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Fate vs. Free Will Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist is a novel teeming with many closely interrelated ideas. There is a preoccupation with the miseries of poverty and the spread of its degrading effects through society. With poverty comes hunger, along with Dickens’s notion that a misguided approach to the issues of poverty and homelessness brings many evils in its wake.  One of the worse consequences of poverty and being deprived of life’s essentials is crime, with all of its corrosive effects on human nature. Dickens gives a great deal of attention to the painful alienation from society suffered by the criminal.  When crime is the result of poverty, it completely dehumanizes society.  On the positive side, Dickens places heavy value on the elevating influence of virtue. He emphasizes the power of benevolence to overcome depravity. And goodness, like criminal intent, may expect to earn its own suitable reward (Duffy, 410).  Throughout all of these apparent themes, there is also an underlying, latent theme of fate versus free will present throughout the novel.  Dickens seems to be saying that most of the characters are imprisoned by their fate, yet also posses freewill, never really allowing the reader to determine which is truly propelling the action of the novel.

The novel displays may symbols for this theme of fate versus free will.  The ideas of imprisonment, confinement, and incarceration, both literal and metaphorical, and how those things are related to freedom of choice and fate is explored deeply through the novel.  The London slums have a suffocating, infernal aspect, like that of a prison (Ingham, 188).  The dark deeds and dark passions are concretely characterized by dim rooms, smoke, fog, and pitch-black nights, while the governing mood of terror and merciless brutality may be identified with the frequent rain and uncommonly cold weather (Ingham, 189).  In contrast, the countryside where the Maylies take Oliver is a pastoral heaven (Ingham, 189).  The countryside is far from a prison, but is instead, free and un-confining.

Toward the end of the novel, the gaze of knowing eyes becomes a potent symbol of the turning hands of fate. For years, Fagin avoids daylight, crowds, and open spaces, concealing himself in a dark lair most of the time: when his luck runs out at last, he squirms in the living light of too many eyes as he stands in the dock, awaiting sentence (Ginsburg, 225). After Sikes kills Nancy, he flees into the countryside but is unable to escape the memory of her dead eyes. Charlie Bates turns his back on crime when he sees the murderous cruelty of the man who has been held up to him as a model (Ginsburg, 225).  The novel seems to be saying that the eyes of fate are always watching.

Nancy’s decision to meet Brownlow and Rose on London Bridge reveals the symbolic aspect of this bridge in Oliver Twist. Bridges exist to link two places that would otherwise be separated by an un-crossable chasm (Lankford, 29). The meeting on London Bridge represents the collision of two worlds unlikely ever to come into contact, the idyllic world of Brownlow and Rose, and the atmosphere of degradation in which Nancy lives. On the bridge, Nancy is given the chance to cross over to the better way of life that the others represent, but she rejects that opportunity, and by the time the three have all left the bridge, that possibility has vanished forever (Lankford, 29).  It is this bridge that symbolizes free will.  Nancy possessed the free will to cross the bridge, but she was destined by her fate to remain on her side of the bridge.

Throughout the novel, Dickens confronts the question of whether the terrible environments he depicts have the power to “blacken [the soul] and change its hue for ever” (Dickens 152).  By examining the fates of most of the characters, we can assume that his answer is that they do not. Certainly, characters like Sikes and Fagin seem to have sustained permanent damage to their moral characters. Yet even Sikes has a conscience, which manifests itself in the apparition of Nancy’s eyes that haunts him after he murders her. Charley Bates maintains enough of a sense of decency to try to capture Sikes (Williamson, 236). Of course, Oliver is above any corruption. Most telling of all is Nancy, who, though she considers herself “lost almost beyond redemption,” ends up making the ultimate sacrifice for Oliver. In contrast, Monks, perhaps the novel’s most inhuman villain, was brought up amid wealth and comfort (Williamson, 236).  It appears that environment has little to do with a person’s fate.

There are many examples of the conflict between fate and free will throughout the novel.  Dickens writes, “In one instant the whole mystery of the handkerchiefs, and the watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy’s mind. He stood for a moment with the blood tingling through all his veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burning fire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels” (75)  This is the moment of truth for Oliver.  It is the moment he realizes what the Dodger and Charley are really planning, and it is the moment of conscious rejection (West, 45). Oliver has a choice, and he makes it.  However, if remains clear that many members of Fagin’s gang were never really given a choice.

Another instance is in the quote, “Once let him feel that he is one of us; once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief, and he’s ours,– ours for his life!” (Dickens 160).  Fagin speaks these words, gloating over the idea of how once Oliver is forced into helping Bill Sikes and Toby Crackit rob a house, he will be corrupted forever (Lund, 1009).  Even if Oliver did commit a crime, or help others to commit a crime, does that make him a criminal forever or does he get a choice?  This quote is examining the idea of whether or not Oliver has a choice in his destiny or whether or not he is simply imprisoned.  This idea is further examined in the quote, “The worst of these women is, that a very little thing serves to call up some long-forgotten feeling; and the best of them is, that it never lasts” (Dickens 162).  Fagin, makes this remark in his false assumption that Nancy has totally gotten over her sympathy for Oliver. This quotation sets up a few extremes, worst and best, little things and long forgotten feelings. Fagin suggests that all women embody all those extremes, but that it never lasts (Lund, 1009). By setting up this generalization in saying that this is how all women are, Fagin dooms Nancy to living her life in one of two extremes.  It does not appear that she has a choice in the matter, it is always one or the other.

 Another instance is in a description of Oliver, the epitome of virtue and goodness.  “The boy was lying fast asleep on a rude bed upon the floor, so pale with anxiety, and sadness, and the closeness of his prison, that he looked like death; not death as it shows in shroud and coffin, but in the guise it wears when life has just departed: when a young and gentle spirit has but an instant fled to heaven, and the gross air of the world has not had time to breathe upon the changing dust it hallowed (Dickens 163).  This quote is saying that the only way to escape being corrupted is to die.  Oliver appears incorruptible in this scene because he looks like his soul just left his body, so that the world around him has not had time yet to corrupt him (Frederick, 468).

  Another reference to sleep Dickens makes is, “There is a kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes which, while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things about it, and enable it to ramble as it pleases. So far as an overpowering heaviness, a prostration of strength, and an utter inability to control our thoughts or power of motion can be called sleep, this is it; and yet we have a consciousness of all that is going on about us (Dickens 287).  Sleep is important to the theme of imprisonment and free will in Oliver Twist because when you fall asleep, you give up your ability to choose for yourself (Frederick, 469). This is a kind of sleep that is not peaceful or refreshing, but “holds the body prisoner,” and is “overpowering.” It is important to realize that sleep can also be a state of imprisonment.

 The novel makes many references to imprisonment, confinement, and incarceration, both literal and metaphorical, and how those things are related to freedom of choice and fate.  A liter example of imprisonment is found in the following quote: “A paper fly-cage dangled from the ceiling, to which [Mr. Bumble] occasionally raised his eyes in gloomy thought; and, as the heedless insects hovered round the gaudy net-work, Mr. Bumble would heave a deep sigh, while a more gloomy shadow overspread his countenance. Mr. Bumble was meditating, and it might be that the insects brought tomind some painful passage in his own past life” (Dickens 301).  Mr. Bumble, who is one of the novel’s chief oppressors and incarcerators, sights and meditates on a “fly-cage,” suggesting that the oppressor is thinking about his oppression (James, 68).  Perhaps, he is even at long last realizing the horrors that he had inflicted on his people.

Another example of fate and free will is found in the quote, “The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets, and  the most noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there was something still of the woman’s original nature left in her still; and when she heard a light step approaching the door opposite to that by which she had entered, and thought of the wide contrast which the small room would in another moment contain, she felt burdened with the sense of her own shame, and shrunk as though she could scarcely bear the presence of her with whom she had sought this interview” (Dickens 341).  First, this quote takes on the assumption that there is some “original nature” common to all women, and which even a life like Nancy’s can not obliterate (West, 45). Secondly, Dickens is creating contrast between Nancy and Miss Maylie. Rose’s “light step” is in deep contrast to the dark and “noisome… stews and dens” in which Nancy has grown up.  The quote is once again exploring the idea of fate versus free will.  Is Nancy bound by which she has grown up amongst, or is she free to make her own choices?

 Nancy once again faces her issues with fate in the quote, “Let me go,” said the girl with great earnestness; then, sitting herself down on the floor before the door, she said – “Bill, let me go; you don’t know what you’re doing – you don’t indeed. For only one hour – do – do!” (Dickens 384).  Nancy and the other members of Fagin’s gang usually seem to be controlled by some form of fate, rather than by free will. Nancy has already exercised her free will once, by going to see Rose, and now fate, which is symbolized in this instance by Bill, is taking control again and keeping her imprisoned (West, 46).  She says later, “I am chained to my old life. I loathe and hate it now, but I cannot leave it. I must have gone too far to turn back,– and yet I don’t know” (Dickens 400).  Dickens once again brings up the issue of imprisonment, and fatality and seems that say that once one starts a life of crime, it is impossible to turn back (West, 46). Nancy is fated to stick it out with Fagin’s gang.  In fact, she says she is “chained” to that life, she can not escape.

However, some characters try to escape their destiny, although they typically fail.  The quote, “The man had shrunk down, thoroughly quelled by the ferocity of the crowd and the impossibility of escape,” is just one of these instances (Dickens 440).  Sikes climbs out onto the roof in his final escape attempt, and realizes that there’s no escaping from the fury of the mob (Lankford, 41).  The brutal “ferocity” of a crowd of human beings whose sole intent is his capture and punishment scares him into realizing the impossibility of escape.

Throughout the play, it seems that the characters are fated to their decisions, showing that there is some kind of free will, yet its powers are limited.  Interestingly, Dickens shows this imprisonment of fate in his main character’s name.  The name “Twist,” though given by accident, alludes to the outrageous reversals of fortune that he will experience.  Yet Oliver is not the only character destined to a certain fate, all of the characters seem imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Tom Doherty and Associates, 1998.

Duffy, Joseph M., Jr. “Another Version of Pastoral: Oliver Twist” ELH 35.3 (1968): 403-

Frederick, Kenneth C. “The Cold, Cold Hearth: Domestic Strife in Oliver Twist” College

English 27.6 (1966): 465-470.

Ginsburg, Michal Peled. “Truth and Persuasion: The Language of Realism and of

Ideology in ‘Oliver Twist’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 20.3 (1987): 220-236.

Ingham, Patricia. “The Name of the Hero in Oliver Twist” The Review of English Studies

33.130 (1982): 188-189.

James, Kincaid R. “Laughter and ‘Oliver Twist’” PMLA 83 (1968): 63-70. JSTOR. 23

Nov. 2008 <http://www.jstor.org>.

 Lankford, William T. “The Parish Boy’s Progress”: The Evolving Form of Oliver Twist”            PMLA 93.1 (1978): 20-32. JSTOR. 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.jstor.org>.

Lund, Michael, Sidney Thomas and William T. Lankford. “Oliver Twist” PMLA 93.5

(1978): 1009-1011.

West, Nancy M. “Order in Disorder: Surrealism and ‘Oliver Twist’” South Atlantic

Review 54.2 (1989): 41-58

Williamson, Colin. “Two Missing Links in Oliver Twist” Nineteenth-Century Fiction

22.3 (1967): 225-234

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