A response to Charle’s Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist thus far:
As the old woman in the workhouse, Sally, dies in Chapter XXIV, she reveals a small bit of Oliver’s true identity to Mrs. Corney. She confesses that, as she was the nurse on hand the day of Oliver?s birth, she stole a piece of gold intended for Oliver, one his mother hoped would lessen any disgrace if the child were “to hear his mother named.”
How could Oliver’s mother possess something so valuable as gold? Could the gold piece have been a wedding ring? More than likely it was, although we have yet to find out. The old woman died before revealing the object in question. Prior to this event we see Oliver descend from a possible prostitute, certainly a woman who bears no wedding ring and who has far greater stamina than any lady of stature. Without concrete proof of Oliver’s legitimacy beyond a partial dying confession, we can still consider the possibility by examining how Dickens allows Oliver’s character to unfold.
When thrown into the lowest social class by way of fate, Oliver repeatedly displays the actions of one who doesn’t belong amid England’s poor. From his earliest moments, born among the starving and dying of the workhouse, Oliver’s first difficulty is battling for his first breath. His will to live lies in direct contrast to those dying around him. When he finally cries, he is described as giving “this first proof of free and proper action of his lungs.” Dickens ensures that the words “free and proper” are carefully placed. If Oliver’s lungs are operating with free and proper action as an innate part of Oliver’s body, does that not imply that Oliver, as a being, is acting free and proper as well? Another example is when Oliver asks for more food at the workhouse during his ninth year of life, as thought it is his right. The board found this behavior shocking, unacceptable, and completely out of character for the workhouse poor.
In many ways, Oliver is a quality human being over and above those of an assumed higher breeding. He possesses a sense of integrity that defies the devastation of starvation, continuing his fight against the influences of evil and threats of his many elders. When Fagin impresses upon him that thievery is what is expected of him in London to survive, Oliver is chilled to the core, sickened by the mere thought of something so vile, even in his sleep when rest should erase such anxieties. After being forced at gunpoint by Sikes to participate in a robbery, and threatened with a beating when the gun would be too loud, Oliver, in a cold sweat and with misty eyes, fell to his knees in horror at the prospect of participating in the events to follow, of which he assumed would include thievery and maybe even murder.
Oliver is not only ethically sound, his driving spirit to survive perpetually moves him forward. He not only endures a troublesome birth, but continues to defy death throughout the tale. Each time, his spirit brings him back to consciousness while circumstance delivers him, perhaps as a rebirth, to higher ground. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that he may belong in higher society as he moves into to better circumstances, these being relative to his prior experience and not indicative of pleasant situations. When Oliver faced such intense starvation on his journey to London, with no roof over his head and a loneliness that ate as his heart, he was discovered by the Artful Dodger who provided nourishment, a roof, friendship and a job through Fagin, the old Jew. Again, when Oliver came out of the fever he suffered in front of the magistrate when accused of theft, he is welcomed into the home of Mr. Brownlow where care, food, new clothes (equivalent to new social identity), and an opportunity to educate himself with books is offered. Again, when shot during a house robbery and left to die in a ditch, Oliver rises once more, defying the odds and finding the unlikely care of an angelic young woman in the very house in which he was shot.
By these examples, it very well may be true that Oliver is not as illegitimate as first presented. Oliver often finds his way naturally and unexpectedly, dragged back into the depths of despair only by the actions of those who misunderstand him.