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Oliver Twist

Oct 08, 1999 1684 Words
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, in 1883, to show the reader things as they really are. He felt that the novel should be a message of social reform. One of its purposes was to promote reform of the abuses in workhouses. In no way does Dickens create a dream world. His imagination puts together a bad place during a bad time; an English workhouse just after the Poor Law Act of 1834 (Scott-Kilvert, 48).

In the first chapter of Oliver Twist, Dickens moves from comedy to pathos and from pathos to satire. He takes us from the drunken old woman to the dying mother to the hardened doctor. Such rapid switches help in all the later novels to hold together disparate effects, to provide variety and unity, and to give that double opportunity for comedy and pathos that Dickens admired in stage melodrama (Scott-Kilvert, 47). In this first chapter, Dickens also captures life and death in a single sentence, "Let me see the child, and die." (Dickens, 2). This sums up the mother's will to see the newborn baby, and takes a short stride from birth to death.

Dickens seems to create his characters to open the reader's eye's to the true characteristics of their nature. One of his subjects are conditioned human nature and the relationship of the individual to his environment (Scott-Kilvert, 47-48). In Oliver Twist, Dickens attempts to free his characters of any influence of their environment. He muddles the message of the novel by making Oliver immune to an environment which is denounced as necessarily corrupting (Price, 86). Dickens created Oliver's character to be virtuous and innocent. He put many stressed tests on him in the course of the book.

Dickens comes close to endangering Oliver's idealized virtue, though; in the great temptation scene in Chapter 18 (Scott-Kilvert, 49). This is where the child is being carefully brainwashed, first cunningly cold-shouldered and isolated, then cunningly brought in the deadly warmth of the thieves' family circle (Scott-Kilvert, 49).

Oliver was but too glad to make himself useful; too happy to have some faces, however bad, to look upon; too desirous to conciliate those about him when he could honestly do so; to throw any objection in the way of this proposal. So he at once expressed his readiness; and, kneeling on the floor, while Dodger sat upon the table so that he could take his foot in his lap, he applied himself to a process by which Mr. Dawkins designated as "japanning his trotter-cases". The phrase rendered into plain English, signifieth, cleaning his boots. (Dickens, 131).

Oliver escapes the situation but there is still the presence of a real threat.

We are apt to forget how early-Victorian society, the society of the laissez-faire, took for granted individual conditions of privacy and isolation...It was a society where each unit, each family and household, led their secret lives with an almost neurotic antipathy to external interference (Price, 90-91). It was the age of the private gentleman who wanted nothing but to be left alone...He could ignore politics, the Press, the beggar who happened to be dying of hunger in the coach-house; he need feel no pressure of social or national existence...There has probably never been a time when England was-in the sociological phrase-less integrated." (Price, 90-91). Dickens wrote in contrast to the society in which he witnessed around him. He brought together a unity of the two worlds and attempted to bring them together. This goes along with the purpose of reform in the workhouses. All these people have the same outlook and the same philosophy of life, a philosophy which that private gentleman, Fagin, sums up as looking out for number 1 (Price, 91).

Dickens is unique in the way he often talks to the reader in "one to one" conversations. He does this quite frequently throughout Oliver Twist as a way of amplifying what he feels the reader should be attentive to. He also uses this technique to invoke stage directions to the book. Acting, indeed, as Dickens implies in his facetious but revealing preamble to Chapter 17, is the clue to the mode by which we are to be moved by the persona and events of the story (Price, 88). We must put ourselves in their place act as they are acting " (Price, 88).

It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, and weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; on the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song. We behold, with throbbing bosoms, the heroine in the grasp of a proud and ruthless baron: her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and just as our expectations are wrought up to the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall of the castle: where a grey-headed senchel sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals, who are free of all sorts of places, from church vaults to palaces, and roarm about in company, carolling perpetually.

Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. The actors in the mimic life of the theatre are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of passion or feeling, which, presented before the eyes of mere spectators, are at once condemned as outrageous and preposterous" (Dickens, 120). What Dickens is trying to explain to the reader is that you can't just read this book from the outside. He encourages the reader to get in to the minds of the characters and understand fully, what is really happening. He implies that it is because Oliver is an actor that the spectator should not withhold sympathy if the tale seems artificial and implausible, thus ingeniously confounding that stage actor with the actor in real life and claiming that in both cases the only true view is the participant's: we must ourselves participate in order to feel the truth of the thing, and not merely appraise it from outside (Price, 89).

Melodrama is...theatrical rather than literary and appeal...and has a colorful alteration of violence, pathos, and humor (Gerould, 287). Dickens is a mastermind at melodrama. It is clearly portrayed in Oliver Twist because of the structure of the novel. The central situation in melodrama-victimization of helpless innocence by powerful evil forces-gives rise to four basic characters: The hero and heroine, a comic ally who assist them, and the villain against whom they are pitted (Gerould, 287). This is almost the exact set-up of Oliver Twist. Oliver is victimized of his innocence because of Fagin, the Dodger, and Sikes, amongst others. Instead of tragic and inevitability, melodrama utilize coincidence and surprise to keep the action constantly at high tension (Gerould, 287). The striving for staggering effects and powerful emotional shocks builds to frequent climaxes and favors scenes of confrontation, pursuit, and escape, ending in striking tableaux (Gerould, 287). There are numerous examples of these. There were confrontations when Oliver asked the Bumble for more food, when Noah Claypole insulted Oliver in the cellar and they fought, and between Nancy and Sikes after she kidnaped Oliver, to name a few. Other than that, the novel was filled with nothing but pursuits and escapes. Fagin and his gang pursue Oliver in the beginning to keep him quiet, Nancy pursues him in the streets, Monks pursues Oliver to protect his inheritance, Sikes is pursued by Nancy's eyes when he flees from her murder, Mr. Brownlow searches for Monk in the West Indies, and there is a pursuit of Sikes and the remainder of his gang when they are hiding out. As for escapes, Oliver escapes Mr. Sowerberry's, Bill Sikes and Toby Cracket escape the robbery scene of the Maylie house, Noah Claypole and Charrolotte run away from Sowerberry's, Nancy escapes Sikes to speak to Rose and Mr. Brownlow, Sikes flees after killing Nancy, the dog flees from Sikes after he tried to kill it too, and Sikes is hung accidentally when trying to escape from his hideout. The melodramatist perceives the world as an arena of intense ethical struggle, polarized into moral and material extremes, where the poor but virtuous are prosecuted by the rich and corrupt (Gerould, 287). The motive force of melodrama is the villain. The dynamic and sinister figure recognized by the audience as the embodiment of evil (Gerould, 287). The result is usually a happy one for the sympathetic character, resulting in just rewards and punishments and affirming the laws of morality and the benevolent wakings of providence (Gerould, 287). This is so true of the literary work of art of Oliver Twist. Dickens allowed virtue and good prevail over crime and evil.

This book was clearly made to show the reality of the world. Dickens does not create a dream world that captures the optimism of readers. He is truly showing things as they really are; how hte world really is. He carefully planned his setting and his description of places so theat he could capture every detail of the hard life. As Martin Price put it in Dickens, "Oliver Twist is not a satisfying novel-it does not liberate us" (Price, 84-385). Dickens' purpose was to spark a sense of rage through peoples hearts towards the English workhouses. He was promoting reform by getting the people "involved" in the melodramatic novel of Oliver Twist.

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