01/09/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2012

The Bible's Role in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist

February 7, 2012 is Charles Dickens' two hundredth birthday, an occasion recognized by all manner of tributes and celebrations (see e.g., To get into the spirit of things, I started this bicentenary year by rereading that perennial favourite Oliver Twist; or the Parish Boy's Progress (1838). There is much to explore here but I found myself thinking about an aspect of Dickens' novel easily overshadowed by those compelling depictions of urban poverty and crime, socio-economic inequities and systemic injustices, and that seemingly endless parade of delightful and colourful characters. I refer to his subtle use of biblical literature.

The first seven chapters of Oliver Twist move quickly from the account of the titular child's birth through to his escape from the coffin maker (3-57 [Penguin edition]). This section closes with the first truly compassionate words Oliver hears, the "blessing" from the young child Dick. An interesting feature of this part of the novel is its ironic use of biblical parables. On two occasions this is explicit. The first is the description of Oliver as "a millstone . . . round the porochial [sic] throat" (29), a clear allusion to the Gospels (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2). Significantly, in the previous verse Jesus holds children up for special honour. He says that the greatest in heaven are like them and "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5).

For the beadle Mr. Bumble to describe a child as a burden, using the very words Jesus spoke when honouring children, is to make the passage say the opposite of its original intent. The second such use of Scripture is found in the description of Bumble's buttons, which are cast with the parochial seal of the Good Samaritan (29; cf. Luke 10:30-37). Since his indifference to Oliver resembles the heartless priest and Levite of that story and not the compassionate Samaritan, his claim to model the parable's ideals by wearing such a button is rather hollow.

In addition to these obvious uses of the New Testament, a third passage, not explicitly mentioned, provides a possible background for the novel's introductory chapters. Matthew alone records Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats (25:31-46) in which the virtuous are distinguished from others by their willingness to feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. In each case Jesus uses the first person - "I was hungry and you gave me food" (v. 35, etc.) - and so this parable resembles the blessing on children noted above where he claims to be the beneficiary of charitable acts: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5). Oliver Twist is, of course, a needy child who was not welcomed early in the novel, whose plight resembles those described in the sheep-and-goats parable:

• Oliver is hungry: "without the inconvenience of too much food" (6; cf. Matthew 25:35: "I was hungry")
• Oliver is alone in the world: "you've got no father or mother" (12; cf. Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger")
• Oliver lacks clothes: "without the inconvenience of . . . too much clothing" (6; cf. Matthew 25:36: "I was naked")
• Oliver is in 'prison': "Oliver remained a close prisoner in the dark" (17; also 54, 79; cf. Matthew 25:36: "I was in prison")

There is clear mockery of the parish's so-called charitable activities here. They show greater concern for outward appearance than providing any substantive provisions for the boy. For instance, there are recurring references to Oliver's loneliness (11, 32, 34, 59, 162) but the parish does not provide any companionship or meaningful sense of community (cf. "you did not visit me" [Matthew 25:43]). The subtle allusion to the parable of the sheep and the goats represents a clever critique of these hypocritical parish practices. The parable's warning is directed to those feigning to be Jesus' followers but not recognizing him among the poor and needy: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" (Matthew 25:44).

Dickens' critique culminates in the brief words offered by Dick (from Dickens?). His speech recalls key terms from Matthew's sheep-and-goats parable ("heaven," "angels," "blessing") and indeed, his kind words to Oliver model true charity. Dick's blessing, "the first that Oliver had ever heard" (57), left an impression on the orphan who "never once forgot it" (cf. 429). Dick is a model of virtue and a child to be emulated according to the millstone passage Bumble ironically cites (29): "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:4).