When Oliver Twist was published, many people were shocked, and clergymen and magazine editors accused the young novelist of having written an immoral book. In later editions, Charles Dickens defended the book, explaining that one of his purposes had been to take the romance out of crime and show the underworld of London as the sordid, filthy place he knew it to be. Few of his readers ever doubted that he had succeeded in this task.
When Dickens began writing, a popular form of fiction was the Newgate novel, or the novel dealing in part with prison life and the rogues and highwaymen who ended up in prison. These heroes often resembled Macheath of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Dickens took this tradition and form and turned it around, making it serve the purposes of his new realism. The subplot concerning Bill Sikes and Nancy contains melodramatic elements, but Sikes is no Macheath and Nancy no Polly Peachum.
The grim birth of the infant who was named Oliver opens the book, immediately plunging the reader into an uncomfortably unromantic world where people are starving to death, children are “accidentally” killed off by their charitable keepers, the innocent suffer, and the cruel and unscrupulous prosper. Dickens does not hesitate to lay the facts out clearly: Nancy is a prostitute, Bill is a murderer, Fagin is a fence, and the boys are pickpockets. The supporting cast includes Bumble and Thingummy and Mrs. Mann, individuals who never hesitate to deprive others of what they themselves could use. Poverty is the great leveler, the universal corruptor; in the pages of Oliver Twist, the results of widespread poverty are portrayed with a startling lack of sentimentality. Dickens may become sentimental when dealing with virtue but never when dealing with vice.
The petty villains and small-time corrupt officials, such as Bumble, are treated humorously, but the brutal Bill Sikes is portrayed with complete realism. Although Dickens’s contemporaries thought Bill was too relentlessly evil, Dickens challenged them to deny that such men existed in London, products of the foul life forced on them from infancy. He holds up Sikes in all his nastiness, without making any attempt to find redeeming characteristics. Nancy, both immoral and kindhearted, is a more complicated character. She is sentimental because she is basically good, while Sikes is entirely practical, one who will step on anybody who gets in his way and feel no regrets.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens attempts a deliberate contrast to his previous work, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). While there is much humor in Oliver Twist, it is seldom like that of its predecessor, and it is woven into a realistic and melodramatic narrative of a particularly grim and dark kind. The readers of Mr. Pickwick’s exploits must have been startled when they picked up the magazines containing this new novel by Dickens and discovered old Fagin teaching the innocent Oliver how to pick pockets and children swigging gin like practiced drunkards. Dickens had many talents, however, and in Oliver Twist, he exploits for the first time his abilities to invoke both pathos and horror and to combine these qualities in a gripping narrative. United with the vitality that always infuses Dickens’s prose, these powers guaranteed Oliver Twist a wide readership.
The book was the first of Dickens’s nightmare stories and the first of his social tracts. A certain amount of social protest could be read into Mr. Pickwick’s time in prison, but it is a long distance from the prison depicted there to the almshouse in Oliver Twist. The leap from farce to melodrama and social reform is dramatically successful, and Dickens continued in the same vein for many years. Some critics called his work vulgar, but his readers loved it. He was accused of exaggeration, but, as he repeatedly emphasized, his readers had only to walk the streets of London to discover the characters and conditions of which he wrote so vividly. If his characterizations of some individuals suggest the “humours” theory of Ben Jonson rather than fully rounded psychological portraits, the total effect of the book is that of an entire society, pulsing with life and energy.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens displays for the first time his amazing gift of entering into the psychology of a pathological individual. He follows Sikes and Fagin closely to their respective ends, and he never flinches from revealing their true natures. The death of the unrepentant Sikes remains one of the most truly horrible scenes in English fiction. (When Dickens performed this passage to audiences in his public readings, it was common for women in the audience to scream or faint.) When Fagin is sitting in court, awaiting the verdict of his trial, Dickens describes his thoughts as roaming from one triviality to another, although the fact of his approaching death by hanging is never far away. The combination of the irrelevant and the grimly pertinent is a kind of psychological realism that was completely new in 1838.
Dickens entertained a lifelong fondness for the theater, and this interest in drama had a profound influence on his fiction. He was himself an actor, and he became famous for his readings from his books toward the end of his life. In his novels, the actor in Dickens is also discernible. At times, it is as if the author is impersonating a living individual; at other times, the plots bear the imprint of the popular stage fare of the day, including heavy doses of melodrama, romance, and coincidence. All of these aspects are seen in Oliver Twist, particularly the violence of the melodrama and the coincidences that shuffle Oliver in and out of Mr. Brownlow’s house.
Above all and ultimately much more important, however, stands the realism that Dickens uses to unite the different elements of his story. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the author in this early novel is the giant stride he makes in the realm of realism. He had not yet perfected his skills, but he knew the direction in which he was moving, and he was taking the novel with him.