c. dickens – oliver twist (notes)


Oliver Twist (1838)

Summary
Oliver is born in a pauper home and his mother dies giving him light. When he is at the age of six, he goes to work in a working house. Starving and beaten, he asks for more soup and is sent to work outside, in an undertaker’s. There he is ill-treated by Noah, a young man jealous of him and he escapes to London. There he comes under the eyes of Fagin the Jew, master teacher of pickpockets. He is caught by the police and placed in the home of Mr. Brownlow. But Oliver is found by the gang and forced to accompany Sykes, the housebreaker. On his first assignment, Oliver enters the house and tries to warn the people inside. He is shot while the other burglars run away. Mrs. Maylie and her adopted daughter Rose take care of Oliver.
At the end the situation evolves: Oliver is the son of a girl, sister of Mr. Brownlow’s best friend. Fagin’s gang is caught; Nancy helps the gentleman to get Oliver but is murdered by Sikes who dies while escaping.

Setting
Dickens’s world is humble; it is a world of prisons, low officers, and taverns in a dark, foggy atmosphere.
He creates unforgettable scenes and caricatural drawings. Social classes are well depicted, in particular the lower-middle class that knows about the situation of poor people, but do not sympathise with them. The upper-middle classes provide virtuous characters, but their charity has not a real impact on the vast problems of the 19th century in London underworld, that frightened and fascinated the Victorians.
The various moments of the day seem to be strictly connected with the steps of the protagonist’s life. Many scenes take place during dark and foggy nights or at dawn when people begin to work in market places amid the early midst.
London is the place that unifies this novel based on the contrapposition between rich and poor people, between the macabre atmosphere that the characters breath in the underworld and the sweetness of the domestic scenes representative of good society protected by hard work.
But people find real tranquillity in the country -side: all the characters settle, at the end, in villages not far from the city, nevertheless far from the contradictions that it implies, in a domestic life based on simplicity.

CHARACTERS
Dickens’s characters are really humorous; sometimes they represent the exaggeration of one human quality. He draws pleasant little caricatures and indulges on children’s descriptions.
His ability consists mainly in portraying adults through the children’s eyes and points of view.

Main Characters

Oliver Twist
Oliver’s most evident characteristic is a devastating loneliness that prevents him from developing any personality at the beginning. He has no identity: his name is invented (Twist means to distort, to change suddenly and its life is rich in turning points), he has no clothes and is without friends.
In his life, Oliver meets two sorts of people: the kin magistrate that takes interest in the boy, the gentleman that takes care of him and the greedy poor that wants to apprentice him. Between these two sorts of types there are the lower middle-class figures, callous and heartless.
Oliver possesses a greater sensitivity that in a poor is out of place and he is often punished for this.
The boy has not a childhood: Dick is the only friend that reminds him his early years.
Oliver’s innocence falls into Fagin’s hands. The old Jew tries to mould him, but the child remains totally innocent, an entirely good boy in a criminal world. Till the end, in fact, Dickens, keeps awake the anguish of the reader about his destiny: Oliver is alone in this band of thieves, far from his natural milieu of good and kind people. Only among them he could develop his personality. In fact he is created by showing his reactions to all experiences and the people he meets: he does not speak and the author does not give out any personal comment.

The Bumbles
These figures supply to Dickens the opportunity to give voice to the resentment of the honest working classes against the new tendency of petty officials that tyrannise under the excuse of administrating them.
The author stresses the exploitation of the children by corrupted and inefficient officers of the old Poor Law that only manage to keep their jobs in the new workhouses.
He is one of the characters on which Dickens uses his irony heavily. Mr. Bumble is funny: he tries to tyrannise poor defenceless children and is exploited and ill-treated by his wife on his turn. The writer is anyway careful in never permitting the reader to forget how harmful his words and actions are to Oliver.
His wife is even worse: she is the one who moves the threads of poor Oliver’s life keeping contact with Monks and trying to hide the boy’s real identity.
Their name has an onomatopoeic sound: it seems the verse of a humming bee.

The band of thieves
The joyful facade of the band of pickpockets covers their loneliness. This band lives in an alienated society, with its own hierarchy, but the main concern of each of them is about themselves.
In some curious ways, Fagin’s court, compared with the workhouse of Mr. Bumble, has a sort of ghastly gayety and liveliness in spite of its squalor and meanness. This makes the genteel characters far less impressing and interesting

Fagin
Fagin, the old Jew, reminds us the Gothic villain. He has a foxy relationship with the boys he takes in: he pretends to care for them, but he trains them as thieves and hopes they are quickly hanged if they are caught. A way he uses to exploit and to control them and the prostitutes is alcohol.
This figure is useful to underline one of the most important themes in the novel, the isolation of the evil person. Even Bill and Nancy dislike him because of Fagin’s complete lack of human affection.
Fagin never really acts, he incites and direct the others towards evil actions (his name derives from the verb to fag, that means to make weary).
He is the stereotyped caricature of the red-haired dirty and skinny Jew (and reminds, as to the physical description, Scott’s In Ivanhoe )
At first Fagin, seems to be a theatrical, cartoon-like figure, but gradually his descent to evil and to sin is put more and more in evidence.
He often blackmails his victims easily because he feels no passions. His only concern is for himself.
At the end, when justice triumph and he is condemned to death, he is frightened by his end almost to be paralysed, and the reader can but feels pity for him and for his sins.

Dodger and Charley Bates.
The children do not feel sympathy or pity for poor Oliver or for each other: the ties among thieves are just casual.

Monk
He is not a real character, but belongs to those evil figures that appear distortion of human nature. His real name is Edward Leefort, but his nickname cast a sinister light on his actions from the very beginning.

Sikes
Sikes is another figure unable to show gratitude or affection. His violent nature leads him to solitude, to an existence without love. Nancy haunts him after he has murdered her, but because of the cruelty of the crime as he never understand her faithfulness and affection for him.

Noah and Charlotte
They are a stupid couple that parallels Nancy and Sikes. But Charlotte has got a great admiration for Noah that ill-treats her and does not seek for redemption, following her lover in his vile activities.

Middle-class people, Oliver’s protectors

Mr. Brownlow
He represents the sure respectability and is seen by Oliver like a good teacher. Only gradually he is described with his passions and affects. Mr. Brownlow is kind and generous, but severe when he has to face evil.

Mr. Grmming
He is a testy gentleman that does not trust people.

Harry Maylie
He is a functional character, not very realistic. He puts in evidence Rose Maylie’s condition as a woman, victim of the Victorian morality.

Women
Women condition is a different chapter in Dicken’s fictional world. Often they are victims because subjected to the middle-class rules and have to suffer from prejudices. They cannot rebel, and have to accept their fate with resignation.

Rose and Fanny are two sides of the same warm nature. The difference is that Nancy is a fallen woman, a sinner, and Rose lives in the serenity of her class.

Nancy.
The girl really feels pity for Olive’s situation and defends him even if she is frightened by the menaces of the people around her. The sadness of her fate lies not only on her death, but on the lack of love: she struggles to express her maternal feeling to Oliver, but knows she has no hope for children, no hope for redemption.

Rose Maylie
She is a virtuous, good-natured woman that suffers as a victim of the rules of the middle-cassias.
Her origins are of a wealthy, decent family, but the death of her parents and the fall of her sister have degraded her innocence.
Harry can marry her only if he renounces to his political career.

Mrs Maylie
Harry’s mother is a more convincing character: generous, ready to help who needs, without great changes or (slanci)

The dead
Dead people seem to protect and lead the victims of evil with their unknown presence.
Oliver perceives his mother’s love, Agnes that is like Nancy: she has suffered the consequences of an unworthy love. The people that keep her secret are haunted by her memory.
Dick’s figure follows and helps Oliver representing his lost childhood.
Brownlow is led to help Oliver because of the resemblance of the boy to the lady of the portrait.
Nancy prosecutes Sikes’s last days.

Sources
Dickens’s life deeply influenced his works. In his novels there are references to his years of poverty and to his father’s imprisonment; to his years as a journalist and to his love for the historical works, to his experience as a parliamentary reporter, to his journey in America and to his divorce.
He neither followed Benthams theories that valued things and people only if useful (poor corrupt themselves as often as rich people do) nor the Marxist view of the society.
The Victorian accepted the idea of death without questioning it. Thousand poor children died before the age of nine; the survivor had very brutal lives. Henry Mayhew, a social critic, estimated that only one-third of the poor people were partially employed, another one-third were wholly unemployed.
About 12,000 individuals in London saw crime as a career and children began their career at the age of six or seven helped by adult thieves. Dickens tried to defend these neglected people introducing them into novels. He underlines how children are vulnerable without a real guide and help. This is another autobiographical experience as it is his anger against people charged and awaiting for a trial. The injustice of magistrates offends him and he openly attacks the courts.

Commentary
The secret of Dickens’s popularity lies in an immense vitality.
He was a realist, but in a limited sense. His world is mainly a humble one and all his novels are animated by a sense of injustice: he is concerned with the problems of crime and poverty, but he seems to think that matters can’’ be improved.
Essentially he was a creative, humorous and fantastic, a master of grotesque.
Dickens’s imaginative sympathy is for the poor, human, suffering creatures. His idealism tends to remain on the beauty of human pathos and to evolve sentimental types akin in taste.
B. Allen underlines his greatness as a poet: he has an easy command of words, rhythm and images.
The public he wrote for was largely a new public brought to consciousness by the industrial revolution. The readers were augmented thanks to the libraries and the journalism and dickens identified himself with this public.
He had a sense of an audience intimate relation with him. His works published in instalments had to come to a climax of superficiality so that the fluctuations of public demand tended to dictate the course future actions would take.
He attacked the injustices of the Poor Law, the delays in the administration of the justice, the cruelty of schoolmasters.
He gave voice to the public’s doubts and fears and was conscious of the tensions of his time, the gap between middle and working classes.
Nevertheless, he accepted the society in which he lived. And the idea of respectability and honesty in behaviour.
Dickens is often accused of sentimentality, but he never really allows his poor characters a heroic virtue. Only Oliver is given an urge to live that protects and helps him.
The writer was able at creating complex plots: Oliver Twist is a story full of subplots probably because he started writing for magazines. He was not ashamed of being a popular entertainer.
Oliver Twist can be considered a Newgate crime novel, but with a great force, a force due to Dickens’s love for the theatre. His melodramatic ability probably led him to write episodes rich in coincidences.

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