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  • TITLE: Oliver Twist
  • AUTHOR: Charles Dickens
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1838
  • AWARDS:
  • WEBSITE: http://www.victorianweb.org/
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    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 vision.

    — (p.234)

     

    © copyright 10/23/2008 by Larry Crawford

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