Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1461
Oliver Twist is notable for its emphasis on the struggle to survive, its presentation of the poor and criminals as real people with their own stories and sufferings, and its emphasis on money and the hypocrisy it frequently breeds.
Both Oliver and the thieves are victims of the Poor Laws and other social institutions that prevent or discourage them from productive work. They all battle hunger, cold, and lack of decent living conditions, and society seems bent on rubbing them out—even Oliver's harmless and sweet friend Dick is viewed as a nuisance and a danger by the authorities. As Dickens wrote, children in the "infant farm" are often killed when they are "overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death" during clothes washing. When the workhouse board decides to get rid of Oliver so they won't have to pay for his food and lodging anymore, they consider sending him to sea, "the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar." This they regard as his rightful due, as if, being a pauper, he is therefore a criminal in need of punishment. He is almost apprenticed to Gamfield, a cruel chimney sweep who takes pleasure in torturing small boys, with the board's approval, until at the last minute he is saved from this horrible fate by a kind magistrate.
In addition, one of the board members, "the gentleman in the white waistcoat," repeatedly remarks, "I know that boy will be hung," as if he is already a criminal and the death penalty is his due. This comment is particularly chilling because Oliver is depicted as a kind, loving child who has done nothing wrong during his short life. However, because of social attitudes toward the poor, he is considered doomed or inherently evil, a born criminal.
Like a prisoner, Oliver is given very little food, is frequently beaten, and is often confined in a small, dark room. Throughout the novel, this imprisonment is repeated whenever Oliver offends someone who has more power than he does. He is variously imprisoned in a "coal cellar," a "dark and solitary room," "a little room by himself," a "cell," "a stone cell ... the anteroom to the coal cellar," and the claustrophobic coffin workshop, as well as the dark, filthy, and labyrinthine rooms of Fagin's criminal gang.
The criminals themselves are shown as living in "dens" like those of animals: dirty "holes," houses boarded up and entered through tiny openings, with dark passages; at times Dickens uses the word "kennel" to describe these places and writes of the criminals as if they are predatory animals who must hunt to survive.
Before Dickens's novels, few writers had presented criminal life as physically, morally, and psychologically repellent, preferring instead to glorify criminal characters as fascinating, glamorous, or romantic outlaws, similar to Robin Hood; this tendency continues in modern fiction, with murder mysteries, gangster movies, Mafia miniseries, and prison escape tales in which the criminals are heroes. In Oliver Twist, Dickens shows the filth and degradation the thieves live in and their utter lack of faithfulness to each other; with rare exceptions, they are all ready to spy on each other and turn each other in if they can save themselves, make money, or gain new alliances by doing so. As Fagin says, they are all "looking out for Number One." This nervewracking, unstable, and dangerous world was new to readers and accounted for both the negative remarks of some critics as well as the fascination of many readers, who were able to see into a world of which they had no direct experience.
Dickens also showed the unglamorous end of some of the thieves' careers: Fagin is hanged; Monks dies in prison overseas, unmourned after a life of crime; and the Artful Dodger is arrested and jailed for life. None of the thieves, in fact, remains active in crime, as if Dickens did not want to show any of them achieving "success" as criminals.
Dickens's motive in portraying the criminals as ordinary and even pathetic people was to establish a sympathy between the reader and these degraded specimens of humanity. He links the poverty and suffering created by the Poor Laws with the growth of crime, saying through the story that the rich, wealthy, and complacent people who Dickens frequently attacks the smugness and complacency of people whose place in society is secure and who have no sympathy for those who suffer."
For example, until Rose Maylie meets and talks to Nancy, she has no idea that women like Nancy exist. Perhaps she knows of the existence of "bad women," but Nancy makes her see that some "bad women" may actually be "good," or, more realistically, a mix of the two—simply human, like herself. Once she realizes this, she is eager to help Nancy, although Nancy insists it's too late. This lesson of human kindness and compassion is not learned by the servants of the hotel where Rose is staying; they are bitterly rude to Nancy, seeing her only as an instrument of evil because she is not a respectable or wealthy woman.
Dickens frequently attacks the smugness and complacency of people whose place in society is secure and who have no sympathy for those who suffer. He mocks the parish board, Mr. Fang the magistrate, Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Corney, and others, and in the case of Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney, some of the worst offenders, he makes sure to put them in the very position of the people they previously abused and despised, as they end up in the very workhouse where they once tormented others.
