All things in parables despise not we
Lest things most hurtful lightly we receive;
And things that good are, of our souls bereave. — John Bunyan, "The Author's Apology for His Book," The Pilgrim's Progress
Although Oliver Twist is not a religious novel, it is a book, as Steven Marcus puts it more precisely, "conceived under substantial pressure of the Christian sentiments and language which were the received culture of Dickens's time" (76). Already in this early work these pressures, meeting counterforces in this same culture, were generating the tensions that distinguish Dickens' work and that impelled him toward the complexity of his later fiction. On the one hand, it has been argued that allusions to Christian texts make sense of this novel, providing what Erving Goffman calls a "frame" for understanding. Yet the religious framework also makes "nonsense" of Oliver Twist and calls attention to its own literary and moral inadequacies. Moreover, much of this early novel's potent social vision menaces, even ruptures, the constructive religious frame, with its promise of closure on interpretation. In his later fiction, Dickens anticipates the menace with more subtly elaborated, and more genuinely dialogical, biblical designs than anything attempted in Oliver Twist. As later chapters will show, he encapsulates doubt and hermeneutical instability in familiar models from the darker biblical books, he employs the Bible's own poetry of mutability, and he registers tensions in the novel through counterpointed scriptural allusions. Studying how Dickens uses religious texts in Oliver Twist can help us to define some of the problems, so evident at the beginning, which Dickens' later complex novels were designed not to solve, certainly, but to entertain and explore in more imaginatively satisfying ways.
Oliver at Mrs. Maylie's Door — George Cruikshank's illustration for Chapter 28,
"Looks after Oliver, and proceeds with his Adventures." Click on image to enlarge it.
In several senses Oliver Twist is a simple early case of Dickensian biblical reading. In his use of The Pilgrim's Progress we see Dickens experimenting with the technique of a unifying subtext, although his revised version of this Puritan classic confers only a spurious order on his fictional world and for many readers creates more problems than it solves. In this novel some of the key Bible texts for Dickens' entire work begin to establish their importance, although formal allusions to the Authorized Version are few and scattered; they have not yet become resonant poetic devices, means of weighting social prophecy, or tools of critical interpretation. Dickens' extensive use of ironic biblical allusion is adumbrated in Oliver Twist's satire but only in a limited way, producing stable ironies whose meaning is immediately evident. Moreover, the religious allusions are apparently chosen to chime with each other but are not quite consonant. And if the Dickens of Oliver Twist is aware of contradiction in his work, which he defends in the famous "streaky bacon" passage, he seems unconscious of its problematic status and masks the hermeneutic instability it creates from his readers, perhaps also from himself, with the affirmations of his religious rhetoric. (In the later fiction, where interpretive uncertainty becomes self-consciously engaged as theme, Dickens also comes to expose religious rhetoric as a strategy of evasion.) The central problem in which the others are rooted has already been suggested: in Oliver Twist's relatively simpler fictional world, the religious design — along with the conventions of melodrama and satire we already see Dickens assimilating to it — is undermined by a social vision that is "Radicalish" (in the word of one Victorian reader)2 in exposing the failure of received conventions to explain evil and justify suffering. Not surprisingly, given the pressures of this radical vision as well as the inadequacies of its religious counterweights, in Oliver Twist we see the early signs of a problem with Christian ideas in Dickens' fiction that Alexander Welsh's work has explored: "they are "inescapably there and yet finally elusive" (141). After identifying the sources of those ideas in Oliver Twist and the kind of religious frame they make, the discussion will track that elusiveness and its implications for allusion in this early Dickens text.
1. Bunyanesque Fable v. The Equivocal Samaritan
STEVEN MARCUS has placed Oliver Twist within the English parabolic tradition of morality plays, homiletic tales, and Bunyan (67-68). In fact. Oliver Twist is three parables — two of them religious stories in Dean Stanley's sense whose dual operation in this novel is apparently meant to but does not quite produce a clear, univocal message. The most prominent is the fable Bunyan claimed to write "in parables" like his Master: Dickens announces it in the novel's subtitle, "The Parish Boy's Progress," and recalls it in a running headline for chapter 8 ("The Young Pilgrim's Progress," added in 1867 — see Clarendon edition, 385), where "Oliver Walks to London, He Encounters on the Road, a Strange Sort of Young Gentleman" when the hero is nearly "dead upon the king's highway" (46). This echo of Bunyan's "such robberies [of faith] are done on the King's highway" (171) calls to mind the other story engaged in Oliver Twist as a subtext with wide relevance: the parable of the Good Samaritan. The motif of providential rescue is there in Bunyan's allegory as well as in Jesus' exemplary tale; but the latter's predominance in Oliver Twist [47/48] requires the redefinition of the Bunyan hero as a passive sufferer for Good Samaritans to assist — a redefinition that attenuates the spiritual impact of the revised Puritan classic and clouds the "truth within a fable" Dickens would, like his precursor, convey (B 37). (Here is an early instance of Dickens' privileging one religious subtext, which modifies the perspective of another.) On the other hand, the Good Samaritan subtext is relevant to more of Dickens' novel and, within its own limits, is more imaginatively engaged by Dickens as parabler.
A literary allusion is a medium of vision, as Herman Meyer describes it, "permitting another world to radiate into the self-contained world of the novel" (6). The Pilgrim's Progress as subtext invites the reader to see behind the adventures of Oliver's story an archetypal struggle between the forces of good and evil for the hero's soul. Yet since its "other world" is two centuries removed (and in signal ways alien to Dickens' temperament), the Bunyan text must be revised for a later time. One way Dickens secures spiritual issues in a set of nineteenth-century conventions is to assimilate this Bunyan design to melodrama; its signs also gesture toward a subsurface Manichean battle, and in its plot a moral universe among men is at length vindicated.7 While Bunyan defends his use of parable to convey spiritual truth in "The Author's Apology for His Book," Dickens' famous apology opening chapter 17 argues for the natural truth of melodrama's conventional aim to "present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon"; such "sudden shiftings of the scene," besides, are "sanctioned in books by long usage" (102), and although Dickens did not name it in his 1841 preface, Pilgrim's Progress is one of those books. Superficially, with its dramatic changes of fortune, Bunyan's story lends itself to melodramatization — not surprisingly, since melodrama's roots can be found in the same morality tradition that Bunyan drew upon. Alternating between radical peril and dramatic rescue, his hero's journey is "sometimes up-hill, sometimes down-hill," as Honest says; "we are seldom at a certainty" about the soul's destination (B 332) until the glorious end. Dickens exploits this apparent uncertainty with melodramatic suspense: Which way will Oliver go? — toward the "tragic" hell of urban crime and poverty or the divinely "comic" heaven he dreams about and miraculously discovers on earth in the society of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies?
