What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once – a parish child – the orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world – despised by all, and pitied by none.
Dickens prefaces his tale of Oliver Twist by defending his portraits of vulgar “bad guys”. Many of his readers criticized these portraits, claiming that he lacked sensitivity toward his audience – when, in fact, he rarely, if ever, spewed any vile or insulting language from the mouths of his criminals. However, while reading Dickens’ peerless sarcasm regarding the obvious injustices experienced by young, innocent Oliver Twist, and noting the epigraphs introducing every new chapter, I couldn’t help but think of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In Cervantes’ preface, he dictates a conversation between himself and a friend who suggests that Cervantes litter his text with quotes from other notable works to bolster the academic dignity of his story. Cervantes then describes a man who literally embodies literary works to a fault. The educated writers and thinkers of the world, and in the story, condone such referencing in place of original genius and then rebuke a man who takes that motif too far. He mocks the very people who defend his novel as a great piece of literary history – then and now! In “The Art of Bookmaking”, Washington Irving explores this same silly hypocrisy. Dickens might reflect this idea through his cynicism and satire in Oliver Twist. But his fight lies with social injustices and those we ought to consider “bad guys” rather than with the haughty qualifications of the educated. I began to imagine Dickens writing his preface, defending his presentations of Sikes, Fagin and Nancy, knowing full well that his audience most likely felt indignant about his portrayal of the porochial officers and matrons responsible for raising the impoverished innocents of England. Surely the public audience, in reality, held these selfless saints, devoted to rearing helpless children, in high regard and grew squeemish when reading Dickens’ satirical chastisements. With an innocent, flabergasted countenance, Dickens would have stood in front of his critics, with eyebrows raised quizically and a hand held to his heart, asking them how they could possibly think he painted false images of criminals. The audience expects deplorable behavior from criminals, not from parochial caretakers. By logically assuming – since they could not possibly have any concern with his portrayal of parish officers when they talk of criminals – that his critics dislike his portrait of Sikes and the rest, he mocks his own audience who actually feel offended by his portrait of a system which they believe in, trust, and hide behind – thinking that only rotten children can fall through the cracks of such a generous and thankless system.
Though thoroughly entertained by Dickens’ sense of satire when dictating the grossly corrupted system burdened with the rearing of unfortunate children, his tone also divulged his feelings on the subject of social poverty in England. The deplorable behavior of Mr. Bumble and his matrons, reminiscent of the Thenardiers in its shamelessness and cowardice, fuels the overwhelming sense of injustice and trajedy experienced by the most innocent of innocents – children. Dickens then plunges his knife deeper by allowing the board and Mr. Bumble to justify their actions as philosophers; men who know the humane secrets of molding respectable citizens from impoverished street rats. Nevermind that many of them die under their care.
As to Oliver, the nauseatingly innocent blubberer riding his wave of fate, he brings to life the echoes of fairy tale children such as Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White. He embodies a hope which others would seek to overpower, control or purge in order to calm their own rage for lacking it or having experienced failure at retaining it. In any case, that hope needs saving – a soft innocence caught in the balance between forces for degeneration and preservation. I believe Dickens intended to juxtapose Oliver with Nancy, who, as opposed to the Artful Dodger or Charley Bates, found herself displaced from her social position. She could look at herself and weep. And she could see Oliver as one not yet engulfed by their mode of life – as one left a way out even if only because the infection had not set in. Yet because of her position in life, deeply intrenched as opposed to Oliver, she felt unable to leave her life, whereas Oliver seemed so innocent that he couldn’t even see, as Nancy did, the path before him. Oliver’s inertia led him to his resolution, while Nancy exercised choice and abstained from freedom in order to redeem, and arguably sacrifice, herself. After all, if Nancy had not made her choice, what would have happened to Sikes? Or Fagin? Or Charley Bates? Or Oliver?
Some critics have voiced concern with Dickens’ seemingly irresponsible use of chance in the story. And yet, dramatically speaking, those chances sparked the fuse of Fate – not a fate autonomous from the players on the stage. On the contrary, chance fell like a domino on the hearts of each good and evil person and directed them toward choices congruent to their character and eventually to the only resolution possible from their assembly. Of course, Oliver’s presence at the robberies of the old gentleman at the bookstore and his use at the house robbery reek of unbelievable chance, but the ultimate chance of his birth into this particular world of characters could only lead him to this resolution; perhaps by a different set of circumstances, but eventually to the same resolution. No character can act contrary to his disposition – and if he can, it must be in his character to do so.
If no other possible resolution exists, the reader would undoubtedly argue that each character experience ultimately fell in accordance with what they deserved. I found one thorn on the rose. I wanted Oliver to break away from the degenerate world of criminality despite his impoverished origins or his mysterious parentage. Even children different from Oliver deserve a chance to grow into gentlemen. The enticing intrigue of Oliver’s parentage seemed to lend credibility to the idea that a gentleman’s birthright cannot remain undiscovered. Oliver’s birthright should not save him – his existence as a person should. Did Oliver deserve his resolution because of his birthright and not because of his character? If so, should we say that Nancy deserved her resolution because of her tragic experience and ignore her character? Could Fagin and Sikes, who most likely resembled the Artful Dodger or Charley Bates at an earlier age, or maybe Oliver at an even earlier one, have deserved a similar resolution as Oliver if provided the same chance to break away from a criminal destiny mapped by an unjust social system? One might say to each what they deserved and I would suck air through clenched teeth and wince just a bit.