Oliver Twist and the Dark Side of British History Progress can be compared to a coin. On one side of the coin is wealth, and on the other side of the same coin are poverty, despair, misery, and crime. As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains: The Victorians were avowedly, unashamed, incorrigibly moralists. They...
engaged in philanthropic enterprises in part to satisfy their own moral needs. And they were moralists in behalf of the poor, whom they sought not only to assist materially but also to elevate morally, spiritually, culturally, and intellectually (Himmelfarb 48). In the novel Oliver Twist Charles Dickens allegorizes evil in contrast to good through characterization and melodrama. As Greg Stoddard summed up, Most of the moral judgements of the reader are pre-made for him or her. As a result, the reader objectively absorbs the moral lessons Dickens has set forth (Stoddard 5).
In his novel Oliver Twist- Charles Dickens uses characterization and social satire as a means of revealing a dark era of British history. Gregory Stoddard writes, In Oliver Twist, there is a clear, defined system of criticism and rhetoric marked by sarcasm, and the language judgement (Stoddard 1). The first words of Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist are an example. In this chapter Dickens describes the situation in which the innocent Oliver finds himself. He chooses his words carefully as he conveys his moralist judgements to his reader: For the next eight months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand.
The hungry and destitute station of the infant orphan was duly reported the parish authorities resolved, that Oliver should be farmed where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor laws rolled about the floor without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing... (Dickens 4). Dickens chooses th words treachery and deception to state his moral judgement on the evil of society. Victim implies that there is a source that victimizes others. This is further strengthened by his use of the word systematic, which implies that the evil committed is intentional (Stoddard 2). Although the overall message is clear, coming on the heels of the Poor Law of 1834 as this book did, the characters Dickens creates for the purpose of making his social commentary range from one-dimensional to multidimensional.
All, however, bear the common thread of being larger than life. He uses them as a means of presenting the other side of wealth the dark, evil side. To this end, Oliver operates as a catalyst rather than a hero. His lack of hero status allows the reader to follow him into the underworld without ever being a participant in it, just as Oliver never desired to be a participant in it (Blount 16-17).
The reader follows him through Dickens' moral judgements because to actually participant in that world would be too disgusting. The novel can, therefore, be moralized from a distance along with Dickens, even though the reader observes the most gruesome of killings and terrible circumstances of his or her life. Although he is both innocent and a thief, Oliver does not grow in his role; he merely becomes wealthy in the end. For this reason, the evil actors, Fagin, Nancy, and Sikes are those characters that Dickens makes multidimensional.
The victims of wealth are the innocent, and they are also the victims of the more romantic criminals and prostitutes the other side of the coin. Dickens uses all of these characters to attack both systems, the upper and lower world. This is generally, but not always, performed within the confines of darkness. Darkness resides in the workhouses, in the underworld, in officers such as the fat man Bumble, and in the legal system. Through the range of characters and their various personalities, Dickens can address the world of greed and generosity, kindness and cruelty, and innocence and vice (Romano 140). Not only are many of the acts of the multidimensional actors evil and ugly, the characters themselves are evil and ugly in appearance.
This is particularly true of Fagin, Sikes, and Monks (Daleski 76). At the same time, the novels good characters, Oliver, Rose, and Mr. Brownlow are attractive. Characters who play both roles of good and evil, such as Nancy, are described depending on their role at any given moment.
The same is true for other characters whose looks and character are not distinct. As symbols of evil, Fagin, Sikes, and Mr. Bumble are believable, while the number of situations in which Oliver finds himself are often beyond belief. Fagin wrongs without being wronged, and as such can be classified as evil (Stoddard 3).
On the other hand, Fagin is also comical and at the end of the tale somewhat sympathetic. For example, Fagin is the one who provides Oliver with a home. Fagins home is not only the source of evil, but also the source of warmth. Fagin is the entertainer and the thief, as well as the comic and kidnapper.
According to Ivan Melada, Dickens intent for Fagin is to raise him to the archetypal level of an aging Lucifer, an incomprehensible bogey-man (Melada 218). Even as he represents the underworld and all the ugliness that it embodies, Fagin is the character who makes the offer of wealth. He is Charles Dickens symbol of the British Empire. Peter Faulkner notes, Charley Bates is constantly remarking on the making enough money to retire on your property, and do the genteel; as I mean to do, in the very next leap-year but four that ever comes, and the forty second Tuesday in Trinity week (Faulkner 111). He continues to point out that Bates means that a fortune and retirement could never be achieved by working hard for Fagin, for such a date will never come there can be no forty-second Tuesday in Trinity Week (Faulkner 111).