But of course Dickens' Oliver is not Bunyan's more active wayfaring Christian, nor a Christian in any other orthodox sense. If the borrowed paradigm suggests that life is a stage on which the drama of salvation is enacted and the faithful matured as well as tested by adversity, Dickens actually precludes any real moral drama, undercuts this paradigm, and belies the notion of "progress" [48/49] in his subtitle.8 For his hero already embodies the "incorruptible" goodness that Christian seeks (B 42), as the preordained "principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last" (1841 preface, xxv).9 In consequence Oliver is what Bumble calls him, "a artificial soul and spirit" (7.42), not the "human boy" even Chadband in Bleak House finds Jo. At this stage in his career, Dickens apparently needed an unsullied image of his childself as well as proof definitive of a God who takes care of his own, in what he already knew was "a world of disappointment: often to the hopes we most cherish" (51.338). Thus he embodies a Romantic version of Puritan election in his innocent child, while stoutly rejecting what was the logical counterpart for many of his contemporaries — the predestined damnation voiced by the gentleman in the white waistcoat and Mr. Grimwig (Oliver's "A bad one!" 41.262). As Dickens' melodrama drives toward the revelation of the hero's pure identity and the expulsion of evil in a public spectacle, Oliver must remain a passive victim of the inexorable logic of the plot in order to prove God's all-powerful providence.
Bunyan's allegory also starts with the premise of election; but his story has brought comfort and inspiration to generations of embattled Christians because his hero enacts their struggles in ways that Oliver's so obviously preordained goodness never allows him to do. Unlike the episodic mishaps of the static Oliver, Christian's plot of spiritual growth takes him through the entire Puritan psychology of conversion; and even after he loses his burden at the foot of the Cross and receives assurance of his election, he must beat back an army of spiritual temptations, wrestle for the truth of Scripture texts, and hold onto the promises of eternal life. Oliver, in contrast, dressed in rags and with no burden on his back but the unmerited curse of his illegitimacy and poverty, runs from Dickens' City of Destruction crying for physical survival, the first thing needful for his "Good" to survive; instead of the truth Christian seeks, the utterly lonely Oliver wants only an arbor to rest in and a family identity. In this beginning, Dickens is already setting the scene for his Good Samaritan parable, which requires Oliver not to fight the good fight of faith but to lie in literal and figurative ditches awaiting rescue, "a poor outcast boy . . . alone in the midst of wickedness and guilt" (20.124-25).
Through Sloughs of Despond, Valleys of the Shadow of Death and Valleys of Humiliation, up Hills of Difficulty, and into Vanity Fairs (for Oliver, a Rag-Fair), both protagonists travel; both are met by allegorical personages and confront demons at hell's mouth. But Christian does heroic battle with creatures like Giant Despair who personify his inner doubts, while Oliver's enemies are strictly external menaces, and he seems never seriously to be tempted. Resting in an arbor [49/50] at the Maylies' country retreat, he momentarily loses his "scroll" (his proof of election) like Christian sleeping, when the evil of Fagin and Monks at the window impresses itself on his consciousness; but it is only a moment, before all traces of them and their influence vanish. This disappearance is the more incredible because the reader is powerfully impressed by the real menace of the evil characters — as the Bunyan subtext would require, with its lesson that we must never underestimate the powers of darkness. It is, significantly, in the context Dickens has himself created that the notion of Oliver's inherent goodness seems as much a piece of folly as the self-delusion of Bunyan's Ignorance, who has stifled his conviction of sin because his "heart" has told him he is good (185). Bunyan knows better: Ignorance misses entering the Celestial City by a hair's-breadth; Oliver, on the strength of Dickens' new Pelagian heresy, finds himself already in.
Because being spiritually saved is not enough, Dickens diverges even further from the Bunyan model in his final disposition of affairs. Turning away from whatever divine grace has been implied in Oliver's deliverances, Dickens lands his hero at length in Bunyan's eschewed Village of Morality under the care of Legality and his son Civility to "live by honest neighbours, in credit and good fashion" (B 50). Ordering this ending, Dickens becomes Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, "the eternal bourgeois trying to tell a social inferior which way he should go."10 As bourgeois rewards of being good replace Christian ones and the "inheritance incorruptible" becomes the father's money and the father's name, Oliver's intimations of the heavenly are realized in Brownlow's "little society, whose condition approached as nearly to one of perfect happiness as can ever be known in this changing world" (53.348). Dickens' last phrase is disingenuous; we have left that world behind for another Eden, like Pickwick's final retreat. The other heaven, after all, is "a long way off; and they are too happy there, to come down to" earth, as Oliver says (12.69). If in this Dickens retreats from affirming the "Heavenly Home" that was Christian's reward, the Victorian writer's earthly paradise is curiously deathlike nonetheless11 — like Meagles' country home in Little Dorrit, "Devilish still" (1.16.188). Cruikshank's last plate, "Rose Maylie and Oliver," is appropriate to this deathlike close of their stories: in a church reduced to its function as mausoleum, the two gaze solemnly at Agnes' memorial stone, their faces grown too old (as Dickens himself noticed) as though their lives are already over. (The picture also resembles the preceding illustration of Fagin's death cell, with stained glass replacing his gaol window.) We have arrived at the other pole of Oliver's predetermined "claustral universe" (Marcus, 79), where the novel's obsessive fears of suffocation, which J. Hillis Miller has noted, are associated not only with baby farms, chimney sweeping, hanging, and the close [51/52/53] dens of thieves (Miller, 38-39) but also with the stifling domestic interiors, funereally perfumed with flowers, of the Maylie household — and with the church, a place of the dead. In the irreversible logic of events, this is the artificial Elysium where Oliver, victim as much as beneficiary of his predestination, has no choice but to go.
