Oliver Twist: Against all Odds
Oliver Twist has received its fair amount of critical attention for over a century, yet it is always a lovely text to explore at any level. Charles Dickens was perhaps the greatest fictional chronicler of Victorian England this country has ever seen, and in his time his writings taught and inspired many: from the upper and middle classes of Victorian society, write down to those fortunate enough to be able to read in the poverty stricken areas of London town. He chose the London poor as the subject matter for much of his work, and he chronicled the huge, poverty stricken, urban growth of the city in a way that prepared his readers to engage these problems. The interest of Oliver Twist lay not so much in its revelation of Dickens’ literary genius as in its revelation of his moral, personal, and political instincts which were the make-up of his character and that which went into the support of his literary genius. He offered not only great stories, but also feasible solutions to London’s malady by making its problems understandable in human terms. His works appealed to many because of their subtle and satirical onslaught of the establishment and the many failed attempts at social reform and improvement such as the poor law reforms of 1834. London Town is the focus of this introduction and Oliver Twist is a novel that shows London in all its foggy nastiness.
London is the true centre of power in Oliver Twist, as it is in many of Dickens’ novels. In fact, London is the centre of overwhelming influence and power in many Victorian novels, not only those written by Dickens. Here we see a description of London taken from the novelThe Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad; more or less a contemporary of Charles Dickens:
The vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as if indifferent to heaven‘s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world‘s light. There was room enough there to place any story…darkness enough to bury five millions of lives
The Secret Agent was published in 1907 and yet even then London remained to many as a ‘monstrous town more populous than some continents’.
London is the catalyst of many character’s downfall in Oliver Twistand in many cases their eventual destruction. There are two ways to read this fact. We can look upon the text as a grimly painted horror story about Victorian London and its unforgiving nature or we can see it as a story about how the character Oliver lives within this horror and makes the best of bad situation; it would be naïve to think Dickens enough of a pessimist this early in his career to choose the former. Despite some of the dreadful goings on in his fiction, in Oliver Twist Dickens refuses to be brought down to the same level as the city. This could be wholly attributed to his youth and early work, but Dickens was an optimist and a social reformist. He was also a realist, and knew too well that he could not deliver his social critique without showing London in all its terrible glory. This is the reason he opens our eyes to the awful workhouse and Oliver’s arduous journey through the unsuccessful governing systems in place. Oliver only really succeeds in the end though sheer resilience and good luck.
Due to the huge population increase in London, the vast numbers of poor were compelled to seek work in conditions of great hardship, and this very often led to no work at all. As a result of this, thousands turned to crime, especially theft. Dickens was really quite accurate inOliver Twist, and in the 1860s police believed that around fifteen to twenty thousand children were being trained into the art of thieving just the same as Dickens described those boys in Fagin’s lair practicing their pick pocketing skills. In all of his work Dickens describes for his readers the societies and parts of London they never knew existed; thus succeeding in his first objective, to open the upper and middle-classes’ eyes to what was going on around them. The upper and middle classes did not often see the goings on in the east end of London, in the Whitechapel district for example. The differences between the West and East ends of Victorian London were so very many that they were almost like different countries. In Oliver Twist Dickens tells of the dreadful, dark places along the river bank where Fagin dwells and trains his boys as pickpockets; where:
…the old smoke-stained storehouses on either side rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes.
Here Dickens captures the very essence of Victorian overcrowding, filth and overall grimness in just one sentence. Before arriving in London, Oliver Twist has already resided in many of the filthiest places a young man could barely imagine, and endured hardship at the mercy of the workhouse, yet when he enters the city, even under darkness Dickens describes Oliver’s first impressions as: ‘A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.’
