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Teaching Oliver Twist: Discussion and Activities by Episode

Episode I
Thematic Focus:
Love and marriage in Victorian England

Before Viewing
This film adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist begins with a love story: the tale of Oliver's parents, Agnes Fleming and Edwin Leeford. The events in the film are set in motion by the obstacles these two "star-crossed lovers" face. Use the questions below to prepare students to identify and compare Victorian customs and attitudes toward marriage with those of their own culture and time.
  1. In American culture, why do people marry? How do most individuals select their marriage partners?

  2. How does our society view an "out-of-wedlock" birth? Adultery? How common is divorce in our culture? In what ways have our society's attitudes changed? (You may want to ask students to interview parents and older adults to help them answer this question.)

Post-Viewing Discussion
  1. Ask students to describe the opening scenes of Oliver Twist: setting, mood, music, action, colors, dialogue. How does your impression of Agnes change when the scene moves from her death at the workhouse to the meadow scene with Edwin? How does your understanding of and feelings about the cliff scene change the second time you see it?

  2. When she is carried into the workhouse in labor, Agnes is asked her name. "I've lost my name," she answers. What does she mean? What do names symbolize, or stand for, in this story? Where does Oliver get his name?

  3. On the board, brainstorm a list of words to describe Edwin Leeford. Circle the positive words, underline the negative ones. Is he presented as a victim, a villain, or both? Explain. How is he viewed by each of the following: Agnes, Captain Fleming, Mr. Brownlow, Elizabeth Leeford? Whose view of Edwin Leeford is closest to your own?

  4. How does the story of Agnes and Edwin offer a critique of Victorian marriage and morals? What do you think Dickens believed the basis of marriage should be? How would the story of Agnes and Edwin be different today? How might it be the same?

Post-Viewing Activities
  1. Thinking back to the opening scene of Agnes on the cliff, write an interior monologue for her. What's going through her mind? What has led her to contemplate suicide and why does she refrain from doing so?

  2. In Paris, Edward Leeford is eager to hear any message for him from his estranged father, Edwin. What does Edwin Leeford think of his son? Do you think he is a "bad seed," as his father fears, or a product of bad circumstances? What is his relationship with his mother? What effect does she have on him and on Edwin? Write a letter from Edward to his father in which he explains how he has become the man he is.

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Episode II
Thematic Focus:
Poverty, identity, and destiny

Before Viewing
The last section of Episode I provided a glimpse of a Victorian workhouse and the "baby farms" that housed orphaned infants in Victorian England. What details do students recall from these early scenes? Copy and distribute Down and Out in Victorian England. Then have students read the biography of Dickens, and discuss the following:
  1. What was the philosophy behind workhouse relief for the poor? Why were families separated within the workhouse? Why were they fed meager rations of food?

  2. What was the attitude of most middle-class Victorians toward people in their society who lived in poverty? What is our attitude today? Do we view the poor in our own nation in the same way as we view the poor in less developed countries? What causes poverty? What factors or assumptions influence the amount of compassion a society demonstrates toward its poorest members?

  3. What experience of poverty and working-class life did Dickens have? Look for how you think his experiences influenced his portrayal of poverty and criminality as you watch.

Post-Viewing Discussion
  1. List the characters you met in Episode II who do not live in poverty. What does each character see when looking at Oliver? How does their judgment and treatment of Oliver reflect who they are, what they believe, and what their values are?

  2. Recall or replay two scenes from the episode:

    Oliver asks for "more" and is brought before the Board (about 3 minutes from the beginning)

    Oliver and Sowerberry visit the home of a poor woman who has died of starvation (about 12 minutes in)

    How do these scenes demonstrate the hypocrisy of those who devised and enforced the New Poor Law? How and why was poverty treated like a crime?

  3. What does Oliver know about who he is? How does he react to the identity that others (Mr. Bumble, Noah Claypole, Fagin, Brownlow) try to assign to him? Is he a weak or a strong character?

