Social Environment and Crime in Dickens' Oliver Twist and Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, Victorian Era, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Social Environment, Crime, Edwin Sutherland, Differential Association


  • Lina Alzouabi
    MA in English Literature, Department of English Language and Literature, Al-Zaytoonah University, Amman, Jordan
June 30, 2021


This study reads Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and Great Expectations as crime novels by applying Sutherland's theory of "differential association" which postulates that criminal behavior is learned rather than inherited, and it is learned through interaction with other people within intimate personal groups in which one learns techniques and acquires motives for committing crimes. In Oliver Twist, Oliver is portrayed as a victim of the corrupted social environment as well as Monks' conspiracy with Fagin to drag him down to the underworld.; he is raised as an orphan in a workhouse and subjected to mistreatment. Thus, he unknowingly indulges in Fagin's gang and learns the crime of pickpocketing, as all the members of the gang come from a poor background and are taught how to commit crimes within the gang, their intimate social group. Nancy's poverty also compels her to join the gang, which ultimately leads to her death, as criminality is not innate in her personality. Criminality in Oliver's character is not innate either, so he ends up leading a decent life in a healthier environment. Like Fagin, Compeyson in Great Expectations favors the violation of law and has others indulge in the criminal world, thereby exploiting Magwitch and Orlick who turn into criminals. By presenting criminal characters with various motives and from harsh backgrounds, Dickens' fiction suggests that crime behavior has nothing to do with heredity. Rather, criminal characters are implicated in crimes as a result of the corrupted social environment forced on them, along with gangs and corrupt people they have to encounter.