Representations of the Damaging Childhood in Literary Works: Oliver Twist, continued…

By opening his novel Oliver Twist in first person narrative in a style reminiscent of the oral tradition, Dickens gives the reader notice that he is embarking upon an enjoyable story that involves serious subjects: “Among other buildings in a certain town . . . there is one anciently common to most towns . . . and in this workhouse was born, on a day which I need not trouble myself to repeat . . . the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter” (17). After a brief introduction Dickens effortlessly glides into third person omniscient narrative, then, without pause, ends the first chapter with an authorial intrusion that forms part of the story: the “parish child—the orphan of the workhouse” is “despised by all, and pitied by none” (19). This technique allows Dickens to provide some distancing between the first person story-teller and the intrusive author and the third person omniscient narrator, while at the same time showing happy agreement between the three entities to enhance the illusion of truth; that is, the story flows smoothly from one to the other. This perspective gives Dickens the opportunity to intervene at will in the narrative in his own voice in order to further convince the reader that his story has literal truth (41, 90, 120-1, 374). George P. Landow likens the Dickensian method to that used by Samuel Johnson and George Eliot and describes it as “Wisdom Speaking”: “a mode [which] creates credibility for the authorial voice within the text” (1). However, there is a marked difference between this literary mode as used by Johnson and that used by Eliot, and between the methods employed by those authors and Dickens. Distinguishing between these three approaches helps to show more clearly how Dickens brings the reader to an awareness of the damaging childhood. For instance, in his fictional work The History of Rasselas, Johnson embeds his ‘wisdom writing’ within a character’s narration. He has Nekayah comment on private life and the type of psychology peculiar to all families (657-9). There is nothing new in life in Nekayah’s generalised observations: they are merely widely accepted truths of the human condition. In Middlemarch Eliot expands somewhat on Johnson’s technique to gain the allegiance of her readers; she does much of her “wisdom speaking” through her characters’ psychological make-up. For example, by his reasoning and actions, young Dr. Lydgate shows himself to be a shallow fellow—he sets his sights on Rosamund Vincy as a future wife, and bases his decision on nothing other than her pleasing physical appearance, his personal gain and aggrandisement, and the belief that in contracting such a marriage, his position in life, in the town and society, will be assured: “For who of any consequence in Middlemarch was not connected or at least acquainted with the Vincy’s?” (121-3). Thus, Eliot gives her readers an insight into the psychology of human nature. Unlike Eliot, Dickens, in the interests of social reform, takes a rounded approach inasmuch that he allows his omniscient narrator hence the actions and words of the characters and the story itself to do most of his “wisdom speaking”.

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.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Ed. W. J. Harvey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected           Prose. Ed. Bertrand H. Bronson.  New York: Holt Rinehart, 1971.

Landow, George P. The Dickensian Narrator as Wisdom Speaker. 17 May, 2007. New York: Brown U. 1-3. 12 October, 2008.

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