Dickens vigorously attacks the Poor Laws of 1834, showing the resulting brutal treatment of the poor. The workhouse system was designed to save money; by making the workhouses repellent places of starvation and hard labor, the authorities intended to make hard work outside the workhouse seem like a better choice and thus prevent able-bodied people from becoming what in modern times are called "welfare abusers." By lessening the number of people who took public assistance, the authorities could save a great deal of money. However, they went too far in their emphasis on money over humaneness, as Dickens shows. He also has venomous words for those in the system who see it as a form of "Christian charity," for as he shows, it is not spiritually or religiously based at all. Those who claim it is real "charity," as opposed to torment, are exposed as the most wicked of hypocrites. As Dickens ironically writes:
[The system of starving the poor] was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker's bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two's gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.
When Oliver is born in the workhouse, he is regarded as yet another mouth to feed on a sort of assembly line of poor children. This dehumanization is shown by the way Mr. Bumble makes up names for the children, in alphabetical order, so that Oliver is randomly named "Twist" because he comes after a child whom Bumble named "Swubble" and before one whom Bumble will name "Unwin." Bumble has devised a whole list of these alphabetic names, which he will apply to orphans in logical order. The babies are never seen as human but as a procession of burdens, and they are discussed as economic factors—how much money Mrs. Mann will get for him or other orphans and how much she can keep for herself by not feeding them. In addition, Oliver is considered to be such a financial liability on the parish that they are willing to pay five pounds to anyone who will take him away and teach him a trade—a job skill that will prevent him from returning to the parish as a pauper in adult life.
The thieves, of course, are obsessed with getting money, although bad at saving it. Later in the book, Oliver's entry into a loving surrogate family is made even more idyllic by the fact that he inherits a great deal of money. Dickens does not take the story far enough to tell us what becomes of Oliver as an adult and if he spends any of his considerable fortune to help the poor, but given his character as presented in the novel, it would be safe to assume that he would.
Source: Kelly Winters, "Critical Essay on Oliver Twist", in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2683
Readers familiar with literature about Britain written during the interval between Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and the coronation of Queen Victoria twenty-two years later know how rich it is in studies that map the distinctive features of the postwar period. Some writers, like Bulwer Lytton in his England and the English (1833), mixed sociology and history in order to analyze society in the manner of De Toqueville and Montesquieu. Others—David Ricardo, Sismondi, the Swiss economist and historian, and Patrick Colquhoun, are examples—focused more specifically on the best ways to exploit the source of England's wealth. Some took the position that a free economy would promote social harmony and growth. Dissenters, like Sismondi, advocated government controls as the best way to ensure stability by regulating the production of goods and slowing the economy in order to counter the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Other barometers of the period include its fiction, which provided commentary of a different sort, as readers discovered in their vicarious participation in the imagined settings of novels truths about the real world they inhabited. It is my contention that Oliver Twist (published serially from February 1837 to April 1839) can be read as a literary work that reveals a good deal about the period which shaped Dickens' s early life, those years in which people faced, for the first time, some of the public and private challenges posed by the Industrial Revolution.
The distinctive features which characterize Oliver Twist as an imaginative instrument for the empirical exploration of early Victorian England require enumeration. Dickens uses the novel to explore two major concerns: first, the plight of children born into the early phase of the Industrial Revolution, and, second, the difficulty of reading "correctly" the external signs of the new urban culture, whose impact on the class system, to take one important instance, rendered unreliable previous assumptions about both the means by which one social group was distinguished from another and the underlying presumption of separateness. These two social realities form the novel's moral agenda and account for a determined effort by Dickens to create a new literary form in which to convey his vision. Prototypical features of Oliver Twist include the use of a child hero to convey the specific threats the young faced in their painful initiation into life, the suspenseful revelation of unsuspected connections between different social groups, and the employment of several characters and a narrator to assemble clues and solve mysteries in the manner of a detective.
I shall begin with the foundling hero, whose illegitimate birth in a workhouse many Victorians evidently read as a prelude to the boy's almost certain misfortune and descent into crime. Dickens plays on this likely response to Oliver's fate in several scenes early in the novel. Members of the managerial class who administered the New Poor Law of 1834, for example, are portrayed as taking pleasure in humiliating Oliver, and they aggressively predict his demise. "'I know that boy will be hung,'" warns one member of the Board of Guardians, a prophecy he and his companions do their best to assist by handing over Oliver to anyone willing to take him on as an apprentice.
