Oliver Twist was enormously influential in bringing to light the atrocious treatment of paupers and orphans in Dickens's time. The novel is not only a brilliant work of art but also a tremendously important document in social history.
Oliver is born in a workhouse in the first half of the nineteenth century. His mother dies during his birth, and he is sent to an orphanage (where he is poorly treated). Along with the other orphans, Oliver is regularly beaten and poorly fed. In a famous episode, he walks up to the the stern authoritarian, Mr. Bumble, and asks for more. For this impertinence, he is put out of the workhouse. He then runs away from the family who take him in. He wants to find his fortune in London. Instead, he falls in with a boy called Jack Dawkins, who is part of a child gang of thieves--run by Fagin.
Oliver is brought into the gang and trained as a pickpocket. When he goes out on his first job, he runs away and is nearly sent to prison. However, the kindness of the person who was robbed, saves him from the terrors of the city gaol, and instead he is taken into the philanthropic gentleman's home. However, as soon as he thinks he is settled, Bill Sikes and Nancy (two members of the gang) takes him back. Oliver is once more sent out on a job--this time assisting Sikes on a burglary. The job goes wrong and Oliver is shot and left behind. Once more he is taken in (this time by the Maylies, the family he was sent to rob), and he spends a wonderful time with them. However, once more Fagin's gang comes after him. Nancy, who is worried about Oliver, tells the Maylies what is happening. When the gang find out about Nancy's treachery, they murder her.
Meanwhile, the Maylies reunite Oliver with the gentleman who helped him out earlier and who (in true Victorian-novel style) turns out to be Oliver's uncle. Fagin has been arrested and hanged for his crimes; and Oliver settles down to a pampered life (re-united--happily--with his family).
Oliver Twist is probably not the most brilliantly delving psychological novel, but then it's not supposed to be. Rather, Oliver Twist gives us an impression of the social situation at the time it was written, and is does so with a Hogarthian gusto. Mr. Bumble, the beadle, is an excellent example of Dickens' broad characterization at work. Bumble is a overlarge, terrifying figure: a tin-pot Hitler, who is both frightening to the boys under his control, and also slightly pathetic in his need to maintain his power over them.
Fagin, too, is a wonderful example of Dickens ability to draw a caricature and place it in a story that moves quickly and always keeps our attention. Less the pantomime villain that is portrayed in a number of its adaptations, there is a streak of cruelty in Dickens' Fagin, with a sly charisma that has makes him such a lasting archetype. Equally, the importance of Oliver Twist as a crusading work of art (hoping to show the difficult circumstances with which the poor in Dickens’s time had to live) should not be underestimated. It is certainly an excellent work of art, but it is also a testament to the hopes for a better, more enlightened age.
A delightful story--peopled with larger than life, very human characters--Dickens' Oliver Twist is a considerable achievement. Funny and incredibly sad, the novel is complete in all its aspects. Oliver Twist is a powerful indictment of the times in which the novel was written.