London is an over populated place where Dickens forces all of his characters to come together, and it is this city that all of them must come to terms with in order to survive in one way or another. In order to show the city’s disjointing effects upon its inhabitants, he makes London the only thing all characters have in common. The very detailed social life of the criminals and reprobates of London’s East end consists of a bewildering assortment of eccentrics, grotesques, amiable idiots and moral villains, who do not even share language in common, each has his or her own mode of speech. As well as its ability to stifle communications, Dickens tells us how powerful this foul city is over its inhabitants, sadly by presenting us with characters who cannot avoid the tide of social injustice that grows in such a place and cannot even gain support from each other to counter its effect; only by packing together as wolves do in a cold forest can the destitute exist. There is no other way a vagrant boy or any other poor unfortunate will be able to survive in London town, particularly one such as Oliver Twist, unless he takes to thieving with the likes of characters such as Fagin and Bill Sikes. As Jack Dawkins (The Artful Dodger) explains to Oliver:
“Fagin will make something of you, though, or you’ll be the first he ever had that turned out unprofitable. You’d better begin at once; for you’ll come to the trade long before you think of it; and you’re only losing time, Oliver.”
When Oliver Twist was first published, many criticised Dickens for introducing criminals and prostitutes to the general readership, but to him this was of paramount importance; how else would he show this city for what it really was? In his preface to the library edition of Oliver Twist in 1858 he writes:
I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech didn’t offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream
Nancy is a prime example of one of Dickens’ ‘dregs of life’ and an important character to detail the overpopulated city defeating yet another individual. Nancy cannot avoid the overwhelming grasp of London; it is all she has known. All she has accomplished is becoming one of Fagin’s youth, now grown into the dreadful criminal society she occupies; she laments at length, quite hysterically, that she was put to work by Fagin when she was much younger than Oliver. In one such outburst she tells Fagin that ‘…the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago…” Nancy is manipulated and kept in her place ‘by dint of alternate threats, promises, and bribes…’ from Bill Sikes and Fagin, and also because she knows nothing else. However, she is the character on which much depends in the novel, and knowing her chances are few she realises her own dashed hopes and aspirations through young Oliver; this is the primary reason she helps him to escape the dreadful city and be reunited with those who can love and care for him. Nancy is pleaded with by Rose to stay with her and not to return to her life among the ‘most noisome of the stews and dens of London.’ But Nancy cannot leave Bill Sikes, or any of the others for that matter, for they are all she knows. Her pain at betraying Bill fully reveals itself in her ‘confession’ to Rose, who cannot understand Nancy’s 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.”
This grimly prophetic statement is very telling of Nancy’s position in the story. In many respects she is like Sikes’ dog in that she cannot get away because there is perhaps a mutual dependence there between her and Sikes that pulls the two of them together, primarily because like Bullseye, she knows no better; it is fitting then that in the end both of them should feature in his Sikes’ demise.
Dickens’s London was a place where the sufferings of human beings needed remedy, and this is one of the most fundamental reasons Dickens had for writing his fiction. Perhaps better presented in a novel the size of Bleak House, although very well done in Oliver Twist, Dickens creates these dreadful little scenes of London’s underbelly, and then multiplies the effect by showing them through the eyes of many characters from all walks of life. In Oliver Twist the effects of the city are originally seen from young Oliver’s perspective, but the novel continues to expand and turn into a quintessential Dickens work where all characters are equally represented yet none of their plights are any more resolved. In early work like Oliver Twist this is Dickens’ way of displaying the severity of the situation in London town, and in his later work demonstrating the futility of any quick remedies; there are no rich, bumbling old gentlemen to rescue the innocent in his later work. In Bleak House for example, there are so many characters that none of them are focused upon for long, and everyone of them fails in their attempts to succeed; some (not just the antagonists) even die along the way, like Jo the crossing sweeper who resided occasionally at Tom-all-alones in the city’s slums; Jo is similar in many respects to Oliver, only much less lucky:
Jo lived – that is to say, Jo has not yet died – in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and The Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years – though born expressly to do it.
The character Oliver Twist however, represents Dickens’ will to survive against all odds. Indeed Oliver Twist was only Dickens’ second novel and he was still very much a young man on a mission to save the world, or at least Victorian society. Dickens believed that by making the general reading public care about Oliver Twist, he could make them care about a good many boys in his protagonist’s predicament. Despite all the characters falling around him, Oliver is the one beacon of light that Dickens and the reader cling to. We cannot help but have the feeling that whilst we read the novel, if Oliver can make it though then so can London, so can the populous; it can improve, and life will become better. After what we have read so far, a survivor is a reason for optimism in Dickens’ work. As I mentioned earlier, as much as Dickens was a sentimentalist, he was also a hardened realist, and knew only too well that despite the laughs throughout his novels, he had to tell it like it was.