Once parish overseers resigned juvenile paupers in their care to an employer, children were generally subject to further degradation, a point made clear by Oliver's apprenticeship to an undertaker. In the hands of cruel employers, typified in the novel by Gamfield and Sowerberry, children often ran away and drifted into crime. And when apprentices fled from the harsh conditions and brutal treatment commonly associated with menial jobs, adolescents often took to stealing, parliamentary investigators discovered, because they had no other way to survive. This development, in turn, had further destructive consequences. If they were caught, boys and girls were taken before police magistrates, who sentenced them to several months in jail. If they remained free, they might fall prey to villains like Fagin, who specialized in training boys to pick pockets. In return for the stolen goods, which the adults fenced for a profit, Fagin and his kind provided food and shelter for their young associates.
The sequence of events showing Oliver's journey from the workhouse in Mudfog to Fagin's den in London shapes the novel's narrative structure and gives it an almost epic scope. In Dickens's own words, the tale portrays a classic struggle of "little Oliver . . . surviving through every adverse circumstance" (1841 Preface). Because Oliver is "so jolly green," he is quickly spotted as a potential recruit by the alert young thief who finds him starving in Barnet High Street. And he is easily ensnared with the promise of help, the first kind word or gesture Oliver has ever received in his life. " 'Don't fret your eyelids on that score,'" says the Artful Dodger, sympathetically, when Oliver confesses that he has no money and nowhere to stay. "'I've got to be in London tonight; and I know a 'spectable old genelman as lives there, wot'll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change.'"
Fagin's warm welcome and invitation to eat pointedly contrast with Oliver's earlier experiences concerning food and accommodation. In the workhouse he had been reviled for asking for more, a direct attack on the dietaries introduced by the government in 1836, which ignored the needs of growing children and simply stipulated that the young should be fed "at discretion." Later, on the evening of his arrival at the undertaker's, after he had been sold by the parish officials, Mrs. Sowerberry's preparations for the apprentice's first meal go no further than ordering her servant to " 'give this boy some of the cold bits that were put by for Tip,'" the family dog. "'We are very glad to see you, Oliver—very,'" said Fagin, commanding the Dodger to remove some sausages from a skillet and draw up a tub " 'near the fire for Oliver,'" making an offer no hungry boy could refuse.
The guiding principle of parsimony written into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834—I refer to the euphemistic notion of "less eligibility"— also meant that Union authorities were not encouraged to spend money educating children or providing vocational or industrial training for their charges. Instead, they were urged to reduce administrative expenses for the young as quickly as possible, a justification for the practice of offering a nominal premium to masters as an inducement to take on apprentices as a cheap supply of labor.
Children thus forced into the labor market were so commonly abused that the young "slaves" often ran away from their employers, preferring to fend for themselves in the streets and survive by stealing. And once on a course that doomed them to an outlaw existence, one of two possibilities usually prevailed. They might live relatively well while their luck held, like the boys in Fagin's gang, who drank heavily, gambled and enjoyed the sexual favors of their female companions. Or, if they were caught, they faced prosecution and certain imprisonment, thus completing a downward spiral from which there was almost no chance of escape.
Dickens drives this point home through the juxtaposition of the parallel court appearances of Oliver and the Artful Dodger in chapters 11 and 43. For the hero to escape, "a stronger hand than chance" must intervene to rescue Oliver from the Hatton Garden magistrate, Mr. Fang, and effect his miraculous delivery into middle class respectability and ease. Lacking Oliver's good fortune and help from wealthy friends, Fagin's "best hand" has no one to come to his aid when, later in the novel, he is arrested and tried at Bow Street police court. Instead, the Artful Dodger is convicted and sent abroad to a penal colony in Australia, lagged as a lifer for stealing a two-penny sneezebox, in the "flash" idiom of the thieves.
Modern readers sometimes object that Oliver's final removal from London and adoption by Mr. Brownlow "as his own son" conflict with Dickens's realistic treatment of poverty and its inevitable link with crime. On the contrary, I suggest that the novel's emphasis on Oliver's happy survival calls attention to the failure of government officials to offer a constructive response to the problem of juvenile delinquency. Orphans and abandoned children in early Victorian England, Dickens realized, constituted an entire class at risk, feral children of the slums destined either for the hangman's noose or transportation to a penal colony.
Finding a solution to the problem of juvenile crime assumed particular urgency in the 1830s when the commitment and conviction of those under sixteen rose more rapidly than ever before in English history. Public officials and members of Poor Law boards who sat "in solemn conclave," like the sadistic "white-waistcoated gentleman" and his fellows, often viewed young offenders as incorrigibles, "A distinct body of thieves whose life and business it is to follow up a determined warfare against the constituted authorities by living in idleness and on plunder." Sentiments life this pervaded government reports and oral testimony from prison governors, policemen and magistrates, witnesses united in a belief that the maintenance of law and order required tough penal measures.
