I know, I know, leading off the non-list page with conspicuous
non-science fiction or fantasy citations is bewildering. But it
is remindful that we should all read past the fences of any genre,
taste, or popularity.
So . . .
In the autumn of 2008, the dropping leaves were black. Turns
out they were the ashes from the financial portfolios of victimized
Americans. To note the times, I decided to try a classic of past
literature from a similar, depressive era. I could have picked
Sinclair's The Jungle, I guess, or even Gissing's In
the Year of Jubilee, but I wanted a surefire crowbar to buckle
the political and economic veneers of blame and break into the
ichor flowing from the heart of things.
Who better than Dickens?
And what better novel out of his dozen or so than the second
one, the one he draws the heaviest from his self-regarded Festival
of Shame through inner-city Poverty?
We all know the story from High School English classes.
In fact, now I finally understand why they made us read these “classics” instead
of what we wanted to read, which were The Catcher in the Rye, On
The Road, or, at the very least, The Carpetbaggers and Valley
of the Dolls. No, our wise teachers knew the impression of
great writing would hold fast against an oncoming lifetime of hackneyed
plots, blatant borrowings, candied sensationalism, and dissipation
like styrofoam packing pellets of 99% of what we read today. Do
you really think the child laborers and orphans of London's mid-19th
century Industrialism were dancing and happily blathering in the
streets as portrayed in Oliver!, the 1968 play-adapted
movie that was honored with 5 Oscars?
It is superfluous to modernize Dickens, but the gross attitudinal
change is certainly noteworthy. The doltish defeatism that any
overbearing bureaucracy brings to the institutions it serves is
seen in Oliver's early days at the parish orphanage and workhouse,
and later, in the Magistrate's court of Law. But Dickens explicitly
points to Us not It when he reveals the petty tyrants in these
stations of power. Mr. Fang, that indignant dispenser of district
justice, is universally insulting and contemptuous of anyone, indicating
not a corruption of the bureaucratic system, as much as mere misuse
for his own inflated self interest. Similarly, Mr. Bumble, the
parochial officer in charge of making Oliver's childhood miserable,
stingy, and conforming, is nothing more than a blustering weasel
and pig-eyed bully. The system affords him a spine, which he obviously
lacks outside of the system, as seen in the non-stop, brow-beating
he receives from his ill-chosen, domineering harridan of a newlywed,
the former Mrs. Corney. Dickens is not in judgment of the bureaucracies
so much as that it entices the lower deadly sins such as greed,
pride, and sloth to flourish.
Crime is crime; whether it be Dickens' 19th century London,
or The Wire 's 21st century Baltimore, Maryland.
The stark difference is that there is no insightful but
blanketing theories of Sociology and Psychology to define,
compile, and catagorize, thereby objectifying and defusing
these outrages. The pre-20th century citizenry sees
malfeasance more as isolated incidents of individual
transgression rather than with the modern resignation
that murders as disturbing as Sikes' butchery of Nancy
are common occurrences. Instead of 2 paragraphs in section
B, page 10, of the current newspaper, Dickens' villains
warrant angry mobs to catch them and cheering audiences
at their hanging. The carnage sweeping up the criminal
perps, the hangers-on, the unaware but bombastically
defensive, the used and innocent as well as the situational
opportunists alike, however, remains fastidiously, if
not ill-managed and ironically misdirected, in place.
Dickens is a satirist, but not so much a cynic as to
debase the human spirit with the unabated and thus hopelessly
disparaging criminality souring the modern sensibility.
But it is somewhat disconcerting to discover Fagin's overwhelming
characterization and Oliver's diminutive lack thereof. Fagin is
the undisputed villain, but his counter-part, Oliver, is more a
victim than a hero. The old Jew's vile carriage—both physical and
mental—is almost palatable on the page, stressing the inhuman “like
some hideous phantom, moist from the grave, and worried by an evil
spirit” (Folio Society, 1984 edition, p.326). He is one of the
most unctuously scheming wretches in English literature and would
only need the addition of a hockey mask to uncrown Hannibal
Lecktor in present-day's Hall of Horrors. And, as Hannibal's domain
is the padded cell, Fagin's
world of the seedy-slum sewers of London's back alleys and abandonments
perfectly reflect the inner, blackened soul—and its outfacing settlement
for moral malaise and heinous crimes.
On the other side, Oliver's appropriate landscape is outside
London in the suburban estates bordering peaceful Nature, where
this “gentle, attached, affectionate creature” (p.221) recuperates
in the surroundings of “the purest and most amiable generosity” (p.220).
He moves through the book like a vessel for hope, truth, and goodness
with a capital G. Being essentially one-dimensional, he does not
act courageously, willfully, intelligently, or decisively. The
best-remembered, “Please, sir. I want some more” (p.12) scene,
where Oliver presumably defies his superiors' abuse from starvation,
is not so much inner strength and fortitude as merely the bad luck
of drawing the short straw. Okay, he's only ten years old, but
does he have to always be constantly crying? But these things happen
to him; people treat or mistreat him; events are beyond his control.
Making a case that he's a realistic, lead character is only hindered
by ending his story in the golden light of coincidental rewards
and social and financial redemption. It's so un-American that he
has nothing to do with his own success other than suffer for it.
Oliver Twist is not exactly John Galt, is he?
But what he is, is a reminder—especially in these festeringly
overpopulated and seemingly immoral times—to the
men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and
cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the
somber colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes
and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer