Bumbling Figures, Blundering Society: Fagin, Bumble, and the Problem of Evil in Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Dickens’ Oliver Twist , which ultimately celebrates a protagonist who journeys from innocence to experience without capitulating to the evil forces that hinder his progress, addresses the pervasive problem of evil in society and human nature. Dickens presents two dimensions of evil in Oliver’s world through the characters of Fagin, the old Jew, and Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle. By transferring Fagin’s criminality to the selfish, hypocritical Bumble, an authority figure who should promote order and justice, he intensifies his satire on life and society under the Poor Laws of 1834. Bumble and Fagin cackle with delight as they exploit others namely the vulnerable Oliver in search of their self-serving goals. Both characters “glide stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways…seem[ing] like some loathsome reptile[s], engendered in the slime and darkness through which [they] move.” (186) The novel’s satire emerges as the reader connects Fagin’s criminal underworld with Bumble’s hypocrisy and selfish plaudits, both of which comprise the malaise of Victorian society exposed through Dickens’ irony, sarcasm, and biting language. Fagin and Bumble, who fester in their cages of evil motives, illustrate the omnipresence of evil in the novel, especially as it relates to the treatment of the poor, the exploitation of the innocent, and the corruption of society.
After successfully luring Oliver back into the chasms of his dreadful crimes, the monstrous Fagin creeps out into “a maze of the mean and dirty streets” (186) to find Sikes, who will attempt to mentor the young outcast in a life of crime. Fagin personifies humanity’s evil, a satanic underside of the humble compassion exhibited in the novel’s most virtuous characters, namely Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies. While Brownlow quells “the noise and turbulence in the midst of which [Oliver] had always lived,” (143) Fagin’s bestial nature threatens the enclosure of Edenic innocence found in Brownlow’s country home with his evil temptations. Fagin’s serpentine qualities extend to the character of Bumble, who embodies an institutional and societal evil that complements Fagin’s criminal schemes. The evil framework erected by Bumble and Fagin forms the path of experience by which Oliver matures to understand his identity.
The way in which Fagin ensares youths like the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates, and Oliver Twist for his own monetary benefits parallels the way in which Bumble exploits the rights of poor children who live in his workhouse in an attempt to increase his power. Dickens employs images of confinement and hopelessness in describing the Jew’s odious headquarters of evil:
It was a very dirty place. […] In all the rooms, the mouldering shutters were fast closed: the bars which held them were screwed tight into the wood; the only light which was admitted, stealing its way through round holes at the top: which made the rooms more gloomy and filled them with strange shadows. (179)
The darkness of Fagin’s lair extends the image of the harsh prison of Bumble’s workhouse from which Oliver escaped. Within the novel’s discourse on evil lies Dickens’ satire on the situation of the poor caused by the Poor Laws, which Bumble upholds stringently until they ultimately render him a pauper in a scene of joyous irony. Dickens’ language, namely words like “dirty,” “mouldering,” “closed,” “gloomy,” and “strange shadows” create a scene of festering unwholesomeness that transfers from the criminal underworld to the situation of society at large.
The fact that the workhouse in which Oliver and other orphans find their only refuge resembles the stark nihilism of Fagin’s underworld exposes the brutal mistreatment of society’s poor at the hands of self-serving men like Bumble. While Fagin rejects moral and legal laws by indoctrinating adolescents in a life of thievery, Bumble violates the basic code of love and compassion upon which, in a moral sense, human nature rests. Oliver’s famous plea, “Please sir, I want some more” (56) illustrates not only his starvation resulting from Bumble’s sadistic practices, but also his desire for the love and compassion that he finds only outside of society’s inadequate provisions for the poor. Ironically, the deviants in Fagan’s fraternity of thieves make Oliver feel more welcome than do the authority figures in his society, which satirizes the decline in society’s ability to effectively correct, or at least recognize, the problem of poverty. Bumble’s acerbic rigidity in dealing with the orphans parallels Fagin’s animalistic dominion over the subordinate members of his pack. Bumble leads Oliver from “the wretched home where one kind word or look had never lighted the gloom of his infant years” (53) to a renewed agony that causes him “to burst into an agony of childish grief.” (53) Dickens captures Bumble’s sadism in a pitiful summation of his “care” for Oliver:
As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and [Oliver] was allowed to perform his ablutions, every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane. As for society, he was carried every other day into the hall where the boys dined, and there sociably flogged as a public warning and example. (59)
The beadle’s determination to maintain his sense of authority at the expense of innocent orphans illustrates the shallowness of his character, which is defined solely by his ability to exert power over defenseless characters like Oliver and Mrs. Corney. Dickens’ sarcasm elicits Bumble’s harsh, excessive cruelty while his realistic rendering of these pitiful events connotes their apparent regularity within the workhouse operations. Oliver, whose physical health Bumble protects with swift “applications of the cane,” becomes an emblem of the victimized pauper left helpless by society’s villainy. Dickens uses Oliver’s physical torment to evoke the reader’s sympathy and incite his or her awareness of society’s corruption.
