Thursday, August 5, 2010

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Dickens's most popularly adapted novel Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy's Progress was first published serially in the weekly periodical Bentley's Miscellany (where Dickens was editor at the time) from February of 1837 to April of 1839. Each installment was accompanied by an illustration by George Cruikshank. The 3-volume book form of Oliver Twist was published in early 1839, and in 1846, Dickens issued a substantially revised version first as ten monthly parts and then as a single volume.

Interestingly, the work was not initially intended as a full fledged serialized novel but as part of Dickens's Mudfog Papers, which were a series of sketches based on a fictional town called Mudfog and the learned society satirically called "The Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything." In the first installment of Oliver Twist in Bentley's, Dickens specifically situates Oliver in Mudfog, but these references are removed from the later volume publications.

At the time of Oliver Twist's publication, Dickens was enjoying the early successes of Sketches followed by his Pickwick Papers. 

An unnamed biographer (who later sounds more and more like an omniscient third-person narrator) begins the chronicle of Oliver Twist with his poor mother's death during his birth in a workhouse. At the age of nine, Mr. Bumble, the officious parish beadle, offers up Oliver "To Let" (in the words of the narrator) after Oliver famously asks for more gruel. Oliver escapes the fate of being apprenticed to a chimney sweep, but instead is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker. At the Sowerberry's, Oliver gets into a fight with another apprentice, Noah Claypole, when Noah makes disparaging remarks about his workhouse birth and Oliver's mother. A hullabaloo ensues, and Oliver runs away to London.

In London, Oliver is swept up into Fagin's den, after meeting with Jack Dawkins (otherwise known as the Artful Dodger). Oliver at first enjoys the food and comforts that Fagin offers his boys, but is so innocent and naive as to not recognize that the play which Fagin engages the boys in constitutes practice for pickpocketing. Oliver finally realizes this when he is sent out with the Artful Dodger and another boy Charley Bates and witnesses them stealing a handkerchief from one Mr. Brownlow. Oliver runs off, and is mistaken for being the thief. Oliver is caught but Mr. Brownlow chooses not to press charges, and nurses him back to health at his home. At Mr. Brownlow's home, Oliver enjoys the comforts of being taken care of by the old Mrs. Bedwin. At Brownlow's, Oliver first sees a portrait which we later find out to be of his mother, Agnes.

While on an errand for Mr. Brownlow (Oliver is charged to bring back some books that Mr. Brownlow had not yet paid for, and to pay for them), Oliver is recaptured by Nancy, who publicly pretends that he is a runaway and she is his sister and brings him back to Fagin's den. Oliver feels much distress over what Brownlow must think of him.

Oliver is then designated to help Bill Sikes, one of the gang and intimately involved with Nancy, in a burglary. The heist is bungled, Oliver is shot by a servant of the house, yet manages to be taken up by the inhabitants, including Mrs. Maylie, her adopted niece Rose. While Oliver spends a bucolic period of rest with them, Monks, Oliver's half brother, obtains via Mr. Bumble's wife a gold locket which belonged to Oliver's mother and destroys it. Nancy meanwhile overhears Fagin and Monks plotting against Oliver, and decides to secretly tell Rose and Mr. Brownlow. In order to leave the house at the appointed hour of night to meet with them, Nancy has had to drug Sikes with laudanum. Unfortunately, Fagin, suspecting Nancy, has sent Noah Claypole, who fortuitously reappears in the narrative at this time, to spy on Nancy. Fagin tells on Nancy, and Sikes brutally murders Nancy.

Mr, Brownlow offers rewards for the apprehension of Sikes, and a mob finally catches up with him. In another brutal scene, Sikes accidentally hangs himself from a roof while trying to escape the mob, and his dog mysteriously jumps after him and dashes his brains out on the rocks. In the final part of the novel, Mr. Brownlow manages to get Monks to admit his designs against Oliver, and Brownlow himself reveals that he is the long time friend of Oliver's father, Leeford, who was in an unhappy marriage to Monks's mother, and who fell in love with Agnes, Oliver's mother. Monks has been depriving Oliver of their shared inheritance. Additionally, Rose turns out to be Agnes's younger sister, and Oliver's aunt. Fagin is executed, and the novel ends happily with Oliver's adoption by Brownlow and Rose's marriage to Harry Maylie, Mrs. Maylie's son.

The 1846 version begins, rather heavily: "Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter."

For many critics, Oliver Twist's form is problematic. Characters seem more "types" than individuals, and the resilient "goodness" in Oliver and his triumph seems to place Oliver Twist into a more allegorical tradition. Steven Marcus argues, for example, that the "generic imagination" of the story, of which the erasure of specific place names is a symptom, results in homiletic qualities that connect to Christian allegorical works like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The alternate title, The Parish Boy's Progress might support such an argument.

Of course, the typicality of the characters does not mean that the novel is apolitical. While no specifically partisan politics might be seen from the text, the New Poor Law (1834), and of course, the new bastardy clause which made single mothers solely responsible for "illegitimate" children, directly haunts the novel.  No doubt Oliver Twist is a critique of this new reform and the attitudes of officials such as Mr. Bumble towards the poor as degenerate, evil, and responsible for their own destitution.

It seems to me that Oliver Twist's problematic mix of type/generality and individuality/specificity makes sense in the context of Dickens's active engagement in the social sphere yet desire to distance himself from political rhetorics of reform which seemed to him empty of the proper sentiments and affects necessary for true reform of individual hearts and minds. In the chapter after Oliver's recapture, the narrator breaks into an extended metacritical commentary, memorably describing a good drama as streaky bacon, whose streaks indicate the alternation of tragic and comic scenes. The passage continues:

"Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers on; which makes a vast difference...As sudden shiftings of the scene, and rapid changes of time and place, are not only sanctioned in books by long usage, but are by many considered as the great art of authorship: an author's skill in his craft being, by such critics, chiefly estimated with relation to the dilemmas in which he leaves his characters at the end of every chapter: this brief introduction to the present one may perhaps be deemed unnecessary."

As in Sketches by Boz, the narrator notes the theater of "everyday life," and draws a deep connection between fiction and the real lives of his readers. When watching a drama or reading fiction, readers may be "passive lookers on" but as spectators, are startled and engaged. In life, the narrator seems to suggest that they are too busy acting, but that it may be worthwhile to try to notice, as well, how startling the things that are going on around them might be. This seems key to countering the indifference and clinical detachment of "reformers" like Mr. Bumble or his staff. I argue that the "typicality" of Oliver and the other characters encourages a connection between this "generic" imagining and real life, while the specificity of the story and its social contexts engages and startles. Both seem necessary for Dickens's affective vision for reform.

1 comment:

Brenden said...

You know, I once played the Artful Dodger in a play. I was only 11, but I'm pretty sure I was aware of the intimacies of the work you as you describe them here. Especially the context of the 1834 Poor Law. :-)

Thanks Amy!