Personal Virtues and Social Influences: The Presentation of Identity in Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist is a novel that evades easy categorisation; what begins as a political satire of the 1834 Poor Law morphs into a detective novel which in turn becomes a melodramatic thriller with a surprisingly tidy ending. While Dickens juggles contrasting tones in many of his novels, as one of his earlier works Oliver Twist has been particularly noted for consisting of “a patchwork of genres” (Wood, 2014). Therefore, it is no surprise that for a novel which itself undergoes a series of identity crises, issues to do with identity become a reoccurring theme of the narrative. Indeed, our understanding of the social message of the novel rests upon the way in which Dickens frames identity. Strangely, for a novel which seems concerned with promoting the social message that the poor are not inherently morally inferior, Dickens presents an ambivalent picture of the nature of identity. This essay will address how Dickens presents elements of socially constructed and crowd identity while also reconciling this with ideas of innate goodness and morality. Perhaps the most well-known cultural staple from Oliver Twist is the eponymous hero, who has become almost synonymous with our idea of the orphan. Yet ironically it is this projection of an ‘orphan’ identity that Dickens critiques within the novel, as characters constantly project their prejudices onto Oliver due to his parentless, low socio-economic status. It is only in the first chapter, whereby Oliver has not yet been clothed that he is free from constraints of societal identity, as Dickens states “he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar”. This suggests that Dickens views class identity as something which is fluid and socially learned rather than inherent. The abuse Oliver faces in the workhouse and later on the streets of London is symptomatic of an unjust societal stigma faced by those on the bottom rungs of Victorian society, and ultimately this stigma revolves around a false conception that poverty correlates to inherent immorality. This was particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the 1834 Poor Law, which sought to lessen the cost of looking after the ever-growing number of paupers by establishing workhouses (May, 1987). They also wielded tremendous power to individuals such as that of Mr Bumble. Indeed, even Oliver’s name is chosen by Mr Bumble: his nominal identity is given to him by the system that abuses him. Moreover, the superficiality of social identity is illustrated by how easy it is for one character to adopt another identity through the means of simply changing their clothes. For instance, Nancy’s adoption of middle class attire completely alters the way society views her, allowing her the privilege of respect and trust amongst strangers who would otherwise have demonised her for her prostitute identity. Of all the characters in the novel it is Nancy who is perhaps the most complex, as she is – at least by Victorian standards at least – an immoral woman, yet she is also deeply sympathetic. While most of the characters in the novel fall into a label of either good, evil or comic, Nancy defies these labels. The reader empathises with her predicament, whereby her toxic upbringing has altered her identity to the point of no return. The contemporary reactions to Dickens’ inclusion of a ‘fallen woman’ confirm the prejudice that was rampant within 1840s Victorian society, as even his friend John Forster attempted to discourage him from publication due to its taboo nature (Bowen). By providing a sympathetic platform for the identities of marginalised characters, and highlighting how these identities are, at least to an extent, socially constructed, Dickens’ opens a dialogue on how the poor and vulnerable should be treated. While Dickens may see elements of class identity as learned, he also suggests that environment can alter the identity to the extent that it is irreversible or as Nancy claims: “I am chained to my old life”. Dickens uses her as an obvious foil to Rose, yet had her socio-economic situations been different it is possible that Nancy’s self-identity and ultimate fate would have also been different. Not only does Dickens describe how identity is constricted within a classist society, he also illustrates how individual identity can be lost to the crowd. A single accusation of stealing results in Oliver being chased by an angry mob, whose actions are portrayed in almost rhythmic lexis: “pell-mell, helter-skelter, slap-dash”. The mob is depersonalising in its reduction of different facets of society into one antagonistic mass. The visceral reaction of the mob against Oliver highlights how illicit or transgressive identities threaten those who have conformed to their societal roles. Furthermore, in exploring the crowd mentality of Oliver Twist, the city of London cannot be ignored. The urban landscape plays a major role in the collective identity of Dickens’ characters. Oliver refers to the rancid urban setting of the slums he visits with Mr Sowerberry as having reduced its inhabitants to animalistic qualities; they are a part of the decaying landscape, even suggesting that they “seemed so like the rats he had seen outside”. During the 19th century rapid industrialisation had driven many rural migrants to the cities resulting in cramped, squalid conditions, as historian Terry Trainor points out that in 1840s London “one room living was the norm for working class families.” (Trainor, 2011) Despite this harsh reality, the idea of domestic bliss and the importance of the house was becoming increasingly popular during the 1840s, and thus home life became an intrinsic part of early Victorian identity. Dickens’ contrasts the decay of city life and “men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished-for change”, with the idealised pastoral setting where Oliver finally joins a stable family unit. Therefore, it becomes clear that Dickens sees identity and environment as closely interlinked entities, with Dickens making an implicit link between urban sprawl and the spike in criminality and immorality. While it would at first appear that Dickens is arguing against the notion that people are inherently predisposed to crime, and that a mixture of prejudice and socio-economic stances lead those to crime, this message is undermined by Oliver’s apparently inherent identity and the resolution of the novel. Despite growing up in a workhouse Oliver’s lexicon is noticeably middle class. Indeed, the infamous line “please, sir, I want some more”, while being a radical act of defiance, is almost painfully polite, especially when contrasted with the Artful Dodgers colloquialisms. Even if it did not transpire that Oliver was related to the Maylies, the dissonance between his social environment and his mannerisms would be reason enough to accuse Dickens of patronisation of the working classes. Indeed, much like contemporary thinkers such as Carlyle who labelled the working classes “wild inarticulate souls”, Dickens writes with a prejudice which is ironic considering his reputation as a defender of the working class (Carlyle, 1839). Crucially, the fact that Oliver does turn out to have descended from a middle-class background only confirms that the novel is, at least to some extent, what critic John Carey calls “a hymn to the purity of the middle-class soul”. Oliver’s identity remains middle class and static throughout, with Dickens contradicting his previous suggestions that social identity was purely superficial. It could also be argued that Dickens is guilty of the unjust social labelling which he attempts to critique. The very names of his fictional characters are infamous for their “character revealing” nature (Paroissien, 2000, p80), for example Mr Bumble’s name derives from the word bumptious, reflecting his arrogant persona (ibid). Therefore, while within the diegesis of Oliver Twist the reader may be implored to look beyond the social confines of a name or label, Dickens himself thrives on this caricature-aesthetic. This is most evident in his depiction of Fagin as the epitome of anti-Semitic stereotypes, indeed he is referred to mainly in the novel as “the Jew”. While Dickens himself claimed that “I have no feeling towards the Jewish people but a friendly one” (Hartley, 2012). Fagin’s whole persona is defined by his cultural identity and his apparent unchangeable physiognomy. Indeed, Dickens was a contemporary of Johann Kaspar Lavater who argued that physical traits were intrinsically linked to traits of character. This not only contradicts the idea of identity being a social construct, it also questions whether a character such as Fagin can even be held morally responsible if he is inherently immoral. To complicate matters further, Oliver’s own angelic beauty is noted by the middle-class characters, such as Rose and Mr Brownlowe in the novel who, with little inspection, are able to determine Oliver’s true nature through observation