Indifference to children's needs, the most pressing of which were voluminously documented in parliamentary papers published by the government from 1800 onwards, clearly angered Dickens. In novel after novel he aimed a series of sledgehammer blows at some of the instances of misery he saw around him. The defacto infanticide practiced in the country's baby farms, the sexual exploitation of girls on a scale surpassing any previously known and the absence of government regulations for promoting public health all receive careful attention in Oliver Twist. In Dickens's view, England's conduct deserved the severest censure. The country seemed willing to pay for its postwar prosperity by using its young as carelessly as we dispose of plastic cups and paper plates today.
Dickens's choice of a child hero to call attention to the plight of the nation's youth is closely related to the second part of his agenda. This aspect of Oliver Twist was equally unique, especially in the novel's emphasis on the care middleclass readers needed to take when they attempted to interpret the external signs of England's new urban culture. If urban reality made it easy to overlook the needs of infants and juveniles, as they were being generated in record numbers for almost certain destruction during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, that same new world also created, through the anonymity and multiplicity of city life, interpretative challenges unknown to earlier generations.
Reference to the novel's treatment of class and the apparent separateness of traditional social groups suggests that Dickens saw this phenomenon very clearly. In a society whose social structure remained relatively stable, customary markers of difference such as dress, vocabulary, accent and occupation served two general functions. They tended to limit opportunities for social mobility by confining individuals to the circumstances into which they were born. They also provided an aid to recognition most people were quick to assimilate. The way one spoke and dressed, together with one's occupation and source of income, offered reliable clues to status and position.
The four apparently distinct groups of characters in Oliver Twist illustrate how these notions of class and separateness were challenged by an urban culture, whose contours Dickens read and mastered perhaps more quickly than most of his contemporaries. One at first assumes that the novel's different groups have nothing in common, that beadles, criminals, businessmen and genteel members of the middle class are set apart on the opposite side of gulfs, destined never to meet. Only in fiction, runs one likely objection, do thieves rub shoulders with innocents and respectable upholders of the law, in turn, commit actions that, on a moral plane, reduce them to the level of criminals.
On the other side of this formulation are deserving individuals whose goodness and virtue are assessed negatively on the basis of misleading external appearances. Oliver's own birth in the workhouse furnishes the most obvious example of an infant who, initially, defied attempts by even "the haughtiest stranger" to assign him to "his proper station in society," until he was "badged and ticketed" as a parish child the minute he was wrapped up in old calico robes "which had grown yellow in the same service." The dilemmas of Rose Maylie and Nancy carry this theme even further. Nancy, thief and prostitute, can only be placed outside the law, despite her goodness and courage, while her respectable "sister" Rose, the embodiment of every domestic virtue Dickens can summon from the culture, nevertheless remains under a "stain," forbidden to marry the man who loves her because she is thought to be illegitimate. Revelations at the end of the novel clear up the ambiguities surrounding Rose's birth, and Oliver's ancestry proves sufficiently worthy to justify his assumed middleclass status. But for Nancy heroic death and implied forgiveness in heaven must suffice.
The novel's mystification and literary devices drive home Dickens's point about class interconnectedness in other ways. Punctuating the narrative, for example, are a series of journeys, each presented with scrupulous care for accuracy and topographical detail. The expedition of Oliver and Sikes is perhaps the most dramatic instance, a twenty-five mile trip from Bethnal Green to Chertsey, a remote Thamesside village in Surrey, where Mrs. Maylie and Rose reside. Dickens devotes two chapters to their foray and the attempted robbery in order to warn readers about dangers many overlooked. Sitting in her "detached house surrounded by a wall," Mrs. Maylie has no idea that her home has been under surveillance by a member of Fagin's gang for two weeks, or that Sikes so covets her silver plate that he submits to Fagin's proposal to use Oliver as the means of breaking in through a small, unsecured lattice-window at the back of the house.
The linking of inhabitants from widely disparate locales is further reinforced by the sudden and mysterious appearance of Fagin and Monks outside Oliver's study one midsummer evening later in the story. Safe though Oliver is at Mrs. Maylie's summer cottage, goodness, Dickens appears to suggest, never remains completely invulnerable. In the new urban world of the 1830s, criminals and lawabiding citizens seemed to share the same ground, or to have access to it on nearly equal terms. Similar instances of this theme appear elsewhere in the novel. On one occasion Oliver runs into Monks as he leaves a country inn while on an errand for Mrs. Maylie; on another, Nancy, whose life had been squandered in the streets, makes her way to "a family hotel in a quiet but handsome street near Hyde Park," to meet Rose Maylie and provide information that Mr. Brownlow uses to solve the mystery of Oliver's identity.
