Representations of the Damaging Childhood in Literary Works: Oliver Twist.

In his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens uses satire and irony and, at times, nauseating sentimentality, and a third person omniscient narrative point of view to highlight the harsh realities faced by poor, underprivileged children. Through the all-knowing, all-seeing external narrator, first the reader learns that the workhouse children “suffered the torture of slow starvation” at the hands of the appointed authorities; next, the reader learns that Oliver is elected by his peers to bring the children’s plight to notice, an action which in turn brings the wrath of the well-fed authorities down upon his head: “There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance. ‘For more!’ said Mr. Limbkins. ‘Compose yourself, Bumble . . . Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allocated by the dietary?’ ” (26-7). David Paroissien says that “in a literal sense Dickens wildly overstates the Government-issued dietaries . . . but nevertheless captures the punitive spirit behind the reforms implemented in 1834” (57). But Philip Horne notes that “Dickens’ harsh, rapid, sardonic manner, his note of charged understatement . . . insists on the shocking plausibility of such injustice in an England that makes scant provision for those without friends in high places or funds” (xiv). Thus, Dickens exaggerates his characters and the relevant social issues to make them larger than life, but he does so in a controlled manner in order to heighten the mimetic, emotional and ethical components within the narrative which in turn draws on the reader’s emotional and ethical responses.

Brian De Palma points out that “People don’t see the world before their eyes until it’s put into a narrative mode” (quoted in Porter Abbott 6). Throughout Oliver Twist Dickens builds images that heighten the quality of pathos in the narrative. These images put the realities of the situation in which poor, innocent children like Oliver are placed, in front of the reader’s eyes, as it were. One example of this is where Oliver receives a week’s solitary confinement after asking for “more” food:

He only cried bitterly all day; and when the long dismal night came on, he spread his little hands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching in the corner, tried to sleep; ever and anon waking with a start and tremble, and drawing himself closer and closer to the wall, as if to feel even its cold hard surface were a protection in the gloom and loneliness which surrounded him. (28)

Dickens use of heavy irony, satire, imagery, and melodramatic presentation enhance his use of third person omniscient narrative and cause the reader to feel Oliver’s extreme fear and pain: “desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery”, Oliver “advances to the master” and utters one simple childish plea: “ ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The master, a fat, healthy man, turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel . . . then clung for support to the copper” (26). Since ‘food’ is necessary to life and also a repetitive theme in Oliver Twist, Dickens’ presentation of the philosophers’ reactions to a starving child’s request for “more” builds on, and conveys, the escalating horror and tension of Oliver’s situation to the reader. Arnold Kettle’s words on Oliver Twist in general could apply to this scene: “There is no sentimentality here, only horror . . . the blurring of the line between reality and nightmare” (“Dickens: Oliver Twist” 259). Towards the end of the story when Oliver’s physical and spiritual needs are fulfilled by true Christian gentle-folk who have been brought to a full awareness of his predicament, tension eases and the need for ‘food’ becomes less immediate: “Truth to tell, the supper had been waiting a most unreasonable time. Neither Mrs. Maylie, nor Harry, nor Rose (who all came in together) could offer a word in extenuation” (363). Thus ‘food’ is at once the catalyst for Oliver’s change of circumstances, and Dickens’ symbol to his readers that the inhumane practices of Victorian England’s flawed social system can be abolished by a cooperative class of Christian-minded gentle-people who have been made aware of the dire situation in which children such as Oliver are placed.

There is a comic aspect to Dickens’ presentation of an otherwise serious situation. Stephen Gill says “brilliant linguistic comedy is wrested from the miserable realities of Oliver’s plight” (xi). Each time Oliver’s “more” is echoed by other characters within the story it gains momentum until it reverberates throughout the system: Oliver’s terrified peers fall back in fear; the flabbergasted master staggers back in “stupefied astonishment”; his staff recoil in shocked wonder at Oliver’s “temerity”; the overly-excited master repeats Oliver’s demand to the board who are even more shocked and horrified; Mr. Limbkins in the “high chair” exhibits even greater horror, shock and indignation than the board; the shocked “gentleman in the white waistcoat” passes moral judgement on Oliver, and Oliver is first imprisoned then subjected to on-going trauma (26-7). Gill says these “philosophers”—that is, Mr. Limbkins and the workhouse board—are representations of the legislators of the 1834 New Poor Laws which imposed great hardship on the innocents caught up in the system (vii). Paroissien writes: “The comic over-reaction to Oliver’s request also captures” the general hysteria which “accompanied the introduction of the 1834 policies” and gave rise to “partial riots and attempts to burn down workhouses” (59). In Oliver Twist, Dickens explains his method thus: “it is the custom . . . in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes in as regular alternation as the layers in red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon” (120). In fact, Dickens breaks with this custom.  He does not alternate the tragic and the comic, rather he rolls the comic into the tragic as intrinsic to the whole. But he does use the accepted custom of sudden shifts in scene. Dickens explains: that these “sudden shiftings of the scene and rapid changes of time and place” are by many “considered as the great art of authorship—an author’s skill in his craft being . . . chiefly estimated with the relation to the dilemmas in which he leaves his characters at the end of every chapter” (121). Dickens claims that his technique is different, that in his story “sudden shiftings in the scene, and rapid changes of time and place” have definite purposes that will be revealed in due course: “the reader taking it for granted that there are good and substantial reasons” (120-1). This is Dickens’ signal that Oliver’s situation will be happily resolved.

Works cited:

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations London: Queensway, n.d.

—, Preface (dated 1867) Oliver Twist. By Dickens. London: Queensway, n.d. 13-16

—, Oliver Twist: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton, 1993.

—, Oliver Twist: With an Introduction and Notes by Stephen Gill. Ed. Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

—, Oliver Twist. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin, 2002.

Gill, Stephen. Introduction.  Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. vii-xxix.

Horne, Philip. Introduction. Oliver Twist. By Charles Dickens London: Penguin, 2002. xiii-xliv.

Kettle, Arnold. “Dickens: Oliver Twist”. Ford and Lane, The Dickens Critics. 252-70.

Paroissien, David. The Companion to Oliver Twist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1992.

Porter Abbott, H. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

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