of just his face. For an author that is so concerned with the use of art as a vehicle for social change, his prejudiced presentations of identity have the potential, by his own artistic philosophy, to be socially damaging. As a contemporary review at the time enthused “Mr Dickens characters, as all the world knows, pass their names into our language, and become types” (Anon. 1971). It is important to note that Dickens’ portrayal of identity in Oliver Twist is not consistently socially progressive, indeed characters such as Fagin are both regressive and damaging. Ultimately even if we are to accept that Dickens’ conception of inherited identity does not lessen the social message of the novel, the problem of Oliver’s actual characterisation remains. Ironically for a figure that has become this iconic within popular culture – resulting in the novel being the most screen adapted Dickens novel of all time (John, 2010) – Oliver lacks personal growth or a distinct identity that is separable from his own moral goodness. Critic J Mullan asserts that “the orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world,” yet Oliver does not even meet this basic criterion. He remains a protagonist who lacks both agency in the main machinations of the plot nor does he possess a distinct voice. His eventual comfortable position with the Maylies comes about due to the work of other characters, such as Mr Brownlowe. Other than his fight with Noah Claypole, Oliver demonstrates little active resistance, in contrast to side characters such as Nancy who both propel the plot forward and yet possess identities that are more morally complex. The case can even be made Bill Sykes’s dog displays a higher level of emotional complexity and tangible identity than protagonist Oliver, who faints and cries his way through the entire plot. Perhaps a better way of exploring Oliver’s self-identity is to treat him as a narrative device rather than a realistic depiction of an individual. Oliver was described by Dickens himself in the 1842 introduction to the 3rd edition as “good surviving through every circumstance”. In this context, he becomes more of an entity that allows the reader to understand the moral complexities of London through the lens of an innocent. What makes Oliver’s story interesting is his interactions with the characters around him. As critic Ruth Richardson astutely puts it, Oliver Twist is a “modern fairy-tale” which deals mainly in dualities of good and evil while at the same time being relevant to contemporary Victorian society (Richardson, 2012). The way in which Oliver is treated because of his assumed identity as an orphan, irrespective of his self-identity, remains a potent criticism of the treatment of the poor. Arguably it invites the middle class Victorian mother or father to consider the treatment of their own child if they were to be brought up in similar social conditions, helping to ignite a social consciousness against the cruelties of a corrupted system unable to deal with the most vulnerable in society. Bibliography
Wood, C. (2017). Oliver Twist: a patchwork of genres. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/oliver-twist-a-patchwork-of-genres [Accessed 12 Oct. 2017]. Dickens, C. and Rogers, R. (2008). Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Richardson, R. (2012). Dickens & the Workhouse. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mullan, J. (2017). Orphans in fiction. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/orphans-in-fiction [Accessed 12 Oct. 2017]. Bowen, J. (n.d.). Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/videos/oliver-twist-depicting-crime-and-poverty [Accessed 12 Oct. 2017]. Levin, M. (2014). Condition of england question. 1st ed. [Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan. Paroissien, D. (2000). The companion to Great expectations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. Dickens, C. and Hartley, J. (n.d.). The selected letters of Charles Dickens. John, J. (n.d.). Dickens and mass culture.
Anti-Semitism as Personified in Fagin from Oliver Twist
In English novels, Jewish characters have been routinely described as greedy, nit-picking, and stingy misers. They are usually but not always merchants, money lenders, or bill brokers—Shylock from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Isaac from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, and Fagin from Oliver Twist, among other Jewish characters, are the most well-known examples of such racial and cultural stereotype. Oliver Twist is the second novel by Charles Dickens and was first published as a serial 1837-9. Through the crafty description of the orphan Oliver Twist’s uneasy life, Dickens reflects the reality of the massive low class poor people at that period of time. And the villainous character in the novel—Fagin, and his Jewish identity have always been controversial to readers across cultures and generations. In this essay I will talk about anti-Semitism in Oliver Twist as personified in Fagin. I will present the difference in attitude towards Jews as seen in Fagin through the comparison between Dickens’s original novel and other later adapted versions—specifically, David Lean’s 1948 film adaptation and Roman Polanski’s 2005 film adaptation. Also I will demonstrate the causes as well as the consequences of different stages of attitude towards Jews in these versions of Oliver Twist made in three different period of time.
In Dickens’ Archetypal Jew, Lauriat Lane makes several arguments. First, he claims that Dickens follows the “anti-Semitic tradition in English literature” by making the villainous character from Oliver Twist—Fagin as a Jew (94 Lane). However, Lane also claims that Dickens shows himself “in no way free from the general attitude and prejudice of his age” (95). Lane claims that Dickens’s Jewish character has basis in reality. He is certain true for that he mentioned in the preface to Oliver Twist, Dickens aims to make the novel realistic—“to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really did exist…to show them as they really were” (). Despite Dickens’s aim of being realistic, Lane denies the character of Fagin as a pure realistic study of Jewishness. The evidence Lane offers is a letter Dickens wrote to Mrs. Eliza Davis, of Fagin, “that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew” (94). Also, “a few passages from Dickens’s another letter reflect the same prejudice. On 12 September 1843 he wrote to Thomas Hood that one Mr. Colburn had taken ‘a money lending, bill-broking, Jew clothes-bagging, Saturday-night pawn-broking advantage of your temporary situation’” (95). All these suggest that, not only does Dickens follow the anti-Semitic tradition in his writing, but he also stands for a firm stereotypical attitude towards Jews in reality. However, Dickens at his time, was not the only anti-Semitist in reality. Historically, anti-Semitism has been a long-existing racial prejudice both in literature and reality.
In order to better comprehend the meaning and causes of anti-Semitism, it is necessary to grasp its opposite, the meaning of Semitism, or a more proper word would be philo-Semitism or Judeophilia, both words refer to people with “an interest in, respect for, and appreciation of the Jewish people, historical significance, and the positive impacts of Judaism on the world, particularly on the part of a gentile” . However, this ideological stereotype, as the French Jewish literary critic Bernard Lazare convincingly argues in the preface of his book Anti-Semitism: Its history and causes, “was not born without cause” (5 Lazare). He noticed that wherever the Jews settled, anti-Semitism develops. Also be noticed that he disputes the word anti-Semitism to describe this certain attitude towards Jews. He claims he’d rather call it anti-Judaism, for which is a more accurate word. Various views have been given to explain the cause of anti-Semitism. The religious theory from the old time is that, from the Christian perspective Jews are the “killers” of Jesus progenitors of Jesus; from the Judaism perspective they arrogantly declare themselves to be the possessor of a chosen people mentality. The racial theory propagated by the Nazi is that Jews are considered as an inferior race. The conspiracist theory claims that Jews are hated because they are the cause for most of the world’s problems—Adolf Hitler frequently denounced international capitalism and communism as being part of a Jewish conspiracy. In the original novel, Fagin is described as “a very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair” (63; ch.8). Such an apparently stereotypical description about Jewishness Dickens made, was not on a personal basis. In the Victorian Britain, anti-Semitism was considered as a social convention—Oliver Twist grew out of an era and a literary tradition which was “predominantly anti-Semitic” (Stone 225). As Harry Stone has suggested, Dickens “did exhibit anti-Semitism and this anti-Semitism was typical of his age” (225). Laws, parliamentary debates, newspapers, magazines, songs, and plays, as well as novels, reflect the latent anti-Semitism which was a part of the Victorian heritage. In 1830 a Jew could not open a shop within the city of London, be called to the bar, receive a university degree, or sit in Parliament…In 1830 the majority of England’s twenty to thirty thousand Jews earned their living through buying and selling clothes, peddling, and money-lending. Portraits in fiction of Jewish cloth dealers staggering under huge bags of rags, bearded peddlers haggling with country wives, and miserly usurers gloating over their secret treasuries were given reality not only by a long literary tradition but by the intermittent evidence of the London streets. (225)