Brownlow's role as a prototypical detective is reinforced by the narrator and by Rose and Nancy, all of whom patiently assemble clues and demonstrate a keen intelligence. This very quality, privileged by its prominent role, seems to be one Dickens wants to propose for adoption by his readers. Extend your sympathies to those whose suffering deserves support. And sharpen your ability to decode the complicated social messages embedded in city life.
This summary makes mine a reductive reading on Oliver Twist, one that deliberately links the novel with its formative social and historical contexts. A more expansive inquiry would admit as evidence the literary features of the novel Dickens inherited from his predecessors. It would also take into account the compelling biographical aspects of Oliver's story, into which Dickens confessed to his publisher that he had thrown his "whole heart and soul." My account, nevertheless, accords with Dickens's deepest conviction that fiction always tells us something about the way readers thought and lived and how he, like his contemporaries, tried to make sense of the bafflement of existence. To this end, I have focused on the experience of reading Oliver Twist as a novel dedicated to reading experience as it was shaped, for many readers, by the urban conditions of the 1830s.
Source: David Paroissien, "Oliver Twist and the Contours of Early Victorian England," in Victorian Newsletter, Vol. 83, Spring 1993, pp. 1417.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3668
It was a proof of Dickens's force and originality that, whilst still engaged upon Pickwick, with the laughter of a multitude flattering his joyous and eager temper, he chose for his new book such a subject as that of Oliver Twist. The profound seriousness of his genius, already suggesting itself in the course of Mr. Pickwick's adventures, was fully declared in "The Parish Boy's Progress." Doubts might well have been entertained as to the reception by the public of this squalid chronicle, this story of the workhouse, the thieves' den, and the condemned cell; as a matter of fact, voices were soon raised in protest, and many of Pickwick's admirers turned away in disgust. When the complete novel appeared, a Quarterly reviewer attacked it vigorously, declaring the picture injurious to public morals, and the author's satire upon public institutions mere splenetic extravagance. For all this Dickens was prepared. Consciously, deliberately, he had begun the great work of his life, and he had strength to carry with him the vast majority of English readers. His mistakes were those of a generous purpose. When criticism had said its say, the world did homage to a genial moralist, a keen satirist, and a leader in literature.
In January, 1837, appeared the first number of a magazine called Bentley's Miscellany, with Dickens for editor, and in its second number began Oliver Twist, which ran from month to month until March of 1839. Long before the conclusion of the story as a serial, it appeared (October, 1838) in three volumes, illustrated by Cruikshank. Some of these illustrations were admirable, some very poor, and one was so bad that Dickens caused it to be removed before many copies of the book had been issued. Years after, Cruikshank seems to have hinted that his etchings were the origin of Oliver Twist, Dickens having previously seen them and founded his story upon them. The claim was baseless, and it is not worth while discussing how Cruikshank came to imagine such a thing.
There had fallen upon Dickens the first penalty of success; he was tempted to undertake more work than he could possibly do, and at the same time was worried by discontent with the pecuniary results of his hasty agreements. During the composition of Oliver he wrote the latter portion of Pickwick and the early chapters of Nickleby; moreover, he compiled an anonymous life of the clown Grimaldi, and did other things which can only be considered hackwork. That he had not also to work at Barnaby Rudge, and thus be carrying on three novels at the same time, was only due to his resolve to repudiate an impossible engagement. Complications such as these were inevitable at the opening of the most brilliant literary career in the Victorian time.
How keenly Dickens felt the hardship of his position, toiling for the benefit of a publisher, is shown in Chapter XIV, where Oliver is summoned to Mr. Brownlow's study, and, gazing about him in wonder at the laden shelves, is asked by his benefactor whether he would like to be a writer of books. "Oliver considered a little while and at last said he should think it would be a much better thing to be a bookseller; upon which the old gentleman laughed heartily and declared he had said a very good thing."—"Don't be afraid," added Mr. Brownlow, "we won't make an author of you whilst there's an honest trade to be learnt, or brickmaking to turn to." An amusing passage, in the light of Dickens's position only a year or two after it was written.
