Rhapsody in Penguins — Fourth Movement: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist (1837)
by Charles Dickens
edited by Philip Horne

I have a special spot for Oliver Twist because it occupies a special space in my childhood. Firstly, I had a couple of stints acting as a chorus boy in its musical adaptation “Oliver!” when I was about nine or ten (contrary to popular belief, I CAN act, just not well enough). This was also among one of the first Penguin Classics that I bought in February 2012 — so you have this book to blame for the long and complicated series you have been reading for four weeks now.

Strange, though, that until recently I never really picked up on the message that is blatantly screamed everywhere in the book. The musical and its 1968 film adaptation (which I MAINTAIN IS A FORGOTTEN CLASSIC) is a rollicking ride throughout Cockney London, full of song and dance and never really being horrible (Oliver’s kidnapping in the second half is practically comical — though I’ll leave you to watch it by yourself, this is an article on a book, after all).

In reality, anyone who’s read the book will realize that it’s no laughing matter. Charles Dickens’ London is, to put it politely, a hellhole of depravity. You understand that right from the moment Oliver limps into the town of Barnet (today a suburb of London):

The sun was rising in all his splendid beauty, but the light only seemed to show the boy his own lonesomeness and desolation as he sat with bleeding feet and covered with dust on a cold door-step.

There is a glimmer of hope (“DA-A-A-AYLIGHT, I must wait for the su-u-u-u-unrise”) before Dickens brutally shoots down any illusion of it — and yet we’re only on the outside fringes of London! If this is what the suburbs are like, what monstrosities can the town hold? A sense of dread and foreboding surrounds London — it HAS to be the worst place on Earth. And Dickens, unfortunately, does not disappoint.

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops, but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out the doors, or screaming from the inside.

By the time the sort-of punchline arrives (“Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away”), only the hard-hearted reader would struggle not to be very depressed. But consider this final line: if we would feel depressed, how on Earth would Oliver, a nine-year-old boy, feel? The answer is: well, we don’t really know. (Note to self: stop writing meaningless sentences.)

For a book whose name is “Oliver Twist”, it’s weird that we don’t hear the title character speak a lot. Make no mistake, Oliver does certainly go through a LOT — workhouse, den of thieves, forced to assist in burglaries — but does he get to say much? Throughout the book it’s the adults who get to chatter away, and whenever we hear Oliver say anything, it’s usually an ineffectual little whimper, more a reaction to his current situation than a real protestation. As the punchline above shows, however, what we are privy to are Oliver’s thoughts, which mean we get to experience at full flow his horror as we read (or maybe sleep) through chapter after chapter. There is no lack of things to be astonished by, and as they all unfold before Oliver’s eyes, we empathize with Oliver at how powerless he is in all of this.

And that powerlessness is central to our reading experience. Dickens wrote this book with one goal in mind — to show just how badly the disadvantaged could be treated in society. (He was only 25 years old — dear God, what am I doing with my life…) Most of his readers didn’t know or didn’t care about just how bad life could get, and they would have read this book open-mouthed, fascinated by the weird-but-not-wonderful new worlds opening up before them. In some respect, we ARE Oliver as we are led through this criminal underworld, helpless and unable to resist, uncomprehending yet horrified to learn that all of this exists.

It’s not that Oliver’s completely apathetic to everything that’s happening around him (that’s Norman Bates you’re thinking about), it’s just that he’s too small, and too scared to understand what’s going on around him. His silence is due to his incomprehension, just as the reader cannot comprehend what the hell is going on, nor how such things can happen in society. Making the protagonist a young, innocent boy arouses our sympathy for this character, and incites shock and even outrage against the cruel society of Dickens’ time. (All hail Charles Dickens, the ultimate propagandist.)

There’s a nice contrast between the adults and Oliver here: most of the adults couldn’t really give a damn about Oliver, and yet they take a really active role in shaping Oliver’s paths. On the other hand, Oliver, who is the most qualified person to have a say, can rarely make his own way in life. Even the sole act of resistance (when Oliver beats Noah up) seems to have been engineered. Here’s the chapter heading:

Oliver, being goaded by the taunts of Noah, rouses into action, and rather astonishes him.

“Goaded by” and “rouses”. It’s all Noah’s fault, isn’t it? Shame on you, Noah.

But that’s it. That’s the only time where Oliver is seen to be active. From then on he returns to being pushed around by everybody. He can only stand there dumbfounded as he realizes that Fagin’s “jobs” are robberies; his quick resolution to raise the alarm at the house he is sent to burgle is swiftly undermined by Bill Sikes’ command to retreat. And so as you exit the book, you have to ask: what will Oliver Twist become in the future? We see what happens to Charley Bates and the Dodger and Fagin all the way through to the end, but all we know about Oliver is that he gets adopted by the Maylies. And what happens to him then?

It would be fun, of course, to imagine that Oliver’s childhood innocence comes out of the events of the book unscathed, that he can look back on this period as an inauspicious beginning from which everything was going to turn out alright. If you did so, congratulations! You have absolutely no idea how children’s minds work. Being pushed around for so long is bound to raise a few problems in a child’s future. In the end, Oliver finally — and a bit too suddenly — has a bit more agency in his hands. Who knows how he might adapt to this change — that is, if he even can…?

Oliver’s powerlessness is something that makes no effort to proclaim its existence, and yet becomes the lynchpin in the entire narrative. It’s a potent reminder that our lives are never really our own: it’s also determined by others, society, and natural factors (and also God, if you’re a Christian like me). Luckily for children nowadays, our societies nowadays have an incurable fascination on how they should be treated. No longer are children thought of as infantile and inexperienced; now, we call it “innocence” and like nothing more than asking us to keep that little child in us, so that we are not “corrupted” by the world. (Proof that it’s not just the Christians who see the world as evil.)

It’s true that, once you grow up, you’re subjected to a lot more stuff — rules, restrictions, and many other things besides. The childlike state (as opposed to the childish state, which I’m often accused of remaining in) appears vastly preferable against subjecting ourselves to — and blending ourselves into — the treacheries of adulthood, and all of us look back on those days of innocence with nostalgia. But as we’ve seen in this book: innocence is all too easily broken, and is no match for the cruel realities of life. Innocence is a way of shutting out, of letting yourself be buffeted by the storm. And when that happens, surely a little agency would be much preferred? Oliver, at any rate, would certainly have thought so.

Next time: Oliver Twist travelled into his story by walking into London. The characters of our next book travelled into — well, each other’s stories, really — by walking out of it in “The Canterbury Tales”.

(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “Oliver Twist”, edited by Philip Horne and published 2002, featured photo from the cover of the aforementioned book.)

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