Another factor that contributes to the anti-Semitism in the Victorian era as represented in Oliver Twist, is Dickens’s Christianity. Susan Mayer argues in Antisemitism and Social Critique in Dickens’s Oliver Twist that Dickens “invokes Christianity” as a moral center in Oliver Twist (239 Mayer). Various discussions on Dickens’s Christianity are employed as evidence: Writing in 1962, John Gross, noting Dickens’s interest in redemption and resurrection, commented that Dickens’s Christianity “is more relevant than one tends to think nowadays” (xii). Twenty years later, Andrew Sanders again noted that the combination “of a sincere but simple enough faith with a general refusal to proclaim it from the house tops… [has] rendered Dickens’s insistent Christianity…irrelevant to those modern critical discussion of his work. (Resurrection xi) Mayer also claims that, in Oliver Twist, Dickens “emphatically criticizes what he represents as unchristian in the behavior of the English towards the poor” (241 Mayer). “In the novel’s opening chapters, set in the unnamed town of Oliver’s birth, make an criticism of those who created the new Poor Laws and those who justify, administer, and benefit from them, as well as of all the indifferent bystanders who profit from, or do not help to remedy, the situation of the poor” (241-245). Mayer perceives these flaws of both individual and institutional morality as the “failure of Christianity” (242). Lean’s 1948 film adaptation follows George Cruikshank’s illustration—in the film adaptation, Fagin played by Alec Guinness, is of a repulsive look along with the enormous hooked nose, chipped teeth, shaggy eyebrows, and matted hair, which represent the conventional Jewish racial stereotype at the time. This anti-Semitic portray also resulted protests by Jewish objectors from the new world to the Europe continent. Concerning the 1948 film adaptation with historical background at that time, Liora Brosh has given a context for comprehending Lean’s cinematic representation of Fagin and the audiences’ view (especially the Jewish protests) of it: In a departure from the novel, Lean’s idea is less about the private domestic sphere and more about British collective identity. … Lean’s Oliver Twist is obsessed with those characters who subvert national boundaries. Both Fagin and the prostitute Nancy are represented as untrustworthy and not reliably British. … Even though Lean is said to have relied on Cruikshank for his film, unlike in the illustrations, Fagin is not small and lanky. … In the illustration Cruikshank drew for the novel, Fagin is thinner, smaller, and shorter than any other adult character, especially Sikes. … This film was made when the Second World War was a recent and vivid memory, the British Empire was disintegrating, and Jews were fighting the British to establish their an independent Jewish state. … These new historical contexts changed the conventional trope of the cowardly feminized Jew represented in Dickens. (Brosh 94-95)
As Brosh and other sources have explained, the anti-Semitic portrait of Fagin in Lean’s 1948 film adaptation is set as a political propaganda to serve the diplomatic demand—Zionist emerged in the late 19th century. “After the death of the moderate pro-British Zionist leader’s son, also with the anti-Zionism policies in Britain, the leadership of the Zionist movement passed to the Jewish agency led by the anti-British socialist party” (125-135 Cohen). In an effort to win the independence of the establishing Jewish state in Palestine, Zionist waged a guerrilla war against Britain. Like 1948 film adaptation, multiple later adaptations on Oliver Twist were also widely criticized. In the London stage premiere of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical adaptation, Fagin played by the actor Ron Moody received criticism of his “stereotypical nasal infection and chanted songs in the style of Jewish folk music” (Gross). To avoid the controversy that have occurred to those previous adaptations, Carol Reed’s 1968 film version made a bit of adjustment—“instead, he played with gay stereotypes, mincing his way through ‘Pick a Pocket or Two,’ and twirling a frilly pink parasol in ‘I’d Do Anything’” (Gross). Unlike Lean’s 1948 film adaptation and the other previous versions of Oliver Twist, Roman Polanski takes an obviously different approach in making of his 2005 film adaptation of Oliver Twist. His idea of approaching the character Fagin was revealed in a telephone interview where he said “We’ve lived long enough to know that certain things should be done for certain reasons. Without analyzing it. Which would be embarrassing, you know?” (Gross). When dealing with Fagin, Polanski completely abandoned the anti-Semitic characteristics that earlier adaptations employed. He identifies Fagin neither as Jewish nor the usual evil exploiter of young boys. He focused on the both evilness and goods—the dualistic nature of human-being in shaping Fagin–“There is no completely bad man,” he added. “Fagin, with all his villainy, is still giving the children some kind of home, you know. What was happening to these kids in the street was just unbearable” (Gross). For him, Fagin is simply a lost citizen who is morally corrupted due to the social conditions, and meanwhile there is goodness with this character.
Polanski’s film adaptation reflects both how contemporary people perceive the general attitude towards Jews today, and how Jewish individual/community respond to the anti-Semitism as they were treated with once upon time (Polanski is Jewish himself). Conventional attitude towards Jewish people and organizations, and the behaviors, ideologies, and policies of Jewish individual/organizations, both have mutual impact to each other. Just as Raphael Magarik has argued, “denying that Israel’s behavior has any causal in anti-Semitism is deeply counter-intuitive. This summer, Israel fought a war and anti-Semitism surged in Europe—were those two facts supposed to be a coincidence?” (n. pag. Magarik). Magarik’s detail-lacked argument is valid but it is also very weak. What can be discovered in this argument is that the contemporary people, in this context, unlike the people in the Victorian era, define and practice anti-Semitism based on not the Jewish race or the past stereotype, but the actions taken by Jewish people/organizations towards others. In this context, the contemporary anti-Semitism distinctly differs from the past ones, which are based on racial or religious hatred. The comparison of Dickens’s novel, Lean’s and Polanski’s film adaptations reveal the evolution of attitude towards Jewishness from the Victorian era, to the Post-War period, and finally to the contemporary world. And the re-organization of the meaning of anti-Semitism helps to clarify and classify Fagin, in different versions of Oliver Twist, as the representation of attitude towards Jewishness. From Victorian era to today, anti-Semitism, or the attitude towards Jewish individual-organization has gone through three main stages, in the Victorian era, anti-Semitic attitude was recognized as a social convention, Jews are generally treated with injustice. There for “Dickens shows himself in no way free from the general attitude and prejudice of his age” (95 Lane). In the post war period, due to the anti-British Zionist organizations, the establishment of Israel that weakened Britain’s impact of the Middle East region, anti-Semitism as personified in Fagin from Lean’s Oliver Twist film, was served as a political propaganda, just like the U.S’s and Soviet Union’s political propaganda of each other during the Cold-War period.
At this stage, anti-Semitism existed not as a socially accepted convention but merely an ideology to impact the regional and international relation. Move to the contemporary world, after the Third Reich’s failure of dictatorship. Anti-Semitism as a stereotypical attitude towards Jewish culture/religion was eventually denounced by most parts of the globe. Anti-Israeli attitude remains not as an extension of the past racially stereotyped ideology but a form of rational, undeniable pacifism. Polanski’s Oliver Twist film was able to present, in his ideal, the reconciliation between the non-Jewish world and the Jewish community. For the matter of anti-Semitism, the former disputes, the latter lets go.
