23 Mar 2015 14 Dec 2017
Given the reputation and gravity of Oliver Twist, it is sometimes difficult to recall that this was only Dickens’ second novel, written and serialised in 1838. Moreover, it was a risky project because Dickens had won massive popular acclaim on the basis of his preceding novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), which could not have been more different in its comic recording of the adventures of the ‘Pickwick Club’. Nevertheless, Dickens’ novel of the pauper child’s struggles in the wickedness of London’s thieves’ kitchens was to become one of his most enduring, popular successes, adapted for stage and screen multiple times since its inception and as popular today as when it was first published.
When Dickens began Oliver Twist, he was a young man with a mission: to expose the evils of society’s treatment of such children as Oliver represents and expose the invidiousness of the contentious Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. From his birth in the workhouse, where he is ‘badged and ticketed’, Oliver is the essence of all that Dickens believes to be wrong with Victorian Society. Indeed, the author believed that by making his readers care about one such boy, he could make them care about many. Though it may be ‘a mistake to think of Oliver Twist as a realistic story’ it nevertheless contains enduring truths and such descriptions as ‘the pauper's funeral in Chapter Five [were] also historically accurate’.
The novel concerns the story of a child, born out of wedlock in the workhouse of ‘a certain town’. By refusing to name the town, Dickens is not only dismissive of all such places as not worth the ‘trouble’ of mentioning but also imposing a comprehensively applicable generic, as he is on the emblematic child himself. After a series of early struggles, set pieces, such as Oliver’s asking for ‘more’, having become so powerfully entrenched in the public consciousness as to make them almost clichéd, Oliver becomes so desperate that he walks to London and is immediately sucked into the world of thieves and vagabonds which so powerfully populate the novel. A palpable concern with these characters, such as Fagin and Sikes, is that they are, in common with many of Dickens’ villains, more charismatic than the benevolent and certainly, one of the reasons readers continue to be drawn to the story is the evil genius that is Fagin, persistently referred to as ‘the Jew’. This is in itself problematic in contemporary society, as the inherent anti-Semitism which attaches to Dickens’ descriptions of him are difficult for the modern reader to dispassionately assimilate. Yet, ‘in his rendering of Fagin's gang and their surroundings, Dickens intended a realism that he felt was lacking in the popular crime fiction of the time, the so called ‘Newgate Novels’.
Oliver finds some solace in the company of the urchin robbers, such as Dodger, nurtured by Fagin and in this the reader perceives a connection with Dickens’ own early struggles alone in London.
When the intricacies of the plot deliver Oliver back and forth between what we later learn is his ‘natural’ environment, that of the upper-class Brownlow et al, a certain energy is removed from the novel until, via Nancy and Bill’s violent relationship and her betrayal of him to save the child, the appalling vitality of the story reappears. This complex relationship is in fact possibly one of the more contemporaneously resonant within the novel.
Indeed, it is said that Dickens, when acting out the scene of Sikes murder of Nancy, frequently came close to physical collapse since this, combined with the insidious malevolence of Fagin that urged Sikes to it, is one of the more terrifying yet gripping moments in the book. Its potent appeal, indeed, may cause the reader to question his own moral sensibility in finding such wickedness such a compelling draw. It is, indeed, interesting to note that when David Lean filmed the novel so brilliantly in 1948, possibly due to censorship, he cut away from the violence to focus on Sikes’ dog desperately trying to escape. Nancy remains one of the finer and more subtle creations in a novel teeming with emblematic caricatures, her pain at betraying Bill fully revealed in her ‘confession’ to the character of whom she is in many ways the inverse, Rose, who cannot understand her compulsion to return to Sikes any more than Nancy can herself:
‘I don't know what it is,' answered the girl; 'I only know that it is so, and not with me alone, but with hundreds of others as bad and wretched as myself. I must go back. Whether it is God’s wrath for the wrong I have done, I do not know; but I am drawn back to him through every suffering and ill usage; and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand at last.’
Nancy is describing the purest of loves and by rendering a prostitute capable of such delicacy and depth of feeling Dickens was yet again giving a voice to those that had none. Both in his fiction and in his life, indeed, Dickens spoke out time and time again for those whom society, for one reason or another, ‘cast out’.
In the final analysis, Dickens’ achievement in Oliver Twist is fundamental to its continuing appeal. It has, within its pages, the evocation of both the era in which it was set and the possibility of the perpetuation of evil which continues to dwell within mankind. Historically, one cannot imagine the possibility of a realisation of social iniquity which is beyond or above that realised in Oliver’s story and in this, the child does indeed, as Dickens intended, represent the small voice of the innocent against the power and invidiousness of an uncaring mass. As an enduring emblem of the many, this one, lonely child, Oliver Twist, became, both contemporaneously and for future generations, a symbol of both the deep despair and profound hope he definitively embodies.
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