Characters as Social Aspects in Oliver Twist
“The Victorians were avowedly, unashamedly, incorrigibly moralists. They . . . engaged in philanthropic enterprises in part to satisfy their own moral needs. And they were moralists in behalf of the poor, whom they sought not only to assist materially but also to elevate morally, spiritually, culturally, and intellectually . . . .” (Himmelfarb 48(8)). Charles Dickens used characterization as the basis of his pursuit of this moral goal in the serialized Oliver Twist. His satyr was meant to draw parallels to the dark side of an era of British progress. One side of progress is wealth, the other side of the same coin is poverty, despair, misery and crime. Dickens allegorized evil in contrast to good through characterization and melodrama. “Most of the moral judgments of the reader are pre-made for him or her. As a result, the reader objectively absorbs the moral lessons Dickens has set forth” (Stoddard).
Gregory Stoddard writes: “in Oliver Twist, there is a clear, defined system of criticism and rhetoric marked by sarcasm, and the language of judgment” (Stoddard). The first words of Chapter 2 are an example. In it, he describes the situation that the innocent, Oliver, finds himself. “Here is a clear example of the sarcasm and careful word choice in which lies the authorial social criticism,” writes Stoddard. “Consider the choice of words in this passage, ‘treachery and deception.’ The connotations of these words imply an inherent evil, and consequently, a moral judgment. More subtly, the choice of ‘victim’ implies that there is an entity that victimizes, and the word ‘systematic’ strengthens that impression, lending to it an intentionality, and as a result, an evil nature” (Stoddard). Stoddard continues, “. . . when the victimizing entities are systematic in their methods, a conflict of good versus evil results” (Stoddard).
Although the overall message was clear, coming on the heels of the of Poor Law of 1834 as the book did, the characters Dickens created for the purpose of making his social commentary ranged from one dimensional to multidimensional caricatures. He used them as a means of presenting the “other” side of wealth-the dark, evil side.
To that end, Oliver operates as a catalyst rather than as a hero. His lack of hero status allows us to follow him into the underworld without ever being a participant in it, just as he never desired to be a participant in it. We follow him through Dickens’ moral judgments because to actually participate in that world would be too repugnant. We can, therefore, moralize from a distance along with Dickens, even though we’ve observed the most gruesome of killings and bleak circumstances of his existence.
Although he is both innocent and a thief, Oliver does not grow in his role, he merely becomes wealthy in the end. For this reason, the evil actors, Fagin, Nancy and Sikes, are those characters which Dickens makes multidimensional. The victims of wealth are the innocents, yes, but the innocents are also the victims of the more romantic criminals and prostitutes-the other side of the coin. Dickens uses all of these characters to attack both systems, the upper and lower world, mostly, but not always, within the confines of darkness. Darkness resides alike in workhouses, in the underworld, in officers such as the “fat man” Bumble, and in the legal system (Dickens 1-5, 56-62, ). Through the range of characters and their multiplicities, Dickens can address the dualities of the world such as greed and generosity, kindness and cruelty, and innocence and vice.
Not only are many of the acts of the multidimensional actors evil and ugly, they are evil and ugly in appearance, particularly Fagin, Sikes, and Monks. Conversely, the novel’s good characters, Oliver, Rose, and Mr. Brownlow, are attractive. Characters who play both roles of good and evil, such as Nancy, are described variously along with their roles at any given moment. The same is true for other characters, whose looks and character are indistinct, but within the realm of imagination because of names such as Brownlow, Bumble, Fang, Grimwig and the Maylies. As caricatures of evil, Fagin, Sikes, and Mr. Bumble are believable as characters, while the number of situations in which Oliver finds himself are beyond belief.
“Fagin wrongs without being wronged, and as such can be classified as evil” (Stoddard). In another dimension, Fagin is also comical and at the end of the tale somewhat sympathetic. For example, Fagin is the one who provides Oliver a home. Fagin’s home is both the source of evil, and also the source of warmth. Fagin is the dancer and skimmer, as well as the comic and kidnapper. According to Ivan Melada, Dickens’ intent for Fagin is to “raise him to the archetypal level of ‘an ageing Lucifer,’ an incomprehensible bogey-man” (Melada 218(3)).
