials violate their basic rights as human beings.

Mr. Bumble’s proposal to Mrs. Corney is a parody of a certain kind of middle-class marriage. Mr. Bumble whispers sweet nothings to Mrs. Corney, but for all of his romantic pretensions, his proposal is really inspired by Mrs. Corney’s material wealth. When she leaves the room, he verifies that her dishware is made from silver and that her clothing is of “good fashion and texture.” He assesses the exact condition of her furniture and ascertains that her small padlocked box contains money. At the end of this extensive inventory, he decides to go through with his proposal. During the Victorian era, many marriages were primarily economic arrangements, especially for people of middle-class status and above. Dickens, however, was a die-hard romantic. In Oliver Twist, he champions the romantic concept of marriage based on love. This idea will become increasingly important during the latter half of the novel.

With the introduction of Monks, the novel begins to take on the clear attributes of a detective story, especially because we are unsure of who the man is and why he might be interested in Oliver. Even Dickens’s description of Monks as “a dark figure” who lurks “in deep shadow” is mysterious. Furthermore, the chapter implies that Monks will be involved in the protracted unveiling of Oliver’s identity, and, after Monks’s conversation with Fagin, our curiosity seeks satisfaction from the lingering bewilderment. Monks’s claim that he saw “the shadow of a woman . . . pass[ing] along the wainscot like a breath” introduces a note of suspense and even of the supernatural, which grows more pronounced as the story continues.