"It was a nice sickly season just at this time. In commercial phrase, coffins were looking up." [VI]
The Pickwick Papers begins with some highly facetious banter about clubs and debates; Oliver Twist with some highly facetious banter about death and nothingness. In place of the gently subversive Pickwickian humour we have the vicious and barbed black humour of the first official spokesman for the Oliver Twist world, Mrs. Thingummy, as she presides over the death of Oliver's mother:
"Lor bless her heart, no! [she must not talk about dying]" interposed the nurse, hastily depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of which she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction. "Lor bless her dear heart, when she has lived as long as I have, sir, and had thirteen children of her own, and all on 'em dead except two, and them in the wurkus with me, she'll know better than to take on in that way, bless her dear heart! Think what it is to be a mother, there's a dear lamb, do." [I]
This is nearly all this novel has to offer as comfort: a perverse and bitter sarcasm. The magic milk punch has become gin and water, and the joyous vision from the wheelbarrow has become a workhouse nightmare.
One thing the novel makes abundantly clear is that, compared with the two children now with Mrs. Thingummy in the workhouse, the eleven dead ones are lucky. In fact, some of the bitterest humour in the novel is based exactly on the notion of Malthusian redundancy, and time and again we are asked to laugh at the horrible concept that, in the face of the [50/51] continually demonstrated fact that life is cheap, any importance placed on a single life or a single personality is ludicrous. Certainly the novel's officialdom is highly amused by this notion:
"The prices allowed by the board are very small, Mr. Bumble." "So are the coffins," replied the beadle: with precisely as near an approach to a laugh as a great official ought to indulge in. Mr. Sowerberry was much tickled at this: as of course he ought to be; and laughed a long time without cessation. [IV]
And Sowerberry and Bumble are not, in the moral scheme of the novel, really very bad men. Coffins are seen as rather happy means of escape. The fact is that this novel comes about as close as is possible to building its final society literally in heaven. If Pickwick suggested that the Kingdom of God was available on earth, Oliver Twist exactly reverses that suggestion: here there is not even sanctity, only loneliness, brutality, and, above all, the pervasive and threatening institutions. The morally approved people in the novel, including Oliver when he is with them, exist on the edge of the grave. There is simply no opening here for permanent joy. Dulwich cannot exist when the whole world has become the Fleet.
One of the major questions, then, is how such a dark novel can be so funny. It is probable that most critics often laugh while reading it; it is certain that when they are finished they write essays on its bleak effects. And they are right — in both cases. The reason for the paradoxical reaction is, I think, that Dickens uses laughter here to subvert our conventional reactions and to emphasize more dramatically the isolation of his young hero, indeed, the essential isolation of all men. In denying the possibility of a comic society and yet provoking laughter, the novel continually thwarts and frustrates the reader; for our laughter continues to search for a social basis, even when there is no longer any support for it in the novel. In other words, laughter is stirred, but the impulses aroused behind it are not allowed to collect and settle. Unlike the [51/52] convivial atmosphere of Pickwick Papers, where our laughter finally provides us a place with Sam and with Mr. Pickwick, here there is no possibility of escape to a society sanctified by the expulsion of all the villains. Instead, laughter is used primarily as a weapon, to suggest that we are the villains. The selfishness and unfeeling cruelty which are a subconscious part of much laughter are here brought to the surface and used to intensify our reaction and our involvement. Laughter is a necessary part of the proper reaction to the novel, but in the end it is used against us, undercutting the comfortable aloofness we bad originally maintained and forcing us into conjunction with the lonely and terrified orphan. This suggests that, just as in Pickwick, the basic attack is on detachment. But the comparison doesn't go very far. There are no comparable rewards for submitting to the attack in Oliver Twist and no comfortably stable scheme of values to which we can attach ourselves. We are left alone in a rootless and threatening world.,
There is, of course, an apparently brighter world in Oliver Twist, and the plot of the novel seems to point us towards it. Even before the narrative reaches midpoint, Dickens has rescued his hero and placed him firmly in the protection of the Maylie group; the last half of the novel simply reinforces Oliver's "safe" position, on the one hand, by methodically hunting down the threats to his safety and eliminating them (Fagin and Sikes) or converting them (Charlie Bates and Nancy), and, on the other hand, by securing the prospects of wealth for the hero (through Monks's will) and eternal bliss for the rest of the, good people (the marriage between Rose and Harry Maylie). Yet most commentators have found themselves untouched by this arrangement of events and have emphasized the novel's predominantly grim effect [Wilson, p. 17 calls it a "somber book"; for a fuller discussion of this aspect see Arnold Kettle]. This paradox has generally been explained by the argument that Dickens portrayed Fagin and his group with great vividness, that a part of him identified very closely with them, that he treated them with great 'sympathy'. In contrast, even Forster admitted that the Maylie-Brownlow group were so poorly [52/53] realized, so completely unbelievable as to constitute "the weak part of the story" [Forster's Life, i. 91; for an enthusiastic but, I think, unconvincing defence of the role of Brownlow, see Joseph M. Duffy, Jr]. Graham Greene has merged these two contrasting impressions by describing the controlling view of the novel as "Manichaean"; he argues that the power of the book comes from "the eternal and alluring trait of the Manichee, with its simple and terrible explanation of our plight, how the world was made by Satan and not by God, lulling us with the music of despair" [Greene, pp. 56-7]
But the problem really goes much deeper, and the novel really does not make such simple distinctions as are implied by these views. The fact is that there are two separate and conflicting dualisms: one social, between the individual and the institution, the second moral, between the respectable and the criminal. Arnold Kettle has described this conflict as that between the pattern and the plot of the novel. For the first eleven chapters the basic pattern of the novel is developed: the evocation of the dark world of the poor and the engagement of our sympathy with them in their struggle against institutions. This pattern, he argues, is most deeply felt and continues throughout, though in the second half of the novel it tends to lose ground to the plot, a relatively superficial and conventionally formulated moralistic conflict. The basic problem, though, is not in the superficiality of the moral theme, but in its conflict with the more deeply-felt theme of institutional oppression. The "good" people in the second half of the novel sometimes use the hated institution of the first-half to fight not only the persecutors but the victims as well.
Laughter leads us to Oliver's side, but Oliver soon leaves us and heads for the enemy. As a result we are likely to be stranded. Our laughter has exposed us and isolated us along with Oliver, and it then deprives us of even his alliance. It is [53/54] our response to this desolation, pushed on us by our laughter, that is at the core of the novel's one undoubted effect: discomfort. We not only have an uneasy aesthetic response to a thematically fractured novel, but an uneasy emotional response at being forced into the same isolation the novel portrays. In the end, Oliver Twist comes near to making orphans of us all by dislocating us from the world we are comfortable in, and displaying the full force of Mrs. Thingummy's bitter mockery of consolation.
Duffy, Joseph M. "Another Version of Pastoral: Oliver Twist" ELH, 35 (1968).
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. Notes by A. J. Hoppé, i. London, 1966.
Greene, Graham. "The Young Dickens" The Lost Childhood and Other Essays. London, 1951.
Kettle, Arnold. "Oliver Twist" An Introduction to the English Novel, 1. London, 1951.
Tillotson, Kathleen. "Oliver Twist" Essays and Studies, 12 (1959).
Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow. New York, 1947.
Last modified 14 October 2002