Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Dickens Project: Oliver Twist


Chapter the first: Wherein our hero attempts by divers means to make his way precariously through the collected fiction of Mr. Charles Dickens, if so God should will it. 


True confession – I am only marginally acquainted with the work of Dickens. In high school, I read  - let’s say more accurately scanned – “Great Expectations” and, though I know the plot and have had many occasions to enjoy the story through the movies, I can’t say I appreciated it fully at the age of 17. I have read “A Christmas Carol” several times over the years, and have written about it previously here. But the bulk of Dickens is unknown to me, which is why this year my project is to read as much of his work as I can. If I’m successful, you can follow my progress here. 

Like most people, I came to “Oliver Twist” with the kind of basic knowledge that happens through cultural osmosis for anyone who has seen movies or had any passing interest in literature. I knew that Oliver Twist was a poor boy, and that he lifted his bowl in a workhouse, pleading for more food. I knew he eventually fell in with a fanciful, roguish boy named the Artful Dodger and that he would eventually find his way into the orbit of a Jewish criminal named Fagin. Beyond that, I was fuzzy on the details. 


Perhaps the first surprise in navigating the novel was in learning how little Oliver Twist has to do in the novel that bears his name. Dickens moves the boy around like a precious chess piece, occasionally allowing him to speak heartbreaking words that will either provoke his criminal tormentors into retribution or prick the consciences of those who eventually help him. There are long passages of the novel where Oliver is absent and only briefly mentioned. He serves more as a symbol for the possibility of good in the midst of thriving, busy evil. 

One thing that was totally expected was the occasionally sentimentality of voice. Dickens is a 19th century entertainer spinning out his message of dignity and responsibility in society, but he feels the need – as did his contemporaries – to tug at the heartstrings. (There is much here to remind a reader of Oliver’s American twins, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.) Because this is only Dickens’ second novel, we feel the strength of a young man when the tugs come. Oliver and the hapless Nancy speak with a voice that is meant to spur the reader into some kind of action:

“Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,” cried the girl, “that you had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, and that you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness, and – and- something worse than all – as I have been from my cradle.”

But Dickens’ conscience-poking scenes are also leavened with his comedy. Dickens’ voice is at times gentle, but also sarcastic, caustic, and boiling over with ridicule when necessary for his ends. He is a master of dialect and, by simply modifying one character to speak through his nose, he renders him unforgettable. His tone is occasionally playful with characters who are his favorites, like the Dodger. (it’s a tossup whether the modern reader will be more put off by his continually referring to Fagin as “the Jew” or his referring to the Dodger’s associate as “Master Bates.”) He gives us low men and low places, but doesn’t forget to let us enjoy a little skullduggery, as with this dialogue between Fagin and his stooge Claypole:

“Every man’s his own friend, my dear,” replied Fagin, with his most insinuating grin. “He hasn’t as good a one as himself anywhere…Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven. It’s neither, my friend, neither. It’s number one.” 

The novel succeeds, as I expected, when it reanimates for us the dead stones of old London – “that great, large place!” Dickens had already rendered the city in detail in his “Sketches by Boz,” a few of which I’ve read. What Dickens gives us in heaping doses in “Oliver Twist” is a picture of a decrepit, dirty, ruined city within a city. The London of Fagin, Sykes, the Dodger, “flash” Toby Crackit, Charley Bates and the gang is one of filth and decay, with ruined, abandoned buildings and broken windows, where the most cultured civilization of the most powerful nation of his time has fled the scene, taking its money and its ever-present Christianity with it. The indifference of the workhouse and the church are an indictment of the paucity of the society’s notions of charity. In the absence of care has grown up crime, learned through the indifference of the masses to the welfare of its lowest levels. In darkened corners of public houses, we see the true nature of how such neglect can twist the soul, as Nancy reminds us later, in actions extending from birth. 


Dickens uses this scene to its full effect in prosecutorial mode, when he has one of his characters state that he would rather be at the mercy of a Muslim than a Christian, since the Muslim faces the east in prayer, while Christendom, “after giving their faces such a rub against the world as to take the smiles off, turn with no less regularity, to the darkest side of Heaven…”

“Your haughty religious people would have held their hands up to see me as I am to-night, and preached of flames and vengeance…why ar’n’t those who claim to be God’s own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches…?”

The structure of the novel changes abruptly at the midway point, when Oliver is lost to the gang during a burglary and at last taken in by Mrs. Maylie. From this point, the terrors Oliver has been subjected to subside and we begin to learn his origin. Dickens comes very close here to losing the main thread of the action, as he suddenly introduces a new set of characters and Oliver fades into the background for an extended period. We also learn, with a good dose of Dickensian happenstance, how fate has contrived to at last rescue Oliver from poverty. He has a little of the golden child about him, as we had long suspected.

We were allowed, at the book’s beginning and seemingly for no reason at first, to witness the birth of Oliver Twist, much like another golden child. In the second chapter of Luke, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple for his blessing. There, they encounter Simeon, who has been waiting for the Messiah, and speaks these words:

"Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed--  and a sword will pierce even your own soul-- to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."

Simeon predicts that Jesus, through his holiness, sinlessness and connection to the Father, will provoke those around Him – both for good and for ill, so that thoughts and hearts will be unequivocally revealed in full. After the coming of Jesus, no one may merely pay lip service to God. If you are not for Him, you are against Him. He will not be ignored.

Something similar happens through “Oliver Twist.” The sight of Oliver, his manner, his journey through the heart of disaster, provokes those who come into contact with him. Mr. Bumble the Beadle is revealed as a petty tyrant at the beginning of the story, and faces a suitable end. Fagin knows a boy so seemingly virtuous, so visually affecting, could make a fortune as a thief if taught properly. Sykes’ interest, as that of Monks, becomes clearer as the story goes on, with each inspired to levels of deepening malevolence.

But Oliver’s manner also inspires good from souls who might be considered by society beyond reclamation. Nancy forsakes her criminal career in hopes of helping the boy, to disastrous results for her. And Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Maylie, and Mrs. Bedwin are moved continually to believe the best of the boy, despite how fate contrives to muddy his personal history. It is these moments of inspired rescue that form the consciousness running through the book – that of Providence looking out for the boy, even as it seemingly does not look out for the teeming masses that Oliver Twist moves about in the streets – the same masses he rises above by the novel’s end. 

Just as evil wishes to twist the boy for its own amusement, the boy’s bright indestructible heart stirs the souls of common and uncommon people to rescue him, in the same way the character’s creator wishes for his legions of readers to act. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


2 comments:

  1. I have to confess to having only skimmed this post; like you, I basically haven't read Dickens ("A Christmas Carol" excepted). It's one of my goals, though; one of these days, one of these years.

    I did begin reading "Pickwick Papers" at one point; I got only maybe a few dozen pages in, and stopped for reasons I can't remember. It wasn't because I didn't like what I'd read, though; I did.

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  2. My personal favorites are Great Expectations (much better the 2nd time or when we're a little older), David Copperfield, and Bleak House. Twist and Tale of Two Cities may be more famous but don't have the skill or depth.

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