Before we shift focus to David Copperfield, one final reflection on Oliver Twist. While looking through the book again, I was struck by just how much Dickens accomplished with this novel -- which was only his second (and his third book, Sketches by Boz being the first). The names of characters like Oliver Twist, Fagin, and the Artful Dodger are known by people everywhere, even people who might not be sure exactly who they are. (Granted, people might not be so familiar with those names without the musical, but then, without the book, there wouldn't be a musical!)
Some truly immortal scenes, lines, and characters are found here: Oliver asking for more, or Mr. Bumble with his "The law is a ass," or Nancy risking and losing everything to protect Oliver. If Dickens wasn't the first to write about a "fallen woman with a heart of gold," he certainly helped establish her as an archetype; as he wrote in the preface to the 1867 edition, he had been criticized for his characterization of her, and had to defend himself as follows: "It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE. . . . It is emphatically God's truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts, the hope yet lingering there, the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the weed-choked well."
In writing Oliver Twist, Dickens created more than a novel; he created a myth. In the afterword to my Signet Classic edition, Edward Le Comte writes: "Oliver Twist, amidst all the accouterments of a novel, has the primitive appeal of a fairy tale; it forms one of those basic stories that are not forgotten because they were partly familiar before they were read, being the stuff of young dreams and fears."
Not too shabby for a twenty-six year old with a total of five years of formal education.
"I never see such an out-and-out young wagabond, your worship," observed the officer with a grin. "Do you mean to say anything, you young shaver?"
"No," replied the Dodger, "not here, for this ain't the shop for justice; besides which, my attorney is a-breakfasting this morning with the Wice President of the House of Commons; but I shall have something to say elsewhere, and so will he, and so will a wery numerous and 'spectable circle of acquaintances as'll make them beaks wish they'd never been born, or that they'd got their footmen to hang 'em up to their own hatpegs 'afore they let 'em come out this morning to try it on upon me. I'll --"
"There! He's fully committed!" interposed the clerk. "Take him away."
"Come on," said the jailer.
"Oh ah! I'll come on," replied the Dodger, brushing his hat with the palm of his hand. "Ah! (to the Bench) it's no use your looking frightened; I won't show you no mercy, not a ha'porth of it. You'll pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something! I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!"
"I hope," said Mr. Bumble, looking about him with great ruefulness, as Mr. Grimwig disappeared with the two old women: "I hope that this unfortunate little circumstance will not deprive me of my parochial office?"
"Indeed it will," replied Mr. Brownlow. "You may make up your mind to that, and think yourself well off besides."
"It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it," urged Mr. Bumble, first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.
"That is no excuse," replied Mr. Brownlow. "You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction."
"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass -- a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eyes may be opened by experience -- by experience."
The jury returned and passed him close. He could glean nothing from their faces; they might as well have been of stone. Perfect stillness ensued -- not a rustle -- not a breath -- Guilty!
The address was solemn and impressive, the sentence fearful to hear. But he stood like a marble figure, without the motion of a nerve. His haggard face was still thrust forward, his under-jaw hanging down and his eyes staring out before him, when the jailer put his hand upon his arm and beckoned him away. He gazed stupidly about him for an instant, and obeyed.
Venerable men of his own persuasion had come to pray beside him, but he had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable efforts, and he beat them off.
"The papers," said Fagin, drawing Oliver towards him, "are in a canvas bag, in a hole a little way up the chimney in the top front-room. I want to talk to you, my dear. I want to talk to you."
"Yes, yes," returned Oliver. "Let me say a prayer. Do! Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk till morning."
"Outside, outside," replied Fagin, pushing the boy before him towards the door, and looking vacantly over his head. "Say I've gone to sleep -- they'll believe you. You can get me out, if you take me so. Now then, now then!"
"Oh! God forgive this wretched man!" cried the boy with a burst of tears.
“Charles Dickens was determined not to be a failure like his father,” Laura Linney tells us. There's a world of sadness in that one sentence.
Have there ever been any other love scenes as grotesque as those between Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney? (That was a rhetorical question. If there are any, I don’t want to know about them.)