Oliver Twist had a two-fold moral purpose: to exhibit the evil working of the Poor Law Act, and to give a faithful picture of the life of thieves in London. The motives hung well together, for in Dickens's view the pauper system was directly responsible for a great deal of crime. It must be remembered that, by the new Act of 1834, outdoor sustenance was as much as possible done away with, paupers being henceforth relieved only on condition of their entering a workhouse, while the workhouse life was made thoroughly uninviting, among other things by the separation of husbands and wives, and parents and children. Against this seemingly harsh treatment of a helpless class Dickens is very bitter; he regards such legislation as the outcome of cold-blooded theory, evolved by well-to-do persons of the privileged caste, who neither perceive nor care about the result of their system in individual suffering. "I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron, could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. . . . There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish." (Chapter IV.) By "philosopher" Dickens meant a political economist; he uses the word frequently in this book, and always in the spirit which moved Carlyle when speaking of "the dismal science." He is the thorough-going advocate of the poor, the uncompromising Radical. Speaking with irony of the vices nourished in Noah Claypole by vicious training, he bids us note "how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity boy." This partisanship lay in his genius; it was one of the sources of his strength; its entire sincerity enabled him to carry out the great task set before him, that of sweetening in some measure the Augean stable of English social life in the early half of our century.
That he was in error on the point immediately at issue mattered little. The horrible condition of the poor which so exasperated him resulted (in so far as it was due to any particular legislation) from the old Poor Law, which, by its system of granting relief in aid of insufficient wages had gone far towards pauperizing the whole of agricultural England. Not in a year or two could this evil be remedied. Dickens, seeing only the hardship of the inevitable reform, visited upon the authors of that reform indignation merited by the sluggishness and selfishness which had made it necessary. In good time the new Act justified itself; it helped to bring about increase of wages and to awaken self-respect, so far as self-respect is possible in the toilers perforce living from hand to mouth. But Dickens's quarrel with the "guardians of the poor" lay far too deep to be affected by such small changes; his demand was for justice and for mercy, in the largest sense, for a new spirit in social life. Now that his work is done, with that of Carlyle and Ruskin to aid its purpose, a later generation applauds him for throwing scorn upon mechanical "philosophy." Constitutional persons, such as Macaulay, might declare his views on social government beneath contempt; but those views have largely prevailed, and we see their influence ever extending. Readers of Oliver Twist, nowadays, do not concern themselves with the technical question; Oliver "asks for more," and has all our sympathies; be the law old or new, we are made to perceive that, more often than not, "the law is an ass," and its proceedings invalid in the court of conscience.
In a preface to Oliver (written in 1841) Dickens spoke at length of its second purpose, and defended himself against critics who had objected to his dealing with the lives of pick-pockets and burglars. His aim, he tells us, was to discredit a school of fiction then popular, which glorified the thief in the guise of a gallant highwayman; the real thief, he declared, he had nowhere found portrayed, save in Hogarth, and his own intention was to show the real creature, vile and miserable, "for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life." From the category of evil examples in fiction of the day, he excepts "Sir Edward Bulwer's admirable and powerful novel of Paul Clifford," having for that author a singular weakness not easily explained. His own scenes lie in "the cold, wet, shelterless midnight streets of London," in "foul and frowsy dens," in "haunts of hunger and disease"; and "where"—he asks—"are the attractions of these things?"
This defence, no doubt, had in view (amongst other things) the censure upon Oliver Twist contained in Thackeray's story of Catherine, which was published in Fraser's Magazine, 1839-40, under the signature of "Ikey Solomons jun." Thackeray at this time was not the great novelist whom we know; seven years had still to elapse before the publication of Vanity Fair. His Catherine is a stinging satire upon the same popular fiction that Dickens had in view, but he throws a wider net, attacking with scornful vigour Paul Clifford and Ernest Maltravers, together with the Jack Sheppards and Dick Turpins and Duvals, and, in two instances, speaking contemptuously of Oliver itself. "To tread in the footsteps of the immortal Fagin requires a genius of inordinate stride," and he cannot present his readers with any "white-washed saints," like poor "Biss Dadsy" in Oliver Twist. Still, says the author, he has taken pains to choose a subject "agreeably low, delightfully disgusting, and at the same time eminently pleasing and pathetic." His heroine is a real person, one Catherine Hayes, whose history can be read in the Newgate Calendar; she was brought up in the workhouses, apprenticed to the land-lady of a village inn, and, in the year 1726, was burned at Tyburn for the murder of her husband. Thackeray uses his lash on all novelists who show themselves indulgent to evildoers. "Let your rogues act like rogues, and your honest men like honest men; don't let us have any juggling and thimble-rigging with virtue and vice." In short, he writes very angrily, having, it is plain, Dickens often in mind. Nor is it hard to see the cause of this feeling. Thackeray was impatient with the current pictures of rascaldom simply because he was aware of his own supreme power to depict the rascal world; what thoughts may we surmise in the creator of Barry Lyndon when he read the novels of Bulwer and of Ainsworth, or the new production of the author of Pickwick? Only three years more, and we find him writing a heartfelt eulogy of the Christmas Carol, praise which proves him thoroughly to have appreciated the best of Dickens. But it must be avowed that very much of Oliver is far from Dickens's best, and Thackeray, with his native scorn of the untrue and the feeble, would often enough have his teeth set on edge as he perused those pages. Catherine itself, flung off in disdainful haste, is evidence of its author's peculiar power; it has dialogues, scenes, glimpses of character beyond the reach of any other English novelist. In certain directions Thackeray may be held the greatest "realist" who ever penned fiction. There is nothing to wonder at in his scoff at Fagin and Nancy; but we are glad of the speedy change to a friendlier point of view.