Dickens allows us this beacon of optimism throughout, and it is somewhat comforting to read the novel, because even if by some small miracle a reader should come along who had never heard ofOliver Twist, they would be quite assured throughout that a protagonist such as this boy could not fail, primarily because of all the hardships he overcomes. Despite all of his harsh treatment we can see right from the start that Oliver has a certain charm about him that makes many characters sympathise with him; even though they are on occasion subsequently left unnerved by their own feelings. We have seen how, without trying Oliver wins over Nancy, who is a hard and most destitute character. It is almost as though there is some kind of hope about the boy that other characters see clearly, and they don’t really want to see him come to any harm, despite their selfish endeavours and London’s attempts at breaking them. It is a part of Oliver’s luck that he always seems to find the right person at the right time. When he is first to be removed from the workhouse to go with the dreadful Mr. Gamfield, the old magistrate happens by chance look at Oliver before he signs the release papers:
…his gaze encountered the pale and terrified face of Oliver Twist: who despite all the admonitory looks and pinches from Bumble, was regarding the repulsive countenance of his future master, with a mingled expression of horror and fear, too palpable to be mistaken, even by a half-blind magistrate.
Of course this stroke of luck saves him from that particular distasteful future because the magistrate refuses ‘to sanction these indentures.’ Luck is predominant in Oliver’s fate throughout the novel, and for Dickens it was important to emphasise this, for what he tells his readers is that without miraculous luck a boy such as Oliver Twist would have died very early on in the adventure. Throughout his dreadful journey Oliver encounters one or two people along the way who help him, like the ‘good-hearted turnpikeman, and a benevolent old lady…’ who gave him food and shelter on his way to London, and Dickens makes sure to add that had it been for these kindly souls:
Oliver’s troubles would have been shortened by the very same process which had put an end to his mother’s; in other words, he would most assuredly have fallen dead upon the king’s highway.
Even after Oliver’s terrible first encounters in London, he is not entirely forsaken. Dickens keeps the reader on the edge of their seat by providing the boy a reprieve at the very last minute in many cases. When he is chased across the streets for a theft against Mr. Brownlow (that was actually committed by Charley Bates), and even under the scrutiny of Mr. Fang, a dreadful magistrate if ever there was one, he is found not guilty by virtue of the bookstall owner who arrives on the scene at the very last moment to clear his name:
“This,” said the man: “I saw three boys: two others and the prisoner here: loitering on the opposite side of the way, when this gentleman was reading. The robbery was committed by another boy. I saw it done; and I saw that this boy was perfectly amazed and stupefied by it.”
These brief moments of optimism allow us to recall one of the most significant, and often quoted passages of the novel: the one in which Oliver Twist asks for more. These days a social realist with a bee in his bonnet about reform, or perhaps an older Dickens, describing the goings on of the workhouse, would have made all the children pathetic and crushed, without one of them daring to speak at all. The children would not expect anything, they would not hope for anything and they would not get anything. The realist would have done his job well here and made his point. But Oliver Twist is not pitied because he is pessimistic and pathetic, he is pitied because he is an optimist; and this is the true tragedy of the story. The other boys expect nothing, but Oliver does. He expects the world to be kind to him with all the innocence a child has, and he firmly believes that he is living in a just world. Like Dickens himself, Oliver asks for more knowing well the wrongs that have befallen him, but he also asks for more because he innocently believes he deserves more.
Dickens’ achievement in Oliver Twist is fundamental to its consistent appeal and numerous adaptations to stage, television and film. The novel captured the dreadful position of the poor in the Victorian era and in so doing detailed universal truths and evil which continue to dwell within mankind today. As twenty first century readers, many of us cannot imagine the possibility of such social iniquity as is realised in Oliver Twist. Oliver does exactly as Dickens intended; he represents the small voice of the innocent against the power and invidious nature of the city and its uncaring masses. For future generations it is important that this lonely child Oliver Twist becomes remembered as a character that stands as a reminder to all about how cruel society can become against its innocents, and perhaps more importantly stand as a symbol of profound hope against those evils.
by: Ian Fenwick