Poor Rose didn’t get her love interest! I mean her real love interest. Harry Maylie may not have much of a presence in the novel, but he’s a heck of an improvement over Monks. Forgive me for breaking with one of Hollywood’s most treasured clichés, but I hate the fascinating-lustful-villain type; when he was sitting there leering at her at dinner, I wanted to shove his face in his food. If I had to be groped by that weasel, I’d demand to end up with a really good love interest to make up for it.
Not that Rose is the demanding type. But as the show went on, she was less and less well-served by the attempts to make her interesting. Okay, okay, we all know Dickens had a penchant for making the young women a little too sweet and saintly, but what good does it do to give Rose a rant about how the world is going to pot while “we sit here eating soup”? That doesn’t make her look interesting, that just makes her look goofy. It’s not like it’s the soup’s fault.
In fact, the whole Brownlow-Rose-Monks subplot fell pretty flat, in my opinion. The good cop/bad cop routine between Rose and Brownlow got old in about, oh, three seconds, mainly because Edward Fox (whom I usually like; don’t know what got into him here) played it like the moustache-twirling villain in an old melodrama. Ironically, the more they tried to punch up that part of the story, the more boring it got. Should’ve left well enough alone. Well, at least both of them got to give Monks a beatdown in the end.
Unfortunately, Monks in his last scene was entirely correct about how so much of society viewed—and views—unwanted children: as “vermin.”
"Oh, you know, Mr. Bumble, he must be mad," said Mrs. Sowerberry. "No boy in half his senses could venture to speak so to you."
"It's not Madness, ma'am," replied Mr. Bumble, after a few moments of deep meditation. "It's Meat."
"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.
"Meat, ma'am, meat," replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. "You've overfed him, ma'am. You've raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma'am, unbecoming a person of his condition, as the board, Mrs. Sowerberry, who are practical philosophers, will tell you. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It's quite enough that we let 'em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma'am, this would never have happened."
What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once -- a parish child -- the orphan of a workhouse -- the humble, half-starved drudge -- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world -- despised by all, and pitied by none.
I don't mean to beat the topic into the ground, but I thought it would be worthwhile to do a little research into the screenwriter's intentions. Google turned up this piece from December 2007, and it sounds like I was fairly close the mark in my guess that the portrayal was meant to show Fagin as a Jew who had suffered from prejudice. A sample:
Dickens based the character on a notorious Jewish fence called Ikey
Solomons, and he supplied the novel's illustrator, George Cruikshank,
with ample clues for a good likeness. He gave him red matted hair and
beard, long black nails, a sizeable nose and 'among his toothless gums
a few such fangs as should have been a dog's or rat's'. 'A Jew seldom
thieves,' explained a contemporary report, 'but is worse than a thief;
he encourages others to thieve?… if a robbery is effected, the property
is hid till a Jew is found, and a bargain is then made.' Dickens was as
guilty as anyone of this anti-Semitic reflex. At one point we meet
another Jew, 'younger than Fagin, but nearly as vile and repulsive in
'Fagin is a Jew,' Dickens later explained,
'because it is unfortunately true, of the time to which the story
refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was Jewish.' A
complaint from a reader prompted Dickens to delete some instances of
the J-word between the serial launched in Bentley's Miscellany in 1837
and later editions. But the insignia of his cartoon Jewishness stayed:
he slinks, stoops, rubs his hands. We watch him 'creeping beneath the
shelter of the walls and doorways?… like some loathsome reptile'. . . .
[Sarah] Phelps, the writer of more than 50 episodes of EastEnders, came to
Oliver Twist with a more or less clean slate. Having seen Oliver! but
not read the novel, she was 'uncomfortable' with Dickens's
anti-Semitism. Her response has been to make his Jewishness more
explicit than in any previous portrayal. This Fagin wears a yarmulka
and, while the boys eat the sausages he prepares with his toasting
fork, he doesn't. Nor does he send potential snitches to the gallows.
'The point about Fagin is he has to be a survivor,' Phelps argues. 'The
19th century was pretty hostile to Jews. Fagin is a fence because there
is no other job for him to do. He arrives in London with the sound of
the hooves of the Cossacks ringing in his ears. The reason he's here is
the tidal wave of European history.'
Read more. A little unfair to accuse Dickens of anti-Semitism, I think, after explaining his reasoning and how he tried to clean up his act. But still, it's an interesting piece for those watching the movie.