Great Expectations & Oliver Twist
During his lifetime, Charles Dickens is known to have written
several books. Although each book is different, they also share many
similarities. Two of his books, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist,
are representatives of the many kinds of differences and similarities
found within his work.
Perhaps the reason why these two novels share some of the same
qualities is because they both reflect painful experiences which
occurred in Dickens’ past. During his childhood, Charles Dickens
suffered much abuse from his parents.1 This abuse is often expressed
in his novels. Pip, in Great Expectations, talked often about the
abuse he received at the hands of his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery. On one
occasion he remarked, “I soon found myself getting heavily bumped from
behind in the nape of the neck and the small of the back, and having
my face ignominously shoved against the wall, because I did not answer
those questions at sufficient length.”2
While at the orphanage, Oliver from Oliver Twist also experienced
a great amount of abuse. For example, while suffering from starvation
and malnutrition for a long period of time, Oliver was chosen by the
other boys at the orphanage to request more gruel at dinner one night.
After making this simple request, “the master (at the orphanage) aimed
a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and
shrieked aloud for the beadle.”3
The whole beginning of Oliver Twist’s story was created from
memories which related to Charles Dickens’ childhood in a blacking
factory ( which was overshadowed by the Marshalsea Prison ).4 While
working in the blacking factory, Dickens suffered tremendous
humiliation. This humiliation is greatly expressed through Oliver’s
adventures at the orphanage before he is sent away.
Throughout his lifetime, Dickens appeared to have acquired a
fondness for “the bleak, the sordid, and the austere.”5 Most of
Oliver Twist, for example, takes place in London’s lowest slums.6 The
city is described as a maze which involves a “mystery of darkness,
anonymity, and peril.”7 Many of the settings, such as the pickpocket’s
hideout, the surrounding streets, and the bars, are also described as
dark, gloomy, and bland.8 Meanwhile, in Great Expectations, Miss
Havisham’s house is often made to sound depressing, old, and lonely.
Many of the objects within the house had not been touched or moved in
many years. Cobwebs were clearly visible as well as an abundance of
dust, and even the wedding dress which Miss Havisham constantly wore
had turned yellow with age.9
However, similarities are not just found in the settings. The
novels’ two main characters, Pip and Oliver, are also similar in many
ways. Both young boys were orphaned practically from birth; but where
Pip is sent to live with and be abused by his sister, Oliver is sent
to live in an orphanage. Pip is a very curious young boy. He is a
“child of intense and yearning fancy.”10 Yet, Oliver is well spoken.
Even while his life was in danger while in the hands of Fagin and Bill
Sikes, two conniving pickpockets, he refused to participate in the
stealing which he so greatly opposed. All Oliver really longed for was
to escape from harsh living conditions and evil surroundings which he
had grown up in.11 However, no matter how tempting the evil may have
been, Oliver stood by his beliefs. Therefore, he can be referred to as
“ideal and incorruptible innocence.”12 “It is Oliver’s self-generated
and self-sustained love, conferred it would seem from Heaven alone,
that preserves him from disaster and death.”13
Unfortunately, many critics have found it hard to believe that a
boy such as Oliver Twist could remain so innocent, pure, and well
spoken given the long period of time in which he was surrounded by
evil and injustices.14
Pip, on the other hand, is a dreamer. His imagination is always
helping him to create situations to cover up for his hard times. For
example, when questioned about his first visit to Miss Havisham’s
house, he made up along elaborate story to make up for the terrible
time he had in reality. Instead of telling how he played cards all day
while being ridiculed and criticized by Estella and Miss Havisham, he
claimed that they played with flags and swords all day after having
wine and cake on gold plates.15 However, one special quality possessed
by Pip that is rarely seen in a novel’s hero is that he wrongs others
instead of being hurt himself all of the time.16
Another similarity between Oliver and Pip is that they both have
had interactions with convicts. Fagin the head of a group of young
thieves, spends most of his time trying to “demoralize and corrupt
Oliver and prevent him from ever coming into his inheritance.”17 To
Oliver, he is seen as an escape from all previous misery. He also
helps Oliver to ease any fears about starvation and loneliness.18
Just as Fagin is Oliver’s means of esc…..ape, Magwitch, an escaped
convict, is Pip’s. However, as Fagin provides Oliver with an escape
from misery, Magwitch tries to provide Pip with an escape from poverty
by becoming his anonymous benefactor.