1. Brosh, Liora. Screening Novel Women: From British Domestic Fiction to Film. N.p.: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2008. Print. 2. Cohen, Michael. The making of British policy, 1936-1945. New York: n.p., 1979. Print. 3. Gross, Michael Joseph. “A Face Lift for Wretched Old Fagin.” New York Times [New York] 21 Aug. 2005: n. pag. Print. 4. Lazare, Bernard. Antisemitism: Its History and Causes, 1894. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Stone, Harry. “Dickens and the Jews.” Victorian Studies 2 (1959): 223-53. Print. – Lane, Lauriat, Jr. “Dickens’ Archetypal Jew.” Modern Language Association 73.1 (1958): 94-100. Print. 5. Magarik, Raphael. “Do Jewish Actions Ever Cause Anti-Semitism.” Forward. – N.p., 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
Gender Inequality In Oliver Twist
In what is arguably his best known work, Charles Dickens addresses the blatant gender inequality that ran rampant in the 1800s. Oliver Twist confronts the disheartening public view of not only women in lower social classes, like Nancy, but also the stereotypes placed on the actions of women in the upper classes, such as Rose and Mrs. Bedwin. Though he may exemplify this inequality through several female characters and their interactions with their male counterparts, Dickens is one of the first to paint these women as at least somewhat conscious beings who are capable of some thought process. He approached his female characters with an attitude of change from their “roles.” Instead of seeing England as “a patriarchal model which reserved power and privilege for men,” (Marsh) he chose to give his female characters more of a role in their own lives, allowing them to develop as actual figures rather than slump in the background, at least in his literature. However, Dickens was well aware of the expectations of women in 19th century England: he knew that women were considered “physically weaker yet morally superior to men” and that they were considered to be “best suited to the domestic sphere” (Hughes). By accepting these stereotypes, Dickens is able to both prove them wrong and to write strong female characters who are capable of handling issues such as prostitution, loyalty, family, and injustice. He is clear, however, that Oliver Twist does not take place in a fairytale version of England, writing other characters as they would be in the set time period.
Gender inequality in Oliver Twist cannot be discussed without raising the adjacent issue of social inequality. Though upper class women were not treated as equal to the men in their lives, they at least received an education and were spoken to with some level of respect, unlike their lower class equivalents. Even when providing valid and important information Nancy is treated with little to no respect, being told “I will not suffer the young lady to go any farther. Many people would have distrusted you too much to have come even so far, but you see I am willing to humour you,” by Mr. Brownlow (Dickens 491). He is clearly favoring Rose, the “young lady”, by not making her “go any further”, while at the same time disrespecting Nancy, someone who is obviously part of the lower class, by speaking about distrust. Though Mr. Brownlow may have an actual reason to make this judgment, since Nancy was late to their initial meeting, he is largely basing his judgment on her social status and her “occupation.” True to the time period, Brownlow believes that Nancy is a disease ridden prostitute, and sees her as “…the shadow that haunted the well-run middle-class home” (Hughes). In this same passage he continues to question Nancy about their location: “…for what purpose can you have brought us to this strange place?” (Dickens 491) Nancy, not the complete idiot Brownlow believes her to be, is well aware that Fagin or Sikes could be watching if they were to speak “where it is light, and there is something stirring…” (Dickens 491) as Brownlow keeps suggesting. However, even as Nancy voices these concerns, speaking of “…horrible thoughts of death, and shrouds with blood upon them…” and believing she “…saw ‘coffin’ written in every page of the book…” (Dickens 492) Brownlow refuses to listen, citing her imagination and stating that coffins pass him often as well. Furthermore, by accompanying Rose to this meeting Brownlow is acting as if she cannot handle herself alone at night. Mr. Brownlow is not considered a “bad” character, but his actions involving Nancy and Rose make us question his opinion of women, and whether or not he finds them capable of anything. This is not saying that he thinks they are lacking intelligence. But does he believe that women are capable of completing anything without at least partial assistance from a man?
Dickens was no stranger to prostitution and the issues that revolved around it, but not in the “normal” way of being a customer. He was responsible for cofounding the Magdalen House, preparing former prostitutes for a new life in Australia; even though he was not the first to try to reform prostitutes, he at least knew that they were not the only cause of the “‘problems’ associated with prostitution” (Hughes). This reasonably assures some balance in his writing, as does the fact that he lived a life similar to Oliver’s, working in Warren’s blacking factory due to his father’s bad debt and living in Portsmouth, a city on the south coast of England (BBC News). His credibility is now evident not only because of his childhood, but also because of the imagery within his writing and how it coincides with England’s environment at this time. Each scene is expertly described to make the reader feel as though they are with Noah at the Thames, watching “…necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step…” (Dickens 490). Then, just a moment later, they are with Nancy, hearing the “something so uncommon in her manner…” and having “ the blood chilled within him” (Dickens 492). Dickens is sure to immerse his reader in these surroundings and not allow the reader to leave until the story is over. This is concurs with Dickens’s master use of syntax, defined as the way in which linguistic elements are put together to form constituents. Though his detailed descriptions may be attributed to the fact he was paid by the word, it does not mean he didn’t use his words well. His descriptions of locations as well as characters are incredible, and image inspiring; “’he has a lurking walk…his eyes are sunk in his head so much deeper than any other man’s…his lips are discoloured and disfigured with the marks of teeth…’” (Dickens 496). These are only partial descriptors, yet Charles Dickens creates an entire character. This character is already shady, but it is easy to picture him slipping into shadows and disappearing without issue, all from portions of Dickens’ descriptions.
Charles Dickens was by no means a modern feminist; in fact, there are accusations of him abusing women and cheating on his wife with multiple younger partners. His belief that women should be angels of the house could never coincide with feminist ideals. However, his writings gave feminists a platform to argue against the blatant gender inequality in nineteenth century England. His vibrant descriptions of the brutal behavior towards lower class women, compared to the simple disrespect seen by their upper class counterparts, portrays both the gender inequality and the social inequality within such detrimental distinctions. Dickens was well aware of the social stigma surrounding prostitutes and the “problems” they faced, but still chose to remain accurate to the time period and to create a strong, lower class character who, in the end, helped bring Oliver happiness at the expense of her own life.
Citations: Marsh, Jan. “Victoria and Albert Museum.” , Online Museum, Web Team, [email protected] Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library. British Library, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. “Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870).” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2015. Dickens, Charles. “Chapter 1, 41-48.” Oliver Twist. New York: Knopf, 1992. N. pag. Print.