Rose Maylie and Oliver — George Cruikshank's illustration for Chapter 53, "At Last"
If Dickens attenuates the power of his Bunyan model by eliminating or displacing much of its spiritual drama, in depositing his hero at this House Beautiful he misses another form of dramatic tension and progression in The Pilgrim's Progress. Dayton Haskin has argued that Bunyan presents a drama of interpretation in which Christian, a lonely figure burdened with a Book whose texts initially menace his peace of mind and render him impotent, must "lear[n] to interpret for himself, making his way through the wilderness of the world" (278). Growing in his understanding of Scripture at the House of the Interpreter and later at the House Beautiful, Christian becomes ever more adept, even playful, at quoting a saving and clarifying text for the situations that arise on his journey, and correcting the misinterpretations of the tempters put in his way. Bunyan would foster a similar growth in his reader. Arguing in the "Author's Apology" for "The use of parables; in which lay hid / That gold, those pearls, and precious stones that were / Worth digging for" (35), Bunyan assigns to his reader the "travail" of puzzling out readings, that the burden of interpretation eventually lighten and reading become a source of "delightful things to see" (37), comfort, and self-knowledge (Haskin, 275). Enticing his reader at the threshold of his story into the serious textual play, Bunyan concludes his catalog of the many pleasures to be found in this work with a challenge to his participating reader:
Would'st read thyself, and read thou know'st not what
And yet know whether thou art blest or not,
By reading the same lines? 0 then come hither,
And lay my book, thy head and heart together. (37)
When Oliver Twist comes to his House Beautiful, like Christian he reviews his adventures, receives religious instruction, and glimpses the Delectable Mountains that will be his by the tale's end. Having been earlier prepared at Brownlow's House of the Interpreter — where he had been ministered to by "softhearted psalm-singers" (16.98) and an old woman with "a small Prayer Book and a large nightcap" (12.70) — Oliver now can "read a chapter or two from the Bible: which he had been studying all the week." Rather than bringing the multiple delights and puzzles Bunyan celebrates, however, reading the Bible is for Oliver "the performance of [a] duty," which makes him feel "more proud and [53/54] pleased, than if he had been the clergyman himself" (33.202). Clearly Oliver is not "pleased" by the pleasures of the text, for no imaginative engagement is required, no difficulties of interpretation arise; learning to read the Bible is assimilated rather to his pleasure of acquiring a higher station in life, even that of the clergyman. Never puzzling over the application of the right texts to life situations, Oliver also never cites any specific verses; the text Oliver's narrator often comes closest to quoting for him is not from Scripture at all but Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality ode (see 30.184, 32.201). Goodness in his world seems as transparently readable as the words of the Book, provoking nothing but a blank of reflection in this artificial soul.
In this early novel, like Oliver, Dickens is not wrestling with the simple biblical texts he chooses for his story; and in his interpretation of Bunyan's classic, founded on shoals of Scripture texts, he smooths all the rough places in their theology and dispenses finally with its Christian message. Nor, with one important exception, does he impose on his readers the burden of interpretation that becomes the serious play of allusion in his later books. Passively we are to receive the Bunyan parallel in the subtitle, without inquiring too far into it; no labor is required to dig out the meaning of other religious allusions, such as the association of Monks and Sikes with Cain (46.296, 48.306-7) or the use of "Pharisee" for the religious hypocrite (294). Like Oliver, we too can be complacently "proud and pleased" with these confirmations of our common heritage, rather than challenged to read for ourselves. In the early Dickens, the reading and application of Scripture is in general unproblematic — or meant to be.
The important exception anticipates, on a small scale, some of the more interesting ways Dickens uses the Bible in his later fiction. If his readers are challenged at all to more active critical reading of themselves and their world, it is not through the Bunyan fable but the parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the few of Christ's parables that sets forth a clear moral for earthly action, and thus appropriate for a Victorian fable that ends in the Village of Morality, this story radiates into the world of Dickens' novel to illuminate where duty lies. At the same time, Dickens' depiction of much social suffering draws attention to the darker places in Oliver Twist's world and in human nature, insoluble enigmas Good Samaritans address in vain. Thus, unlike the Bunyan melodrama, which expels evil with the triumph of good on earth, Dickens' application of Jesus' parable does not solve all the problems it illuminates and is unevenly matched against the forces of the third, darker "parable" — in Kermode's sense — that Oliver Twist also tells through its nightmarish visions of the Victorian urban hell.
From a pragmatic point of view, it might seem perfectly obvious why Dickens used the parable of the Good Samaritan: at a time when he was trying to build up [54/55] his public, he appealed to biblical knowledge the most commonly shared among his readers, thereby gaining credibility while he "flattered their moral feelings," as Humphrey House writes more generally of the religious Dickens and his public (42). But such an analysis slights both Dickens' serious intention and the biblical story itself. Some consideration of what Jesus' parables are and how Dickens acts as parabler in his Master's tradition will be useful at this point.
Jesus' parables were heuristic devices adapted to specific audiences of his day: through the experience of a story, he intended to make his hearers see a new reality, moving "from 'what is' to 'what might be'" (TeSelle, 33). While the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 is not metaphorical like most of Jesus' parables, like others it is both dialogical and dialectical. Usually Jesus' teaching stories emerged out of debate; this one begins in Jesus' dialogue with a "certain lawyer" who "tempt[s] him, saying. Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and, when Jesus urges him to love God and "thy neighbour as thyself," asks further, "And who is my neighbour?" Out of such dialogues the parable emerges, engaging the hearers' ordinary social categories, prejudices, pious beliefs, and conventional expectations at the outset of the tale. But as the parable begins to reveal the kind of story it is, John Dominic Crossan writes, the listeners draw back: "I don't know what you mean by that story," they think, "but I'm certain I don't like it."18 The dialectical thrust of the parable is to overturn the story the hearers expected to hear, often with polar reversals (poor become rich, rich become poor) that revolutionize the way reality is perceived. Turning on a surprise, the parable draws in the hearers as critical participants; through their participation, the kingdom "comes" in the transformed hearts of those who have ears to hear — or they reject the parable and effectively exclude themselves from the kingdom.
Although the Good Samaritan parable does not illustrate this process as clearly as the Prodigal Son story, for example, Jesus does transform the expectations of his hearers on several key points. In expanding the definition of the "good neighbour" as the one "that sheweth mercy" to the outcast (v. 37), Jesus removes all limits on the duty of love — something his hearers were quite unprepared to accept. Jesus does not exclude the pious priest and the Levite, whom the audience would expect not to help since handling a dead man would have made them ritually unclean, from the injunction to act charitably toward anyone in need. Most tellingly, in making the good neighbor one despised by the Jewish community, to whom "Good Samaritan" would be "a contradiction in terms . . . the impossible, the unspeakable," Jesus forces those who would "Go and do . . . likewise" (v. 37) to acknowledge the integrity of the traditional enemy and even to identify with the outcast-hero of the story (Crossan, In Parables 64). Entering the [55/56] radically new world of these unforseen relationships, the hearer enters the kingdom the parables proclaim.
