Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.