Critical Essays Plot and Structure of Oliver Twist


The plot of a novel is a synthesis of all elements that make up the material. It is not the same as the story, although story is an essential component of plot. The story provides the framework in the form of a sequence of events related by the forces that cause them to take place.

Oliver Twist is a typical Dickens novel, fashioned around a core of tangled intrigue that brings together a large number of people. These characters are of varied origins and diverse backgrounds. On the surface, it would seem unlikely that their paths should ever cross, but they are all inexorably drawn into the same web of circumstances. Dickens suggests that the lives of people of all stations may become intertwined. No one, he says, is safe from being influenced by the actions of others — possibly even complete strangers. The resulting complications and their unraveling contribute a large measure of mystery and suspense. Writers and critics sometimes use the term denouement in connection with the resolution of a story. The French word simply means an unknotting or an unscrambling of a jumble of twine. See how easily that relates to the complex interactions of a Dickens story.

The characteristic distinguishing ingredients of plot are conflict and resolution. In Oliver Twist, there are dual conflicts: the one between Monks and Oliver, the other between Fagin and Sikes. Through his conspiracy with Monks, Fagin becomes involved in both conflicts. He also becomes the agent whose decisions trigger the two lines of inevitable action, which subsequently converge.

The crisis in Oliver's conflicts involves no significant desire on his part. Fagin makes one critical decision when he maneuvers Oliver into the Chertsey fiasco. The unsuccessful burglary is the climax in the boy's misadventures. The grim disaster leaves him utterly helpless, but it is a turning point and his fortunes steadily improve from there. The resolution of his difficulties is achieved by Brownlow's triumph over Monks.

In the smoldering rivalry between Sikes and Fagin, the crisis is reached when Fagin actually plans to have Sikes murdered. Fagin's first step to eliminate Sikes involves having Nancy spied upon. This leads directly to the climax of the girl's murder. With that bloody deed, the entire company of thieves is drawn into a whirlpool of events, which ultimately brings them all to ruin. The denouement discussed earlier — the unknotting of story complications — comes with Sikes literally being hanged in his own noose, at the end of the day when the gang has been demolished.

Dickens's illustrations of the complications and their unraveling are accomplished by means of a complex mosaic of back-illumination. This technique offers several distinct advantages. It makes it easier to raise suspense to a high pitch and keep reader interest at a lively level. In order to draw the numerous persons into the current of events, Dickens is forced to make liberal use of accident and coincidence. By using the tricks and techniques of the dramatist that he was, Dickens is able to obscure his coincidences and accidents to the point where the reader scarcely notices.

Other improbabilities are also made to seem real through Dickens's manipulation. In Chapter 49, for example, Brownlow undermines Monks's resistance with the startling words "the only proofs of the boy's identity lie at the bottom of the river, and the old hag that received them from the mother is rotting in her coffin." These are the exact words that Nancy claimed to have overheard from Monks while she was engaged in her risky game of eavesdropping on Monks's secret meeting with Fagin. Then Rose precisely remembered this statement after her tempestuous meeting with Nancy in Chapter 40 and passed it on to Brownlow, who uses it to demoralize Monks with the very words that he spoke to Fagin in supposed secret. This flawless transmission would verge on the absurd if it were methodically reported in normal time-sequence. But as it is, the implausibility is lost sight of in the intricate patterns of disclosure.

The novel exhibits many characteristics of melodrama. The quality of pathos (sentimentality) is freely injected, most gratuitously in the case of Oliver's friend, "little Dick." The portrait of Oliver's mother and Monks's scar are signs used as recognition devices. Other examples of standard melodramatic apparatus include the doings of the evil brother, a destroyed will, assumed names, and the discovery of unknown relatives.

The romantic subplot between Rose and Harry uses elements of melodrama. In the contest between the evil and good forces of the book, Rose stands out in a dazzling display that would today be called "goody-goody." Harry's noble abandonment of fame and fortune for the sake of true love is a lofty tribute to virtuous sentiment — it could happen in real life, but it often does not. Although the romance is hardly a vital element of the plot, it does follow established literary tradition and provides a center of interest for bringing the book to a conclusion.

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