Oliver Twist: Fact through Fiction
Oliver Twist is a criticism of the society in which Charles Dickens lived. The book directly criticized the Poor Laws and attempted to inspire readers of the middle and upper classes to improve the intolerable conditions in which Dickens himself had been raised. Through the novel’s unforgettable characters, Dickens humanized a marginalized social class, shedding light on the grim nature of their lives. In the descriptions of the workhouses and slums of London, Dickens forced his readers to acknowledge the sordid living conditions of the poor. Finally, Dickens uses the plot of Oliver Twist to reveal the flaws of a system that kept the poor trapped in a seemingly permanent state of squalor.Charles Dickens learned about the dark and difficult lives of the poor through his own childhood experience. This experiential knowledge put him in the perfect position to become an advocate for the poor years later via Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other well known novels. According to the article “Bentham, Dickens, and the Uses of the Workhouse,” The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 attempted to make poverty relief entirely dependent on dwelling in the workhouse, therefore distinguishing between the worthier poor who were willing to work and the lazier, undeserving people (Stokes 711). Unfortunately, even those who worked in factories and workhouses had their living on very difficult terms. The preface to the Norton Critical Edition of Oliver Twist notes that “The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834…like much ‘welfare reform,’ made living conditions for the poor worse than they had ever been and made it even more difficult for the working poor to get assistance” (Kaplan vi). The workhouses were deliberately made quite miserable by employing workhouse masters to treat the workers very harshly. The Dickens family was in such a desperate situation that young Charles became a victim of child labor at age twelve. The long and strenuous days that he spent in the workhouse while his father was in a debtor’s prison left a lasting impression on Dickens that haunted him through his entire adult life, and served as the inspiration for his efforts towards labor condition reforms. Peter Stokes says, “By way of protest against the Act, Dickens published Oliver Twist…” (711). While the misfortune of being poor was often looked upon as a natural and unchangeable position, Dickens held that poverty did not have to be permanent. Hence “Oliver Twist is the first and perhaps most powerful work of fiction to attempt to bring to the attention of those who read such books the misery that daily life is for the large numbers of people caught up in generational cycles of poverty and despair and in the selfishness and stupidity of government and its agencies” (Kaplan iv). By weaving fact and fiction together in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens creates a masterpiece novel that combines a compelling story with an effective social and political agenda. One of the most remarkable traits of Oliver Twist is the manner in which Dickens molds stereotyped members of the lower social classes into genuine, feeling people. Orphans, prostitutes, and juvenile delinquents make up some of the most important characters of Oliver Twist. The article “The Social and Political Issues” states that “In all his fiction, there was a purpose in his portraits of the poor” (Engel 495). George Gissing claims that Oliver Twist had two moral purposes: the first being to expose the injustice of the Poor Law Act, and the second to accurately portray the lives of thieves in London. These two views went hand in hand for Dickens, who believed that the high crime rate was a direct result of the Poor Law system (421). While the social outcasts of Oliver Twist are not all presented in glamorous ways, Dickens brings a level of humanity to these characters that make them unforgettable. Oliver, the protagonist of Oliver Twist, is the most constant and unchanging character of anyone else in the story. He is unrelentingly pure of heart and practically immune to the influences of his surrounding environments. With such a strong and unyielding spirit, it is interesting that Oliver happens to be an orphan– the bane of society. When Oliver’s mother dies only minutes after his birth, he “was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by no one” (Dickens 19). As a young child with little control over his own destiny, Oliver is very much at the mercy of those around him, “like an object that is taken up, handled, and put in place rather than an individual who controls his own movement” (Duffy 405). The unfortunate circumstances of Oliver’s life make him entirely pitiable. When we meet Oliver in chapter two, he is nine years old, raised without the affection of a mother or any other form of family. He longs for connections with others, as Dickens reveals Oliver’s thoughts at leaving for another workhouse: “Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world sank into his heart for the first time” (Dickens 24). Throughout the novel, the forces of good and evil seem to be battling over Oliver’s destiny, but “what threatens Oliver seems more powerful and real than what saves him” (Kaplan iv). For example, it is certainly a fortunate chance that Oliver meets Mr. Brownlow—an encounter which sets in motion the discovery of Oliver’s true identity. However, whatever rare benevolence Oliver receives from kind strangers is tirelessly contested by the schemes of Fagin, Sikes, and Monks, who are determined to keep Oliver from any better life than that of a common criminal. By creating Oliver, the hero of the story, as an orphan, Dickens insisted that his readers consider the wretched lives that these children endured. One minor orphan character is little Dick, Oliver’s dearest friend. Though he plays a very small role in the story, his character serves to deliver another blow against the notion of orphans as an inconvenient scourge on society. In his parting words to Oliver, Dick states that he will not be happy before his own death delivers him to a better place. He states “I dream so much of Heaven and Angels; and kind faces that I never see when I am awake” (Dickens 59). Dick and Oliver’s relationship is possibly the purest and most beautiful portrayal of love in the whole story as two young boys who have never been shown love still love one another. Oliver remembers Dick’s blessing upon him his entire life, and Dick’s dying wish is to let Oliver know that “I was glad to die when I was very young for, perhaps, if I had lived to be a man, and had grown old, my little sister, who is in Heaven, might forget me or be unlike me, and it would be so much happier if we were both children there together” (121). Although he does not feature prominently in the novel, Dick impresses upon the reader that this orphan is a victim of a very unlucky hand of fate, and was a better child than his world deserved. While the choice of an orphan as the hero of the story may be unconventional, even more surprising is the supporting character Nancy, the ruined mistress of the despicable Bill Sikes. She is described as having “free and agreeable manners” (Dickens 70) and a rather disheveled appearance, indirectly identifying her as a prostitute. According to Robert R. Garnett, “Prostitution thrived in Britain’s growing cities…offering a lurid, low life allure” (497) and was one of the few ways a destitute young woman could make a living. From Nancy’s own words we learn that she was once one of Fagin’s subjects, trained in the art of making her living off the streets. Nancy exclaims to Fagin “It is my living; and the cold, wet dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago; and that’ll keep me there, day and night, day and night, till I die” (Dickens 116). In the same way that Oliver faintly regrets leaving behind the urchins that had been his friends at the workhouse, Nancy cannot pull herself away from her life of crime and abuse, even when she recognizes the depravity of her position. Nancy realizes that,“vile as those schemes were, desperate as were their originators, and bitter as were her feelings towards the Jew, who had led her, step by step, deeper and deeper down into an abyss of crime and misery, whence was no escape; still there were times when, even towards him, she felt some relenting…but these were the mere wanderings of a mind unable wholly to detach itself from old companions and associations…she had refused a refuge from all the guilt and wretchedness that encompassed her” (296). Despite Nancy’s associations, profession, or past actions, she becomes relatable and sympathetic in her sheer incapacity to free herself from the only life she has ever known. More importantly, Nancy becomes Oliver’s savior, and the novel’s heroine, when she sacrifices her own life that Oliver may have a better one. William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, once said of Nancy, “No one has read that remarkable tale of Oliver Twist without being interested in poor Nancy and her murderer” (Thackeray 408). Richard Ford furthermore poses the question what sort of woman Nancy might have been, had she been born into better circumstances (Ford 407). Thackeray and Ford’s words are a testament to Dickens’ success in making the character Nancy a woman with a name and a heart, instead of just another loathed prostitute, prowling the dirty streets of London. The London of Oliver Twist is not the grand city where royalty live and progress thrives as in other stories. It is dark and ominous, a breeding ground for the scum and villainy. Young Oliver, who has been in and around horrible places his entire life, ponders that “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” (Dickens 64). This is the sort of place that no respectable person would ever want to be seen in, yet these same people had no qualms in hiding those they were ashamed of in such