Obviously, escape is an important theme in both Oliver Twist and
Great Expectations. Even though they both have different goals in
mind, Pip and Oliver are seeking various forms of escape from
conditions which make them unhappy: Pip from his poverty, and Oliver
from his loneliness and starvation.
Since dealing with escapism, it is not surprising that death also
plays a major role in both stories. In the two novels, death and
coffins symbolize a happy and peaceful manner of escape.19 In Oliver
Twist, it is suggested that only loneliness and brutality exist on
earth. Supposedly, there is no sanctity on the planet, which is a
belief that goes against the idea of a Heaven on earth.20
Another important theme within the novel is the theme of the “two
separate and conflicting dualisms: one, social, between the individual
and the institution; the second, moral, between the respectable and
the criminal.”21 Most of Oliver Twist seems to imply that “it is
better to be a thief than to be alone.”22 This tends to make the
reader think that Dickens favors the criminal aspect of his novels
over the moral side.
However, the conflict between the individual and the institution
leads to Dickens’ criticism of social injustices such as injustices
towards the poor.23 Also in the form of satire, Dickens attempts to
“challenge the pleasurability of fortune.”24
Aside from satire, Dickens uses various other devices in writing
these novels. one of the most common is that of coincidence. For
example, in Oliver Twist, Oliver just happened to end up, first, at
the house of Mr. Brownlow, who at one time was a really good friend of
Oliver’s father. Then, later on, Oliver ends up at Rose Maylie’s
house, who, as it turns out is his aunt.
In Great Expectations, the use of coincidence is also noticeable.
For instance, Pip finds out that Magwitch and Molly, Mr. Jagger’s
servant, are the parents of Estella long after he first met them.
Then, later on, Pip just happens to be visiting Satis House (Miss
Havisham’s old home) at the same time as Estella.
“Written in abrupt, truncated chapters,” Oliver Twist took the
form of a new type of English prose.25 Both Oliver Twist and
Great Expectations depend heavily on the use of abstraction, or the
avoidance of various facts.
However, the novels each have their own form of narration. While
Oliver Twist is written in the third person, Great Expectations is in
the first person. Therefore, in Oliver Twist, the reader gains a view
of the story from the position of an onlooker or outsider. They form
their own opinions about the characters from “watching them.”
In contrast, when reading Great Expectations, the view is given
through the character of Pip. So, since we only know about
Pip’s feelings and what he tells us, our opinions of the other
characters are highly influenced by what he thinks of them.
In conclusion, both books seem to have much in common such as
feelings shared by the main characters, themes dealing primarily in
social injustices, and various writing techniques such as the use of
coincidental incidences and abstractions. However, they also differ
greatly from one another. For example, Pip searches for money while
Oliver searches for security, and while Pip was raised in a home
environment, Oliver was raised in an orphanage. Yet, both books have a
lot to offer society in terms of pointing out many problems which
still exist today, such as child abuse and injustice to the poor. In
order to conquer these evils, they must first be understood, and
explaining the severity of these experiences seems to be a job which
Charles Dickens is very good at.
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Novelist. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
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Heritage Club, 1939.
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Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens – His Tragedy and Triumph.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.
Kincaid, James R. Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
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Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. California: Stanford
University Press, 1983.
Stewart, Garrett. Dickens and the Trials of Imagination.
Massachusettes: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Oxford: Claredon
Wilkie, Katherine E. Charles Dickens, The Inimitable Boz.
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