Original illustrations by George Cruikshank
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
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; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man 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.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).