an environment. Characters such as Fagin and Sikes would be expected to make an appearance in such a place and be quite at home in it. Dickens’ talented command of the English language allowed him to vividly portray the nastiness of London’s most disreputable areas. His descriptions of what Oliver sees evoke images of vermin rather than people: “Children…were crawling in and out at the doors or screaming from the inside…the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main…where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth” (Dickens 64). The novel, like the public view, initially implies that Oliver simply wanders into a bad area of town, but Dickens masterfully notes later in the novel that “Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse: the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness: the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child: midnight was upon them all” (305). By painting London this way, Dickens discreetly asserts that for villains such as Fagin or gentleman like Mr. Brownlow, London is still essentially one place, inaccurately perceived if the mansions and great houses are not portrayed with the slums and bars. Dickens understood that London as a whole included the less desirable areas with the more fashionable parts of town. Similarly, humanity consists of both rich and poor, kind and treacherous, but alienating undesirable company only overlooks the problem rather than solving it. Dickens’ description of the London slums forced his readers to acknowledge the conditions they had been overlooking right under their very noses. The conditions in London that bred crime and wickedness were under attack in Oliver Twist, but Dickens took his criticism far beyond the boundaries of London. In Oliver’s estimation, London was certainly the most awful place he had ever seen, but it was not the only objectionable place in which Oliver had resided. Early on, Oliver is to be transferred from the workhouse where he was born to a branch-workhouse where “twenty or thirty juvenile offenders against the poor laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too little clothing” (20). The mortality rates in workhouses were appalling, and Dickens revealed the atrocious neglect that orphans suffered from at the hands of churchwardens and overseers in chapter two: “At the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident…or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing” (20). The horrors of Oliver’s early life are likely drawn from Dickens’ own memories in the workhouse. Steven Marcus writes that in Oliver Twist, “Dickens was returning to his first and most intense representations of the crisis of his young boyhood…” (Marcus 494). Dickens’ memories from the workhouse were especially sensitive to him, and his interest in the poor from that time onward was fervent and consistent (Engel 495). Young Charles was traumatized by his period in the workhouse, but an older wiser Dickens used his experience as a tool to expose the terror that children were enduring in such places. In the complex plot of Oliver Twist, a reader cannot deny the discrimination practiced against Oliver at every turn based solely on his position as an orphan. From the moment that Oliver is born and promptly labeled an orphan, the author acknowledges that the infant had good reason to cry loudly for his situation. No matter what sort of effort Oliver puts forth or what misunderstanding he finds himself in the middle of, the people that handle his future seem determined to keep the rascal in his proper position, and to teach him to be grateful for their generosity in sending him to a workhouse where he had food and shelter. Such employment would ensure that the little urchin who had the nerve to impose his existence upon the world would forever remain in his proper station, while amply convincing the board of their own liberality and discharging them of any further responsibility for the child. The attitude towards a helpless Oliver from the beginning of the novel reflects the absolute insensitivity to the plight of the poor. When Oliver is interrogated by the board, one member condescendingly asks Oliver to affirm that he has no father or mother. The admission of the fact combined with the intimidation of the entire ordeal causes Oliver to break down in tears, prompting the gentleman to ask incredulously, “What are you crying for?” (Dickens 25). Although the men that handle Oliver’s future have at least enough sense not to apprentice him to the chimney sweep Mr. Gamfield, it has taken the deaths of three or four other boys for them to arrive at the conclusion that Oliver needs another form of work. None of their plans for the boy involve any sort of decent upbringing or the slightest degree of education, further sealing his place in the lower class. The point that Dickens seems to make in the early chapters of the novel is that Oliver’s chances of surviving the frequently fatal professions that the board or the beadle intend him for are relatively low. The determination against him also certainly increases the probability that he will die young; the gentleman in the white waistcoat declares that Oliver will be hung for his severe offense of asking for more gruel. But the powers that be express no real concern as it would be one less mouth to feed on their part, and in the event of the child’s demise they can comfort themselves that they did try to help him by providing employment. It is not merely the men of the board, the crotchety old women that run the workhouses or the beadle that treat Oliver with such disdain. When Oliver is accused of stealing a handkerchief, and is chased down, one bystander declares in response to the cry to give him some air, that he does not deserve it (74). Shortly thereafter, the magistrate believes easily that Oliver is the offender, but is hesitant to allow Mr. Brownlow to doubt Oliver’s guilt. When Oliver is finally met with kindness from Mr. Brownlow, Brownlow’s friend Mr. Grimwig has a decided opinion against Oliver on no particular basis, and swiftly accuses Oliver of leaving orange peels in the streets with the express of purpose of causing someone’s death (100). With some effort, “Grimwig was strongly disposed to admit that Oliver’s appearance and manner were unusually prepossessing, but he had a strong appetite for contradiction” (101), insisting that appearances aside, Oliver could not possibly be completely blameless. He maintains that “the boy has a new suit of clothes on his back; a set of valuable books under his arm; and a five-pound note in his pocket. He’ll join his old friends the thieves; and laugh at you” (103). When circumstances prevent Oliver from returning, Grimwig immediately assumes the worst. In the entire course of the novel, Oliver never acts maliciously towards anyone, other than when excessively provoked, and never displays signs of rebellion, wickedness, or mischief. Contrarily, despite Oliver’s constant immersion in a culture of deception and lies, “jostled as he is in this miserable crowd, he is preserved from the vice of its pollution” (Forster 401). Oliver proves himself to be a good and compliant boy many times over, but the general prejudice against him as an orphan complicates his every attempt to escape his status. In the plot of Oliver Twist, Dickens accurately and sharply reveals that the barrier to the poor rising above their circumstances is the unforgiving nature of their own fellow men who esteem themselves higher than the other. Through Oliver Twist Dickens was able to communicate the difficulties that attend a life of poverty, and tactfully point out society’s flawed worldview which materially damaged any hopes of true social reform. Dickens says of his motives in Monroe Engel’s article, “I have great faith in the Poor; to the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming” (Engel 495). True to his word, Dickens continued writing novels with a sociopolitical agenda, refusing to dilute their graphic nature. Oliver Twist is widely celebrated as classic literature involving a heartwarming rags to riches story, but Oliver Twist is first and foremost a social commentary meant to inspire change. Dickens life had shown him the hardship of poverty and exactly what laws needed to be amended in order for change to occur. Using his talents as an author, Dickens took characters that were defined by their labels, and turned them into authentic people that had names, faces, and feelings. Through Oliver Twist, he forced his readers to walk through the muck of London’s slums and experience all the filth they went to great lengths to avoid, and he depicted the hard truth that society’s own bigotry prevented even pioneering individuals from helping themselves. For Oliver, it was a twist of fate and a little help from a few kind individuals that changed the course of his life. Charles Dickens knew that the interference of others was the key to affecting change, and that is the challenge he presented to his readers – and that remains sharply relevant even now. Works CitedBentham, Dickens, and the Uses of the Workhouse. Peter M. Stokes. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 41, No. 4, The Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 2001), pp. 711-727 Joseph M. Duffy, Jr. Another Version of Pastoral: Oliver Twist ELH, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep.1968), pp. 403-421 Garnett, Robert R OLIVER TWIST’S NANCY: THE ANGEL IN CHAINS.. Religion & the Arts; Dec2000, Vol. 4 Issue 4, p491-516, 26pKaplan, Fred. Preface. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Ed. Fred Kaplan. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1993. iv-vii. Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1993.Engel, Monroe. The Social and Political IssuesMarcus, Steven. Who is Fagin? Gissing, George. Oliver Twist Thackeray, William Makepeace. On Oliver TwistFord, Richard. From Quarterly Review, 1839. Forster, John. From The Examiner.
