he most obvious cause of this dislocation is the lack of consistency in the narrative personality. It is impossible to define the characteristics or moral positions of the narrator in this novel, for they are continually shifting. It is true that, as in most Dickens novels, the narrative voice provides a counterpoint to the story and gives oblique directions to the reader. But here the directions are generally misleading. We expect those obtrusive narrative commentaries at least to provide accurate signposts to a comfortable position we can take, but here Dickens exploits this very expectation to attack such smug confidence.
For instance, the narrator is often — though certainly not always — as detached as in Pickwick Papers, and this detachment and the "tendency toward abstraction" [Steven Marcus, pp. 63-7 has an extremely interesting discussion of the style. He argues that this impulse to generalize suggests an underlying dread that Malthus is right after all] sometimes work together as a negative object lesson, "an ironic rhetorical device to generate by negation the outraged sympathy of the reader" [J. Hillis Miller, p. 76. Actually, this quotation represents a distortion of Miller's view; for the most part, he argues, the style insulates Oliver and his experiences from the reader and the narrator.] But moral outrage of this sort is rather a comfortable thing, and Oliver Twist never allows us to be comfortable for long; nor does it allow the stability which would come from consistent and obvious irony. The writing with which Dickens begins the novel, for example, certainly does not flatter the reader's sense of moral superiority or reinforce his moral certainty: [54/55]
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
Certainly there is more than a "tendency toward abstraction" here; this seems to have been written by the head of the Circumlocution Office. Leisurely, presumably gentle and facetious, the passage throws out humorous barbs in a dozen directions: at authorial egotism ("I" is introduced gratuitously twice), at the reader's concern for trivia ("day and date"), at prudence and care, and so on. Perhaps most obvious, and certainly most important, though, is the attack on the mincing-genteel tone of many novels and, by implication, on the mincing-genteel expectations of many readers. The author parodies our refined concerns by offering mock assurance that he will keep in mind our delicate sensitivities (and the demands on our time) by maintaining an elevated tone. We can be assured, in fact, that no concrete hero will be introduced, simply an "item of mortality". The facetiousness of the tone, then, hides the bitterest sarcasm, not an irony which invites our participation in righteous indignation but a covert attack on a trait the narrator caustically assumes we all share: callousness. The narrator simply does not want our company; in fact, he does not allow us any single position. This opening attack dramatically upsets our normally stable position in reference to fiction and tears from us the accustomed comforting shield of a narrative friend and guide.
We might, of course, get used to this sort of attack and gradually assume a defensive but at least constant position. Dickens does not allow even this sort of masochistic stability, however. The appeals of the narrative tone are constantly shifting. Sometimes, in fact, we are invited to share in an easy and removed irony: "What a noble illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!" (II). Occasionally, the narrator is even chummy in his appeals: Oliver "was alone in a strange place; and we all know how [55/56] chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel in such a situation" (V). Even here, though, we are invited to share not the narrator's detachment but Oliver's desolation — but at least we have company. The point is that we can never count on being in any single relationship with the narrative voice for long. Just as we relax in the chumminess or in the comfort of indignation, we are pushed away by an attack on us or by an unsettling sick joke of the kind which heads this chapter — "coffins were looking up". The end result of the sick joke and of this shifting point of view is that we are made to disavow our accustomed positions in relation to fiction. No novel could be more honest, at least in its rhetorical terms, than is Oliver Twist: the reader is never flattered, never comforted. He is pressed to renounce detachment and to enter more completely into the action of the novel, simply because all other outlets are closed. There are no buffers between us and the desolation presented. On the contrary, the rhetoric of attack, based on this radically uncertain narrative tone and on a subversive humour, forces us to share in that desolation. It is an effective, if somewhat vicious, alliance.
Laughter and point of view are, indeed, allied in viciousness, and though the obtrusive narrative passages never help the reader to orient himself, they do reveal an underlying maliciousness which is central to the novel's humour. For instance, early in the novel Dickens comments:
I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish [IV]
This paragraph embodies the central attack on abstractions, on treating people from such a distance that they become, like Oliver, philosophically "badged and ticketed" (I). But this passage is more than simply an attack; it is an exercise in malevolence. Since this is by no means a funny passage and since there are no disguises for the appeals to vindictiveness, [56/57]we are very likely to resist its aggressive suggestions. Yet this same unvarnished desire for sadistic revenge is at the core of much of the humour in the novel; the very fact that the novel is not satisfied with piercing Bumble's folly, for instance, in the manner of Fielding or Meredith, but pursues him to the end, defeats him, degrades him, and rubs him in the mud, alerts us to the cruelty and barbarousness of this humorous process. We delight in Bumble's fall, but we are revolted at the extended details of his degradation,) Dickens's subversive humour calls up in us, and presents all too clearly, the egoistic base from which we had probably been chuckling. We are likely to resist such exposure, of course, even to imagine that we didn't laugh at all, and the book is all the darker for having exposed the potential darkness within us.
ReferencesMarcus, Stevens. Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey. New York, 1965.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Form of Victorian Fiction. South Bend, 1968.
Last modified 9 March 2010