The timeless tale of an orphan, his will to survive, and the power of ordinary people.
OLIVER TWIST, begun while Dickens was still at work on ‘Pickwick Papers’ and published in 1837-38, was one of the earliest and is still among the best known and widely read of the author's novels. Almost more than any other of his stories, except ‘Pickwick,’ it is modeled upon that loose agglomeration of adventures known as the picaresque novel, most familiar to English readers in such stories as Smollett's ‘Roderick Random’ and ‘Peregrine Pickle,’ and of which the best known examples are ‘Gil Blas’ and ‘Don Quixote.’ It is, however, much more beneficent and moving than most of its prototypes and is full of sympathy and pathos.
Oliver Twist, a waif, after being half-starved and ill treated in an orphan asylum, runs away to London, where he falls in with and is exploited by the underworld of the Jew, Fagin; Charlie Bates, the Artful Dodger; Bill Sikes and other disreputable people, but is finally rescued through the providential advent of the kindly disposed people of whose colorless amiability the Cheeryble brothers in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ are the best known. Oliver finally appears to be a scion of respectable stock and the villains of various descriptions are condignly discomfited by a considerable variety of arrests, terrors, murders and mortal accidents.
The story is one of the most rapidly moving and affecting of Dickens' earlier works in its sympathy with oppressed childhood, and the figures of the underworld are usually thought to be among the most interesting in Dickens' great gallery of such characters. Those of Bill Sikes and Nancy are particularly realistic, and though Fagin, Bumble and some of the others are somewhat grotesque, they have become household words. The higher classes are, as usual in Dickens' novels, less convincingly drawn and far less real.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920