I’ve heard it all the time: don’t use a passive protagonist. Make your main character decisive and engaging. Give them a purpose, a drive. But most importantly, make them active.
The passive character is one that exists solely at the mercy of the forces around them. And continues to exist that way. They don’t really grab the reins and start driving; they more or less sit in the passenger’s seat, while someone or something else entirely is at the wheel.
Many writers don’t recommend it. But, in a few careful cases, it can be quite an effective literary tool. Especially if your name is Dickens. In the case of Oliver Twist he presents us with a young orphan, born and raised into poverty. Gradually he comes face to face with the ills of Victorian England by experiencing them firsthand.
Oliver starts out in a workhouse, under the hard instruction of Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle. Later, after humbly requesting for “more” gruel (in his immortal line), Oliver is transferred over to the care and apprenticeship of an undertaker. But after dealing with the abuse of the undertaker’s wife, Mrs. Sowerberry, along with Noah, a young bully, Oliver decides to run away to London.
This is where he takes up with Fagin, a notorious criminal, and his gang of pickpocketing children. They adopt him, and Oliver feels that, for the first time, he has found a home for himself. Yet he never fully immerses into life on the streets. Many misadventures unfold: he is arrested, kidnapped, and almost killed at one point.
Through these constant dangers Dickens illustrates the plight of the poor. The world is a hard and troubling place, and no harder is it on Oliver. Oliver persists, however feebly, as a commentary on the Victorian Era: a time where English society was sharply riven by wealth and power. Much of Dickens’ work was about giving light to the ills of the time, many of which went unrecognized. He did this through characters: everyday people who suffer the hand of circumstance.
That is why Oliver is portrayed as a passive character for much of the book. We are meant to see the circumstance. Ever since birth it has cast him into the shadows, making him bastardized by society. Poverty is not something you willfully choose: in Dickens’ world it is a dark force thrust upon you.
Oliver personifies the world of Victorian England in terms of its damning effects. He represents the workhouse, the prison, and every place occupied by the underprivileged. He HAS TO be shown, then, as one harshly affected. He has to be susceptible to the world as a character. Without that, the point of the novel fails.
Another way Dickens accomplishes is by showing the world through the eyes of a child. The world is hardest on its young, and the character of Oliver represents this. He is a form of unblemished innocence thrust suddenly into a dark and challenging world. Through his meekness he suffers; his naiveté makes him more prone to the dangers around him. Quite simply, he is molded by them from an early age. As a child, Oliver is living proof that no one, no matter how small or defenseless, is safe from their surroundings.
If we see Dickens’ England through the eyes of a child we come to feel it more strongly. It is a cold place that spares no one. In spite of his youth, Oliver is not saved from the plight of the poor: he experiences the streets of London firsthand alongside robbers, drunks, and murderers. The world is thrust upon him, forcing him to mature for his age. And it is a world without morals.
Dickens takes a binary approach to social inequality: there is the oppressor and the victim. Only one of them is truly personified in the case of Oliver Twist. The other is a force of nature. Occasionally it is characterized in the form of villains, such as Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Sowerberry, and main antagonist Bill Sykes.
But predominately it is the world at large; it is a system built on privilege. And those outside of it are treated very passively. Like Oliver they are orphaned, voiceless, and marginalized. They are not offered the same chance to determine their lot in life; the lot determines them. That is why Dickens creates his protagonist this way: to personify the effects of inequality.
Oliver is most sympathetic, as a representation of the poor, when he is at his most vulnerable. At one point he is employed against his will in a burglary, after which he is injured by gunshot. In a rare act of mercy, the residents of the house take him in and nurse a wounded Oliver back to health.
Here Dickens appeals to pathos, depicting young Oliver as yet another innocent victim of forces outside his control. For a time he is lying in bed, almost lifeless, as others attend to him. The scene is representative: he is weak after being set upon so harshly and, therefore, requires a helping hand in order to survive, let alone maintain himself.
This is the role that Dickens is imploring his readers to take: to lift up the weakest around you, rather than passing them by. By now the cause cannot be ignored: Oliver has become too visible to the people around him. To many, like Mr. Bumble, or Noah Claypole, he is seen as distasteful. But now he reverts to being a child, once more in the eyes of the world. And only the most desperate of circumstances can present him that way.
I think passivity works in Oliver Twist because it describes not only his role, but the role of much of society towards him. They are unwilling to help him, and so he spends much of the novel unable to help himself. Oliver does find a happy ending later on, but you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Charles Dickens is criticizing an idle society in the face of poverty. It is both active in building the powers that be and idle in trying to dismantle them. That is why Oliver has to be meek and passive at times: to show the burden of the poor. Unlike the rest of society, he is not endowed with same opportunities, so he has less power over his destiny.