Where Bumble impedes Oliver’s physical and emotional growth, Fagin, at his best, takes an invested interest in Oliver driven by potential monetary reward, while at his worst, exploits Oliver and endangers his life. He represents the temptation of evil dangled before the growing Twist, who must learn to overcome the attractiveness of criminal fraternity. Bumble, however, represents what happens when one succumbs to a life of greed and exploitation; he represents what Oliver will never become. Dickens characterizes Oliver as “a close prisoner in the dark and solitary room to which he had been consigned by the wisdom and mercy of the board.” (59) The dark enclosures to which Oliver has been confined, especially the coffin in Mr. Sowerberry’s house and the ditch outside the home in Chertsey, become metaphors for his vulnerability, as they “protect” him from “the gloom and loneliness which surround him.” (59) Dickens also criticizes “the board,” as the phrase “wisdom and mercy” drips with verbal irony that effects his satire on its imprudent and selfish philosophies. Ironically, Oliver does better to remain in the ditch at Chertsey than to resume a life as “the new burden imposed upon the parish.” (48)
Bumble and Fagin delight in their operations as officers of evil. Fagin’s philosophy unfolds toward monetary incentives; Bumble’s operates toward personal fulfillment gained by asserting power over paupers. After Sikes abandons Oliver in a ditch following the unsuccessful burglary at Chertsey, Fagin says, “What is it? When the boy’s worth hundreds of pounds to me, am I to lose what chance threw me in the way of getting safely?” (240) Later, when he “trains” his newest pupil, Noah Claypole, Fagin exposes the utter selfishness that undergirds his motives:
Every man’s his own friend. … In a little community like ours, my dear, we have a general number one; that is, you can’t consider yourself as number one, without considering me too as the same, and all the other young people. … You can’t take care of yourself , number one, without taking care of me, number one. … I’m of the same importance to you as you are to yourself. (387-8)
Fagin and Bumble rule with an iron hand that defines “the magnitude and extent of [their] operations” and inspires “a degree of wholesome fear” (389) within the “pupils” under their tutelage. Bumble prides himself on possessing the authority to exercise unwarranted punishment over the paupers. Dickens captures him “brav[ing] the cold wind of the night: merely pausing, for a few minutes, in the male paupers’ ward, to abuse them a little, with the view of satisfying himself that he could fill the office of workhouse-master with needful acerbity.” (250) This biting portrayal of a character so attracted by his own power satirizes the obsessive beadle who neglects his role as a caretaker for the glamour of authority.
The phrase “merely pausing” connotes the pomposity that governs Bumble’s character and makes him such a misguided, self-inflating ruler of his own corrupt underworld. He personifies the negative connotations of his name, namely, a state of confusion or a person who literally “bumbles.” Bumble dwells in a state of “bumbledom,” defined as “beadledom in its glory,” which raises the societal official at the expense of the humble pauper under his care. Dickens’ characterization of the bumbling beadle as one defined by “official pomposity” and “fussy stupidity” and absorbed in a Bumble-centric world paints a satiric portrait of society’s “bumbles,” and illuminates the need to improve the situation of the poor.
After Bumble marries Mrs. Corney, he dwells despondently in the realization that because he married, “[his] mighty cocked hat was replaced by a modest round one. Mr. Bumble was no longer a beadle.” (322) His cocked hat symbolizes the authority that defines his character. He and Mrs. Bumble “were gradually reduced to great indigence and misery, and finally became paupers in that very same workhouse in which they had once lorded it over others.” (477) Similarly, Fagin, the powerful “godfather” of Twist’s underworld, falls into a state of pathetic failure, as he grovels for Oliver’s loyalty and support in freeing him from impending death. Fagin, like Bumble, “struggle[s] with the power of desperation” (474) and illustrates the failure of evil to endure, despite its ability to temporarily mesmerize.
Dickens’ satire rests partly on his ability to intertwine the characters of Fagin and Bumble, which unites the corruption of society’s authoritative figures with the behaviors of a notorious criminal. Fagin impedes Oliver’s quest to find an identity and a place within the macrocosm while Bumble exacerbates this impediment by furthering Oliver’s misery rather than deterring him from Fagin’s entrapment. The novel resolves Oliver’s hardships caused by these two perpetrators by disposing of them with tidy symmetry. Bumble engages in a pathetic display of false concern as he cries, “Do my hi’s deceive me! Or is that little Oliver? Oh O-li-ver, if you know’d how I’ve been a-grieving for you.” He later asserts, “I always loved that boy as if he’d been my my my own grandfather,” (460) illustrating his inadequate comparison through his use of “grandfather” rather than “grandson,” the latter better suiting the generational relationship between the two. Even Mrs. Bumble who, like Nancy, emerges as the supplanted female subjugated by male dominance and trained as a subservient pet, recognizes the foolishness of the remark as she retorts, “Hold your tongue, fool.” (460)
Fagin’s confrontation with Oliver on the night before his hanging complements Bumble’s downfall, as he attempts to regain Oliver’s honor and companionship and his former way of life governed by monetary pursuits. Dickens characterizes Fagin, who assumes “a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man,” as a rabid beast, for the turnkey must hold him down, for “he [like a wild animal] grows worse as the time gets on.” (472) Oliver’s strength in confronting the physical manifestation of his nightmares illustrates his triumph over evil forces and emergence as a stronger, more identified character who cries out, “Oh! God forgive this wretched man!” (474) Dickens incriminates the institutions established to help the victims of crime and exploitation by juxtaposing Fagin’s criminality with Bumble’s hypocrisy, corruption and exploitation. In doing so, he unearths the problem of evil as an ever-present force that dwells not only within the supernatural underworld of Fagin and Sikes but, ironically, looms in the most unsuspecting places, even in the very institutions established to aid society’s poor.
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