My dad read the newspaper completely, every day, and when I asked him why, he said simply, “because sometimes the good guys win.” Even more than the “little guy,” my dad taught me to root for these guys who solve problems, resolve conflict and create positive change. His response to the other guys--driven by self-interest, who lack charity or simply don’t care--was, to say the least, disappointment. To keep things simple, I call those guys bad. I recently re-read Oliver Twist and have enjoyed again that Dickens, too, keeps it simple. Oliver and his helpers are good, the crooks are bad and Nancy the prostitute tries to be good but can’t. In our interesting times, I think about the good-evil dichotomy almost every day, and, for me, Dickens’s decision to present it without beating about the bush, keeps hope alive.
It’s sad to me, though, that the concept is hard to even talk about. There’s certainly no consensus on it. If we all agreed that goodness needs to flourish and ego-driven self-interest to diminish, the argument would be over, but no such luck. So, for this article, I’ll concentrate on the manageable topic of Dickens’s unabashed advocacy of the good and the surprisingly continuous debate among readers and critics about whether he went too far. To me, it is simple: he loved goodness. But, for others, his portrayal of the good guys is foolish. In his 1841 Preface to Twist, he defends his choice to present the dichotomy without shading: “I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil.” But critics still insist he should have weighed his good guys down with ambivalence to make them more like us (or like them). But I disagree, and I bet Dickens would too. A decent deed, a ready smile and optimism are great things, and each of us know people who put them together regularly. These are the Dickensian good guys among us. They work hard to turn their ambivalence, even their pain, on its ear so they can be useful and make a positive difference.
I am perplexed about why presenting good and evil in a simple wayóright/wrong--makes people squirm. In the Introduction to my Barnes and Noble Edition, the noted critic, Dr. Jill Muller, admits that she “turns the pages impatiently when forced to stay too long” (xxviii) with the good characters, and then she adds insult to injury by dismissing the prostitute Nancy as “colorless” (xvi); poor Nancy who drinks hard, is able to poignantly describe her own moral confusion and, for all her trouble, is bludgeoned to death by her boyfriend for merely flirting with the Good.
As he matured, of course Dickens brought a more philosophical understanding to the question of why goodness is so difficult for us to maintain or even appreciate, but Oliver Twist is just his second novel, and his object is specifically to save Oliver from a life driven by ego and self-interest and deliver him safely to the good guys. To nail the difficulty of this, he surrounds the kid with meanness. Almost from top to bottom, Oliver’s London is driven by selfishness, and to see it, just need to follow the money. In one sector of the society, the system trains workhouse and poor-farm employees to treat Oliver as an insignificant data point in a problematic mass, the poor, and because he is illegitimate, as close to being non-human. In another neighborhood, the criminals, Oliver’s first teachers, bond together in informal corporations to systematize their larceny and wax eloquently on the immoral life: “Every man's his own friend,” Fagin tells his people. “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” (Ch. 43, p. 373). Clear enough, he’s selfish. But Fagin’s bad guys are so interesting, forever conniving and throwing out one-liners to joke away their fear of the gallows, that readers become overly infatuated with them. Dr. Muller herself gloats over the possibility that Dickens must secretly be “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (xxix), easily excusing the bad guys’ routine lying and violence. I would counter that the good guys who look out for fairness are as meticulous about being decent as the crooks are about ripping people off. They put a lot of work into being optimistic. Yet for them as for Dickens, it is not easy to break through the mind-set that the party of the devil predominates.
I hope this critical habit of praising Oliver Twist’s portraits of immorality does not keep people from seeing the novel’s other achievement, Dickens’s plot to lead Oliver to safety through London’s immoral maze. This is an unheralded act of passionate imagination. The boy’s entire adventure must have appeared to Dickens in a vision because there is no record of an outline, and after each monthly installment came out, he had no chance to revise but had push on with Oliver towards a world of good through a labyrinth of crazy coincidences and incredible moments of luck. I believe the main reason Oliver Twist has sold millions and been imitated endlessly is because, in the end, Oliver finds his Victorian Shangri-La outside the city where he can be mentored towards responsible adulthood by Rose, Brownlow and friends. This is the phenomenon that ensures the book’s popularity: that at the end we are rewarded with nourishing energy not because we suspended our disbelief but because we learned to believe.
The Plot of Extraordinary Events
Dickens’s vision here is his trademark blend: realism, fairy tale, Christianity and plain hope. Some call the ending sentimental, others call it brave: a small heaven on earth in the countryside, just slightly beyond social reality. The coincidences that pass Oliver to this safe place are uniquely Dickensian and impress us with how few degrees of separation there are between his Londoners and, perhaps, between all of us. Upon completion, we feel that when families are rebuilt and reputations restored, the materials for a loving society are present anywhere.
