Oliver Twist

IN August, 1836, Richard Bentley, the London publisher, read the fifth number of The Pickwick Papers, — the number in which Sam Weller was first introduced, — and immediately conceived the idea of starting a new monthly magazine, of which Dickens was to be the editor, and for which Dickens was to supply a serial story. On the 22d of the same month he succeeded in inducing Dickens to sign an agreement to undertake the editorship of the proposed magazine, and to write the story. A short time afterwards ho further succeeded in tempting Dickens into an agreement to furnish him two more serial stories, the first, of which was to be written at a specified early date; “ the expressed remuneration in each case,” says John Forster, the friend and biographer of Dickens, “ being certainly quite inadequate to the claims of any writer of marked popularity.” The magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, was started on the first of January, 1837; and in the February number Dickens began to narrate for it The Adventures of Oliver Twist.

The impression derived from Forster’s biography of Dickens is that the latter was “ self - sold into bondage” by his agreement with Bentley; that there was something wrong in holding him to the strict terms of the compact. The plain fact is that Bentley, as a business man, was singularly astute in his early judgment of the capacities of Dickens’s genius. He was far ahead of all the literary critics of the time in foreseeing the enormous popularity of the man who, in the fifth number of Pickwick, had simply brought into his somewhat disconnected story the character of Sam Weller, and had introduced him merely as a bootblack in a country inn, and as a racy commentator on the peculiarities of certain shoes and boots he cleaned. Chapman and Hall were paying the author, at this period, only fifteen guineas a number for Pickwick, though they were willing, some time before it was concluded, to offer nearly ten times as much for each number of Nickleby. Bentley was therefore in the position of a capitalist who drives a good bargain with the discoverer of an undeveloped gold mine, or with the inventor of an unrecognized labor-doing machine. He palpably speculated on the possibilities of Dickens’s genius, which he first clearly discerned, and not on its actual products at the time his contracts with him were made. In all business arrangements, not literary, the compact between the parties is considered binding in equity as well as law; but in his compact with Bentley, Dickens, as soon as the conditions were changed, assumed a hysterical tone of complaint and objurgation. It was his good fortune, only a very few months after his engagements with Bentley were signed, to become the most popular author of his time. All publishers were ravenous to engage him at any price. In our opinion he should have practiced an austere economy, — written for Bentley what he had engaged to write for him before he had become not only famous but “ the rage,” — and then, in the books he afterwards wrote, should have made as severe bargains with “ the trade” as Bentley had made with him. As a merchant of his literary wares, Dickens was, after his engagement with Bentley was broken, a most relentless man of business, exacting from publishers a full share of the profits of his works. If booksellers drink their wine out of the skulls of authors, Dickens was ever anxious that the wine quaffed from his skull should be the thinnest of all varieties of vin ordinaire. No seller of Lake Shore or Michigan Central complains that the buyer, a few months after the sale, reaps a profit of ten or twenty per cent., owing to a sudden change in the rate charged by those corporations for freight and passengers; but Dickens seems to have had a vague notion that a legal contract was not absolutely binding on him, when events which he had not foreseen proved that the other party to the contract was making a great deal of money while he was making comparatively little. In January, 1839, while chafing under the conditions of his agreement. with Bentley, he wrote a letter to him, inclosed in one to John Forster, proposing to break the compact. “ I know,” wrote Dickens to Forster, “ you will endeavor to persuade me from sending it. Go it must. It is no fiction to say that I cannot write this tale [Burnaby Rudge]. The immense profits which Oliver has realized to its publisher, and is still realizing; the paltry, wretched, miserable sum it brought to me; the recollection of this, and the consciousness that I have the slavery and the drudgery of another work on the same journeyman-terms; the consciousness that my books are enriching everybody connected with them but myself, and that I, with such a popularity as I have acquired, am struggling in old toils, and wasting my energies in the very height and freshness of my fame, and the best part of my life, to fill the pockets of others, while for those who are nearest and dearest to me I can realize little more than a genteel subsistence: all this puts me out of heart and spirits. And I cannot — cannot and will not — under such circumstances, that keep me down with an iron hand, distress myself by beginning this tale [Barnaby Rudge] until I have had time to breathe; and until the intervention of summer, and some cheerful days in the country, shall have restored me to a more genial and composed state of feeling.... I do most solemnly declare that morally, before God and man, I hold myself released from such hard bargains as these, after I have done so much for those who drove them. The net that has been wound about me so chafes me, so exasperates and irritates my mind, that to break it at whatever cost—that I should care nothing for — is my constant impulse.” Bentley seems to have behaved with a magnanimity uncommon in publishers. He consented to the rupture of the agreement, released Dickens from his contract to write another tale, and made over to him in June, 1840, “ the copyright of Oliver Twist, and such printed stock as remained of the edition then on hand,” for the sum of £2250. It is plain that he might have made double or treble this amount by insisting on his legal claims. Dickens’s irritation in respect to the original agreement breaks out as early as the fourteenth chapter of the book itself. Mr. Brownlow asked Oliver if he should not like to be a, bookwriter. After a little consideration, Oliver replied that he thought it would be a much better thing to be a bookseller. Mr. Brownlow laughed, and said, “ Don’t be afraid ! We won’t make an author of you, while there’s an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to turn to.”