Oliver Recovering from Fever — George Cruikshank's illustration for Chapter 12, "In which Oliver is taken better Care of than he ever was before, And in which the Narrative reverts to the merry okd Gentleman and his youthful Friends"
With its implicit social criticism, its exposure of the legalism and hypocrisy of religious officialdom, its dramatic counterpointing of indifference and spontaneous generosity, and its challenges to conventional seeing — both of the wretched and of those who imagine themselves charitable — the Good Samaritan parable is just the sort of story Dickens would have felt impelled to recast again and again for new nineteenth-century conditions. Throughout his career, like Matthew Arnold using "lines and expressions of the great masters" to discover "the truly excellent" (10), Dickens used his Master's moral example story as a touchstone for distinguishing the truly virtuous — those who act upon their faith — from pretenders to virtue.21 He does so when Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce (but not Harold Skimpole) befriend Jo, shivering against a window "like some wounded animal that had been found in a ditch" (BH 31.384). Dickens' strategy, however, was not only to embed such little parabolic moments in his narrative, which may merely call up stuck responses by themselves, but so to detail and populate his novel that his readers might newly see the "vast outlying mass of unseen human suffering" as well as reconceive their conventional duties. As Dean Stanley observed in his memorial sermon, it was this "dramatic power of making things which are not seen be as even though they were seen" that made Dickens the parabler "the advoca[te] of the absent poor." By combining pathetic and horrific social documentation with the Good Samaritan story, Dickens wanted to recall his readers to a fresh sense of what the officially current values of a Christian country should mean in the actual urban setting. The desolate parish boy is his test case.
If Oliver is a pawn in the Bunyanesque spiritual melodrama, he is equally passive in this second parable; but his being little more than an "item of mortality" (1.1) throughout the story is a mark of his desolation in itself impressive, quite apart from the other reasons Dickens needed him to remain such a blank. Oliver comes into the world with his mother's legacy, "the old story" — she "was found lying in the street" (2), rescued by the parish only to die giving birth in the workhouse. Although Oliver lives, his rescue by these bogus Samaritans is hardly the happy conclusion of the parable, which turns into a satiric version of itself. Dickens drives his stable satire home by having Bumble explain the emblem on his "very elegant button": "The die is the same as the porochial seal — the Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man. ... I put it on, 1 remember, for the first time, to attend the inquest on that reduced tradesman, who died in a doorway at midnight." "Died from exposure to the cold," Sowerberry adds, "and want of the common necessaries of life" because "the relieving [57/58] officer had —" ("refused him," the reader adds silently, readily completing Dickens' point; 4.21-22). When the beadle calls the troublesome Oliver "a dead-weight; a millstone, as I may say; round the porochial throat" (21), he condemns himself, as Dennis Walder has observed, by echoing Christ's words, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matt. 18:6: the board also decides to send Oliver to sea, 23) (53). To "offend" the little ones is to sin not only by cuffing and starving them in the workhouse, but also, as Dr. Arnold explains in one of his sermons on this favorite theme, by "leading them into evil" or hindering them from doing right (2.65) — as this "porochial" gang would Oliver were he not under the protection of a Higher Power.
Dickens assimilates other biblical satire to this central situation, in a parish where the practice of baby farming has caused more than one infant to be "summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers which it had never known in this" (2.4). When Oliver is apprenticed to the undertaker, he "Forms an Unfavourable Notion of His Master's Business" (title, chap. 5) — "business" hardly spiritual, though concerned with one of the Four Last Things. Here Oliver meets another charity boy named Noah (who "could trace his genealogy all the way back to his parents"), a cruel survivor in whom all the violence of the world before the Flood seems concentrated against the outcast boy "everybody lets . . . alone" (27). The subject of taunts and even prayers against "the sins and vices of Oliver Twist" (3.14), Oliver is only "half-baptized" by the parish (6); it is no wonder he is considered demonic by those who have failed to complete the ritual of exorcism.
The Samaritan type — especially satirical — was widespread in nineteenth-century literature.24 Dickens often used it: in Hard Times, a "deadly statistical clock" proves "that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist" (2.12.164), echoing a similar conjunction of ideas initiated in Oliver Twist (see 55.22). In Little Dorrit, the workhouse is "appointed by law to be the Good Samaritan of [the] district" (1.31.357). In Our Mutual Friend as Betty Higden dies in her flight from the workhouse, the narrator comments: "It is a remarkable Christian improvement, to have made a pursuing Fury of the Good Samaritan; but it was so in this case, and it is a type of many, many, many" (3.8.569). In Martin Chuzzlewit the satire receives an additional twist: General Choke looks on "at the prospect" of the Eden Land Corporation swindle on poor Martin, "like a good Samaritan waiting for a traveller" (21.419). This is the reverse of the "regeneration of man" that the United States is said to stand for in this novel: the return of the Samaritan figure to the status of enemy, or his degeneration into the band of [57/58] thieves one falls among. The commonness of this kind of transformation is illustrated by a lead article Household Words ran for 14 March 1857, in which Henry Morley decried what was thought a scandal involving the Secretary of the Samaritan Institution, "who stood by one of the way-sides in a great city, and made application to the rich for food and drink, that he might give them to the poor, but maintained his own kitchen therewith, and sent away unaided and uncomforted many a neighbour who, even in the very house of that Samaritan, had fallen among thieves."
In Dickens' later fiction, the satiric and ironic biblical allusions accumulate to expose the inefficacy of the religious models themselves in a culture where "civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together" (BH 11.137). But in Oliver Twist, the satire appeals to Scripture as the still-recognized ground of order against which modern practices are judged. Thus, despite his inventiveness with these biblical texts, Dickens' satire is an art of closure, allowing his reader some imaginative engagement with Scripture but directing that play toward stable moral interpretations. When we later meet the serious counterparts of these Samaritan pretenders, who treat Oliver "with a kindness and solicitude that knew no bounds" (12.68), we are in the even less imaginative realm of the "type," Cruikshank drives the point of the parable home by hanging a religious print of the Good Samaritan over Brownlow's fireplace in his illustration, "Oliver recovering from the fever" After Oliver has been left by the housebreakers badly wounded and "lying in a ditch" (25.155; compare Fagin's "Poor leetle child. Left in a ditch," 26.160), Cruikshank pictures "Oliver Twist at Mrs. Maylie's door" "half dead," a wretched subject indeed for rescue. In every respect these goodly Samaritans counter the bad ones; and unlike the parish authorities, they teach Oliver to pray so that now, with his child's eloquence, he can offer up praise of his benefactors, echoing their own (as Mrs. Maylie says, "may mercy be shewn to me as I shew it to others!" 27.184).
The problem with these types, of course, is that they evoke no critical participation from the reader but merely call up appropriate responses (see Reed 89); and a sentiment automatically induced makes no parabolic impact on conventional ways of seeing. Nor do Dickens' respectable Samaritans challenge the hearer to new and surprising identifications. Where the New Testament subtext does become more provocative to the reader's moral imagination is precisely on Jesus' most disturbing point: the identity of the rescuer as outcast, whom the hearer is bid to imitate. In counterpoint to the ideal behavior of the Maylies and the "respectable old gentleman" Brownlow, Dickens also offers the unstable example of the thieves who take Oliver in.