It was undoubtedly Dickens's conviction that, within limits imposed by decency, he had told the truth, and nothing but the truth, about his sordid and criminal characters. Imagine his preface to have been written fifty years later, and it would be all but appropriate to some representative of a daring school of "naturalism," asserting his right to deal with the most painful facts of life. "I will not abate one hole in the Dodger's coat, or one scrap of curlpaper in the girl's dishevelled hair." True, he feels obliged so to manipulate the speech of these persons that it shall not "offend the ear," but that seemed to him a matter of course. He appeals to the example of the eighteenth-century novelists, who were unembarrassed in their choice of subjects. He will stand or fall by his claim to have made a true picture. The little hero of the book is as real to him as Bill Sikes. "I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last." Think what we may of his perfectly sincere claim, the important thing, in our retrospect, is the spirit in which he made it. After a long interval during which English fiction was represented by the tawdry unreal or the high imaginative (I do not forget the homely side of Scott, but herein Scott stood alone), a new writer demands attention for stories of obscure lives, and tells his tale so attractively that high and low give ear. It is a step in social and political history; it declares the democratic tendency of the new age. Here is the significance of Dickens's early success, and we do not at all understand his place in English literature if we lose sight of this historic point of view.
By comparison with the book which preceded it, Oliver Twist seems immature. Putting aside the first chapter or two, Pickwick is an astonishingly ripe production, marvellous as the work of a man of five and twenty, who had previously published only a few haphazard sketches of contemporary life. Oliver, on the other hand, might well pass for a first effort. Attempting a continued story, the author shows at once his weakest side, the defect which he will never outgrow. There is no coherency in the structure of the thing; the plotting is utterly without ingenuity, the mysteries are so artificial as to be altogether uninteresting. Again, we must remember the time at which Dickens was writing. Our modern laws of fiction did not exist; a story was a story, not to be judged by the standard of actual experience. Moreover, it had always to be borne in mind how greatly Dickens was under the influence of the stage, which at one time he had seriously studied with a view to becoming an actor; all through his books the theatrical tendency is manifest, not a little to their detriment. Obviously he saw a good deal of Oliver Twist as if from before the footlights, and even in the language of his characters the traditional note of melodrama is occasionally sounded. When, long years after, he horrified a public audience by his "reading" of the murder of Nancy, it was a singular realization of hopes cherished in his early manhood. Not content with his fame as an author, he delighted in giving proof that he possessed in a high degree the actor's talent. In our own day the popularity of the stage is again exerting an influence on the methods of fiction; such intermingling of two very different arts must always be detrimental to both.
Put aside the two blemishes of the book—on the one hand, Monks with his insufferable (often ludicrous) rant, and his absurd machinations; on the other, the feeble idyllicism of the Maylie group— and there remains a very impressive picture of the wretched and the horrible. Oliver's childish miseries show well against a background of hopeless pauperdom; having regard to his origin, we grant the "gentle, attached, affectionate creature," who is so unlike a typical workhouse child, and are made to feel his sufferings among people who may be called inhuman, but who in truth are human enough, the circumstances considered. Be it noted that, whereas even Mr. Bumble is at moments touched by natural sympathy, and Mr. Sowerberry would be not unkind if he had his way, the women of this world—Mrs. Corney, Mrs. Sowerberry, and the workhouse hags—are fiercely cruel; in them, as in many future instances, Dickens draws strictly from his observation, giving us the very truth in despite of sentiment. Passing from the shadow of the workhouse to that of criminal London, we submit to the effect which Dickens alone can produce; London as a place of squalid mystery and terror, of the grimly grotesque, of labyrinthine obscurity and lurid fascination, is Dickens's own; he taught people a certain way of regarding the huge city, and to this day how common it is to see London with Dickens's eyes. The vile streets, accurately described and named; the bare, filthy rooms inhabited by Fagin and Sikes and the rest of them; the hideous public-house to which thieves resort are before us with a haunting reality. Innumerable scarcely noticed touches heighten the impression; we know, for instance, exactly what these people eat and drink, and can smell the dish of sheep's head, flanked with porter, which Nancy sets before her brutal companion. Fagin is as visible as Shylock; we hear the very voices of the Artful Dodger and of Charley Bates, whose characters are so admirably unlike in similarity; Nancy herself becomes credible by force of her surroundings and in certain scenes (for instance, that of her hysterical fury in Chapter XVI) is life itself. The culminating horrors have a wild picturesqueness unlike anything achieved by other novelists; one never forgets Sikes's wanderings after the murder (with that scene in the inn with the pedlar), nor his death in Jacob's Island, nor Fagin in the condemned cell. These things could not be more vividly presented. The novelist's first duty is to make us see what he has seen himself, whether with the actual eye or with that of imagination, and no one ever did this more successfully than Dickens in his best moments.
