Book: Oliver Twist

Dickens writes beautifully. My first post was about Tale of Two Cities, which is equally beautifully written. Funny to be coming back around to Dickens. I have to say I preferred Tale of Two Cities. Oliver Twist suffers from the lack of a clear, motivating protagonist. That’s not to say a book needs a single protagonist who moves the plot forward, but rather that Oliver Twist‘s protagonist spends most of the novel incapacitated while events move around him.

Nevertheless I do think that’s largely the point. Oliver is good (and beautiful, which makes him good in this Greco-Victorian way of thinking) and therefore deserves a good life. For that reason, a good life is made to happen to him.

The blurb of my printing of the book calls it an “angry indictment of poverty.” Oliver Twist‘s central irony is that it manages to be both that and an angry, reactionary indictment of the poor. For all of the savage mockery Dickens heaps on the beadle Mr. Bumble for his pathetic grandstanding and his oppression of the oppressed masses, the examples of the oppressed masses on offer are (also from the blurb) “some of the most memorably drawn villains in all of fiction.”

There are two kinds of poor people in Oliver Twist: the innocent, darling victim spat on by a cruel world (Dick), and criminal caricatures (Fagin, Sikes, the Artful Dodger, Monks, Noah Claypole, Toby Crackit, Charley Bates–more on him later). The good people, whom I define as those who are both virtuous and have agency, are all rich: Brownlow, Mrs Maylie, Rose, Harry, Grimwig, Mr Losberne, or their well-meaning but foolish servants: Giles and Brittles.

Nancy is maybe the only meaningfully separate case: a “good” person whose action causes events, buy Nancy is also immediately murdered for precisely doing so. She has some agency–without her information, Oliver could never have been rescued from Monks–but Dickens never gives her a meaningful opportunity to test her agency against the world.

Ironically therefore, it matters little how much minor church officials deserved Dickens’ scorn. The world of Oliver Twist is moral at core if often capricious at times and in places. There may be scorned, abused, helpless puppies like Dick at the bottom of the social ladder, but they are kept their by the abuses of those on the first rung, not by the existence of the ladder itself. Indeed, when the scales must be balanced, it is the ladder and those at its top who come to balance them. Monks may be clever, but he cannot overcome Brownlow, who appears at the end of the novel practically like God: he lays down God’s law, compelling a (frankly hard-to-believe) confession from Monks that, as if in a detective story, outs everything before the aghast cast of the novel. Monks publicly chastised, Brownlow brings Oliver to his deserved place at the top of the moral and social hierarchy.

Dickens includes an epilogue, in which we find out all that has happened to all of our characters. I’ll include the paragraph about Charley Bates: “Master Charles Bates, appalled by Sikes’s crime, fell into a train of reflection whether an honest life was not, after all, the best. Arriving at the conclusion that it certainly was, he turned his back upon the scenes of the past, resolved to amend it in some new sphere of action. He struggled hard and suffered much for some time; but having a contented disposition and a good purpose, succeeded in the end; and, from being a farmer’s drudge and a carrier’s lad, is now the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire.”

What a vast thing is Christianity: where Liberation Theology, Dickens and Mr Bumble (who are less different than the former believed), and Prosperity Gospel somehow manage to peacefully coexist.

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