Oliver Twist was the first of Dickens’s romances which was subjected to the revision of his dear friend and biographer, John Forster, an accomplished man of letters, recently deceased. Forster read and suggested corrections to everything which Dickens afterwards wrote, and the text of Oliver Twist may be supposed to have specially engaged his critical sagacity, as it was the first story on which it was exercised. Yet the text of Oliver Twist is left in a slovenly condition, discreditable to both author and reviser. The reader needs to go no further than the opening paragraph to understand what we mean. The frequent use of the colon for the comma in the punctuation of the narrative is particularly exasperating.

The plot of Oliver Twist is both improbable and melodramatic. It turns on the attempt of Monks, the regular scowling, mysterious, and stereotyped villain of the melodrama, to murder Oliver, his illegitimate younger brother, through the process of having him converted into a thief by Fagin, it being understood that a path will thus be opened for him to the gallows. Iago’s statement of his motives for hating Othello may be, in Coleridge’s phrase, “ the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity; ” but Monks is no Iago. A low, sneaking, and essentially cowardly rascal, he could hardly, on any reasonable view of his character, have devoted so much time, which might have been spent in profligacy, in hunting down the son of his mother’s rival, especially as the will in that son’s favor had been destroyed. An uneasy sense, therefore, that Oliver had been swindled out of his own by a crime was, with his hereditary hate, the only inspiration of Monks in conspiring with such a treacherous rogue as Fagin for the purpose of demoralizing his brother and eventually getting him hanged or transported. Such a character is possible, but it is not, for the purposes of romance, artistically probable. Yet few readers lose any interest in The Adventures of Oliver Twist through their perception of the clumsiness and improbability of the plot; for in this romance Dickens exhibited not merely his humor, but his command over the sources of pity and terror.

The pathos of the earlier chapters is brought out all the more effectively by its constant association with humor. There is something in tlie forlorn position of the boy, starved, beaten, helpless, and seemingly hopeless, which beseechingly appeals to the hearts of mothers; and by obtaining possession, thus early in his career, of the hearts of mothers, Dickens secured an audience among the real rulers of families, and permanently domesticated himself at thousands of firesides. His own sinterings as a boy gave him an intimate acquaintance with the feelings of childhood and youth, of boyhood and girlhood; and by idealizing these in forms of character which had a plaintive reality to the mind, he gave to all his romances one element, at least, of constant interest. In little Oliver he availed himself of the usual privilege of dramatists and novelists, that of taking an exceptionally good character and placing him in exceptionally bad circumstances. Indeed, it requires much faith to believe that so delicately constituted a boy as Oliver could physically survive the beadle’s thick stick and thin gruel; much more, perhaps, that be should preserve his refinement of feeling, his piety, and his keen sense of right, amid his vulgarizing and brutalizing surroundings; but the sympathies of the reader are so strongly addressed that he sees little incongruity in making the drudge of a workhouse, and the companion of thieves, talk and act like the good boys in “ do-me-good ” Sunday-school books. The pathos of the situation is indeed irresistible. When Oliver resists his tormentors, it is not because he has been outrageously beaten, but because the memory of his dead mother has been insulted; and when alone, after the conflict, he falls upon his knees on the floor, hides his face in his hands, and sheds “ such tears as, God send for the credit of our nature, few so young may ever have cause to pour out before him.” After he has resolved to run away he looks out into the cold, dark night, and “the stars seem, to the boy’s eyes, farther from the earth than he had ever seen them before;” a flash of imagination which reveals the full piteousness and desolation of his condition. He has one friend to leave, poor little consumptive Dick, his companion in misery; “ they had been beaten, and starved, and shut up together, many and many a time;” and Oliver tells him, with an affectation of hope and cheer, that he shall see him again, well and happy. “ I hope so,” replied the child. “ After I am dead, but not before. I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of heaven and angels, and kind faces, which I never see when I am awake. Kiss me,” said the child, climbing up the low gate, and flinging his little arms around Oliver’s neck. “ Good-by, dear! God bless you!” Such pathos may be called mawkish, but it is a mawkishness which has power to open hearts that are shut, and melt hearts that are hard.

