Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838)

After Pickwick Papers, I was pretty excited to move on to the next Dickens, and the first blockbuster. I was expecting to love Oliver Twist (or: The Parish Boy's Progress). Instead, it was a real effort to get through.

I'm not sure why; and before I start to point to reasons within the book I want to hasten to admit that the fault most likely lies within myself. That is, for various reasons maybe I was just too stressed to have the patience for Dickens this month. Anyway, it rather bothered me that I didn't enjoy it more. This is high melodrama, and I've come to fancy myself to have an unfashionably high tolerance, even appetite, for old-school high melodrama.

But in fact I found Oliver himself to be just as insufferable as most modern critics seem to. The latter half of the book, where he disappears from the narrative for long stretches, is vastly improved by his absence. Problematically, that's the half of the book that doesn't matter.

What matters about this book, of course, is its indictment of contemporary attitudes toward and treatment of the poor. Oliver's stint in the care of the parish, his experiences in the workhouse, and more generally the acidic burn of Dickens' prose when describing anybody with parochial or legal authority over Oliver and other paupers, is essential reading. Even/especially today, when it's increasingly clear that one of the two major political parties in this country would like to see the return of the poor laws, and when the other party, while not agreeing, would rather talk about anything than the poor.

The assumption that underlay the poor laws, the prejudice that excused Oliver's mistreatment, was that the poor were different from you and I: lazy and prone to criminality, they deserved what they got. Therefore, the moment it becomes clear to the reader (and this is quite early in the book, if you're paying attention and are reasonably attuned to the melodramatic wavelength) that Oliver is among the poor but not of them - that he's of solid upper-class stock - a lot of the fire goes out of the book. True bravery would be for Dickens to stand up and say that we should have compassion on the poor because they're no different from us, only less fortunate; instead, he wimps out and says only that we should have compassion on them because one of them might accidentally be one of us in disguise.

Again, I know this isn't an unusual critique of the novel. And now that I come out and say it like that, I wonder if it isn't slightly harsh. Certainly the book would constitute a stronger denunciation of the poor laws if Oliver wasn't highborn. But what's harder for secular moderns to appreciate is the quasi-Biblical resonance of Oliver - there's an echo of St. Martin and the Beggar in his story, and the old Christian idea that Jesus could appear to one in the guise of a pauper, and that this was reason to treat all paupers as if they were Jesus. In other words, what makes the book's critique seem weak to us now might have been what made it cut deep in its own day.

Another thing that bothers me about the book is, of course, Fagin. Irving Howe (who wrote the intro to the edition I read) is right: there's just no disguising the nastiness of Dickens' conception here. There's anti-Semitism in Shylock, sure, but also great humanity; there's no humanity in Fagin. To Dickens' credit it seems that later in life he more or less realized what he'd done, and regretted it, but that doesn't change what he did here.

Again, it's not just that Fagin is the villain, and that his villainy is entirely blamed on his being Jewish, and that his Jewishness is presented as a collection of grotesque stereotypes. It's that, in addition to all that, he's presented as lacking, basically, a soul. Compare his last hours to those of his crony Bill Sikes. Sikes is a murderer, as well as a thief and a batterer, but he's also, by heritage at least, a Christian (or so we're meant to assume, since it's never specified otherwise), and so after killing Nancy he's wracked with guilt. He's miserable with it, driven nearly insane. His last hours are narrated from within his thoughts and feelings - we know he's feeling guilty, and we come to pity him, although we never forgive him. In Fagin's last hours, too, we enter his head and heart, as he awaits sentencing and then execution, but although he's powerfully afraid of death, we're given no indication that he feels guilt. The message is clear: as a Jew, Fagin has no conscience. There's no getting around this.

Real-life ironic twist: as a graduate of a certain Northeastern educational institution whose brand is taking a bit of a well-deserved beating right now, I've been following the Marty Peretz story, and I had just finished this excellent retrospective on him when I returned to Oliver Twist and read Chapter LII, "Fagin's last night alive." Irony, as I say, because Dickens' character is an excellent example of the real-life anti-Semitism that pervades much of Western history, and that, by most accounts, seems to be one of Peretz's driving motivations. But right now Peretz himself embodies bigotry directed at Muslims and blacks. The content of bigotry, its arguments and excuses, never changes. Only its targets.

No comments: