I’ll eat my head if I ever read Dickens again.
What was the point of this novel? Entertainment I suppose, something to read to while away the time every month when a new chapter was printed. And I kept asking myself if Dickens was trying to get at a deeper meaning here but, alas, there is nothing here to be found, my dear. We’ve been robbed.
But let’s take a closer look anyway.
The end of the novel is telling. We’re led to an island where the meanest, dirtiest, lowliest scum of all London, nay all Christendom, live. Here too is where Sikes – the worst of the worst – is hiding. Dickens begins by describing the people here as just mean, dirty castoffs, but then employs them in the right honorable task of bringing a murderer to justice. All of a sudden the dregs of society are miraculously reinvented as a willing army of angels; God’s brigade.
And that’s just one of countless examples of coincidence too convenient to catalog here.
Yet why did Dickens turn pretty much all of England into a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ if the one goal he must have hoped to reach was to show how poorly the lower classes are treated. By the end it’s the upper-classes who come to the rescue, who possess the means to investigate Oliver’s past, who have the social connections to connect the dots and notarize the appropriate paperwork.
Who was Dickens writing for? Was he making fun of England’s citizens while at the same time claiming he was sticking up for them? Who in this book of meager circumstances comes off as righteous? Nancy, perhaps, and maybe Master Bates (wasted pun, by the way) and none else. Oliver, orphan that he seems, is no pleb by blood, and everyone else who raised him was a wretch, a criminal, a tool, and a coward.
So how does Oliver’s story tell us anything about society? What’s the point of Oliver existing in the first place?
As always, my biggest complaint with a lot of writers is that just because they write down that a character is having an emotion doesn’t automatically mean the author no longer has to do any work to earn our emotional engagement. Saying a character is sad, or glad, or even possess a trait, does not mean the author gets a pass for the rest of the story – they have to SHOW that a character is sad, is mad, or whatever.
Yet this is the problem with too much popular writing. An author can say ‘Bella was depressed’ and readers will eat it up even though nothing has been done to show that she’s depressed – it’s only enough to know that someone says someone else is depressed.
Good art requires work. Good reading requires work. Dickens did not do much work. Dickens got paid a lot. Dickens was a literary thief and an orphan of good taste.
And the real shame is that there were moments when the writing was quite good, where if he had utilized his characters more sympathetically we could have really had a good book here, but because he just wanted to poke fun on one page and then be expected to be taken seriously the next, that we get an uneven, and undeserving entry into the cannon.
I wonder what author’s work was turned aside in the serial publication to make room for this? I wonder what great literary talent we’ll never know about was swept aside for Dickens?
There probably was a real Oliver Twist in 19th century England, and he was probably an author who never got the chance to prove his talent or be taken in by a benevolent benefactor willing to give him a chance. We are poorer for it too.