Plot Construction of the Novel Oliver Twist

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Critical Views upon the Plot of Dickens' Novel

      An eminent critic Arnold Kettle says that the plot of Oliver Twist is very complex and unconvincing. Several critics have commented that in the novels of Dickens there is no organic unity, they are replete with isolated episodes and characters who do not contribute in the development of the plot Though Dickens has managed to impart structural unity in the novels written during the second half of his career yet the novels written in first half of his career "are often like a shapeless box into which all manner of different object, of varying shapes and sizes, have been ruthlessly crammed. They contain something for everybody and the parts you do not like, you can more or less ignore. We remember the early novels ndt as wholes but by episodes...." (Walter Allen)

Oliver Twist has a Weak Plot

      Oliver Twist also belongs to the earlier phase of Dickens' career. This novel was written with very fast speed. Dickens has said himself that he had not corrected but invariably written the whole novel. As the story progressed, he indulged completely and fell upon it almost 'tooth and nail' towards the end. Although Dickens had completed this novel in eighteen months yet it was written under great pressure because he had undertaken several jobs side by side. Consequently came the shortcomings and most remarkable flaw lies in its construction. Arnold Kettle has commented that the weakest point of this novel is, indeed, its plot. He describes it as 'silly and mechanical and troublesome', and examines that if the novel deals with a 'profound and honest' interpretation of life, it is not the result of plot.

Lack of Organic Unity

      The plot of the novel Oliver Twist lacks organic unity. Though there is unity of impulse in the novel and it is full of moral but the story is broken. In the beginning few chapters are in harmony in so far as they concentrate upon the troubles and tribulations faced by Oliver at the workhouse and at Mrs. Sowerberry's house, but thenafter we are shifted to the London city and from there sometimes we see the town of Chertsy or taken back to the town where Oliver had taken birth. The appearances of Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, at several occasions are very much unexpected and the actions performed by Fagin and Sikes are narrated inconsistently. We are made to see various localities and meet different men there. Thus our attention keeps on shifting and even it diverts from the central figure of the novel. Sometimes Fagin becomes the focal point, sometimes Sikes and Nancy, sometimes Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin, sometimes Mrs. Maylie, Rose, Harry Maylie and Dr. Losberne and so on. At several points Monks has become the main focus of attention. His mysterious appearances and activities interrupt the smooth development of the plot. Thus by no means the structure of the novel is coherent and compact.

The Resume of Oliver Twist

      In the first twenty-seven chapters chief characters of the novel are introduced and two different worlds of Mr. Bumble and Fagin are gradually knitted together. In the first seven chapters Oliver's birth, early up-bringing and several struggles and protest to survive are described. Then the crimmal world of Fagin is introduced and burglary is attempted but failed unfortunately. Chapters from (28) to (36) are the weakest part of the novel. There is no important growth in the novel. Oliver gets into the house of Mrs. Maylie whose house was attempted to burgle. But in chapters from (37) to (53) all the complications related with Oliver get resolved through the efforts of Nancy, Mr. Brownlow, Rose etc. In the last ten chapters Nancy is murdered, Sikes is estrangled, Fagin is sentenced to death, Rose and Harry get married and Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver as his son.

Digressive Episodes

      It is known that Dickens was motivated by two major objectives in the novel Oliver Twist. His first objective was to project his resent towards the corrupt environment of the workhouses, the reality of slums and the underworld. His secondary stimulator was the presentation of 'the principle of good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last'. But there are few episodes in the novel that do not present any of the two motives. The love affair of Rose and Harry Maylie with the typical obstacles in their relations to be materialized, all these do not serve any significant contribution. Likewise in the episode of Mr. Bumbles' courtship and unhealthy marriage with Mrs. Corney Dickens has just given the comedy. It is entirely amusing but irrelevant regarding the objectives of Dickens.