On his way to London, Oliver nearly falls "dead upon the king's highway" [58/59/60] when he is "roused" by a boy "surveying him most earnestly" (8.46-47). Although this "young gentleman" is dressed like a parody of the respectable grown-up male rescuers Oliver will come to know, and his mode of discourse confesses itself "playfully ironical" (49), the Dodger is as spontaneously generous as it is possible for an Artful lad to be, buying food and offering Oliver free lodging in London with "a 'spectable old genelman as lives there, wot'll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change; that is, if any genelman he knows interduces you" (48-49). Despite the ironic play anticipating the thieves' duplicity soon to be revealed, surely no reader can be insensible to the impact of this aid and comfort upon the lonely Oliver, the Dodger's "new pal" (50). Cruikshank's famous illustration, "Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman," may contain stable irony in its title but visually it is unstable: there is the devilish Fagin with the boy-sized pitchfork by the fire, but there is also the food and drink, warmth, comfortable smokes, and companionship Oliver has craved. The real attractions of this underground society offset Dickens' efforts to make it a demonic inversion of the other respectable old gentleman's world;27 indeed, to some readers, like J. Hillis Miller, the thieves' self-conscious parodies of this daylight realm instead "bring into the open the inauthenticity of what is imitated" ("Fiction of Realism," 113). Unlike Bumble's unconscious parody of Good Samaritanism, the criminals' deliberate equivocal imitations make them hard to judge and may subtly call in question the righteous rescuers of the tale, even if their sentimental form of goodness is not in itself enough to subvert our belief in them.
Oliver Introduced to the Respectable Old Gentleman — George Cruikshank's illustration for Chapter 7, "Oliver walks to London. He encounters on the Road a strange sort of young Gentleman."
"Mr. Fagin," who sometimes falls into biblical cadences as cover for his identity as the "Old Gentleman" of folklore, soon turns out to be the Bad Samaritan most to be feared. Like the workhouse authorities, he reads Oliver "a long lecture on the crying sin of ingratitude" and lays "great stress on the fact of his having taken Oliver in, and cherished him, when, without his timely aid, he might have perished with hunger." Fagin also does not fail to follow this with another parable, "the dismal and affecting history of a young lad whom, in his philanthropy, he had succoured under parallel circumstances, but who, proving unworthy of his confidence, and evincing a desire to communicate with the police, had unfortunately come to be hanged at the Old Bailey one the morning" (18.109). The effect of these parables is not to transform but to transfix Oliver, his blood running cold. When Sikes falls ill, Fagin poses as Good Samaritan again, but Sikes knows better and punctures the pose. In this underworld, mutual aid is subject to the thieves' Golden Rule, as Fagin explains "the catechism of his trade" (18.114): each must look out for number one, but "You can't take care of yourself, number one, without taking care of me, number one," for "a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company" (43.276). Still, this ambiguously self-interested kind of Samaritanism is a way of surviving, offering more comfort and expressing more social energies than the cold indifference of the parish authorities or the hostility of the "good citizens" Oliver meets.
It is good enough to evoke Nancy's curious loyalty to the band: "there are many of us who have kept the same courses together," she explains to Rose, "and I'll not turn upon them, who might — any of them — have turned upon me, but didn't, bad as they are" (46.295). It is her commitment to their culture and its rules warring with some contrary sentiments of her "woman's heart" that makes her an equivocal Samaritan, even though the Bunyan parable would have her, more simply, be the "Soul of Goodness in Things Evil" (1867 running headline for chapter 16 in the Clarendon edition). She tends Bill in his illness with all solicitude, but she also risks bruising for Oliver's sake. Early on she saves him (with a "God Almighty help me" on her lips; see 16.98 — 100); later, even while pointing out what she has borne for his sake, she delivers Oliver up to Bill Sikes (with a "God forgive me!" this time, 20.125) as his accomplice in the robbery. It is this sequence that leads to Oliver's being left for dead in a ditch by the fleeing housebreakers. Nancy's curiously indifferent, even brutal response to this reported plight is meant to shock: "The child is better where he is, than among us ... I hope he lies dead in the ditch, and that his young bones may rot there" (26.160). Nancy, too, looks out for Number One: "I can't bear to have him about me. The sight of him turns me against myself, and all of you." While helping the indigent is easy for the Maylies, Nancy represents the Samaritan ensnared in a morally ambiguous place — not simply "right or wrong," as Dickens says of her in the 1841 preface (xxviii) — caught between conflicting imperatives of help, and between them both and her own need to survive.
2. The Darker Social Parable
IN NANCY'S CASE we see how the simple moral lesson of the Good Samaritan parable begins to run aground in Oliver Twist, given Dickens' attempt to apply it to the realities of a social scene too complex and indeterminate to fit his understanding of the Bible's scheme. H. M. Daleski has identified this general problem with Dickens' contradictory, unstable book in his argument that Oliver Twist is really "two novels" — its story-plot "affirming] a moral belief in virtue triumphant" is inconsistent with the imaginative social problem novel (49). Daleski, to whom I am indebted for his discussion of the conflicts in Oliver Twist, does not observe that the other moral story Dickens tells, the Good Samaritan [62/63] parable, is meant to unite these two worlds of Bunyan and the city: charity is the virtue triumphant that is to solve the social problem. But like the revised Bunyan plot, the use of Jesus' parable confers only a spurious unity on Dickens' novel and is inadequate to contain the potential chaos of his social observation — of the third, dark parable he is constrained to tell.
Dickens' "two novels" — in general, the religious tale with its two diverging parables and the realistically detailed story of poverty and crime — arose out of contradictory intentions voiced in his 1841 preface. (These rival commitments determined the dynamic shape of his fiction for years to come, not as mutually exclusive poles of his novels, but as "dialogized" oppositions; as we shall see especially in Little Dorrit, while the religious framework often seems to license the darker explorations, these in turn make the transcendental and moral affirmations urgently necessary.) Dickens first proclaims to his readers that he wanted to draw "a lesson of the purest good . . . from the vilest evil" and has set Oliver amid criminal "companions" in order to prove that Good can triumph over the most "adverse circumstance" (xxv). But as he describes his "aim" (he uses the singular) in depicting these companions' "miserable reality," he already begins to create sympathy for figures who are not merely pawns in a moral fable or proofs of Oliver's election, but people grounded in social concretions Dickens claims to know well (from "long ago" having "tracked [them] through many profligate and noisome ways," xxviii): he aims "to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to shew them as they really are" (xxvi). The rest of the preface abandons altogether the initial point of discussion — the "lesson of the purest good" — for self-defense against the charge of having portrayed so much vice. He concludes by discussing Sikes in his "circumstances" "becom[ing], at last, utterly and irredeemably bad" (but no agent of the Devil here) and the equivocal case of Nancy: "It is useless to discuss whether . . . [she] seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong," he declares, for her portrait is "TRUE" (xxviii). This preface thus makes a telling circuit: the novelist introduces himself as one committed to absolute values and closes by confessing his deeper interest in particular conditions and in what is "a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility, but . . . truth" in all its moral awkwardness and murky circumstantiality.