Therefore, Fagin is only a promise. The reality is much different than the promise. The self-deception of Charley and the Artful Dodger about their work for Fagin is Dickens comment on the tragedy of the wealth during this era (Faulkner 111). Just as many rise to the top, many others sink and are crushed in the dirt. It represents the price of wealth for the under classes, and the inability of the upper classes to realize the problems they have caused. Similar symbolism is found in the conviction and lonely death of Fagin.
Here the reader is reminded that the wealthy are only a trial away from ending up in the dirt themselves, and in fact are already dirty with guilt. Therefore, Fagin represents the unfeeling system that dances and jokes around the misery of others. He also represents the underworld itself. This is the opposite of power and the home of the underworld. Dickens treats Nancy as the tragic victim of the cruelty the social system has created. Although she lives in a world where she receives no love, she is still able to have compassion and courage.
There are several scenes in which Nancy is characterized in these two dimensions. One of these is in Chapter 20, in which Nancy explains to Oliver why she has come to take him back to Sikes. She shows him the bruises on her arms and neck, and tells him that every word from him is a blow for me (Dickens 148). She points out that if others had fetched him, they would not have been so kind (Dickens 147). Even as she carries out her heinous assignments, they are committed out of love for Sikes, and it is her compassion for Oliver that brings about her downfall, which is foreshadowed in this passage. In his review of Oliver Twist, Richard J.
Dunn quotes Dickens observation that the countenances of the dead subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping infancy (Melada 218). This picture of the death of innocence in the face of cruelty is the subject of Dickens use of Nancy face, according to Dunn. He writes that it is precisely because Sikes murders Nancy by brutally bashing in her face, disfiguring her so badly, that this murder is so horrible (Melada 218). Bill Sikes is intrinsically evil, but the readers do not have to discover this for themselves. One automatically hates Sikes, we are told that he is a bad man (Stoddard 4). Sikes is not like the unfeeling system represented by Fagin.
He is a character of passion set up to destroy all that home represents, home being Great Britain (Melada 218). It is through the passion of Bill, that Dickens makes his point about the helplessness of trying to bring sanity to the definition of this class. In this dimension, he is a representative of the system and its passion for money at the expense of others. Sikes has a goal much like that of Fagin, but he will go to any means to reach it. But the other dimension of Sikes is that of a home wrecker. Dickens means to show, through Sikes, that the passion of the underworld could be rolled up into one person.
This person must act and do so violently against the home of Great Britain (Melada 218). Sikes is furious and murderous against all that should represent home, because in this class, there is not such place as home. As Sikes takes Oliver to the house where he is shot, the reader sees that he is completely unfeeling. Oliver is only a means to an end, and that end is wealth. In the wake of that desire, any violent harm that comes to Oliver or to anyone is simply a matter of business and the unfeeling character of true greed. This moral judgement is supported when Bill kills Nancy.
She is the angelic, trusting wife with the upturned face, but when that last ounce of innocence in his life is killed, she is a ghastly figure to look upon (Dickens 362). He cannot kill Oliver. He cannot kill whatever it is that is jeopardizing his ability to accumulate wealth, so he kills the messenger that is standing in his way. This is the same messenger that loves him and has compassion for Oliver. Through such descriptions, one sees the inhumanity society has created in Bill Sikes. This dimension of character is also revealed in the actions of the characters as well.
Critic Arnold Kettle wrote: When [Oliver] walks up to the master of the workhouse and asks for more gruel, issues are at stakes which make the whole world of Jane Austen tremble. We care, we are involved, not because it is Oliver and we are close to Oliver (though that of course enters into it), but because every starved orphan in the world, and indeed everyone who is poor and oppressed and hungry is involved (Morton 3). Like other philanthropists, it was Dickens intention to profile the meaner side of a society. This side of society has become so wealthy and removed from the poor that it has lost all recognition of them. In the novel Oliver Twist Charles Dickens makes his characters larger than life so that those they characterized would be noticed and remembered. Works Cited Blount, Trevor.
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The Review of English Studies, Vol 46, 1995. Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Age of Philanthropy. The Wilson Quarterly, Vol 21 No 2, 1995.
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Oliver Twist: Whole Heart and Sole. Studies in the Novel, 1995, Vol 27. Online. America Online. 19 Jan. 1998.
Morton. Dickens, Oliver Twist. Online. America Online. 19 Aug. 1997.
Romano, John. Dickens and Reality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Stoddard, Greg.
Dickens and Victorian Culture. 2 Feb. 1996. Online.
America Online. 15 Jan. 1998.