decorative initial 'B' ut the "vital action" of the novel supported by the rhetoric of laughter is not, as has been noted, coincident with the plot of the last half of the novel. The novel shifts its grounds to a concern with the simplistically defined good and bad, but we are already committed to a position which refuses to be so easily upset. In comparison with the problems suggested by Fagin and Mr. Bumble, the pivotal concern in the Maylie Brownlow plot about "stains" on one's honour, noble sacrifices of "station", and recovered wills seems incredibly trivial. This means that when the novel switches to the conflict between the Fagin world and the Brownlow world, our laughter tends to tie us to the former, even when Oliver changes sides. Oliver may no longer be a victim (he almost, in fact, disappears from the novel), but there are plenty of victims around, and, in so far as the Maylies, Brownlows, Losbernes, and the like are relevant to this vital world of the thieves at all, they are enemies. The novel thus pushes us towards a position which it finally refuses to countenance; for all the concern with good societies at the end, when the thieves' society decays, the reader is left with no social possibilities. He is, in fact, as isolated as the young hero was at the beginning. This is, one major reason why we react very intensely to Oliver Twist but still are likely to say that it is a bad novel. It lacks entirely the congruence of plot, theme, and emotion which was so marked in Pickwick Papers. But it accomplishes something perhaps as rare: it makes us live for a time with Fagin — and like it.

The opposition between the worlds of Fagin and Rose Maylie has often been discussed, and it seems clear that no one really likes, believes in, or remembers Rose and that everyone is somehow attracted to Fagin. Part of the reason for this has already been discussed: the rhetoric of laughter, which provides for a sympathetic alignment with the victims. But the social implications of these two worlds, the kinds of homes they provide for the reader, need to be investigated further. [71/72]

As it is first introduced, Fagin's world is, in almost every way, a distinctly positive contrast to the one Oliver had known. It provides a release from misery, starvation, and, most important, loneliness. When the Artful Dodger crosses the street to say, "Hullo! my covey, what's the row?" (VIII), there is no question that this is a new world, friendlier, freer, warmer. All sinister motives aside, the Dodger is the first person to express spontaneous and real concern for Oliver. He is the first to provide an alternative to the most horrifying part of the orphan's early life: its desolation. It is certainly better to be a thief than to be alone: the whole emotional force of the novel has made that clear. The Dodger's simple announcement, then, "This is him, Fagin ... my friend, Oliver Twist" (VIII), introduces us to a new and welcome environment. It hardly even matters that it is sinister.

More often than "sinister" even, the words "gentle" and "soft" are associated with Fagin, and the over-emphasized and obvious satanic connections should not obscure the fact that there is something maternal as well about the recurring image of Fagin bending over the fire and about his favourite phrase, "my dear". Of course, these images are partly ironic, but, I think, only partly. In context, they are seen as relief from the workhouse and as an alternative to rigid system. Dickens makes the contrast pointedly. There is, first of all, no hint of starvation here; the thieves are constantly eating. Second, the thieves' life has a profusion and, paradoxically, an openness completely lacking in the pinched material and emotional life the workhouse allowed. The point is made by a characteristic Dickens symbol and with a characteristic — for this novel — sick joke:

It appears, at first sight, not unreasonable to suppose, that, if [Oliver] had entertained a becoming feeling of respect for the prediction of the gentleman in the white waistcoat, he would have established that sage individual's prophetic character, once and for ever, by tying one end of his pocket-handkerchief to a hook in the wall, and attaching himself to the other. To the performance of this feat, however, there was one obstacle: namely, that pocket-handkerchiefs being decided articles of luxury, had been, for all future times and ages, removed from the noses of paupers by the express order of the board, in council assembled. [III; 72/73]

At Fagin's, pocket-handkerchiefs are everywhere. But the real contrast is of meagreness and openness, ultimately of life and death. The handkerchiefs are used by Fagin's group to maintain a lively and exuberant life; there is certainly no thought of suicide.

The one vigorous and persuasive life-force in the novel, in fact, is centred in Fagin. Both the workhouse and the Maylie group are associated with, if not dedicated to, death. The life celebrated at Fagin's is, in addition, of the kind that we associate particularly with a comic society. Like the Dodger, all Fagin's gang are adept at parody and speak a language which constantly makes fun of the petrified, respectable world. They are, further, extremely resilient and flexible, and they create a warm kind of conviviality through a life of the imagination (see Spilka, p. 73, for the best discussion of Fagin's imaginative power) conspicuously absent at the Maylies'. Rose and Oliver, we gather, sit around for hours weeping at mental pictures of "the friends whom they had so sadly lost" (LIII). This gruesome faculty might be called the tombstone imagination. But the thieves' imagination is one of joy, of recapturing laughter from pain. For example, when Charley Bates is despondent over the Dodger's arrest, Fagin helps him to create an imaginative — and, as it turns out, accurate — picture of the trial. The vision of this "regular game" allows Charley to escape from pain; he is transported by the humorous imagination:

"I think I see him now," cried the Jew, bending his eyes upon his pupil. "So do I," cried Charley Bates. "Ha! ha! ha! so do I. I see it all afore me, upon my soul I do, Fagin. What a game! What a regular game! All the big-wigs trying to look solemn, and Jack Dawkins addressing of 'em as intimate and comfortable as if he was the judge's own son making a speech arter dinner — ha! ha! ha!" [XLIII]

He sees that the Dodger's essential witty challenge is to society's (and the reader's) lack of compassion. He acts exactly as if he were our "own son". But it is perhaps the imaginative warmth generated by Charley and his fellow thieves that is most important. It is the only joy we find in the novel, defensive and often dark though it may be. It is the closest thing to Dulwich that Oliver Twist offers. [73/74] Even Oliver is affected by this joy and significantly laughs at Fagin's "droll and curious" stories "in spite of all his better feelings" (XVIII). Perhaps this phrasing suggests the real problem with this novel; the plot wants Oliver to drop the laughter in favour of his "better feelings", but the central pattern, confirmed by the rhetoric, is all for ignoring these imbecilic and deathly "better feelings" for ever, There is nothing more reminiscent of the freedom of Pickwick Papers than the wonderful parody games Fagin plays with his young charges, which make Oliver laugh "till the tears ran down his face" (IX).

But Oliver deserts this life and us for games at the Brownlows' played "with great interest and gravity" (XIV), and it is just this contrast which informs the emotional life of the last half of the book. The whole Maylie-Brownlow camp swim in a virtual bath of tears. Taking their lead from Rose, who cries at happiness, sorrow, disappointment, and hope, everyone, down to Brownlow, expresses himself with tears, and not the tears engendered by helpless laughter at a versatile and witty Fagin. Even "delight", the central emotion of comedy, causes the dismals here: Mrs. Bedwin, "being in a state of considerable delight at seeing [Oliver] so much better, forthwith began to cry most violently" (XII). It is perhaps perverse, but not ultimately inaccurate, to suggest that Mrs. Bedwin is really crying because Oliver did not, in fact, die. The Maylie-Brownlow group are in every way the antithesis of the comic dedication to life. Even Dickens seems hard pressed to imagine them doing anything (i.e. living), and we long for a touch of those "continental frivolities" (XLIX) to which Monks's mother had apparently so abandoned herself. We want them even more because Mr. Brownlow is so ridiculously stolid and pompous in denouncing them.

But Mr. Brownlow is not unique. The only real laughter to be found among the good people is the malicious chortling of Grimwig, who finds his one source of perverse pleasure in the fact that, after all, Oliver did not come back from the errand. When Grimwig meets Oliver, he reacts in the unfeeling, selfish way usual for him but far from the usual manner of Dickens's comic eccentrics; it is, rather, a blunt foreshadowing of Miss Murdstone, with a touch of Mrs. Raddles:

"That's the boy, is it?" said Mr. Grimwig, at length. [74/75] "That is the boy," replied Mr. Brownlow. "How are you, boy?" said Mr. Grimwig. . . . "He is a nice-looking boy is he not?" inquired Mr. Brownlow. "I don't know," replied Mr. Grimwig, pettishly. "Don't know?" "No. I don't know. I never see any difference in boys. I only know two sorts of boys. Mealy boys, and beef-faced boys." [XIV]

We must, it seems, take Grimwig's good heart mostly on trust. It is clear, though, that his aloof posture is a defensive reaction. He chooses not to cry and is allowed, apparently, only this recourse. All the rest in the camp of the good is tears.

The subversion, then, is complete and fundamental. The laughter of the reader and the characters is used as a weapon of self-exposure, and we are pulled toward the one isolated pocket of spontaneity in the novel, Fagin's den. When, with Fagin's execution, the last echo of unmalicious laughter dies away, we almost certainly feel a sense of regret. By this point, we have been encouraged to cast aside altogether our normal social identification by means of the most solid of all social gestures, laughter, and we are left without a society, Dickens has here used the technique of attack through our laughter with great intensity but without complete control. The experience of isolation is insisted upon and made real by our laughter, but this experience works against that "little society" of nearly "perfect happiness" which the entire second half of the novel has been somewhat desperately trying to establish. The novelist does work out a tactic here he will use in later novels, perhaps never with more startling effect but more in consonance with major themes and patterns. Here the novel remains fractured. Most readers have some tendency, encouraged by their laughter, to rewrite it in their minds, though, and when Charley Bates says of Oliver, "What a pity it is he isn't a prig!" (XVIII), we are tempted to respond, using the term without the thieves' irony, "What a pity he is!"


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last modified 9 March 2010