Deep within the pages of Oliver Twist, the reader can find a tale of one young boy’s hardships and triumphs that are chronicled from the tragic circumstances of his birth all the way to his long-awaited adoption in Mr. Brownlow’s care. Charles Dickens, regarded as one of the most prolific authors of the Victorian era, gave the world Oliver Twist. The novel boasts the ideas and social criticisms Dickens has about his time and shows them through his well-placed satire and unromantic portrayal of poverty, crime, and the innocence lost at the hands of the novel’s villains.
Focusing on the last idea listed, there is room to suggest that had characters like Nancy, the Artful Dodger, and, to a lesser extent, Oliver been freed of Fagin’s clutches, their sense of innocence might not have withered at such a tender age.
As the novel progresses, the reader is introduced to the most dastardly of the villains Dickens invents, his name is simply ‘Fagin’.
Fagin poses as a central figure for Dickens to explain Victorian-era crime and how easily vulnerable people fell into a life of corruption to survive. Fagin is introduced in the book with a rather biased description, but one that identifies what part he will play in Oliver’s travels. Dickens wrote, “…with a toasting-fork in his hand was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villanous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair..” (Dickens 64, et al.), as a way to describe how truly despicable Fagin is as a character.
There is symbolism behind this description in a subtle but powerful way. The toasting-fork is symbolic in that it represents a a three pronged pitchfork; much like what the Devil would be holding. Again, Dickens alludes to Fagin being pure evil by calling forth an old euphemism for the Devil by calling him, “the merry old gentleman,” (70) shortly after his introduction.
Now that Fagin’s character has been explained, one can understand the morally wrong treatment he dishes out to the young boys that he wields as simple cogs in his thieving machine, and Nancy, the young woman turned prostitute. His cunning guise of compassion and promises of comfort and fortune are staples in how he has recruited and manipulated so many young and vulnerable children. For example, early on in the book before Oliver sees the true colors of the gang, he is introduced to what is misrepresented as a game (71). Fagin puts on a humorous show to ensnare Oliver’s attention and to veil the true lessons of the game that the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates participate in. In this game, the reader understands that the boys are practicing in the art of pick-pocketing and Fagin is testing their abilities so they can bring home a larger profit for him. Not only does this show that Fagin is a master of taking advantage of Oliver’s innocence and ignorance to the thieving life, but one can easily assume that by the finesse that Charley and the Dodger display while getting the items from Fagin’s pockets that they have been doing for quite some time.
Charley and the Dodger are still yet children at the time this takes place and begs to question just how long they have been thieving under Fagin and why they act more like adults than the children that they are. This simple act is a strong example of how quickly and tactfully he molded and compromised Charley and Dodger’s innocence. It could be argued that the Dodger, having had no real moral upbringing other than the teachings of Fagin, also saw a sort of weakness in Oliver and the potential to create another thief for the gang when he befriended him in Barnet (59-61). This illustrates how the Dodger thinks as well; rather than living the normal life of a child playing and exploring the world in a healthy manner, he sees the world more as an adult on the search for opportunity and fortune. What innocence Charley and the Dodger may display pales in comparison to the morally wrong actions they have consumed and displayed in their actions.
Shifting further into the tale that Dickens weaves, we are met with a seventeen-year-old woman named Nancy. She is never explicitly outed as a prostitute throughout the novel, but many indications of her scandalous profession are scattered within the pages. Over the course of the book, Nancy becomes a pivotal character in the novel due to a dynamic shift in her morals and values as she protects Oliver from the wrath of Fagin and Bill Sikes to spare him physical pain and to avoid him entering into a life she knows all too well (130-131). Nancy exclaims, “…I thieved for you when I was not half as old as this (pointing to Oliver). I had been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since…”(133). She gives a fiery, passionate speech to Fagin and is seen as her first real disconnect from the gang since Oliver appeared. She brings forth a heavy blow of information to the reader and divulges that she has been in the employ of Fagin since she was about five years old. During this age, the five-year-old milestones are deeply rooted in developing how to process emotions and how healthy social interactions occur. (Shelov, et al)
This would have deeply impacted how Nancy processes and sees the world and would have been a prime age for Fagin to manipulate and train her into being a thief and, later on, a woman of the night. The distress that the reader feels radiating from Nancy as she throws herself into hysterics trying to protect Oliver is undeniable. Her hysterical response to Bill Sikes and Fagin is a key window into how much innocence has been robbed of Nancy and how desperately she tries to protect Oliver from the same fate. Although Nancy’s doe-eyed view of the world was taken from her at such a young age, her morals and values will later be redeemed as she will lay down her own life to protect Oliver from living a criminal life (396). Fagin spoiled Nancy’s changes very early in her life by taking advantage of her destitute position and training her to become a thief. Dicken’s writes a foil to Nancy’s character in introducing Rose Maylie to the plot. There is potential to see what Nancy might have been had her circumstances been different and had Fagin never entered into her life (332-334).
It would be incredibly easy to just call Fagin a bad man and move on, but Fagin was not just a bad man in the story. Much like Fagin dealing out the orders to lift handkerchiefs from marks on the street, he himself robbed innocent children of different livelihoods and the ability to truly be a child. He forged a weapon with his charisma and false promises to ensnare the vulnerable, the weary, and the orphaned into his web of criminal activity. Had Fagin never built the network of child-thieves, it is unlikely that he would have ever crossed paths with Oliver Twist, nor Oliver’s conniving half-brother, Monks. Had Fagin never trained Jack Dawkins to become the skilled and deceitful thief he became, Jack would have stayed Jack and may not have developed into the Artful Dodger that was shipped off to Australia for thieving. Certainly, had Nancy never been forced to thieve at the tender age of five, she would not have become the self-loathing prostitute that her environment created.