Oliver Twist, then, has its divergent roots in both an explicit moral intention and a commitment to circumstantial truth-telling that declines to name the moral. In her introduction to the Clarendon edition, Kathleen Tillotson (xi-xvi) traces the novel's most important antecedents to Dickens' 1834-35 sketches (such as "The Old Bailey"), his professional reporting of the police courts and Parliament in [63/64] 1834-36, and the period in his early life when criminality impinged upon poverty for this "small Cain": "I know," Dickens memorably told Forster, "that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond" [Life 1:23-25). This often quoted passage expresses both the personal experience behind the circumstantial truth-telling of Oliver Twist and its need for a moral pattern illustrating "the mercy of God" if also some reason to question God's providence. While one implication of this statement is that the religious patterns in Dickens' thinking cannot be summarily dismissed, the other is that they maintain a precarious hold in fictions directed by his most passionate drive to tell the dark parable. This uneasy coexistence can be observed in the incompletely dialogized relations between Oliver Twist's three parabolic stories, which sometimes seem to know about each other and at other times do not.
The tale of social observation subverts the Bunyan fable because while the latter requires the exclusive moral coordinates of Good and Evil, the Saved and the Damned, the former shows that these structures of belief are as rotten as the tottering houses of the poor. The victims of starvation so starkly presented in Dickens' opening chapters belie these conventional categories of the moral life: these creatures are neither good nor bad although they already suffer the torments of the damned (see Kettle, 1:124). With such conditions as theirs in mind, James Anthony Froude's Markham Sutherland in The Nemesis of Faith wants to minister to the poor but will preach "no hell terrors, none of these fear doctrines":
"No, if I am to be a minister of religion, I must teach the poor people that they have a Father in heaven, not a tyrant. . . . What! am I to tell these poor millions of sufferers, who struggle on their wretched lives of want and misery, starved into sin, maddened into passion by the fiends of hunger and privation, in ignorance because they were never taught, and with but enough of knowledge to feel the deep injustice under which they are pining; am I to tell them, I say, that there is no hope for them here, and less than none hereafter?" (17-18)
Neither can the conventional message of Virtue Tried by Adversity inform a social vision adequate to these horrors, for as many Victorian sermons on Joban patience could illustrate, this moral formula fosters indifference to suffering and, with its injunction to endure unto the end to be saved, vitiates the will to change the conditions that cause distress. The larger general problem with this set of moral ideals in the Bunyan subtext is the inadequacy of applying standards of individual morality to systemic, institutionalized evils. But from such monstrous wrongs, neither can individual acts of Good Samaritanism save — the rescue from "vice and infamy" [64/65] of one small boy is the right moral gesture of a certain philanthropic sort, but hardly a social program.
With the triumph of charity in the first Brownlow rescue, the Samaritan narrative tries to banish Oliver's past wretchedness and his voices of temptation as "a long and troubled dream." But the eerie reality of this dark parable is what we most remember (in contrast to the bland dreamworld of bourgeois respectability) (Kettle, 1;122). Stretching to all points of the compass, suddenly looming up in the narrative's path, menacing the borders of the happy episodes, the "neighborhoods" (if such they may be called) of the poor compel the reader's imagination like a recurring nightmare:
A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, and mouldering away: only the upper rooms being inhabited. Some houses which had become insecure from age and decay, were prevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of wood reared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; but even these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly haunts of some houseless wretches; for many of the rough boards, which supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from their positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for the passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine. (5.30-31)
"You'll get used to it in time, Oliver," says the undertaker. "Nothing when you are used to it, my boy" (33). But that is precisely what Dickens as dark parabler refuses to let us do: we must see this world invisible to conventional minds over and over again. Near the end of the book the narrator conducts his reader to yet another such locality, "the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary" of all, Jacob's Island:
To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman's door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the very raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left. . . . Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed halfhesitating [65/66] to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, and every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect. (50.320-21)
How these passages operate parabolically is more complex than at first appears. The signs Dickens bids us read are enigmatic, inviting interpretation of their latent meaning. Ostensibly, the precise detailing of social reality here would seem to teach a simple moral lesson for those who have eyes to see: "every imaginable sign" points to "desolation and neglect"; hence, we must not neglect the poor. Repeatedly erupting in the narrative, what such scenes come to register, however, is Dickens' discovery that a dark, unstable parable has replaced this more transparent one.
At first the narrator seems to promise parabolic clarity by taking his reader in hand to "penetrate through a maze": he will make this outsider an insider by showing him the shocking sights, challenging his conventional ways of seeing, and bringing him into a new sense of the real. Following this parabolic program, these two passages move again and again from "appearance" to "reality": what look like shop fronts are in fact "fast closed"; what at first appear to be people with occupations and sexual identities, lose all human definition, becoming assimilated to their physical environment ("refuse of the river," mere "offensive sights and smells"); what look like ruins "falling into the street" are really homes; the signs of human entrance and exit are merely places of disappearance, for no one appears in this scene but the rats, "hideous with famine," who have metonymically replaced the humans. Even metonymy is an illusion, for it has a literal meaning after all: the contiguity of rats and people in this close neighborhood menaces human life; bearing disease, a community of rats literally replaces the other one. By moving from appearance to reality in a series of surprises, Dickens defamiliarizes the familiar terms in which his reader normally sees and thinks ("house," "shop," "human"), inviting him to reflect on his ordinary processes of interpretation and giving him a new vision of what is really here.
But this is not the new world and unforeseen relationships in which Jesus' parables terminate: we are left with "what is," not with "what might be." Moreover, Dickens' detailing the surface of the enigma does not "penetrate" it (320; compare Miller, Charles Dickens, 61). This is the crux of interpretation through which the Dickensian observer moves, turning this parable from a turning this parable from a moral example story into something much darker than a social dilemma or even an enigma. Promised he will "penetrate through a maze," the visitor finds only, when he does come to Jacob's Island, an even more bewildering labyrinth of slums; this locale, as Kermode describes obscure narratives, is "a treacherous network rather than a continuous and systematic [66/67] sequence" (126) — like Dickens' text as contrasted to the clarifying story it had promised to be. The visitor remains an outsider, seeing without perceiving, and so does the narrator: for such scenes are incomprehensible, like the seven ragged paupers, "dumb, wet, silent horrors," which Dickens described to Forster as "sphinxes set up against that dead wall, and no one likely to be at the pains of solving them until the General Overthrow" (Life 2:131). Even here, while Dickens seems to suggest there is an answer if only someone took the "pains," these sodden bundles of rags seem more like a muddle than a riddle, and they dramatize a dark parable indeed to the would-be parabler, rebuffing the Samaritan and shutting out this interpreter on the outside of their meaning.
Dickens' reference to the "General Overthrow" reminds us of what is lacking in these passages from Oliver Twist: the apocalyptic and prophetic readings of the later fiction, which attempts to place such "horrors" into an apprehensible biblical design.37 Over such scenes in this early work, however, no God of mercy or judgment presides; starved innocents and good-hearted prostitutes as well as brutal criminals like Sikes are indiscriminately driven to death by the social forces that have made them what they are. Dickens' dark parable in Oliver Twist thus explodes religious categories as well as theories of political economy, literary conventions, and familiar ways of seeing: none of the received formulas can make sense of such anarchic "desolation."
Dickens' literary maneuver in this dilemma is to reinvent one of the old categories in a new genre of urban gothic, which does not so much contain or domesticate the "horrors" of his observation as deepen the impact of the dark parable. Gothic conventions express these places' ambiance of brooding fear: their claustral interiors, labyrinths, dim passageways, and rickety platforms over the abyss; their tangle of criminal urges and illicit loves; their scenarios of menaced impotence; their dire portents of grand catastrophes, the imminent collapses of inherited structures; and over all the specter of mortality. Paradoxically, although the outsider cannot penetrate the latent meanings, the effect of urban gothic is to draw him into these nightmare visions; they fascinate, appall, attract the voyeur, and will not be banished by daylight consciousness. Yet they yield no answer. Inside yet outside, the urban observer discovers himself suffocated by a mystery to which even his now sharpened consciousness has no clue; like the victim in a gothic thriller, he is "buried alive," conscious yet impotent, acutely aware of a social plight that is also a hermeneutical plight, yet equally aware that there can be no simple rescue by Good Samaritans or providential hands, and no way to read the scene for the efficient solution the reformer in Dickens wants. Oliver Twist's pictures of urban poverty mediated by gothic conventions register this moment of obscure discovery, when the moral parabler [67/68] himself is darkly parabled; the discovery darkens further still in the later books when Dickens has lost all faith in political remedies, and social evils are engulfed in a deeper human condition of irremediable error from which it would seem that no God can save. In Oliver Twist urban gothic is already providing Dickens with an expressive medium for the metaphysical anxiety that attends his thwarted social outrage; and the former undermines the practical intentions of the other in urban descriptions that seem, finally, primal scenes of life's vast incomprehensibility, as viewed by the "small Cain" Dickens once was. The writer's acute sensitivity to whatever is "a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility, but" true is surely rooted in his early experience of "a thing so anomalous" as his blacking-warehouse life [Life 1:25). But even to invoke this familiar autobiographical reading is merely to add to the mystery, not to exhaust the latent sense of these Jacob's Island parables.
In the face of this chaos, Dickens' two Christian patterns not only seem like frail, wishful counterweights but also fail to present together a unified message of hope. The Bunyan fable requires a view of life that the Good Samaritan parable rejects and the darker social vision menaces. These mutually cancelling moves destabilize the novel's themes of punishment and mercy, which continue to be generally problematic in the later books. Illustrating the difficulty here is Oliver Twist's equivocal treatment of conventional formulas for hell and the damned.
Dickens' contradiction is focused in a passage in chapter 46, where Nancy, meeting secretly with Rose and Mr. Brownlow, is impelled by "a fear that has made me burn as if I was on fire" (293) to do a good deed for Oliver's sake. Yet on the next page she exposes the cruelty of fire-and-brimstone preaching, and Mr. Brownlow, the Samaritan touchstone, confirms her rejection of it: "Your haughty religious people would have held their heads up to see me as I am tonight, and preached of flames and vengeance. . . . Oh, dear lady, why ar'n't those who claim to be God's own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches as you?" (294). From the early workhouse scene in which Oliver is prayed against as the Devil's agent, Dickens shows in this novel the link between belief in hell and lack of compassion; as the Unitarian minister Henry Giles put it in the Liverpool debates of 1839, "it was not until there was a hell without hope, that there was a heart without mercy."38 Yet in Oliver Twist Dickens employs these conventions — whether they are only metaphorical it would be hard to say, though they seem more literal here than anywhere else in Dickens' work39 — and he cannot quite dispense with the moral sanction of hell. It was, as Fitzjames Stephen said, "an essential part of the whole Christian scheme"40 much debated in the nineteenth century, but unquestioned in Bunyan's work except by infidels, [69/70] for whom the mouths of hell that mine his landscape have been prepared. Dickens translates this landscape into the fires that break out in oaths (Sikes' favorite, "burn my body"), eyes (there is "a fire in the eyes of both" murder-bent Bill and Fagin in 47.302), the thieves' blazing hearth, and the "broad sky" that "seemed on fire" to which Sikes awakens after his crime (48.308). Even poor Oliver, whom we know to be no devil except what the workhouse officials have constructed in the evil imaginations of their hearts, is motivated by this moral sanction when he discovers his new cohorts' true occupation, "felt as if he were in a burning fire," and takes to his heels (10.60). These conventional usages, probably reinforced by Dickens' enthusiastic reading of Defoe's History of the Devil while writing Oliver Twist (see letter to Forster, 3 November 1837, P 1.328),41 bring into the novel a genre of sermon his Victorian readers knew only too well, such as C. H. Spurgeon's scarifying "Turn or Burn":
"O, sirs, you may think that the fire of hell is indeed a fiction, and that the flames of the nethermost pit are but popish dreams; but if you are believers in the Bible you must believe that it can not be so. Did not our Master say: 'Where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched?' You may say it is a metaphorical fire. But what meant he by this: 'He is able to cast both body and soul into hell?' . . . and do you not know that our Master said: '. . . Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels'?" (438)
When Fagin "crackled with the fever that burnt him up" on his last night alive (52.344), Dickens loudly signals to his reader, with the sermon rhetoric he otherwise abhorred, his thief's infernal fate; what is hypocrites' canting fiction in Nancy's redeemable case becomes the fact of just punishment for this incorrigible old criminal.
