Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)

I’d never tackled Dickens’s masterpieces before. Like Balzac or Zola to a non-French, it seemed something too huge and typically British, I didn’t know where to start. After a few months of reading it on and off, it’s not as difficult as I thought. Dickens’s dry humor makes characters memorable (oh, the scene where Mr. Bumble try to assert himself in front of his new wife and gets knocked out…), his rendering of slang and accents is quite fun, the plot is full of action and I love his depictions of crowds (more on this in a next post). [Careful, spoilers ahead] 

Yet there are a few disturbing things in Dickens’s bestseller that makes it very much a book of the past: his caricature of the Jewish baddie, Fagin, is nothing short of anti-Semitism and hatred. His insistence that Oliver Twist is good and nice by nature, because his father was a gentleman. Corruption of morals does not come from the education or surroundings, it’s innate. Appearances may be against him, but somehow the reader knows all along that Oliver won’t ever turn bad. It’s very Victorian to insist so much on bloodlines and on embarrassing events that disturb the regular transmission of the name and patrimony, such as an untimely death, a secret wedding, a child out of wedlock, a messy last will:

[The evil woman] bade them take good heed of the child, for she came of bad blood; and told them she was illegitimate, and sure to go wrong at one time or other. 

Such shameful events also throw a durable shadow over the next generation: children of paupers remain paupers, and an illegitimate young woman, with a virtuous conduct, is expected to refuse marriage to a real gentleman, so that no doubt will be cast on his honor by association with her:

[From Rose to Harry] I owe it to myself, that I, a friendless, portionless girl, with a blight upon my name, should not give your friends reason to suspect that I had sordidly yielded to your first passion, and fastened myself, a clog, on all your hopes and projects. I owe it to you and yours, to prevent you from opposing, in the warmth of your generous nature, this great obstacle to your progress in the world.’ 

Poor people without any noble connection may sometimes show a good heart, but they are drawn to evil and they can’t really change their lives: the street girl who feels pity for Oliver, Nancy, escapes her fellow crooks and thieves to tell the truth about Oliver’s identity to his wealthy friends, but she is unable to take the chance they offer her to leave her fate for good.

‘Lady,’ cried the girl, sinking on her knees, ‘dear, sweet, angel lady, you are the first that ever blessed me with such words as these, and if I had heard them years ago, they might have turned me from a life of sin and sorrow; but it is too late, it is too late!’‘It is never too late,’ said Rose, ‘for penitence and atonement.’‘It is,’ cried the girl, writhing in agony of her mind; ‘I cannot leave him now! I could not be his death.’

She has attached herself to the very man who will kill her later on. I think that Dickens implies some sexual bond between the fallen girl and the violent crook.

‘Is it possible,’ cried Rose, ‘that for such a man as this, you can resign every future hope, and the certainty of immediate rescue? It is madness. ‘‘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.’

Eventually, it shows that only death can bring atonement. The murder of Nancy makes her very much a martyr, but the one who is called angel is the lady, not she. About the same occurs with Oliver’s mother, an innocent young woman whose only fault was to sleep with her fiancé before marrying. Because she gets pregnant and he dies, everything goes downhill and she dies destitute.

Dickens ridicules all the people administrating the parochial relief services, but all he says is that they aren’t any better than the paupers they’re in charge of. Dickens criticizes the workhouse system and its hypocrisy, but he never shows any poor people who aren’t stupid or mean, except Dick, the orphan who dies of TB, or the desperate family whose mother has starved to death, both very secondary characters. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but it’s quite disheartening to see that the Victorian era couldn’t tolerate to read of a virtuous character from a popular background, or a fallen woman who is redeemed, gets married and lives happily ever after.


3 thoughts on “Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)

  1. I love Dickens, but you have hit on the very elements that make this particular novel the one I have not been able to get through. One wants to excuse it by saying he is a writer of his time, but more to the point, he was a popular writer, and gave the people what he knew they wanted to read.

  2. I must confess that the last time I read Dickens was as a child. I was a devourer at that stage, gobbling books as though they were meals, but far too young to make any real sense of many of them.
    This little taste has given me the desire to go back to someone who I thought I was done with.

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