His allusion (in the Preface) to Hogarth suggests a comparison of these two great artists, each of whom did such noteworthy work in the same field. On the whole, one observes more of contrast than of likeness in the impressions they severally leave upon us; the men differed widely in their ways of regarding life and were subjected to very different influences. But the life of the English poor as seen by Dickens in his youth had undergone little outward change from that which was familiar to Hogarth, and it is Oliver Twist especially that reminds us of the other's stern moralities in black-and-white. Not improbably they influenced the young writer's treatment of his subject. He never again deals in such unsoftened horrors as those death scenes in the workhouse, or draws a figure so peculiarly base as that of Noah Claypole; his humour at moments is grim, harsh, unlike the ordinary Dickens note, and sometimes seems resolved to show human nature at its worst, as in the passage when Oliver runs after the coach, induced by promise of a half penny, only to be scoffed at when he falls back in weariness and pain (Chapter VIII). Dickens is, as a rule, on better terms with his rascals and villains; they generally furnish matter for a laugh; but half-a-dozen faces in Oliver have the very Hogarth stamp, the lines of bestial ugliness which disgust and repel.
One is often inclined to marvel that, with such a world to draw upon for his material, the world of the lower classes in the England of sixty years ago, he was able to tone his work with so genial a humanity. The features of that time, as they impress our imagination, are for the most part either ignoble or hideous, and a Hogarth in literature would seem a more natural outcome of such conditions than the author of Pickwick and the Christmas Carol. Dickens's service to civilization by the liberality of his thought cannot be too much insisted upon. The atmosphere of that age was a stifling Puritanism. "I have been very happy for some years," says Mrs. Maylie; "too happy, perhaps. It may be time that I should meet with some misfortune." (Chapter XXXIII.) Against the state of mind declared in this amazing utterance, Dickens instinctively rebelled; he believed in happiness, in its moral effect, and in the right of all to have their share in it. Forced into contemplation of the gloomiest aspects of human existence, his buoyant spirit would not be held in darkness; as his art progressed, it dealt more gently with oppressive themes. Take, for instance, the mortuary topic, which has so large a place in the life of the poor, and compare Mr. Sowerberry's business, squalid and ghastly, with that of Mr. Mould in Chuzzlewit, where humour prevails over the repulsive, and that again with the picture of Messrs. Omer and Joram in Copperfield, which touches mortality with the homeliest kindness. The circumstances, to be sure, are very different, but their choice indicates the movement of the author's mind. It was by virtue of his ever-hopeful outlook that Dickens became such a force for good.
Disposing of those of his characters who remain alive at the end, he assures us, as in a fairy tale, that the good people lived happily ever after, and we are quite ready to believe it. Among the evil-doers he distinguishes, Mr. Bumble falls to his appropriate doom; Noah Claypole disappears in the grime which is his native element—severity, in his case unmitigated by the reflection that he, too, was a parishboy and a creature of circumstances. Charley Bates it is impossible to condemn; his jollity is after Dickens's own heart, and, as there is always hope for the boy who can laugh, one feels it natural enough that he is last heard of as "the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire." But what of his companion, Mr. Dawkins, the Dodger? Voices pleaded for him; the author was besought to give him a chance; but of the Dodger we have no word. His last appearance is in Chapter XLIII, perhaps the best in the book. We know how Dickens must have enjoyed the writing of that chapter; Mr. Dawkins before the Bench is a triumph of his most characteristic humour. What more is to be told of the Dodger after that?
We take philosophic leave of him, assured that he is "doing full justice to his bringing-up, and establishing for himself a glorious reputation."
Source: George Gissing, "Chapter IV: Oliver Twist," in The Immortal Dickens, Kraus Reprint Co., 1969, pp. 6387.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support