Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist

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“Please sir, I want some more”

Oliver Twist was Dickens’ second novel, and my first. My grandmother read it to me and my sister when we were young. We loved the part when meek little orphan Oliver, born out of wedlock in a workhouse, asks the proprietor in vain for a refill of his bowl of gruel. We loved the Artful Dodger and his band of pickpockets, who try to teach Oliver to steal for a living. Also, we loved the musical, Oliver!, with its boy soprano and jaunty exclamation point. We used to listen to the soundtrack on car trips.

I know exactly why Oliver appealed to us; what kid doesn’t fantasize about being liberated of parents? But why were Victorian writers so into orphans? Oliver set the trend (the novel was eight chapters into its serial run when Victoria was crowned queen, in June of 1837),  and then there’s Jane Eyre and Heathcliff and Daniel Deronda and Dickens’ own Pip and Estella, in Great Expectations, to name just a few. Dickens was always sympathetic to children, and one of his big contributions to the English novel was the prominence he gave to child characters and the child’s experience. But the orphan in particular gives a novelist a heap of handy plot opportunities. Orphans have dual identities: they’re completely free of genealogical handicaps but also completely vulnerable to social pressures. Oliver could be related to anyone, but until we find out who “anyone” is, he’s stuck as a ward of the state. His story becomes a test case for personal and social mobility; the novel’s goal is to construct Oliver’s family, and as his relationships are pieced together he is able — much more speedily than the average mid-19th-century Englishman — to move up in the world.

(MORE: Why Should We Read Charles Dickens?)

The novel’s other goal is to critique the Poor Law of 1834, which decreed that impoverished families would be split up — men, women and children separated — and sent to workhouses. Splitting up families was not in Dickens’ creed, at least, not until late in life when he ditched his wife for a young actress. The whole impetus of his imagination was the creation of fictional families, through marriage or, in Oliver’s case, through the miraculous identification of a well-to-do relation. To tear them asunder was inherently wicked, and the proprietors of the state-sponsored workhouse are as evil in Dickens’ mind as the lowlife London criminals who take over Oliver’s upbringing from them.

In the preface to the novel’s third edition, in 1841, Dickens writes that he “wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” It’s a nice idea, but that’s exactly why little Oliver is so dull. (He’s also kind of a crybaby. I mean, I know he lost his mother, but he could take a few lessons from the Artful Dodger on toughening up.) The novel’s best side is its dark side, and Dickens knew it. Later in his career, he became famous for his performance of the novel’s incredibly brutal climactic scene of domestic violence, between the burglar Bill Sikes and his prostitute girlfriend Nancy, who fight over Oliver’s fate. Sikes beats her to death with a pistol, then, while attempting to escape the scene of the crime, falls off a building with a rope around his neck and hangs himself. The coup de grace is Sikes’ dog, which jumps to its dangling master, or tries to, anyway:

Missing his aim, he fell into the ditch, turning completely over as he went; and striking his head against a stone, dashed out his brains.

It’s hard-core relationship carnage when not even the dog survives. And for all the attention given to the nineteenth-century marriage plot, in which perfect Elizabeth and Darcy-type couples find each other, the novels of Dickens (and Trollope and Eliot and Gissing) are full of doomed, disastrous unions. Bill and Nancy may be the best of the worst. We’ll keep an eye out for the competition.

The other disturbing thing about Oliver Twist is Dickens’ treatment of the pickpocket crew’s professor emeritus. His name is Fagin, but in early editions of the novel he’s referred to derisively as the Jew. Routine anti-Semitism was reflective of an era when, as the scholar Harry Stone wrote in an article in Victorian Studies, “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.” Most of the Jews in England worked as peddlers or moneylenders; they were widely looked down upon if not despised. But as the years passed, Dickens’ attitudes evolved, and he eventually created a sympathetic Jewish character — Riah in Our Mutual Friend — in part to make up for his caricaturing of Fagin as an unscrupulous, avaricious corrupter of innocence. He also made some key fixes in the Chapman and Hall edition of his works that came out in the late 1860s, a few years before his death. “He went through Oliver Twist and eliminated the bulk of the references to Fagin as ‘the Jew,’” Stone writes, “canceling the term entirely, or replacing it with ‘he,’ or with ‘Fagin.’” Dickens couldn’t rewrite the character, but he could at least stop linking his Jewishness to his crimes.

Is Oliver Twist a successful novel? The young Queen Victoria called it “excessively interesting.” For me it’s too polemical, and too reliant on coincidence. But it makes the list because it’s got Oliver, that icon of quintessential Victorian orphanhood, whose “Please sir, I want some more” is a quick, quotable window into the problems of the Victorian welfare state. It has the Artful Dodger, one of the most charismatic little hoodlums in literature and certainly the best named. It has those delectably dark scenes from the underworld, especially the Sikes and Nancy denouement, which is as harsh and cruel as Oliver is pure and innocent, and which shows the narrative potential of Dickens’ demonic energy. And it has a very tidy settling of accounts in the final chapter, which directs our attention to what will become recurring fates in the Dickens world:

Marriages: 1
Emigrations to the New World: 1
Adoptions: 1
Executions: 1

There’s a moral and financial calculus at the end of most Victorian novels: who marries, who inherits, where does the money go? Dickens isn’t subtle about it here; he basically presents them as a laundry list. But it’s only his second novel. He still has a lot to learn.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ ninth best novel — Dombey and Son.

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