19th Century

Criminality in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838)

Fagin and his Gang - Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)

Fagin and his Gang – Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)

The master of the Victorian social novel was undoubtedly Charles Dickens. His novel, Oliver Twist was published in serial instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany between 1837 and 1838 and was perceived by contemporaries to be a Newgate novel [1]. The reason that it was perceived so is because critics felt that it glorified members of the criminal underworld. Dickens’ novel was published alongside William Harrison Ainsworth’s second Newgate novel, Jack Sheppard, in the same magazine; Dickens was Ainsworth’s friend, and the two men even considered collaborating on a novel [2]. Dickens’ tale of an orphan who falls into the clutches of the criminal underworld was set in nineteenth-century London, and the novel attacked the recently passed Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which had expanded the workhouse system. Dickens was ‘one of the people to light a fuse of criticism that was to blow the calculated neglect and casual cruelty of the workhouse system away’ [3].

Dickens’ critique of the workhouse system is less important here than his representations of nineteenth-century criminal underworld figures, and it is Fagin and Bill Sikes that I wish to discuss here. Dickens draws upon gothic literary conventions by representing in his novel two binary camps of good and evil. The ‘good’ camps in the novel are those of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies. The ‘bad’ camps are those of Bill Sykes and Fagin [4]. The two camps vie with each other throughout the novel to claim the innocence of young Oliver. The first time this is apparent is when Oliver comes into contact with Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, who runs a criminal gang of young pickpockets. The types of gangs run by Fagin were common in nineteenth-century London. Often they were to be found in some of the common lodging houses, where ‘keepers maintained gangs of professional child thieves and even ran schools for pickpockets’ [5]. Fagin attempts to teach Oliver how to be a thief through a series of childish games:

“Is my handkerchief hanging out of my pocket?” said the Jew.
“Yes, Sir,” said Oliver.
“See if you can take it out, without my feeling it: as you saw them do, when we were at play this morning” [6].

Fagin’s attempts to convert Oliver into a criminal fail and this perplexes him as he has managed to corrupt other young boys prior to meeting Oliver. Oliver is ‘not easy to train…not like other boys in the same circumstance’ [7]. The reason for this is that young Oliver is actually middle class by birth and represented as inherently innocent, and theft is the ‘single specific crime that menaces Oliver’s innocence’ [8]. The reason Fagin’s other boys had been corrupted was because they were members of the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency between the 1820s and 1830s [9]. According to this idea, there was a dangerous criminal class lurking beneath the working class in the poorest districts of cities [10]. In contrast to Ainsworth’s gentlemanly Dick Turpin in Rookwood, the villains of Dickens’ work were hideous creatures who lived in dirty hovels in the rookery of Saffron Hill, Holborn. Dickens described Fagin and his lair in the following way: ‘the walls of the ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt…standing over them, with a toasting fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair’ [11]. For ‘Fagin’ readers would have inferred ‘Satan’; the hook-nose and the toasting fork drawing upon older Christian images of the devil [12]. In contrast to Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin, in Dickens’ work there was ‘no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns…none of the dash and freedom with which [highwaymen have] been time out of mind invested’ [13]. Thus the highwayman of old was a product of the pre-industrial, rural England, whilst Fagin was essentially a product of an urbanised society, and represented the worst of that society, being a member of the ‘criminal class’.


Bill Sikes and Oliver Twist – Illustration by George Cruikshank (1838)

Dickens’ other criminal character was the house-breaker Bill Sikes. Sikes is described as ‘bad-tempered and uncivil’ [14]. He is also murderous. He kills his lover, Nancy, because he believes that she has ‘peached’ on him:

The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the throat, dragged her into the middle of the room…the housebreaker freed one arm, and grabbed his pistol. The certainty of detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury, and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon [her] upturned face…The murder…seized a heavy club and struck her down [15].

Sikes is dehumanised in this passage and descends through three gradations. At first he was simply a robber. Robbers can be accepted and even revered to a certain extent in their respective societies (think Robin Hood) [16]. He is then described as a house-breaker. The offence of house-breaking was less palatable to people than was highway robbery, for example, because since the eighteenth century, ‘the perimeter of “the private house” represented a sacred frontier’ [17]. Finally he became a murderer. Murder was reviled because ‘homicide is the most dramatic crime of violence’ [18]. Indeed, the people who cheered highwaymen at public executions were often unanimous in their condemnation of murderers [19]. There is a clear contrast between Ainsworth’s Turpin, who shrinks from shedding blood, and Sikes who spills it. Dickens did not allow the reader to have sympathy with his criminals. The highwayman may have been a romantic figure galloping on the heath in the moonlight, but nineteenth-century slum dwelling criminals were altogether baser creatures; creatures of the newly-emerging criminal class.

[1] Pykett, L. (2003). ‘The Newgate Novel and Sensation Fiction’, p.21
[2] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. London: Harper, p.84
[3] Tindall, G. (2012). ‘Dickens’ London: Further Twists’. History Today 62(12) [Internet] http://www.historytoday.com/gillian-tindall/dickens-london-further-twists [Accessed 16/07/2014]
[4] West, N.M. (1989). ‘Order and Disorder: Surrealism and Oliver Twist’. South Atlantic Review 54(2), p.43
[5] Chesney, K. (1970). The London Underworld. London: Penguin, p.111
[6] Dickens, C. (1838:1930). Oliver Twist. London: Odhams Press, p.69

[7] Dickens, C. (1838: 1930). Oliver Twist, p.181
[8] Wolff, L. (1996). ‘“The Boys are Pickpockets, and the Girl is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour’. New Literary History 27(2), p.234
[9] Shore, H. (1999). Artful Dodgers, p.19
[10] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, p.114
[11] Dickens, C. (1838:1930). Oliver Twist, p.64
[12] Rosenberg, E. (1960). From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.126
[13] Dickens, C. (1838: 1930). Oliver Twist, p.14
[14] Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen, p.245
[15] Dickens, C. (1838:1930) Oliver Twist, pp.324-325

[16] Hobsbawm, E. (1969) Bandits, p.19
[17] Vickery, A. (2009). Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. Yale University Press, p.33
[18] Emsley, C. (1987). Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, p.41
[19] Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, pp.99-100


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