The Bewildering Mysteries

      Other demerits of the plot construction is the use of those mysteries which puzzle the reader's mind. The mystery related to Oliver's parentage, the suspense about the identity of Monks, the mysterious stain in the birth and parentage of Miss Rose, mystery behind the portrait lady hanging upon the wall of Mr. Brownlow's house, mystery in Olive's face resembling to the face and impressions of that lady, etc. these baffling mysteries take time to be disclosed and when they are revealed, reader gets troubled because the relationship of various individuals to each other are complex and it takes time to understand them. For example we have to share our mind to understand that Oliver is the half-brother of Monks and Monks is the legitimate son of Mr. Edwin Leeford who had illicit relation with Agnes, the mother of Oliver. Moreover, Rose is the sister of Agnes and thus she is the aunt of Oliver. But these complexities do not diminish the interest of the plot.

Arnold Kettle's Views on the Weakness of the Plot

      According to Arnold Kettle the conflict in the plot is the struggle between the innocent Oliver, helped by Mr. Brownlow and Maylies against the evil designs of Monks, Fagin and Sikes. But it does not create a good plot because Oliver is so passive character to win our deepest sympathy and Monks is an unconvincing villain who is remarkably less interesting than Fagin and Sikes. Besides, good characters of the novel have remained throughout thorough good characters and evil characters are presented utterly evil in the whole story of the novel. The critic observes that the essence of the novel is the scene of the miseries of poor people. There is also a noteworthy contrast between the world of the poor and the world of well-to-do middle class represented by Mr. Brownlow and May lies. These ingredients make the novel lay effect on the mind of readers. But the point of flaw lies in Dickens' failure to proceed throughout as powerfully as he is in the first eleven chapters.

Lack of Singleness or Unity of the Work of Art

      Though the novel is named after the name of its central character Oliver yet, there are the criminal personalities and criminal activities that hold the plot together. They impart value and catch the interest of the reader. If we regard criminal activities the basic theme of the novel, then Oliver would be diminished to the state of subsidiary characters. The incidents like Rose's illness and her recovery are quite irrelevant in regard to the main plot of the novel. Actually this novel has multiple themes like the mal-administration of the workhouses, the futility of law and judicial system, portrayal of the poverty and squalor in the life of the slums of London, the world of crime etc. Thus, though the novel presents the diversity of life yet it lacks the singleness or the unity of artistic creation.

The Role of Coincidence

      The excessive emphasis is laid on the coincidence in the novel. Definitely, coincidence has its importance in human life but its role is not so common in real life as it is in the fiction of Thomas Hardy and also in the present novel. At least three examples of coincidence is apparently visible in the novel. Mr. Brownlow whose pocket was picked by Artful Dodger and Bates catches Oliver as a thief and after being discharged from the police station takes him to his home and comes out as an intimate friend of Oliver's father Mr. Edwin Leeford. Second, the coincidence of the Oliver's going back to the house of Mrs. Maylie which was soon attempted by Sikes and Toby to burgle with the help of Oliver. Third, Rose Maylie, living in the house of Mrs. Maylie as her adopted niece turns out to be the aunt of, Oliver, the younger sister of Oliver's mother Agnes. Thus it seems unrealistic because it is used to a very great extent.

The Victorian Novels

      In the age of Dickens, that is, Victorian age, complex plot was very common. In this age, 'plot' meant to be conventional and devices of 'melodrama'. The complex plot of Dickens' novels have originated from the drama and traditional romantic fiction. These were used to be melodramatic and full of sentiment. Dickens himself had been interested in the theatre and it had highly influenced his plot construction.

      Oliver Twist is serialized. It has a clear beginning, middle and end. The subplot is absorbed finally into the main plot of the novel.


      The most glaring fault of the plot according to Arnold Kettle is "that it fails to correspond with the novel's center of interest or 'essential pattern', which is its consideration of the plight of the poor." He says, "the struggle throughout Oliver Twist between the plot and tlie pattern is indeed a life and death struggle, a struggle as to whether the novel shall live or not. And so far as the plot succeeds in twisting and negating the pattern, the value of the novel is in fact weakened."

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