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 escape, 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.
Carey, John. Here Comes Dickens – The Imagination of a Novelist. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: The Heritage Club, 1939.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1949.
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.
Marcus, Steven. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. Great Britain: Basic Books, 1965.
Slater, Michael, ed. Dickens 1970. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1970.
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 Press, 1971.
Wilkie, Katherine E. Charles Dickens, The Inimitable Boz. New York: Abelard – Schuman, 1970.
1 Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey (Great Britain: Basic Books, 1965) 82.
2 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: The Heritage Club, 1939) 69.
3 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1949) 16-17.
4 Katharine E. Wilkie, Charles Dickens, The Inimitable Boz (New York: Abelard – Schuman, 1970) 77-78.
5 Marcus 71.
6 Wilkie 77.
7 Marcus 256.
8 Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens – His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952) 273.
9 Dickens, Expectations 62.
10 Garrett Stewart, Dickens and the Trials of Imagination (Massachusettes: Harvard University Press, 1974) 187.
11 Marcus 74.
12 Marcus 80.
13 Marcus 83.
14 John Carey, Here Comes Dickens – The Imagination of a Novelist (New York: Schocken Books, 1974) 149.
15 Dickens, Expectations 71-72.
16 Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1971) 107-108.
17 Marcus 75.
18 James R. Kincaid, Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) 72.
19 Kincaid 51.
20 Kincaid 51.
21 Kincaid 53.
22 Kincaid 72.
23 Wilkie 78.
24 Welsh 82.
25 Marcus 55.