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

On one occasion in his novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens uses an authorial intrusion in which he employs personal pronouns in an unusual type of second person narrative, “we” and “us”—implying “you”, in order to build the quality of pathos in the narrative and hence gain the reader’s sympathy for Oliver, who is all “alone in a strange place; and we all know how chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel in such a situation” (42). In this instance intrusion is brief and woven into the melodramatic story. The way in which Dickens uses these narrative devices is different to that of Eliot. For instance, at one point in The Mill on the Floss Eliot breaks the third person omniscient narrative to address the reader in her own voice and draw an analogy between the “dismal ruins” to be seen while “journeying down the Rhone” and the village in which her story is set (269-70). In this instance she involves the reader by using a stylish version of second person narrative point of view, indicated by the use of personal pronouns “me”, “you”, “I”, “we”: these “villages in the Rhone oppress me . . . this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you . . . I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie—how it acted on the lives of young natures in many generations” (270). Thus, Eliot links the reader to geographical atmospheres and the arts and to human nature and hence to her characters, siblings Tom and Maggie, whom she binds together in nature: “Even in their death they were not divided” (511). Thus, Eliot’s art merely lays bare to the reader elements of the individual human psyche, and family and social relationships in relation to middle-class child rearing practices which, unacknowledged and unaltered, appear to be potentially damaging to the children raised within those homes. Dickens’ reformist art is didactic, and it is judgemental towards the authorities, criminals, and philosophers of his day. Both Johnson’s and Eliot’s art and ‘wisdom speaking’ differ from that of Dickens, who uses his authorial voice to create awareness of the truly damaging childhood, and advise his readers to show Christian “mercy to others” (374). Dickens’ technique is implicit in the story as a whole.

Dickens uses a small amount of third person objective point of view as covert authorial intrusion to draw the reader into the story. For example, he opens chapter 50 with a short but comprehensive description of sleazy slum conditions in London and likens that to conditions in Jacob’s Island. He then uses the Jacob’s Island setting to glide smoothly into third person omniscient narrative to continue the story from the angle of the doings of the criminal characters, and which bode ill for Oliver (344-6). In this way, Dickens lets the reader know which characters are trustworthy, and which are not; and passes on the social truths arising from his portrayal of neglected, abused childhood. To aid these narrative devices, and hence assist the reader to consider a flawed social structure more deeply, Dickens occasionally follows up with exquisite satire, delivered by the omniscient narrator, in which he embeds authorial intrusion in delicious irony: the external, omniscient narrator reveals that the criminal Dodger and “his accomplished friend Master Bates”, “were actuated by a very laudable and becoming regard for themselves”; so, says Dickens the author, “I need hardly beg the reader to observe that this action should tend to exalt them in the opinion of all public and patriotic men” (89-90). Thus, Dickens takes an encyclopaedic approach in Oliver Twist; he employs his authorial intrusions, his narrators, his characters, the story line and—to borrow H. Porter Abbott’s words on another different matter and use them here for discussion on Dickens—other “major rhetorical devices”, to reveal the conflict and evil within the Benthamite ideologies of England’s authorities (37).

In his Preface (dated 1867) a serious Dickens implies that the poverty, squalor, and hardships in slums such as Jacob’s Island are fostered by the ideologies of the ruling parliamentary party, and denied by those in power (16). By implication, Dickens expresses his serious views on the dangers of utilitarianism through the ironic sentiment behind the words of the characters in the story. For example, the unconscionable Mr. Bumble, one of the so-called “authorities” appointed by the systems “philosophers” and a chief perpetrator of Oliver’s misery, declares: “If parliament don’t take their abominable courses under consideration, this country’s ruined” (191). Thus Dickens avoids the pitfall of becoming too distanced as an external narrator by aligning his views on the legislators’ Utilitarian philosophies with Oliver’s point of view: “Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature. If he had been, perhaps he would have been more prepared for this” (74).

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. Mill on the Floss. London: Marshall Cavendish, 1986.

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

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