Among the criminal population of the book, two persons stand prominently forth: Fagin, the Jew, and Bill Sikes. Fagin’s soul is as yellow and shriveled as his face; he is wicked to the very core of his beiug; he so much delights in crime that he establishes a sort of academy to teach boys the rudiments of vice and villainy; he gloats and chuckles over the debasement of their bodies and the damnation of their souls; and he is connected with humanity only by the craven fear which makes him start and tremble even in his ecstasies of avarice and malignity. He belongs to the progeny of the devil by direct descent. Sikes, in speculating on his genealogical tree, bluntly tells him, “ There never was another man with such a face as yours, unless it was your father, and I suppose he is singeing his grizzled red heard by this time, unless you came straight from the old 'un without any father at all betwixt you; which I shouldn’t wonder at, a bit.”

When this creature is at last caught and caged, Dickens passes into that part of his nature which, however reluctantly, we must call his soul, and, with a shudder which still does not obscure his vision, observes and records what occurs therein. The chapter entitled The Jew’s Last Night Alive is a masterpiece of pysckology, as terrible as it is truthful. The condition and operations of the criminal mind under mortal fear are watched with a vigilant, unshrinking eye, and stated with minute exactness. The ghastly, deadening torpor of the Jew’s general mental mood; the feeble wanderings of his brain from one slight object to another, as he instinctively seeks relief from the thought of the doom he knows to be impending; his imbecile attempts to fasten his attention on insignificant appearances in order to keep out of view the dumb, horrible reality gnawing at his heart; and his bursts of agony when he discovers that no abasement of cowardice can save him from the death he so much dreads: all these mental facts are brought before the imagination with such vivid clearness that we seem to be witnesses of the internal states of this foul soul, which, having been damned into the world, now sees no escape from being damned out of it. Bill Sikes is a criminal of another kind, but equally well portrayed. A thoroughly hardened ruffian of the sturdy English type, with a sullen ferocity which penetrates his whole nature and allies him to his true brethren, the beasts of prey, there is no room in his breast for conscience, or pity, or physical fear; his attendant and moral shadow, the dog, has a character seemingly caught from that of his master; or perhaps we should say that Sikes the dog appears to have been arrested in that process of evolution which, when allowed free course, resulted in the production of Sikes the man. The account of the murder of Nancy is one of the most harrowing scenes in romance; and there is great power displayed in the description of Sikes’s flight afterwards, with the phantom of his victim pursuing him, the “ widely - staring eyes, so lustreless and glassy,” meeting his at every turn. Dickens, when writing these scenes, realized them so intensely that they may be said to have taken possession of him. When he read the account of the murder of Nancy to his wife, she became so affected that he describes her as being “ in an unspeakable state.”

There are, in Mr. Fagin’s seminary for the education of youth in theft and burglary, two promising pupils, Mr. John Dawkins (the Artful Dodger) and Master Charley Bates, who contribute much to the comedy of the book. Forster tell us that, on the evening when Dickens was writing the last chapter of the story, he and Talfourd were present at Dickens’s house. “ How well,” he adds, “I remember that evening! and our talk of what should be the fate of Charley Bates, on behalf of whom (as indeed for the Dodger, too) Talfourd had pleaded as earnestly in mitigation of judgment as ever at the bar for any client he had most respected.” Although Charley Bates is ever laughing, the Dodger is by far the funnier person of the two. The comical dignity with which he wears the honors of his profession, the lofty view he takes of it as a means of livelihood, his perfect content with the position in society it gives him, and the inimitable swagger and assurance which mark his general deportment, have lifted him to a high humorous rank among the numerous astonishing juvenile scapegraces that Dickens has drawn. When arrested as a pickpocket, and put in the dock for examination, he requests to know “ what he was placed in that ’ere disgraceful sitivation for; ” points to the magistrates, and asks the jailer to communicate to him “ the names of them two files as was on the bench; ” complains that his attorney is “ a-breakfasting this morning with the WicePresident of the House of Commons; ” and, when asked if he has any question to put to the witness against him, loftily replies that he “wouldn’t abase himself by descending to hold no conversation with him.” After he is committed, he turns to the magistrates and exclaims, “ Ah! 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 would n’t be you for something! ” And as he goes off, he threatens to make a parliamentary business of it. The impudent little rascal so wins upon the humorous sympathies of the reader that many others besides Talfourd have felt like speaking a mitigating word for him to the bench.

