Preoccupations and Techniques
Oliver Twist is Dickens' second novel and perhaps the most widely read work he ever produced. Every page demonstrates the exuberance and fecundity of the young genius's vision, and it is written with almost unwavering conviction. In the preface to the 1841 edition he felt it necessary to reject violently any imputation of melodrama in the book's more far-fetched sections ('IT IS TRUE. Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life, must know it to be so... ' etc.), and there is no reason to suspect that in the fever of creation he did not passionately believe this. However, we cherish it more for its comedy and engrossing plot than for the insight it affords us into the realities of the early Victorian underworld. Dickens' habitual exaggeration renders the book both breathtakingly inventive and entertaining, and wholly unbelievable. The twin senses of comedy and injustice that pervade Dickens' work are clearly demonstrated in Oliver Twist, often at odds with one another. Much of its best writing is comic, and Dickens' inability to temper this impulse whilst attempting to create serious effects accidentally renders certain passages either very funny or grossly unrealistic - and often both. Oliver Twist's plot is very contrived, the psychology is largely unconvincing, and a cloying sentimentality pervades it - yet it is immortal. This elusive quality devolves from its sheer energy and variety. Along with The Old Curiosity Shop (1840- 1) it is the most fairy-tale like of Dickens' works, and its restless, self-contradictory morals and plot make it both disturbing and irresistibly entertaining.
A blameless infant is set at odds with 'this world of sorrow and trouble', a world of seemingly all-pervasive evil, and, following a series of impossibly brutal encounters with criminals, is finally united with the forces for good, thereby proving that 'a lesson of the purest good may be drawn from the vilest evil'. This is Dickens' stated intention, but somewhere along the way his intentions are corrupted, even if Oliver is not. For, as has often been pointed out, Dickens is more at home describing the bad than the good. Put bluntly, he believes more in the ebullient, energetic criminals (Fagin, Sikes, the Dodger et al) than in the cloying, sanctimonious Brownlow-Maylie axis, for all of his unequivocal remarks to the contrary. Thus the cursing, scheming former come to life much more readily and entertainingly than the leaden sermonising of the latter.
There is a firmly fixed moral scale in Oliver Twist at either end of which the characters exist - movement between these poles is almost impossible (Nancy is rewarded for her vacillation with violent death). At Oliver's end the characters are vaguely described; it is enough that they are 'good'. Oliver himself is a shining beacon of pure goodness, to the extent that we feel that his role is only really symbolic. Despite the appalling degradation and deprivation of his upbringing he is consistently polite and well spoken, unlike the other children of the novel, who are not born with the invincible moral shield protecting him. If Oliver Twist was a bildungsroman in which a coarse, mannerless Cockney tyke slowly comes to appreciate and thus rebel against the injustice of his lot, the novel could pretend to the realism that Dickens so vehemently claimed for it. Time and again, however, we are faced with a sickly-sweet cipher who skips about picking flowers and exchanging syrupy pleasantries with his assorted benefactors, barely affected by the fluctuations in his fortunes. He is ethereal, only really demonstrating a convincing physicality when defending his mother's good name against Noah. His moral perfection is greatly at odds with his experience of life. It is not only Oliver who lacks substance in his camp. Dickens tells us that 'earth seemed not [Rose's] element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions'. Mrs. Maylie is 'upright', 'stately', and 'dressed with the utmost nicety and precision' - but not properly imaginable. Brownlow is merely 'a very respectable-looking personage', and so on.
By contrast the criminals are vividly rendered in terms that leave the reader in absolutely no doubt as to their appearance, manner of speech or quirks. They fascinate Dickens in a way that their nemeses do not. Urbane, jokey and ebullient, the boys that surround Fagin have a sense of life about them that is almost entirely absent from Oliver. Their speech is rendered phonetically and littered with slang to emphasise the inexplicable (but plainly extant) gulf between them and our hero. 'Hullo, my covey! What's the row?' enquires the Dodger upon first meeting Oliver. 'Plummy and slam!' is the password to Fagin's den, and before entering they are obliged to 'jerk the tinkler'. Instead of polishing their shoes they 'Japan their trotter-cases', and so on. Everything about Fagin's boys is odd in a way that the workhouse children are not. They wear outsized clothes (mirroring their premature entry into the grown-up world), have 'extensive pockets' and whistle with 'peculiar shrillness'. When Oliver first meets them they are 'smoking
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