Thursday, December 9, 2010

Oliver Twist

“‘But even if he has been wicked,’ pursued Rose, ‘think how young he is, think that he may never have known a mother's love, or the comfort of a home; and that ill-usage and blows, or the want of bread, may have driven him to herd with men who have forced him to guilt…’
-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

My Alternate Title:
How the World is Full of Wrong, and How Oliver Overcame

This is the second time I have read this book, but the first was years ago. This time I believe I got a deeper, richer understanding of it, and was reminded of how great Charles Dickens really was.

In America we talk about our poor and hungry. We talk about how our government should be doing more, and how churches are falling behind on their duties. Perhaps all this is true, but I don’t think we have any idea what it was like to be poor—19th century poor. England in the 1830s was a place where a child could be executed or deported for a petty theft. If you didn’t have enough money to buy food you didn’t just go to WIC. You stole, then you went to prison. Poor laws were brutal to the waifs of London—orphans who literally wandered the streets.

This was the world Charles Dickens lived in. He saw the injustice, and he experienced it first hand as a child when his father was sent to debtor’s prison and the boy worked ten-hour days in a shoe polish factory. This gave him a great sympathy for the poor of London, and when he became an author he sought to do his part to write the wrongs. One of his most impacting novels was his second—Oliver Twist.

The central character is an orphan, raised in a harsh parish workhouse, who wants nothing more than the love of a real family. He is a strictly moral little boy, despite his sordid surroundings, and though sorely tested throughout the entire book he retains his integrity. As the story progresses he is sold as an apprentice, out on his own in the wild, and thrown amongst a gang of thieves. He keeps a sweet spirit through all his trials, however, and though hated by the hypocritical, greedy, and dishonest, he is dearly loved by the pure of heart.  

The style is rather elaborate and absolutely dripping with sarcasm. The omniscient narrator tells the entire story tongue-in-cheek, treating the most appalling subjects with indifference—mocking those who thought lightly of such things when they happened in real life.

Oliver’s trials go on in a seemingly never-ending stream. Just when you think everything is all right, he’s thrown another curve ball. There is the recurring theme of the fat, middle-class hypocrite who doesn’t care about anything but his belly, purse, and reputation, at any cost. We also see the grimy underbelly of crime and the heartbreaking dramas that go on against the seediest and most impoverished backdrops.

We sympathize with poor Oliver, but on one level he is little more than an abstraction. One can clearly see that he is simply a metaphor symbolizing the poor of England. Dickens describes them as honest, their only corruption coming from those consumed with greed. He sees their situation as almost hopeless, and it is the duty of those with money and status to care for as many of these poor as possible, improving their lot in life and giving them chance to succeed that they lack. At heart the book is a social reform novel, addressing certain atrocities of the day and indicting the wealthy for their neglect and pacifism in the area of child labor, criminals, and the poor in general.

I agree that it is important for us, as human beings and Christians especially, to take care of our fellow people. Rather than judging, we should do all in our power (without bankrupting ourselves in the process) to help the poor and needy. Giving impoverished children a chance is so important. How many more geniuses and heroes would we have in our world today if more people were like Mr. Brownlow, instead of Mr. Bumble? 

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