Oliver’s a good kid brought up in a kind of pen for poor people. At nine, he runs away to London and into Fagin’s apartment, which is of course the wrong house for goodness, and here he starts his education in immorality. When the bad guys first send him to rob, he refuses to commit the crime, but the cops nab him because he is too slow to get away, which lands him before the magistrate and his first experience of good luck. An eye-witness sticks up for him, and the victim of the crime takes a liking to him, which leads him into the house of this good man, Mr. Brownlow and his housekeeper who has the makings of a perfect foster mother. Oliver wants terribly to be accepted by the good world, but they have standards. They test Oliver’s trustworthiness by sending him on an errand with cash, and Oliver fails; not because he is bad but because he is grabbed on the street by Fagin and his gang. Brownlow will miss him and they will meet again, but now he must undergo more isolation and daily practice in thievery.
In Fagin’s dark haunts, we experience a hundred pages of clever slang and scheming by these guys who are each focused on the goal of not being hung by the neck. Dickens bides his time, but then he creates a second through-the-looking-glass moment of escape for the kid. When Oliver is forced to take part in a major robbery, the crooks literally pass him through a tiny window into a country house. When the robbery is foiled, he finds that he has left the bad world and entered the good. Even more extraordinary, he has been delivered to his family. At first, we know only that empathy comes easily to Rose, the young woman who runs the house for her foster mother, but we come to find that she is Oliver’s aunt. Rose’s sister, Oliver’s mother, had been kicked out by her family for conceiving him and then died giving birth. Rose has her own pain; when their family was in the throes of dissolving, young Rose wandered away and was found on the street by Mrs. Maylie, the owner of this house. So, in this home are three people who represent alienation from the norm: the orphan Oliver, Rose the foster child and her open-hearted foster mother, Mrs. Maylie who lives with her own heartbreak. This is important because, for Dickens, the basis for goodness is experience with pain which the character recognizes and wants to peacefully resolve. It is bothersome that this does not matter to the novel’s nay-sayers who dismiss Rose as Dickens’s infantile fantasy of female virtue. But she is not that; she is just virtuous and, like the other two, has persevered.
It is Good to Be Safe and Sound
The coincidences that help good people find one another and end up working together in Oliver Twist are contrived, but to this good end. Dickens’s purpose is to impress upon readers the extreme importance of such a success. Through that little window, Oliver has entered his second safe house, one of three that turn out to be connected and will constitute his underground railroad. The final destination is a parsonage in the country. Rose’s new husband is the minister there and has his own story of personal conflict. Here, Oliver will be surrounded by loyal supporters whose number has grown throughout his adventure and who, like Oliver, choose to live near Rose and, as the parson says, “level all fancied barriers” (Ch. 52, p. 451). The place is pictured as a kind of commune, surprising but believable, and it seems that Oliver will be raised by a village.
Each safe house has its own history and houses its own pain. In Brownlow’s, it takes us several pages to appreciate the gentleman’s connection with Oliver. Dickens makes it an incredible one, some will say unbelievable, but for us believers, the amazing odds of their ever meeting is an attraction. The fact that Brownlow met Oliver because the boy’s cronies chose to rob him is an example of Dickens combining irony and good luck to give Oliver a chance to survive in the crooked maze. For years, Mr. Brownlow has toiled away by himself on a mystery Oliver’s father left him to solve when he died. He has been thinking about the mysterious orphan and what happened to his mother and has worked without pause to find the boy. Critics label him a bland do-gooder, but if read sympathetically, he is a wounded leader with “strong attachments” that took “root in the earth” (Ch. 49, p. 424) when he buried his fiancé and then her brother, Oliver’s father. His admonition to Oliver sums up his life-experience and his hope: “you will not wound me again” (Ch 14, p. 130). Brownlow is a keeper of Dickens’s theme, goodness through struggle, and this is a strenuous job. His need to extract Oliver from the trap of self-interest leaves him depending faithfully at every turn on “a stronger hand than chance” (Ch. 49, p. 454).
In two tense moments, Oliver’s benefactors keep a watch on him to see if he is worthy of getting out of the immoral life into their life. The first time Brownlow has his chance to protect Oliver (there are two and the second time’s the charm), when he sends the boy out with cash, he and a friend literally look at a watch from late afternoon into the night to see if Oliver will return, which he never does. For chapters and chapters, the gentleman lives with the sadness that the boy failed. Next, in the country, when the servants deliver Rose a wounded, unconscious little boy who was shot by one of them during an attempted robbery, Rose instinctively gives Oliver the benefit of the doubt. But a country doctor insists that she wait for hours until he awakens to see if his version of the robbery makes sense and they can trust his innocence. Her faith is substantiated.
The mid-point between the immoral and moral worlds is under London Bridge where Nancy meets with Rose and Brownlow, risking her life to support Oliver by giving them the names and addresses of gang members, including her lover, who have a financial stake in getting him back. In this midnight scene, eavesdropped on by one of Fagin’s men, Nancy is tempted to leave the criminals by Rose and Brownlow’s generous offer of safety. But they offer three times and each time she refuses. She is too bound to the illegals to turn from them, and she walks away (with Rose’s white handkerchief in her hand to remind her). She will try to convince her lover to run away and start a new life, but he will not and, as she predicted, she will be dead a day later by his hand.
