The Criminology of “Oliver Twist”

oliverLet’s face it.  The protagonist of “Oliver Twist” just isn’t a very interesting character.  Things start out promisingly enough with his famous request, “Please, sir, I want some more.”  And who can resist applauding when he gives the boorish Noah Claypole a well-deserved thrashing?  But we’re then forced to endure nearly 400 pages of Oliver as an insufferable milquetoast, passively cast here and there to suit the needs of Dickens’ laughably improbable plot, weeping copiously on cue to amplify the author’s sentimental excesses.

No, Oliver himself gives us no good reason to continue to read past page 50.  It’s the villains who really carry the show.  Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, of course, supply some darkly memorable comic relief, and they are villains of a sort.  Venal and hypocritical public servants, we might think of them as the forebears of some of today’s white-collar criminals.  (Mr. Bumble is also the source of a perennially favorite statement about the law; upon being informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” Bumble sputters helplessly, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass–a idiot.” (402))

But the real scene-stealers are the criminals of a more conventional sort.  Is there any doubt that Fagin is the most memorable and richly realized character in the book, with the murderous Bill Sikes not far behind?  

These are the characters who inspired Dickens’ most gripping and psychologically penetrating writing in the novel: the short sequence of chapters centering on Sikes’s surprisingly gory bludgeoning of Nancy, his guilt-tortured flight from the scene of the crime and his eventual death, and Fagin’s trial and execution. These events, and not the resolution of the mystery of Oliver’s past or the restoration of his long-lost family relationships, provide the novel’s emotional high points.  Mercifully, Dickens drew his narrative to a close promptly after the death of Sikes and Fagin–perhaps even he had grown weary of the remaining characters by that time.

This summer, I reread “Oliver Twist” for the first time in many years with my daughter.  I found myself particularly struck–perhaps not surprisingly, given my current professional interests–by the way that the vivid characterizations of Fagin and Sikes are connected to a broader sociological exploration of crime in a fast-industrializing society.  Dickens thus offers us an interesting window on popular criminology in the crucial early Victorian time period in which modern criminal-justice institutions like the prison and the police were still taking shape and struggling to gain acceptance.  (Indeed, Oliver has a brush with the famous Bow Street Runners, who are often characterized as the first professional police force in the Anglo-American world–founded, coincidentally, by another great English novelist, Henry Fielding.)  Dickens also touches on a number of questions of enduring interest to policymakers, particularly relating to the treatment of juvenile crime.  In fact, just last week, lawmakers in Madison introduced a proposal to take some seventeen-year olds out of the adult criminal-justice system.  I don’t know how Dickens would feel about that specific proposal–he lived in an era before there was any such thing as a juvenile court system–but he would certainly be sympathetic to the idea that child offenders can and should be rehabilitated and not simply discarded by society.

The criminological themes appear early in “Oliver Twist.”  Upon hearing of Oliver’s bold request for more food, a member of the workhouse board solemnly predicts, “That boy will be hung.  I know that boy will be hung.”  (16)  Dickens thus raises the question of whether there are “born criminals”–individuals with more or less innate tendencies to commit crime that can become evident even at a young age.  (The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso was to develop an elaborate and highly influential theory along these lines later in the Victorian period. A more recent variant was the “superpredator” theory of the 1990s that helped to convince legislators in many states to adopt new get-tough laws for juvenile offenders.)

Of course, the grim prediction of the “gentleman in the white waistcoat” proves incorrect.  Indeed, we, the readers, know from the start that Oliver is really a good person, and he never seems especially close to becoming truly corrupted.  Yet, Oliver repeatedly faces charges of criminality, whether formally in a courtroom or informally in a drawing room.  The question of whether the other characters in the book will realize in time that Oliver is not really a criminal repeatedly provides the dramatic tension that carries the plot forward.  Dickens causes us to wonder, time and again, what makes some people become criminals and how do we recognize who the real criminals are amongst us?

Certainly, social status is no proof of a good heart; see, e.g., Mr. Bumble.  Nor can we assume that judges or police officers have any particular ability to identify the criminal character.  Dickens’ acerbic depiction of the police magistrate, the dyspeptic and aptly named Mr. Fang, drives the point home.  After Oliver is wrongly arrested for pocket-picking (see George Cruickshank’s illustration at the start of this post from the original publication), Fang declares the boy a “hardened scoundrel” before hearing anything from him and resolves to impose a sentence of three months of hard labor until a witness appears at the last possible moment to refute the charge.  (77-79)

How do children become criminals?  The answer that Dickens highlights is that children go bad because they are led astray by adults, adults who exploit the desperation of children living in poverty for their own advantage.  This relationship of exploitation and corruption, of course, is the central premise of Fagin’s gang of child thieves.  A lonely runaway to London, Oliver falls in with Fagin because he literally has no place else to go.

Turning on his unctious charm, Fagin immediately begins preparing Oliver for a life of crime, making thievery appear nothing more than a delightful game.  He is already surrounded by a tight-knit cadre of proteges, and there is even a familial feeling within the gang that seems in some ways warmer than anything Oliver has yet experienced in his short life of wardship to the state.  (Dickens plainly wishes us to appreciate that there are disquieting similarities between the criminal exploitation and corruption perpetrated by Fagin and the routine, lawful functioning of the workhouse system, although, in the end, Fagin does seem more profoundly evil and dangerous than Bumble.  Both get their just deserts; Fagin is hung, but Bumble merely suffers the degradations of poverty and a bad marriage.)

