In Chapter 12 of Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, the narrator observes, in part: "If I wanted any further proof of the strictly philosphical nature of the conduct of these young gentlemen. . .I should at once find it. . . ." Who is "I" referring to, and what type of narration is being used here?
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On the surface, the question of who narrates the story and the answer itself is simple enough: the narrator is an unnamed person speaking in the third-person omniscient—that is, he or she is not part of the story and always refers to the characters in the third-person point of view (he, she, it) even as this same narrator refers to him/herself as “I”. This might be characterized as a little unusual; more often than not, a third person omniscient narrator does not acknowledge him or herself as an observer of the story at all. But the unique style of Dickens’s narrator does not stop there; sometimes, this narrator allows the reader to feel that they—narrator and reader—are becoming closer, almost reaching an understanding of sorts. That is to say, the narrator sometimes seems like a kind and comforting presence; however, lest the reader get too comfortable, the narrator will suddenly shift into a distant presence, emotionless presence, and about the time the reader gets used to that, the narrator jumps into a sarcastic observer. The consistency of the narrator, however, is in the use of sarcasm, for the narrator’s hateful tone is always employed when observing the unjust, hypocritical, harmful manner in which England’s poor, particularly England’s poor children, were treated.
Of course, anyone with any familiarity at all with Charles Dickens understands the nature of his worldview. His father didn’t exactly manage money well, and Dickens went to work at a blacking factory at age twelve to provide for the family after his dad landed in debtor’s prison. Dickens himself inherited this tendency to overspend, and struggled with financial problems his whole life. Ironically enough, the society in which he lived was terribly hard on its poorest members, even as it purported to be the opposite. Thus, Dickens’s unpredictable narrator becomes most predictable when commenting on what Dickens believed to be a terribly harsh society, as that is when the narrator lapses into sarcasm and reflects a general disgust with the immediate world he lives in.
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