Critical Essays Symbolism in Oliver Twist


A novel may have many levels of symbolism. Setting and characters may convey symbolic meaning aside from their plot functions. Some trait or gesture of a person may symbolize an aspect of his character, as Bumble's fondness for his three-cornered hat serves to illuminate his devotion to a tradition of recognition, status, and power.

A purely symbolic character is one who has no plot function at all. The chimney sweep, Gamfield, may be looked upon in this light. He contributes nothing to the development of the plot but stands forth as a significant embodiment of unprovoked cruelty. Ordinarily, symbolic statement gives expression to an abstraction, something less obvious and, perhaps, even hidden. In spite of his conspicuous role in the plot, Brownlow exemplifies at all times the virtue of benevolence.

The novel is shot through with another symbol, obesity, which calls attention to hunger and the poverty that produces it by calling attention to their absence. It is interesting to observe the large number of characters who are overweight. Regardless of economics, those who may be considered prosperous enough to be reasonably well-fed pose a symbolic contrast to poverty and undernourishment. For example, notice that the parish board is made up of "eight or ten fat gentlemen"; the workhouse master is a "fat, healthy man"; Bumble is a "portly person"; Giles is fat and Brittles "by no means of a slim figure"; Mr. Losberne is "a fat gentleman"; one of the Bow Street runners is "a portly man." In many ways, obesity was as much a sign of social status as clothing.

Setting is heavily charged with symbolism in Oliver Twist. The physical evidences of neglect and decay have their counterparts in society and in the hearts of men and women. The dark deeds and dark passions are concretely characterized by dim rooms, smoke, fog, and pitch-black nights. The governing mood of terror and merciless brutality may be identified with the frequent rain and uncommonly cold weather.

Dickens's style is marked by a kind of literary obesity that is displeasing to some modern tastes. But in this connection — as in all others — we need to look at Dickens from the standpoint of his contemporaries. This means judging his art in one instance as it was viewed by the audience he addressed, whose tastes and expectations were vastly different from our own. A tribute to the greatness of his work is that it can still be read with pleasure today in spite of some of its excesses.

In many ways, the pace of life was more unhurried and deliberate in the early-nineteenth century than it is now, so readers would have the time to savor Dickens's rich use of language. In a period when people were thrown much on their own resources for diversion, without the intrusions of movies, radio, or television, they could enjoy a display of literary virtuosity for its own sake. The practice of reading aloud helped to bring out the novelist's artistry. When Dickens read from his books, his audiences were entranced, so he must, at least unconsciously, have written with some thought for oral effect.

The conditions of publication undoubtedly were instrumental in shaping the writer's technique. When he was faced with the challenge of holding his readers for over a year, he had to make his scenes unforgettable and his characters memorable. Only a vivid recollection could sustain interest for a month between chapters. Also, there was a need to cram each issue with abundant action to satisfy those who would re-read it while waiting impatiently for the next installment. What may seem excessively rich fare to those who can read the novel straight through without breaking may have only whetted the appetites of the original readers. The immediate popularity of Dickens's works bears witness to the soundness of his literary judgment.

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