The scenes in which Mr. Bumble, the beadle, appears, are full both of humor and of pathos, — the humor coining from the pomposity with which he executes the “ duties ” of his high office, and the pathos from the sufferings of his victims. Mr. Bumble is the impersonation of the abuses of the English parochial system in the management of the poor: a sycophant to those above him, a tyrant to those below him, mean, stupid, greedy, hypocritical, cowardly, and unfeeling; big in body as becomes his station, small in soul as becomes the doing of its business, and endowed with a colossal conceit, which serves him in the place of conscience and gives him supreme selfsatisfaction and self-approval in his daily performance of acts of cruelty and injustice. But he is made by Dickens as ridiculous as he is heartless. When the half-starved Oliver rises against his tormentors, those who have beaten the boy almost to death refer the sudden exhibition of his spirit to madness. On Mrs. Sowerby’s communicating this theory to Mr. Bumble, he, after a few moments of deep meditation, replies, “It’s not Madness, ma’am; it’s Meat.” When a jury brings in a verdict that one of his paupers died of exposure to the cold and want of the common necessaries of life, he is naturally indignant. “ ‘Juries,’ said Mr. Bumble, grasping his cane tightly, as was his wont when working into a passion, ‘juries is ineddicated, vulgar, groveling wretches.’ ” He tells Mrs. Mann, who conducts a farm for the raising of pauper children, that he “ inwented ” the idea of naming the foundlings of the workhouse in alphabetical order. “The last,” he says, “was a S, — Swubble, I named him. This was a T, — Twist, I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready-made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z. ” “ Why, you are quite

a literary character, sir!” said the admiring Mrs. Mann. “Well, well,” replied the beadle, “perhaps I may be. Perhaps I may be, Mrs. Mann.” When, towards the end of the book, his knavery is on the point of exposure, he cringes to the party assembled at Mr. Brownlow’s with a hypocritical sycophancy that is deliciously absurd and awkward. “ Do my hi’s deceive me! ” he exclaims, “ or is that little Oliver? . . . Can’t I be supposed to feel — I as brought him up porochially — when I see him a-setting here among ladies and gentlemen of the very affablest description? I always loved that boy as if he’d been my — my — my own grandfather! . . . Master Oliver, my dear, you remember the blessed gentleman in the white waistcoat ? Ah! he went to heaven last week, in a oak coffin with plated handles, Oliver.” Mr. Bumble is not a father, but if it had pleased Dickens to give him a son, nobody could have filled that position more appropriately than the charity boy of the novel, Noah Claypole, the most consummate of all actual or possible sneaks.

Dickens, in his preface to Oliver Twist, replies with some heat to those “ refined and delicate people ” who had objected to his introduction of such creatures as Fagin and Sikes and Nancy into the hook, as equally offensive to good morals and good taste. After justifying his selection of such persons for romantic treatment, he bluntly tells his censors that he has no respect for their opinion, does not covet their approval, and does not write for their amusement.

“I venture,” he adds, “ to say this without reserve : for I am not aware of any writer in our language, having a respect for himself or held in any respect by his posterity, who has ever descended to the taste of this fastidious class.” Certainly the reading of Oliver Twist can corrupt nobody. The representation of criminals is vivid and true, but what is wicked is not associated with what is alluring, and the moral tone and purpose are often inartistically obvious. The morality of the novel is not only sound, but the moral taste of the writer, his fine sense of what is becoming, prevents him from putting into the mouths of his criminal characters language which would be appropriate to them; language which Fielding and Smollett would not have hesitated to use, but which the manners of our day have banished from contemporary books. That he should have portrayed such characters in their hideous reality, and still should have denied to them their favorite outlets of expression in ribaldry and blasphemy, proves both his skill in characterization and his instinctive perception of the verbal proprieties demanded by modern taste. Dickens, however, was never on more perilous ground than in this novel; and that he escaped certain dangers inherent in its design is evident from the failure of a host of imitators, whom his success stimulated, to make their romances of rascality either morally or artistically justifiable.

Edwin P. Whipple.