Even as he represents the underworld and all of the ugliness that it embodies, Fagin is the character who makes the offer of wealth. He is the epitome of the British Empire. Peter Faulkner notes, Charley Bates is constantly remarking on “making enough money to ‘retire on your property, and do the genteel; as I mean to do, in the very next leap-year but four ttragedy of the era’s wealth (Faulkner 111(2)). As many rise to the top, just as many sink below the soles of their feet to be crushed in the dirt. It represents the price of wealth for the under-classes, and the blindness of the upper classes to the havoc they’ve caused. Dickens warns, through Fagin’s conviction and lonely death at the end, that the wealthy are only a trial away from ending up in the dirt themselves, and in fact, the soles of their shoes are already dirty with guilt. Therefore, Fagin represents the unfeeling system (home) who dances and jokes around the misery of others and lives off of their labors, but he also represents the underworld itself-the opposite of power, the home of the underworld.
Dickens treatment of Nancy is as the tragic victim of the cruelty the social system has wrought. Though living in and participating in Sikes’ love-devoid world, she is still capable of compassion and courage. There are several scenes in which Nancy is drawn sympathetically in these two dimensions. One of these is in Chapter 20, in which Nancy explains to Oliver why she has come to take him back to Sikes. She shows him the bruises on her arms and neck, and tells him that every word from him “is a blow for me” (Dickens 120). She points out that if others had “fetched him,” they would not have been so kind (120). Even as she carries out her heinous assignments, they are committed out of love for Sikes, and it is her compassion for Oliver that brings about her downfall, which is foreshadowed in this passage.
In his review of Oliver Twist, Richard J. Dunn quotes Dickens’ observation that “the countenances of the dead… subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping infancy” (Melada 218(3)). This depiction of the death of innocence in the face of cruelty is the subject of Dickens’ use of Nancy’s face, according to Dunn. He writes that “it is precisely because Sikes murders Nancy by brutally bashing in her face, disfiguring her so badly, that this murder is so horrible” (Melada 218(3)).
Bill Sikes is intrinsically evil, but we do not really have to discover this for ourselves. “One automatically hates Sikes, we are told that he is a ‘bad man'” (Stoddard). Sikes is not like the unfeeling system represented by Fagin. He is a character of passion set up to destroy all that “home” represents, home being Great Britain (Melada 218(3)). It is through the passion of Bill, that Dickens makes his point about the hopelessness of trying to bring sanity to this class definition. In this dimension, he is a representative of the system, its passion for money at the expense of everyone else. Sikes has a goal much like that of Fagin, but he will go to any means to reach it. But the other dimension of Sikes is as a home wrecker. Dickens meant to show, through Sikes, that the passion of the underworld can be rolled up into one person, a person that will act and does act violently against the “home” of Great Britain. Sikes is furious and murderous against all that should represent “home,” because in this class, there is no such entity as home-not the home experienced by the middle and upper classes. As Sikes hoists Oliver into the house where he is shot, we have seen that he is entirely unfeeling. Oliver is only a means to an end-that end is wealth. In the wake of that desire, any violent harm that comes to Oliver, or anyone, is merely a matter of business and the unfeeling temperament of true greed.
This moral judgment is supported when Bill kills Nancy. She is the angelic, trusting wife with the “upturned face,” but when that last ounce of innocence in his life is killed, she is “a ghastly figure to look upon” (Dickens 292). He can’t kill Oliver, he can’t kill the entity, whatever it is, that is jeopardizing his ability to accumulate wealth, so he kills the messenger that is thwarting him-the same messenger that loves him and has compassion for Oliver. Through such descriptions, one see the atrocity society has created in Bill Sikes, but “one can see an indictment in the actions of the characters as well” (Stoddard).
Critic Arnold Kettle wrote “when Oliver walks up to the master of the workhouse and asks for more gruel, issues are at stake which make the whole world of Jane Austen tremble. We care, we are involved, not because it is Oliver and we are close to Oliver (though that of course enters into it), but because every starved orphan in the world, and indeed everyone who is poor and oppressed and hungry is involved” (Morton). Like other philanthropists, it was Dickens’ intent to profile the meaner side of a society that had grown so wealthy and removed from the poor that it had lost all recognition of them. He made his characters larger than life so that those they characterized were noticed.
Dickens, Charles. (Serialized 1937-39) Oliver Twist. New York NY: Airmont Publishing Co. (1963).
Faulkner, Peter. “The Companion to ‘Oliver Twist.,'” The Review of English Studies, Vol. 46 No. 181. (1995) : Feb, pp. 111(2).
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “The age of Philanthropy.,” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 21. (1997) : Mar 22, pp. 48(8).
Melada, Ivan. “Oliver Twist: Whole Heart and Soul.,” Studies in the Novel, vol. 27 No 2. (1995) : Summer 1995, pp. 218(3).
Morton. “Dickens, Oliver Twist.,” electronic file at: . (1997) : Aug 19.
Stoddard, Gregg. “Dickens and Victorian Culture.,” electronic file at:. (1996) : February 2.Words
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