The notion of hell embodies the idea of retributive justice, cosmic or institutional. As Geoffrey Rowell observes, the idea of eternal revenge lent support in the nineteenth century to unenlightened theories of punishment in this world, against new ideas of reformation and deterrence put forward by the Utilitarians (13-14), The Spectator reviewer of Oliver Twist (24 November 1838) concluded that "the tendency of the work is to show that nature and habit cannot be eradicated by a sentimentality which contents itself with substituting a penitentiary for a gallows (rpt. in Collins 43)."Its melodramatized Bunyan plot, driving toward the destruction of all the evil characters, aligns the novel with the unenlightened even as it argues for a providential universe. "Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice," the narrator of this plot intones, "and hint that Providence must sleep" (48.308). Despite the sympathy Dickens creates for the haunted murderer's state of mind,45 he is hoist with his own petard at last in a conclusive act of poetic justice. Fagin likewise will "swing in six days from this, by G__d!" (50.322) — the curse reminding the reader that behind the state's justified [69/70] punishers of crime lurks the Divine Avenger who will destroy both soul and body in hell. If we suspect, as A. J. Duffield did, that the idea of hell expresses "the same spirit that says in the politics of our day that the foundation of the English throne is the English workhouse,"46 we see the contradiction into which this kind of rhetoric is leading Dickens. The sympathy with the gallows-haunted that he expresses in his 1841 preface turns in the novel into relief that malefactors can be apprehended, as Oliver's friends gather forces with the law near the end of the book, and the workhouse becomes the providentially appointed place for Bumble's end. With his assertion in the preface that some "natures" are "utterly and irredeemably bad," Dickens anticipates his own later harsh positions on flogging and hanging47 and lines up with such of his antagonists as Fitzjames Stephen as well as his later mentor, Thomas Carlyle, whose hatred of criminals was part of the Puritan legacy he shared with Bunyan.
In "Turn or Burn," Spurgeon aimed to refute "the cry of the age . . . that God is merciful, that God is love" but not justice (426). Dickens' parable of the Good Samaritan dramatizes this cry; and in tandem with it, his darker parable works against retributive notions of punishment in conventional hells or prisons. J. Hillis Miller points out that when Dickens revised his 1841 preface for the 1856 Charles Dickens Edition, he changed the remark on Sikes being "utterly and irredeemably bad" to "utterly and incurably bad" — as Miller says, "evidently to remove the theological implication of 'irredeemably.' Dickens did not want to deny God's power to redeem even those who are apparently hopelessly evil" (Charles Dicken, 67). The God of Jesus' parable is "that Being whose code is Mercy, and whose great attribute is Benevolence" (53.350), one who also accepts the "penitent confession" of Oliver's father and saves his child from the consequences of his parents' illicit love, if not the wretched mother (51.332). This is the God of whom Rose speaks to Nancy when she holds out hope to this prostitute-thief: "It is never too late for penitence and atonement" (40.257). Although what the social parable tells us about conditions of vice lends some natural truth to Nancy's retort that it may be "God's wrath" driving her hopelessly back to Bill (258), Dickens steps in as Good Samaritan at the last moment — in lieu of the God who does not save her from Bill's hand — with the "mercy" she prays for from "her Maker" (47.303). God's mercy for the penitent sinner is a prominent theme of The Life of Our Lord and of Dickens' testimonial to what the Bible meant to him, in Dombey and Son: it is "the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavyladen; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth . . . the blessed history in which the blind, lame, palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry through all the ages that this world [70/71] shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce" (58.692). This testimony also suggests how thoroughly mediated by the parable of the Good Samaritan Dickens' view of the New Testament was, with his emphasis on "the shunned of all our dainty clay." Again, it is his touchstone — even for determining biblical truth from those falsehoods, the hell-doctrines Spurgeon cites from the same book.
Supporting this general view, Dickens' circumstantial social observation led him, if not to a God of Mercy, then to the merciful humanitarianism of those who would understand and intervene in the conditions of the poor — or of anyone "fallen." In an age of raised historical consciousness about causes and conditions, so finely wrought into George Eliot's novels for example, one standard Victorian response is to defend the "creature of circumstances." Thus Markham Sutherland exclaims to his correspondent:
"Oh, Arthur! when a crime of one of our fallen brothers comes before ourselves to judge, how unspeakably difficult we find it to measure the balance of the sin; cause winding out of cause, temptation out of temptation; and the more closely we know the poor guilty one, the nature with which he was born, the circumstances which have developed it, how endlessly our difficulty grows upon us! — how more and more it seems to have been inevitable, to deserve . . . not anger and punishment, but tears and pity and forgiveness." (Froude, 15)
Rose similarly rationalizes Oliver's plight to her aunt before they have proof that he is no thief: "But even if he has been wicked, . . . think how young he is; think that he may never have known a mother's love, or the comfort of a home; and that ill-usage and blows, or the want of bread, may have driven him to herd with men who have forced him to guilt. Aunt, dear Aunt, for mercy's sake, think of this, before you let them drag this sick child to a prison, which in any case must be the grave of all his chances of amendment. . . . have pity upon him before it is too late" (30.184). Even in the account of Sikes' death, arranged by Dickens' Bunyan parable with such nice poetic justice, there is pity mingled with the horror as we see him literally thrown against the backdrop of Jacob's Island and all the forces that have produced him, personified in the anarchic mob that wills his death. It is perhaps even this kind of pity that places us momentarily in the deranged mind of the impenitent Fagin in his last hours — giving Oliver's "God forgive this wretched man!" (52.347) some slight force, more at least than we might have expected, in a scene where otherwise Dickens is busily investing his Devil with signs of his damnation.
But if the social parable works in tandem with Jesus' story to lend pity to these scenes, it also shows us the inexorable forces that oppose both Good's victory and the ministrations of Samaritans. Nancy's efforts to secure a home for Oliver may confirm both parables, but her life reflects ironically upon the Bunyan [71/72] pattern of Good Triumphant; as Daleski writes, she is "an Oliver whose goodness does not save her from the streets" (75). Her eleventh-hour rescue for the heavenly streets belongs to the melodramatic plot; it freezes the vital and conflicted woman we knew from the more realistic story in a final tableau of moral rectitude we find incredible, given that earlier scene when she had refused Rose's offer of salvation with a convincing mixture of pride, rationalization, loyalty to the gang, self-denigration, courage, fear, and desperation. This more complex Nancy, struck down by a stronger hand than Sikes', "disappear[s] from the earth [in] this moment" of salvation (see 56.296-97). What Dickens does with the religious rhetoric invoked at Nancy's death is to still forever the ambiguous voices his novel has raised — what is "a contradiction," neither right nor wrong but true to his more complex conception of life in the darker parable. And this story is guided by no ideal design, like the celestial carpet in Italo Calvino's parable "Cities and the Sky 1"; it resembles, rather, this modern parabler's city of Eudoxia, "a stain that spreads out shapelessly" (97) from its impenetrable center in Jacob's Island horrors. Nancy may urge Rose to "Thank Heaven" for having friends to care for her in her childhood, but in doing so the unhappy woman only calls attention to Heaven's negligence toward her in this "disappointing world," which "ain't the shop for justice" (43.282) — a world where children in and out of the workhouse die, where Brownlow's fiancée was never to be his wife, and where even "The Soul of Goodness in Things Evil" has no impact at all on those around her. The precise message of this story, as Howard Schwartz says of modern parables, "never fully arrives, though the emotional response it evokes makes it dear that the message has been sent" (326-27).
Last modified 18 August 2009