When it comes to the loyalty of his proteges, Fagin can rely on their emotional and material dependence on him.  As they age, they become habituated to crime and can hardly imagine any other way of life.  As Fagin says of Oliver, “Once let him feel that is one of us, once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he’s ours!  Ours for his life!”  (147)

Poor Nancy provides a tragic illustration.  Even when she is offered a safe escape to a new life–even knowing that she is headed for a very bad end if she doesn’t accept the offer–she is incapable of leaving behind her old attachments.

But Fagin does not rely solely on the family-like bonds that tie his gang together.  Once a new associate has committed a felony, Fagin has got something else on him: the child cannot go to the police without the fear that he himself will be sent to the gallows.  As Fagin says of Oliver, “[H]e must be in the same boat with us.  Never mind how he came there; it’s quite enough for my power over him that he was in a robbery; that’s all I want.”  (147)

Dickens thus suggests that an overly harsh criminal justice system may inadvertently reinforce, rather than counteract, the bad social influences on the young criminal, frightening him from seeking assistance from the authorities.

In any event, even within Fagin’s web, Dickens is clear that the young criminal may still retain some of his or her innate moral sensibilities.  Again, Nancy supplies an illustration, as she risks her own life to try to help Oliver.  Or consider Charley Bates, one of Fagin’s pick-pockets, who reacts with revulsion to the news of Nancy’s murder and helps to ensure that Sikes meets his grim, if well-deserved, fate.  In the end, Bates is (to use an anachronistic phrase) thoroughly rehabilitated:

Master Charles Bates, appalled by Sikes’s crime, fell into a train of reflection whether an honest life was not, after all, the best.  Arriving at the conclusion that it certainly was, he turned his back upon the scenes of the past, resolved to amend it in some new sphere of action.  He struggled hard, and suffered much, for some time, but having a contented disposition, and a good purpose, succeeded in the end; and, from being a farmer’s drudge, and a carrier’s lad, is now the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire.  (417)

Is there some point beyond which a criminal really is irredeemable?  Are there some who, even early in their careers, lack the right sort of “disposition” to follow the path blazed by Charley Bates?

Dickens makes us feel a primal horror at Nancy’s murder, and Sikes himself seems overwhelmed by the awfulness of his crime.  It is a guilt-induced vision of Nancy that causes him to fall to his death as he tries to make an escape from the pursuing mob.  This guilt suggests that even the hardened adult criminal Sikes has not entirely lost his moral sense, but Dickens does not otherwise seem to hold out much hope that Sikes could be rehabilitated.

Fagin seems an utter monster.  Even his physical appearance comes across as twisted and appalling.  What originally made a criminal out of this man who led so many others astray?  The source of Fagin’s corruption is not made clear, but, quite troublingly for modern readers, it is hard to avoid the sense that Dickens wishes to link Fagin’s bad character to his Jewishness.  Indeed, Fagin is most often identified in “Oliver Twist,” not by name, but simply as “the Jew.”

Even Fagin, it turns out, is not entirely without a conscience; we are told that he is tortured by it in the harrowing final days as he awaits hanging.  (411)  Yet, he does not seem to feel any deep remorse; his dominant emotions at the end are fear, anger, and self-pity.

The mysterious and malevolent Monks offers a final type of the criminal.  As Oliver’s long-lost half-brother, we ultimately learn more of his life story than we do of any of the other villains.  He does seem to have been a bad sort from the start, although, once again, we can readily see an adult cause for the corruption of the child.  With his parents trapped in a loveless marriage, the young Monks was used as a scourge by the spiteful mother against the somewhat more upstanding father.  When the parents separated, Monks joined the mother in her life of continental dissolution.  With this bad model, it does not seem surprising that Monks became a thief and a fraud in order to support his own wayward lifestyle.  Nor that he became consumed with a lifelong animosity toward his father first and then toward Oliver, the father’s illegitimate child.

But, whatever sympathy we might feel for the child Monks based on his dysfunctional family life, we are certainly meant to regard the adult Monks and his plotting against Oliver as evil through and through.  No rehabilitation is in the cards for him.  Although given an opportunity for a fresh start in America, Monks quickly squanders his funds and falls back into a life of crime, eventually dying in prison.  (416)

The irony, from the standpoint of Victorian morality, is that the one brother tainted with illegitimacy and repeatedly expected to turn bad (Oliver) ends up happy and good, while the other brother, born within the approved bonds of marriage, turns out miserable and bad.  Such circumstances of birth do not seem to control one’s criminological destiny.

Dickens seems to have some faith in the innate goodness of children, a goodness that may flourish under the right sort of adult care and be suppressed under the wrong sort.  Once a child is set on the path of vice and crime, recovery is difficult, but empathy and conscience may remain and provide hope, at least to a point.

Page references in this post are to the Modern Library Paperback Edition of “Oliver Twist” (2001).

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Steven Sweat

    Sadly, I think that all of same life patterns that led to crime in Victorian England are still very much present in 21st Century America. Thanks for the post!

  2. Judith McMullen

    Excellent and interesting post. I do think that Dickens was ahead of his time in moving away from the mentality that some children are just born bad, and into a recognition that early abuse and deprivation could harm a child’s character development. It is discouraging to note that today’s society still clings to the Victorian idea that many errant children are beyond redemption.

  3. Melissa Greipp

    Great post. Your post made me think of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I wonder if there is a connection between Dickens’ portrayal of poverty and crime in 19th-century England and Victor Hugo’s portrayal in France at roughly the same period. Both Oliver Twist and Jean Valjean are thieves with a good heart–and both are victims of broader social forces.

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