Great Expectations vs. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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