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Who Is Oliver Twist?

By Angela Colley
Updated May 23, 2024
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Charles Dickens published the novel Oliver Twist in 1838. This was the second novel published by the famous author, and it became the subject for several theater plays and movies. Oliver Twist is the name of the main character, an orphan boy born outside of London who goes through many hard trials in his young life. The novel follows the orphan's life, from his birth through young adulthood, during which he learns life lessons that mirror the problems of London’s orphans during the 1800s.

Oliver Twist was born to a mother who died in childbirth outside of a workhouse. After his mother died, Oliver was sent to a live in an infant farm, where he was poorly cared for until he was old enough to return to the workhouse to work for small wages for the rest of his adult life. As a child, Oliver Twist spoke up against the mistreatment of orphans in the infant farm and was branded as a troublemaker after asking the headmaster for another serving of food. This scene became one of the most well-known parts of the novel and its reproductions.

After Oliver entered the workhouse, he met with a series of unfortunate events. The character had a hard time finding an apprenticeship, he was badly beaten at one point, and he eventually ran away. At this point in the novel, Dickens gave the character new depth by introducing Oliver to Fagin, the leader of a gang of thieves in London. Oliver joined the gang and became a reluctant petty thug.

Throughout the latter part of the novel, Oliver battled against the sordid lives of the criminals with whom he joined forces. He escaped twice, only to be hunted down again by those in his gang. During this part of the novel, many readers come to relate to the main character, learning that he is not such a bad kid, just a victim of circumstance.

As a central character, Oliver Twist represents the horde of orphan children living in London during the 1800s known as the waif-children. Dickens wrote the novel as a way to alert the public to the problems that those orphan children faced, such as cruelty, abuse, hunger and a lack of opportunity. The novel was met with success, and several producers have adapted the story for film and theater since then, including a musical and several other productions.

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