Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Twist’

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

There’s something about this time of year that makes me hanker for the rich, extravagant, plum-pudding prose of Dickens. A Christmas Carol is a bit too obvious, perhaps, and the long novels are a bit too … well, a bit too long, I guess – at least for a quick pre-Christmas read. There are those marvellous Sketches by Boz, of course, and the various little bits and pieces in various other collections. But I had been meaning to read Oliver Twist for some time now: I think the last time I read it, I was all of twelve years old, and I am sure that just about all I think I know about the novel is derived from David Lean’s film, or from Carol Reed’s film of the Lionel Bart musical, rather than from the novel itself.

It’s hard to know how to appraise a novel such as this. By the standards of, say, Austen or Eliot or James, or of just about any other major novelist of the nineteenth century, Oliver Twist is crude, lacking in nuance, in sophistication, in refinement. And it is lacking also in profundity, either in theme or in characterisation. The plotting also seems weak. For a street urchin known to be associated with a gang of crooks to be taken in by wealthy people and treated as one of their own is unlikely enough as it is, but when this happens not once but twice, one does get the impression that the author is struggling a bit with the plotline. And when all the various intrigues and past secrets are revealed near the end, they are done so in so perfunctory a manner that Dickens himself seemed as bored by them as most readers, I imagine, have been since.

So what is there in this novel to attract the reader? It has certainly become an icon: I doubt there is any other novel that contains so many iconic scenes and characters. But when one tries to identify its qualities – applying criteria of novelistic merit as derived from the likes of  Austen, Eliot, James, etc. – one struggles. Perhaps it is as well to forget these criteria: the novel, as a form, may achieve greatness by exhibiting other qualities too. And in this instance, they aren’t hard to identify: vividness, vigour, vivacity, vitality … and, no doubt, a great many other qualities beginning with “v”. The problem is, of course, that each of these qualities is more easily felt than described. Why is the image of a workhouse boy asking for more so very vivid? Why is the picture of Fagin and his gang of pickpocket boys so vivacious, so brimming with vitality? What is there so utterly compelling about the brutal violence of Sikes and the genuine decency of Nancy?

It is easy, too easy, to describe the novel’s deficiencies rather than its qualities, simply because the deficiencies are easily described, and the qualities aren’t. And these qualities, furthermore, are unique to Dickens: no other author could create what are essentially caricatures, and endow them with such richness and vitality that they seem to exist even outside the confines of the novel. And that, I think, is the point: these characters seem to exist outside the novel, as well as in them. It doesn’t really matter what bits of intrigue Fagin gets involved in to drive the plot forward: what we retain in our mind are the static pictures of Fagin in  his den, or of Fagin in  his condemned cell – pictures which do not advance the  novel in any way, but which resonate even outside the context of the plot. In contrast, the villain Monks is not memorable at all because he had been invented not for his own sake, but purely to move the plot on.

I remember when I first read the book as a child, I found it difficult to see Fagin as a villain, despite the often villainous things he does. I suppose it’s because it was obvious to me, even then, that had it not been for Fagin, Oliver would have starved to death on the streets. Yes, Fagin exploits the boys; but is what he does worse than what the authorities do to the children? Reading it as a child, I remember thinking that I’d much rather being Fagin’s gang than under the tender mercies of Mr Bumble and the parochial board at the workhouse. And I think I was right. If anything, the abuse meted out to the children by the authorities is far worse than anything Fagin does, as that abuse is, among other things, a wanton cruelty, a betrayal of trust. In Lionel Bart’s musical, Fagin (winningly played by Ron Moody in the film) becomes a lovable rogue, and the transformation isn’t too difficult. It would have been a far harder task to have presented Mr Bumble as likable.

But of course, there’s the antisemitism. That Fagin is a grossly anti-Semitic character can hardly be disputed: his Jewish characteristics are accentuated, and he is referred to throughout as “the Jew”. Dickens himself was shocked that his portrayal of Fagin had caused offence, and he wrote to a Jewish journal disclaiming any bigotry; but I suppose the fact that Dickens could create such a character and not even be aware of any bigotry on his part merely shows how deeply rooted the bigotry was. Of course, in a much later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gave us Mr Riah, and gentle, kind-hearted Jew who is derided for his Jewishness, and who is made to carry the blame for acts committed by Christians. Some have seen this as Dickens trying to make amends for Fagin, but I think that’s unlikely: had he wanted to make amends, he wouldn’t have waited some thirty years to do so. No – it’s more likely, I think, that the antisemitism in Oliver Twist was involuntary, and unconscious. But however that may be, it still sticks in the throat; and that he is perhaps the most vivid and living character in the entire novel, and further, that it is very easy, despite his villainy, to feel sympathy for him (especially in that very grim chapter towards the end where, completely isolated at this stage from the rest of humanity, he is sentenced to death), don’t go too far in mitigation.

It is easy to feel more than a touch of sympathy for the child pickpockets also. Only two are presented as characters – Charley Bates, a young man who obviously enjoys his calling (although Dickens does let him reform at the end), and the unforgettable Artful Dodger. Dodger’s appearance in the dock is among the greatest comic scenes in all literature: never has authority been quite so effectively put down as it is here. And, whatever moralising there may be in the rest of the novel, we are here entirely on the Dodger’s side – as, I think, Dickens had intended. The authorities have him transported for being a thief; but had he not been a thief, they would have brutalised him, and starved him, and beaten him. And probably killed him, as they killed so many others. These are the authorities whose representatives and functionaries include the likes of the pompous and unfeeling beadle Mr Bumble, and the cruel and nasty magistrate Mr Fang. What moral right do these authorities have to pass judgement on the Dodger? Or on anyone else? Dickens does not pose this question in so many words, but it is certainly more than merely implicit here.

Oliver himself, though, seems strangely uncharacterised. We know from the early chapters of David Copperfield how well Dickens remembered and how vividly he could portray the workings of a child’s mind, but we see none of that here. For Oliver, despite having been born in a workhouse and raised in an environment of neglect and wanton cruelty, acts and thinks like a child with a secure, middle-class background. For instance, he can read, although it is at no point described where he learnt to do so. He is horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates picking pockets, when really, given his background, there is no reason why he should be. Later, he is similarly horrified by the burglary in which he is unwittingly involved, and resolves to raise the alarm rather than let Sikes and the others make off with middle class property. He is, throughout, well-behaved and well-spoken, both highly unlikely given his toxic upbringing. One can but wonder why Dickens, with his prodigious imagination, refused to enter into the mind of a child who had been brutalised, who had not, throughout his entire childhood, ever heard a kind word or witnessed a generous act. Would a more realistic picture of Oliver have alienated the sympathies of his readership? I am not sure. But, given his background, I would have expected Oliver to have been a far more troubled child than he appears here.

However, let’s not dwell on this. Let us not dwell either on the cloying sentimentality with which the Maylies – especially Rose Maylie – are presented. Anyone could pick out such things. It is more difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes this seemingly naïve and unsophisticated little tale so compelling some two hundred years later; what it is that makes it come alive so vividly on the page; what it is precisely that imprints itself so indelibly on the reader’s mind.

Oliver Twist was a very early novel: Dickens was still only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, and he was writing it at the same time as he was writing the later episodes of Pickwick Papers. What seems notable is that, having given us an essentially sunny and comic novel, Dickens seemed, very deliberately, to go to the other extreme, and present us with vivid pictures of darkness. And, whatever the weaknesses, the dark pictures presented in this novel are likely to remain in our collective consciousness for some time yet.