A Child Hero’s Journey: Oliver Twist

JAN / FEB 2012: BY RACHEL SEXTON

oliver

“Surprises, like misfortunes, seldom come alone.”

Good authors manage to set themselves apart from other writers with a unique voice in their work that becomes a trademark of their style. It may be a certain tone to the narration, a distinct setting, or a preference for a specific type of plot or a combination of elements that distinguishes an author’s work. However, few writers can boast that their name has become an adjective for a certain type of story. Charles Dickens can. When something is called “Dickensian,” you can bet an upstanding lead faces dire oppression and persecution in the seedy underbelly of a teeming city (preferably London) but always ends up receiving just happiness. Most works of fiction can be pared down into a few general story archetypes and great authors can place their stamp on any one of these with a satisfying result.

Such is the case with Dickens and Oliver Twist. The classic tale of the hero’s journey is fitted to the novel in exemplary fashion while Dickens makes the work solidly his own. The hero’s journey begins with one important feature that sets it apart—the existence of little or no parental presence in the hero’s life. Oliver Twist is a little boy growing up in Victorian England in just such a situation. He is an orphan, a state common in the hero’s journey. Oliver’s mother arrives at a workhouse about to give birth and bringing Oliver into the world takes her life. The baby’s father is in no way in the picture (or even able to be ascertained); the identity of Oliver’s mother is left behind in very few clues, hidden by grasping no-good people.

Oliver grows up one of many in the workhouse, that depressing and dank institution so suited to Dickens’ setting and style. To show just how prevalent this story archetype is in fiction and film, there are two more examples to briefly mention: Harry Potter is the most famous recent example of an orphan character on a hero’s journey, while Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is another whose mother died giving birth to him and whose father is separated from him by dramatic circumstances. Even more than little or no parental presence, the hero in this archetype often has adult figures in his life usually responsible for his welfare who treat him in a way most would find contemptible.

The proprietors of the workhouse, to be completely fair, treat all the children in their care the same way as Oliver. When Oliver famously asks for more food at a meal, he is shipped off to apprentice at an undertaker’s. There, Mr. Sowerberry, and his wife do little to effect any change in Oliver’s luck with adults but the real problem at this new place is a fellow apprentice; Noah Claypoole provokes Oliver into a fight and gets him a whipping. To carry this over to the other examples mentioned earlier, Harry’s aunt and uncle Dursley on Privet Drive make his entrance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry feel like an escape. Luke, in contrast, is well treated by his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru but they are killed early on by Stormtroopers, foot soldiers for the tyrannical Galactic Empire.

After his punishment at the undertaker’s, Oliver takes a step that is another feature of the hero’s journey—the actual journey itself. He runs away to London. The distance can vary but the hero usually travels from the place he knows to another, totally unfamiliar one. In our other examples, Harry goes a long way to reach Hogwarts but feels like he’s going home and Luke ends up crisscrossing the galaxy during all his adventures.

Different events confront each hero along his path but in each case he survives and reaches the resolution of his emotional and physical trials. Oliver’s conflict arrives in the form of more adults who behave despicably. First, after being recruited by the Artful Dodger, Oliver meets Fagin, the aging leader of a band of pick-pocketing street urchins. Dickens makes the reader cringe a bit with his stereotype but Jewish Fagin’s greed is all-consuming. Even worse is Fagin’s criminal cohort Bill Sykes, a depraved man who would murder a child without thinking twice. For Harry and Luke, the oppositions on the way to their hero’s ending takes up seven books and three films!

This story archetype is about a hero, which means the lead character is one of the good guys. And their moral strength is rewarded in the end. Good luck blesses Oliver with a series of events that puts him in the way of his maternal grandfather, Mr. Brownlow. Also, Bill Sykes’ significant other, Nancy, usually does his bidding but comes through in doing the right thing when it counts.

Fagin and Bill continue to put obstacles in the way of Oliver staying with his grandfather but the positive resolution for the put-upon orphan is already on its way. The criminals meet their deserved fates at the hands of the law and Oliver gets to go to a warm, affectionate, and affluent home. Harry and Luke also achieve their goals of defeating the evil villains in their own stories for good.

The framework of Oliver Twist may be a classic hero’s journey but Dickens is able to put his own imprint on the familiar form so the result is both timeless and relevant to his era. The novel has had many adaptations over the years with directors David Lean in 1948 and Roman Polanski in 2005 being the most notable. Interestingly, Fagin in Lean’s version is played under heavy makeup by Alec Guinness, who was Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. That being another hero’s journey, the actor must have felt at home. ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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