Dickens’s Criticisms of Commerce
In writing Oliver Twist, it is clear that Charles Dickens’s main literary objective was to expose the plight of the poor in Victorian London. The story of Oliver is comparable to other Victorian novels, such as Jane Eyre, in its strong didactic message regarding the oppression of a certain demographic. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte pleaded for the rights of women to be recognized, while in Oliver Twist Dickens gives a voice to the poverty-stricken. Through difficult yet realistic scenes, the author reveals what was truly happening to the poor and who was responsible for this grim reality. The theme that pervades the novel is that the poor continue to be destitute not because of the nature of their birth, but because the upper classes fail to appropriate the aid for which their positions have made them responsible. Dickens suggests that those blessed with wealth have a duty to the poor. This duty, through most of the novel, is shirked, thus perpetuating the troubles of the poor – Oliver Twist included. It is not until the affluent use their resources to care for those who have none that the plot is resolved. Through this conclusion, Dickens speaks to his readers, boldly declaring that the poor will remain so until the rich change their ways.Though the affluent are his main target, Dickens also places the blame for the existence of poverty on capitalism. He portrays free commerce as an entity that, though kind to some, leaves many destitute through no fault of their own. It also allows – and even encourages through a fostering of ambition – the poor to be left in poverty, despite the plenty of others. In the novel, when Oliver accompanies his first master, an undertaker, to a poor part of town to retrieve the body of a woman who has died, it is noted that the place is filled with closed shops. “A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast-closed, and mouldering away: only the upper rooms being inhabited” (Dickens 30). The woman has died of starvation, a fact that leaves her bereaved husband (who views her death as unjust and unnecessary) angry and bitter. Dickens uses this situation to suggest, again, that poverty is not something to be blamed on those who endure it. It can be safely assumed that the couple’s livelihood was injured by the coming of the Industrial Revolution, leaving them with little option beside starvation.Dickens uses characters as a primary means of representing the harsh reality of class relations. Dark imagery and vivid descriptions of physical places as well as his characters help to create a strong dichotomy between both evil and good, and poverty and affluence. In an article discussing domestic themes within Oliver Twist, K.C. Frederick notes that “imagery of deprivation, misery, and malevolence extend across most of the novel, while goodness is subordinated until the closing sections…His only contacts with gentleness and peace provide no real antithesis to Oliver’s homelessness” (Frederick). By using such strong and vivid language in his descriptions of the poor and the evil, Dickens demands the attention of the reader. The pleasant scenes seem surreal, while the difficult scenes that comprise the majority of the novel appear all too real. The scene at the workhouse is particularly grim and serves as a shocking elucidation of the hypocrisy of the middle class in their false efforts to help the poor. The workhouse is intended to be a place of aid and relief for the poor, but instead it visits upon them all of the maladies from which it claims to protect them. Before they enter the house, the families are divided according to the belief that mean and uncouth characteristics are inherently possessed by the poor and passed onto their children. The children are taken from their parents to be raised by the state in hopes of salvaging their souls. It is not difficult to see the harm in this practice, as it creates orphans and obliterates any sense of identity the children may have had.Filth is something from which workhouse inhabitants are supposed to be protected when they are taken off the streets, but in Oliver’s workhouse, those in power show no concern for the hygiene of the workers (unless of course there is an inspection that may jeopardize their employment). Along with unclean living conditions, the poor living at the workhouse suffer from starvation akin to that which they suffered from on the streets. While people are dying from starvation every day, those receiving the money for the missing food are living well – a distressing irony. Also, the corpulent and self-satisfied members of the board, who are responsible for the condition of the workhouse, preach about the value in the meager diet. This picture is reminiscent of the proprietor of the Lowood School in Jane Eyre, as he often sermonizes about how the girls in the school should have as little as possible in order to keep them from becoming materialistic. The girls, as a result, must make do with inadequate clothing and food, while the wife and daughter of the proprietor dress quite excessively.Another ironic scene depicts the board members discussing what to do with the little boy who asked for more, Oliver Twist. They consider sending him to serve in places where they know he will not survive long. This is ironic because the death to which they consider sending Oliver is exactly the fate from which they are paid to protect him. In general, the workhouse, supposedly a place of freedom, bears a greater resemblance to slavery: the workers are under-clothed, under-fed, forced to perform difficult tasks, and punished if they do not appear happy and grateful. “Don’t make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food and be thankful,’ said Mr. Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity” (Dickens 17).To add insult to injury, Dickens presents the board of the workhouse as a group of men who truly believe, or as least have convinced themselves, that the workhouse is a pleasant place. “It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, teas, and supper all year round; a brick-and-mortar Elysium, where it was all play and no work” (Dickens 9). It is this conclusion that leads the board to decrease the rations allowed within the workhouse, making them personally responsible for each and every case of starvation. This is a clear representation of the upper class’s willful ignorance of the conditions the poor must endure. The reason Dickens offers for the hostility that the upper class display towards the lower class is personified in Noah Claypole, a fellow-apprentice in the employment of the undertaker. The young man abuses Oliver out of insecurity, making himself feel more important as he darkens the line separating himself from those beneath him. Dickens even notes the irony in the fact that Noah’s behavior causes him to exhibit qualities similar to those of noble lords. The statement is, of course, delivered in a sarcastic fashion, but is meant to draw a parallel between the way that Oliver is treated by Noah and the way that the lower class is treated by those better off. Dickens suggests that it is out of insecurity and pride that the wealthy abuse the poor.In a conversation between Mr. Bumble and Ms. Corney, yet another instance of uncompassionate sentiment towards the poor occurs. The couple, in the warm and pleasant environment of Ms. Corney’s home, make light of the fact that her kittens live a better life than the people in the workhouse for which the two are partly responsible. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Corney is offended at a hyperbolic comment Mr. Bumble makes about drowning an ungrateful cat. This conversation represents the clear misplacement of priorities within the middle class, as this couple seems to value the lives of the kittens above the lives of the poor.The worth of the poor, something Mr. Bumble and Ms. Corney clearly dismiss, is an idea that Dickens addresses through some of the poorer characters in the novel. For example, the ‘Artful Dodger,’ as his name suggests, is an intelligent fellow whose intuition has brought him success in the world of petty theft. Through the Artful Dodger, Dickens implies that there are many among the poor who, if given the opportunity, could use their natural gifts to benefit society. This principle is also seen in the comparison between the characters of Rose and Nancy. The two women are examples of Dickens’ belief that a person’s character is more a result of his environment than of his birth. Both Rose and Nancy were penniless orphans, but have grown into two different types of people as a result of their fortune. Rose was taken into the upper class by a compassionate gentlewoman and has become a beautiful, accomplished young woman who will ultimately marry a man of high social status. Nancy, in contrast, has been forced to survive on the streets, turning to prostitution and other illegal activities in order to sustain herself. Though Nancy, like the Dodger, has good qualities to offer, she will never be allowed into society because of her background.Just as Nancy’s life has been perverted by her economic status, so has the blessed institution of marriage been perverted by economics. A comparison between Monks and Oliver, the two half-brothers, serves as a critique of the economically-motivated marriage (as opposed to a union inspired by love). Monks is the product of a marriage for the sake of economic gain, and ultimately becomes a criminal who squanders his ill-gotten fortune. Oliver, in contrast, is the child of two people who, though unmarried and separated by class differences, were passionately in love. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth, Oliver has grown to become morally good and kind: two characteristics he rarely sees before his confrontation with Mr. Brownlow. The two sons provide a clear picture of Dickens’ view of marriage. Mr. Brownlow recalls about the two forced into marriage “the slow torture, the protracted anguish of that ill-assorted union. I know listlessly and wearily each of that wretched pair dragged their heavy chain through a world that was poisoned to them both” (Dickens 315). This scene is also similar to the situation in Jane Eyre between Mr. Rochester and his mad wife Bertha: a marriage contrived for economic gain, ending in misery for all those involved.Though Oliver Twist is first and foremost an exposition of the evils of class struggles and the real-life effects of economics, it nevertheless provides the reader with a small message of hope. Dickens does not propose grand institutional changes, but rather a simple change in attitude. The story ends in happiness for all those who are either rich and stoop to help the poor out of pure compassion, or poor and receive the help of the rich graciously. It seems that Dickens is suggesting that these two actions create, for the surviving characters, a “little society whose condition approached as nearly to one of perfect happiness as can even be known in this changing world” (Dickens 348). If, Dickens suggests, the influential were to take their responsibility to the poor seriously and acted in compassion, then many of the injustices described in the novel would not occur. This simple solution of humility and compassion, as exhibited by the characters at the close of the novel, may seem idealistic, but according to Dickens, it is the only way to save the poor from the suffering they undergo in Oliver Twist.BIBLIOGRAPHYC. Dickens, Oliver Twist (1966)K.C. Frederick, ‘The Cold, Cold Hearth: Domestic Strife in Oliver Twist,’ College English 27 (1966): 465-470
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.
