Archives For Oliver Twist

Our English II World Literature course complements the World History course, so when the students are learning about the Industrial Revolution, our English course has students read the opening chapters to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

Reading Dickens, however, is a challenge for many students, particularly if they lack background knowledge on the story’s setting. In order to help them better understand the context of England during the Industrial Revolution, we incorporated several famous paintings to illustrate the shift from the pastoral setting to the urban setting.

Rather than show a painting in its entirety at first, we made screenshots of different sections of each painting and had the students “read” what they saw. For example, we began with John Constable’s painting The Hay Wain (1821) which hangs in the National Gallery in London, England.

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upper left corner of Constable’s “The Hay Wain”

Students looked at the information communicated in the upper left quadrant  of the painting and discussed the architecture of the roof and the large empty tree branches. They noted the gathering storm clouds in the background; “a tone of danger” noted one student. 

We then had students look at the lower right quadrant of the painting where a farmer’s cart was being driven along a stream bed. They noted the details of the team of horses and speculated as to why the men would be walking upstream. 

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lower right corner of Constables “The Hay Wain”

They speculated that there might be no road because a road might not have been necessary if transportation was easier by water, and one student called attention to a small canoe on the stream’s bank. They called attention to the earth tone colors that contrasted with the red harnesses of the horses.

Then we showed the students the full painting.

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Constable’s painting is based on a site in Suffolk. The hay wain, a type of horse-drawn cart, stands in the water in the foreground. (National Gallery Picture Library
St Vincent House, 30 Orange Street, London)

When the students saw the entire painting, they were already familiar with some of the smaller details. They were able to locate these smaller details and suggest how they contributed to the larger “story” of the painting. They determined Constable’s painting celebrated the pastoral life outside London, a striking contrast from the setting of Oliver Twist where impoverished street children were placed in workhouses or recruited by criminals.

The painting that best illustrates the cultural shift caused by the Industrial Revolution, however,  is J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. The oil painting depicts the gunship with her sails tightly wrapped to the rigging being tugged  by a steam powered paddle-wheel to the shipyard before being broken up for scrap. Turner painted the tribute to the end of sailing ships in 1838, the same year that Dickens published Oliver Twist. Both works brought attention to the drastic change in the way of life as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

“The Fighting Temeraire”, an oil painting by the English artist J. M. W. Turner (1938) National Gallery, London

Since the students had practiced close reading the Constable pastoral painting, they were ready to close read Turner’s painting. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. One noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background; another noted a potential danger of a submerged obstacle in the foreground floating in the right corner of the painting. Most commented on the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “a glow” for some or a “light extinguishing” for others. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses:

  • “It’s out with the old!”
  • “The coal fire is the new light; the sun is the old light”
  • “Coal power, not wind power”
  • “Beauty fades”

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire was voted England’s favorite painting in a 2005 poll organized by BBC Radio 4’s Today.  The painting was also highlighted in the recent James Bond film Skyfall. In the scene in the National Gallery, Bond meets his new handler, Q, while both sit on a bench opposite the painting:

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously haunted away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
Bond:  A bloody big ship. Excuse me.
Q: 007. I’m your new Quartermaster.
Bond: You must be joking.
Q:  Why, because I’m not wearing a lab coat?
Bond: Because you still have spots.
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
Bond: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
Bond:  And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Skyfall (

After watching the film clip, the students were in agreement that they are living in a new digital revolution, and that technology has changed their culture from that of their parents. If they want a sunset, they don’t need a painting by Turner….they have Instagram.

A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens are in the 9th grade honors curriculum at Wamogo High School.  Selections (chapters 1 -3) of Oliver Twist are in the 10th grade college prep curriculum to complement the Industrial Revolution unit taught by the Social Studies Department.

A Christmas Carol: 9th Grade Honors Reading

Great Expectations: 9th Grade Honors Reading

Oliver Twist: 10th Grade College Prep Reading

Our student do like the novels by Dickens…once the book is completed.  They enjoy the complicated plot twists…once the twists have ended. They remember the quirky characters…once the book has been turned in.

A problem with all novels by Dickens is the length. Simply, he got paid by the word. A problem with Dickens is the vocabulary. He liked to use long and complicated words. A problem with Dickens is his sentence structure. He used complex sentences.

The problem of length is difficult to address. His novels cannot be satisfactorily shortened; abridged editions lack his satire and comic touch.  The problems of vocabulary and complicated sentence structure, however, are reasons to teach any Dickens novel. There hundreds of  SAT/ACT words in any Dickens’ text. A quick review of a several words from Oliver Twist should prove my point:
panegyric- a formal expression of praise
asseverate-state categorically
asperity- something hard to endure
rapacity– extreme gluttony
myrmidon-a follower who carries out orders without question
pule-cry weakly or softly
postilion-someone who rides the near horse of a pair in order to guide the horses pulling a carriage (especially a carriage without a coachman)
seneschal-the chief steward or butler of a great household
imprecation-the act of calling down a curse that invokes evil (and usually serves as an insult)
saveloy-a ready-cooked and highly seasoned pork sausage (probably not an SAT/ACT word, but fun to know!)

Dickens sentences are complex:

“The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
‘Please, sir, I want some more'” (Oliver Twist)

From a student’s point of view,  sentences like these appear puzzling.  Young Oliver’s adventures are just starting in  Chapter 2…and there are 51 more chapters like this one! Reading a Dickens’ novel or a passage requires focus and determination.

There is much to be gained by sticking with Dickens, to pushing students out of their comfort zone of 21st Century twittering and texting. Students can develop skills in following the main idea in a selected passage of text. Students can rephrase Dickens’ sentences to better understand his satire. Students can imitate his writing the way painters imitate great artists using his work as “mentor texts”. Finally, students can comment on Dickens’ characters and make connections of these characters to contemporary people, because that is exactly what Dickens did to his own contemporaries.

Since all literature by Dickens is in the public domain, students have access to an e-text; I do not need copies for each student when students choose to download the book to an e-reader device, and digital copies are excellent when students need to read only a few passages or chapters. The classroom libraries already do contain enough copies of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol for those students who choose a paper copy. The copies of Dickens’ novels that are available in used book sales are often quite old and musty, but Oprah’s recent selection of Great Expectation and A Tale of Two Cities for her book club may result in newer editions entering the used book market

To date, the cost for these titles? Nothing. The results of teaching the most popular English novelist of the Victorian Era? Priceless.