  4. As portrayed in Oliver Twist, is the criminal underworld better or worse than the workhouse? What does Oliver find in his first days living in Fagin's den that he has never known before? Why do you think the screenwriter decided to make Fagin a magician? What do you think Dickens wanted his middle-class readers to understand about the world of London criminals and prostitutes? What does Dickens believe is the relationship between poverty and criminality? What do you think the relationship is today?

  5. Why is Edward Leeford (Monks) looking for Oliver? What does he want Fagin to do? Has Edward changed since Episode I? How?

  6. Dickens could have chosen to make Oliver the poor, orphaned son of a man and woman who were also poor, yet he did not. Why do you think he gave Oliver a middle-class background? Does it weaken or strengthen Dickens's social message about the nature of poverty and the poor?

Post-Viewing Activities
  1. Write or enact a debate between a proponent of the New Poor Law and a Victorian-era reformer who opposed the law. Both voices should use the life of Oliver Twist as evidence for their arguments. To prepare for the debate, make sure students read Down and Out in Victorian England and do additional library and Web research.

  2. Look for present-day articles about poverty, both in this country and others, in newspapers and periodicals. What attitudes, morals, and laws do these articles reflect? How would the article be different or the same if it had been written during the period of the New Poor Law?

  3. Have students research poverty statistics for your community and compare these with national figures. What does "poverty" mean in your community? Does holding a full-time job necessarily mean that a person is above the poverty line? What social supports are available locally for people falling below or just above the poverty line?

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Episode III
Thematic Focus:
Cowardice, courage, and redemption

Before Viewing
Episode III turns on the actions of Nancy and Mr. Brownlow, two characters from entirely different worlds who struggle to do what is right. Before its happy conclusion, Oliver Twist takes viewers through dark moments and difficult choices.
  1. In this episode, Brownlow observes: "You can be for the good, or you can be for the bad. Or you can be miserably in between." Invite students to recall a time when they were faced with a difficult moral choice. Have students write about their thinking process and their decision in the context of Brownlow's observation.

  2. The final episode is subtitled: "In which all is revealed...." As a class, make a list of the major plot lines that have been developed in the first two episodes (focusing on Oliver, Brownlow, Monks, Fagin, Nancy, and Sikes). Make a prediction about how each thread in the plot will be resolved by the end of the film.

Post-Viewing Discussion
  1. Why did Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin argue at the end of Episode II? Why does Brownlow come to his country house, and who does he find there? What does Brownlow learn about himself by helping Oliver?

  2. Is Nancy a heroic figure? Why does she return to Bill? Have Dickens and the screenwriter made her motives understandable to you?

  3. What did you learn about Edward Leeford in the scene in which he apologizes to Oliver? How is his life changed by his encounter with Oliver and Brownlow?

  4. As they pass the gallows, Oliver asks Brownlow why Fagin is condemned for his crimes, yet Edward remains free. What answer does Brownlow give? What explanation would you have given Oliver?

  5. What is revealed by the text of Edwin Leeford's letter to Agnes? Why do you think screenwriter Alan Bleasdale made Leeford's words the last lines spoken in the film?

  6. Introduce the concept of poetic justice, "in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished, often in an especially appropriate or ironic manner" (from The American Heritage Dictionary). Was poetic justice served in each main character's case?

Post-Viewing Activities
  1. Each of the following characters faces a moral challenge or difficult choice in this episode. Select one character, define his or her dilemma, and describe how the character resolved it. Write or improvise a monologue in the voice of the character as he or she weighs the choice and its consequences.

    Edward Leeford (Monks)
    Mr. Brownlow
    Bill Sikes
    Charley Bates
    Rose Fleming

  2. Since the publication of Oliver Twist, many readers have had difficulty understanding Nancy's fidelity to the brutal Bill Sikes. Did you find it natural or unnatural? Probable or improbable? Read Dickens's Preface to Oliver Twist, written for the 1841 edition of the novel. How does he defend the character he created? Paraphrase his argument and respond to it.

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