Dickens’ account of identity
While facets of Oliver’s identity are indisputably innate, such as his morality and one dimensional goodness, the majority of his identity and that of those around him are socially constructed and enforced upon them. Oliver’s own face, an attribute completely uninfluenced by society acts as a symbol of his childish purity and innocence. While essentially already labelled as a thief, Oliver’s face is enough to convince Mr Brownlow otherwise. ‘There is something in that face.’ ‘Can he be innocent?’ Dickens’s use of italicized ‘Can’ suggests the strength of the identity constructed and imposed upon the boy within the few hours of knowing him. The idea of this street thief’s innocence is met with significant disbelief from a character who’s used by Dickens’s as the only voice of judgement, reason and wisdom. The juxtaposition between the innocence emanated by something as obvious and unmissable such as Oliver’s face and the flimsy accusations of his guilt by the court expose the absurdity and absolute irrelevance of any socially constructed identities, especially those concocted in the trial scene yet also reveals their strength and prevalence.
Of course, Oliver’s guilt cannot be decided on his face or looks but this line of argument could suggest the way in which utilitarian institutions such as the poorhouse or the court are overlooking or building over personality and identity. In both cases, Oliver’s name was given to him, thereby constructed for him, ‘Oliver Twist’ then ‘Tom White’. As a child and when sick, Oliver was unable to shape his own identity and so it was assumed for him. ‘To name something is to begin to exercise control over it.’ And so not only is Oliver’s identity constructed but it is also enforced by utilitarians around him for example the identity of Oliver Twist given by Mr Bumble of the poor, lowly and insignificant child is maintained through violence and verbal abuse. This begins to touch on one of the issues of the period following the industrial revolution, explained by Southey ‘a system [manufacturing] of actual servitude… which destroys the bodies and degrades the minds of those engaged in it’. This is not a sentiment limited to the manufacturing industry and Southey goes on to refer to the class system as that of the ‘feudal ages’. The identity of Oliver and other’s like him are being crushed for personal profit, a crime also committed by Fagin, or by ignorance in a society flooding with capitalism and utilitarianism. This satisfies Juliet John’s claim that Oliver Twist acts as a ‘riposte to utilitarian philosophy.’ It forms a social critique illuminating the extent to which identities creates by stereotype and by society are stronger than any other even in front of a supposedly ‘legal’ system and the complete disregard for Oliver’s identity as a person, commodified to little more than an object, as seen in his abusive past and sale to the undertaker. This also forms part of Dickens’s social protest against the Poor Law amendment Act of 1834 and the practice of baby farming. This was utilitarian in essence as it became centralized, consistent and avoided raising taxes which would have been unpopular as sensed in Macauley’s review. Upon entrance, it is described as a ‘dirty court’ although this forms part of a description of the appearance of the court it would not be unlikely to suggest that Dickens was also making a remark towards the legality, morality or respectability of the establishment. The setting of the grotesque and dirty building becomes a symbol of unjust repression of true justice and identity and so Dickens’s social commentary also seems to extend to the institution of the legal systems as well as the poor law system. Interestingly, these institutions of care and justice which would supposedly be inherently good have become corrupt, especially juxtaposed against the unmistakeable inherent goodness of Twist.
However, that is not to say Oliver is the worst or only victim of socially constructed identities. Oliver already has far more of an innate identity by having a last name unlike Nancy, even though it was constructed by wider society. Like Oliver, Nancy’s identity is mostly constructed by those around her but she suffers even more so that the identity opposed on her is that of being ‘no one.’ Far from the struggle of whether her identity is innate or socially constructed, her identity is largely ambiguous and to some extent non-existent (like many of Dickens’s female characters.) Nancy is also a symbol of commodification, as a prostitute, she is entirely degraded to an object or tool by those around her. ‘Nobody around here knows anything about you’ Not only does Fagin use Nancy, she is also devoid of any identity or social presence. In a similar fashion to Oliver, her abuse leaves her without identity and in complete subservience to the wills and identities of others. Sykes’ abuse seems to have left her with ‘only one feeling of the woman left.’ It appears the only remainder of her innate identity is her womanhood which is only the most basic fundamental of anyone’s identity. She does however possess a strong constructed identity, constructed by her abuse, and that is of love and loyalty for Sykes. ‘If I knew I was to die by his hand at last.’ She completely conforms to her constructed identity, by Sykes and by society’s view of prostitution, as an object to fulfill any will of a man. In fact, women as a whole in Oliver Twist seem to possess very little identity whatsoever. Miss Rose Maylie’s identity also seems to be entirely socially constructed as unlike Nancy she adheres entirely to patriarchal conventions, that of the feminine, delicate and motherly figure. Her innate identity seems to match the socially constructed ideal of identity which poses the question, does she have any innate identity at all? Her personality and identity seems entirely socially constructed, even the ending gives her the socially constructed identity of the young and happily married woman. This is argued as the influence of the death of Dickens’s sister, who’s devastating loss led Dickens to create a range of idealized, young women. Therefore her identity is further limited as it was hardly even Dickens’s intention to give her any sort of identity, her role is only that of an archetype and idealized stereotype.
On the contrary, characters with more agency such as Fagin and the Artful Dodger have identities that seem to be more innate. Dickens’s Oliver Twist with its anti Semitic resonances seem to imply that the socially constructed identity of the Jew, that of the miserly criminal, is the identity that is innate in Fagin. Unlike Maylie, who under patriarchal circumstances is more likely to have adapted her innate personality to match that which society expects of her, Dickens seems to imply that certain social views of Jews were correct and naturally inherent to Jews. Dickens confirmed this anti Semitic sentiment saying ‘that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.’ Dickens’s also taps into traditional grotesque imagery of Jews as the antichrist or killers of young innocent children with the objects of the jewels and the bread knife which serve as symbols of criminality and danger. ‘Oliver could see that the knife quivered in the air.’ The verb quivered not only gives the knife a sense of movement and tension which suggests danger but also mirrors the vulnerability and fear of young Oliver. Dickens really does elevate Fagin’s identity to that of the worst constructed ideas about Jewry doing the Victorian era. The Artful Dodger, throughout the courtroom scene, fails to conform to the identity constructed and labelled upon him by the judge. Instead, his identity, although essentially a lie, is defined by his innate wit and humor. He does not succumb to the stereotype imposed on him at all. His repetitive questioning and exclamatory sentences create a sense of confidence in his identity and pride even when it is at its most threatened. ‘I’m an Englishman ain’t I?’ ‘Where are my priwileges?’ He is entirely certain of his identity, even though it may be false “‘spectable circle of acquaintance”. His pattern of speech, starkly contrasted against the formal language of court ‘A pick-pocketing case, your worship.’ is a reminder of his innate class identity. Whereas Oliver switches easily between his middle class and criminal life through the changing of his clothes, the Dodger is a completely consistent character which does not change regardless of which circle of society he resides in. Perhaps, however, his inevitable being found guilty symbolizes an inability to stay true to your own innate identity and that perhaps the identity constructed by wider society will always win and takeover in the end. It is likely the judge had made up his mind about the Dodger’s guilt before even considering the case at hand.
To conclude, the extent to which characters’ identities are socially constructed seems very dependent on Dickens’s own personal views. Oliver’s own limited identity filled with feelings of alienation and sadness seem to stem from Dickens’s years in the blacking factory, both Oliver and Dickens never really accepted their unfortunate beginning in life and struggled with forming their own innate identity. While Oliver’s identity was mostly constructed, his innate goodness and morality is so prevalent it overshadows and overcomes all identities forced upon him. ‘The boy had firmly resolved that whether he died or not, he would make one effort to to dart upstairs from the hall’ in order to warn the people Sykes would have him rob. This decision was made in ‘short time’ reminding us that Oliver’s innate and natural response is always goodness even if it risks his life. Moreover his firm resolve shows a remarkable strength of character despite his hardships and determination in the face of possible death. Therefore, Oliver’s overarching identity, although his class, job, home or parentage may change is entirely innate.
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Vanden Bossche, C. (1991). Carlyle and the search for authority. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.