Besides not being impressed with Nancy getting this close to changing, critics like Dr. Muller find other ways to lessen Oliver’s success in making it out. Muller doesn’t like that “Oliver’s rescue is accomplished by the actions of individuals in the private sphere” (xxv). Because they are members of the “bourgeoisie,” the benefactors are implicitly “condoning or collaborating in institutionalized oppression of the poor” (xxv). In other words, being middle class is bad. For a reader who roots for Oliver, this is hard to take, and in trying to figure out the impasse, it’s best to keep things simple. If Dickens’s goal was as he stated, to show the triumph of goodness, isn’t it too much to demand that, besides bashing England’s welfare system, which he did, he should also critique the country’s entire socio-economic system and include a blueprint for redistributing income? Muller is uncomfortable that Oliver’s “salvation is a comfortable income and a cottage in suburbia” (xix). On the scale of good to evil, how bad is this really? Should we denigrate Oliver’s escape from degradation by denying him some economic security? Can we not make the case that in every economic ideology, both for and against capitalism, what everyone wants is a comfortable cottage and income?
A Tip on Reading Dickens
Dickens never forgot the happiness he felt as a boy while reading The Thousand and One Nights, Middle Eastern folk-tales collected over centuries in which wish and dream become real. He gave the name of fancy to the ability to navigate this divide, and in novels and speeches demanded a place for it in education. Fancy can help us process the incredible twists in Oliver Twist, and Dickens says as much when he suggests to the reader that the optimal way to know truth is to cultivate the awareness that happens in the time between being awake and being asleep. Deep in the book, he describes this state when realism and fancy meet: “There is a kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes, which, while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things about it ‘reality and imagination become so strangely blended’” (Ch. 34, p. 296). This “vague and half-formed consciousness” (Ch. 32, p. 278) steals upon Oliver when he is alone in his study in the country where Ruth and her foster mother have given him his second experience with safety. He is falling asleep when he sees at the latticed window the two main conspirators against his welfare, Fagin and Oliver’s half-brother whose obsession is to destroy him. But are they there? They seem real and menacing and he yells for help; but when household members track them from the window, across the fields and into town, they find no trace. We soon find out the two have a business agreement to recapture Oliver, but at this point we do not know whether they were there. Yet the “reality” of his half-awake fancy has cemented our belief that Oliver’s goodness must be protected.
Other twilight moments, reality mixed with dream and memory, intrigue us. When Brownlow and Oliver come face to face, the old man is stunned by a likeness in Oliver, “a glimpse of an old friend flashing on one in a vivid dream” (Ch. 49, p. 454). Looking for a connection, the gentleman takes a moment to daydream of “a vast amphitheater of faces over which a dusky curtain had hung for many years” (Ch. 11, p.102). This waking dream continues just hours later, now for Oliver. In Brownlow’s drawing room, a spiritually energized painting of his mother speaks to him long before he, or we, understand why; a beautiful woman with a mild face and sorrowful eyes wants to speak him but can’t (Ch. 12, 112). Moments like these act like solvents on this reader’s resistance. Oliver Twist’s coincidences may seem frustratingly contrived, but if we were dreaming or half-awake and our need for realism weakened, we might believe. This is fancy at work and it requires sympathetic reading, but millions of readers have bought in. Read in this way, the book rewards us with a thrilling sense that England could be one family.
If Dickens’s England is a family, of course it is a dysfunctional family. We get to know each of the men and women enough to know that no one is wholly on the inside or getting all the benefits. Generally, the hopes they “most cherish” and that do their “nature the greatest honor” are disappointed (Ch. 51, p.451). The system may be well-oiled, but many of its people act out their unmet needs violently. The first applicant to take Oliver as an apprentice, an impoverished chimney-sweep, is introduced outside the orphanage beating his donkey. Sykes the house breaker repeatedly kicks, punches and throws his loyal dog as if dramatizing his hatred of what life made him. Women are constantly put or thrown into their place. Sykes beats Nancy dead and then, jumping from a roof, as enraged vigilantes close in, is hung by his own rope. Everyone in the novel is a kind of displaced person, a victim of a system with built-in meanesses, or of chance or of heartbreak. Everyone is protecting themselves.
Despite the critics who call the book simplistic, questions abound. How was Oliver born moral? Why is the driver who carts Oliver and Sykes on their way to commit their crime, kind to them? Dickens mentions Heaven, Nancy says God sees that she is suffering, but whatever the motive or the reason--eternal or otherwise--we are glad that Oliver finds Rose’s house and that the sun shines--when it shines--on everyone: “the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man . . . in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-colored glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray” (Chap. 58, p. 408).
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist . New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.
Last modified 8 November 2017