The last novel I read was set in a future after a nuclear holocaust where there was no source of food, and right now I think that the most draining stretch of fiction I’ve ever read is the first fifty pages of Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to those standards.
The story, as you probably know, tells of a boy called Oliver Twist whose mother comes to a workhouse, gives birth to him, and dies. Oliver Twist grows up under the parochial hand, and runs away to London one day after he is treated especially badly. There he falls into the company of Fagin, a jew who manages a little team of petty criminals. He is rescued by Mr. Brownlow, then re-kidnapped by Fagin, then rescued by Rose Maylie, and then the book gets boring.
The best part of the book is before he runs away to London. Here, Dickens narrates with such anger that I was surprised that the man who wrote these pages never started a revolution.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ said the gentleman in the high chair.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
‘Boy,’ said the gentleman in the high chair, ‘listen to me. You know you’re an orphan, I suppose?’
‘What’s that, sir?’ inquired poor Oliver.
‘The boy is a fool—I thought he was,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.
‘Hush!’ said the gentleman who had spoken first. ‘You know you’ve got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don’t you?’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.
‘What are you crying for?’ inquired the gentleman in the white waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What could the boy be crying for?
‘I hope you say your prayers every night,’ said another gentleman in a gruff voice; ‘and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you—like a Christian.’
‘Yes, sir,’ stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvellously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him.
‘Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade,’ said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.
‘So you’ll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o’clock,’ added the surly one in the white waistcoat.
For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward; where, on a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a novel illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!
Yes, what is happening to poor Oliver is a Bad thing, but what makes it truly horrific is the uppity gallows humour and biting sarcasm Dickens narrates it with, not to mention the — even more important — wee doses of poignancy interwoven into it.
Certainly, these are a great fifty pages, and after reading this, I was seriously wondering whether I had the courage to continue. Well, it turns out I did, but after that Dickens relaxed his tone, when Oliver runs away from the town to London.
The problem with these fifty pages is the legacy they bequeathe to the rest of the book: after this, nothing seems particularly horrible anymore, except two of the last few chapters. Not Fagin — though he is effectively creepy –, not Bill Sikes the universally gruff ruffian, and certainly not the ‘hideous’ Monks.
Dickens’ writing, however, is consistently brilliant. Well, till the part where I said it gets boring, because then it suddenly becomes full of highfalutin melodrama. It is, however, probably at its most beautiful when he cuts away from the rich-good to the poor-bad, where the richness of his description is really something to savour, not to mention the rest of the writing.
Adept as she was, in all the arts of cunning and dissimulation, the girl Nancy could not wholly conceal the effect which the knowledge of the step she had taken, wrought upon her mind. She remembered that both the crafty Jew and the brutal Sikes had confided to her schemes, which had been hidden from all others: in the full confidence that she was trustworthy and beyond the reach of their suspicion. Vile as those schemes were, desperate as were their originators, and bitter as were her feelings towards Fagin, who had led her, step by step, deeper and deeper down into an abyss of crime and misery, whence was no escape; still, there were times when, even towards him, she felt some relenting, lest her disclosure should bring him within the iron grasp he had so long eluded, and he should fall at last—richly as he merited such a fate—by her hand.
But, these were the mere wanderings of a mind unable wholly to detach itself from old companions and associations, though enabled to fix itself steadily on one object, and resolved not to be turned aside by any consideration. Her fears for Sikes would have been more powerful inducements to recoil while there was yet time; but she had stipulated that her secret should be rigidly kept, she had dropped no clue which could lead to his discovery, she had refused, even for his sake, a refuge from all the guilt and wretchedness that encompasses her—and what more could she do! She was resolved.
Though all her mental struggles terminated in this conclusion, they forced themselves upon her, again and again, and left their traces too. She grew pale and thin, even within a few days. At times, she took no heed of what was passing before her, or no part in conversations where once, she would have been the loudest. At other times, she laughed without merriment, and was noisy without a moment afterwards—she sat silent and dejected, brooding with her head upon her hands, while the very effort by which she roused herself, told, more forcibly than even these indications, that she was ill at ease, and that her thoughts were occupied with matters very different and distant from those in the course of discussion by her companions.
Except Nancy, who features in the above quote, every character — especially Oliver himself — is a type, a grotesque. They are divided (as I’ve already alluded to) into the rich-good, the poor-bad and the parochial officiaries. Oliver himelf is the least memorable of these grotesques; he’s just a device to get into the spotlight the poor-bad and the government officiaries, and the rich-good abound merely to counterbalance the other two types.
All this, in the final reckoning, is fine with me. What is not is that Dickens seems to be majorly confused about his morality. Consistently, English society (as represented by the government officiaries and much later a massive crowd ) seems to be the real villain. We read the first fifty pages, devoted wholly to thrashing the English laws. We see that Oliver, the very epitome of innocence, is consistently taken for one of Fagin’s, strongly implicating society. Then, in the end, it’s a ‘happy’ ending, but the only people harmed are the poor-bad. The villain changes!
And yet, we are supposed to be lifted by the ending. Yes, maybe Dickens means it to be a mixed bag, but I prefer to get indications from more than a trust that he knows what he’s doing; from the text itself. Maybe a final, or penultimate, chapter pointing out that nothing’s really been solved.
But Dickens doesn’t do that, and this — along with the overabundance of melodramatic dialogue that define the word ‘overwrought’ in the last hundred pages — ensures that what all I’ll treasure in this book are the first fifty pages.