Wherein we glance back at the first week of the #DickensClub reading of Oliver Twist (week sixteen of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23); With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week two.
Happy Week 2 of our reading of Oliver Twist, “my flash com-pan-i-ons”!
The workhouse, baby farming, undertaking, pickpocketing, chimney-sweeping…as Chris writes, it is a “horror story with a child at center stage; the narrative with its pointed sarcasm and facetiousness; the un-sugar-coated descriptions of callousness and the soul-wrenching misery it causes; and the commentary on Society’s inhumane treatment of those most in need…Dickens does not ask what is our duty to each other but rather how did we forget that duty?”
Today we have a lot of General Memoranda to cover, but please take a look, as there are some special Thank Yous, including one to our dear Club member, Boze!
And this past week, we passed the 100 Day mark in our Club! Three cheers…
If you’re counting, this coming week will be week 16 of the #DickensClub as a whole (and today Day 105), and the second week of Oliver Twist (our third read). Please feel free to comment below this post for the second week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! We’re forever grateful for shares and retweets from all! Including friends new and old, our marvelous Dickens Fellowship, the Dickens Society, the Dickens Letters Project, Dr. Pete Orford and Dr. Christian Lehmann, and all of our Dickensian heroes, for helping to build our reading community. And a huge thank you to The Circumlocution Office for providing such an online resource for us!
And today I want to send a special and most heartfelt Thank You to our one-and-only Owl! at the Library, Boze Herrington, fellow Dickensian and Club member, for most generously being willing to take on our Introductory posts in future, for each new read!! He is a researcher extraordinaire, like our dear Chris, with a Dickensian delight in detail ~ and I am so excited for his introductions!
Meanwhile, I’ll keep up on these weekly summary and discussion wrap-ups, and add an occasional special-interest post. (If you have any Dickensian special interest topic that you’d like to share with the group ~ and truly, so many comments shared here are so extraordinary, that they would be marvelous separate posts entirely ~ please let us know!)
We’d love to have new readers join us. If you’re interested: the schedule is in my intro post here, and my introduction to Oliver Twist can be found here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.
Week One Oliver Twist Summary (Chapters 1-11)
We are well and truly into the era of the New Poor Law. Oliver Twist “was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble” in a workhouse, his mother having been found lying in the street the previous night, her shoes “worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.” She dies, leaving Oliver to the care of strangers, including a drunken midwife and a medical gentleman who is gone almost as soon as he appeared. Even Oliver’s name is a grudging bestowal from an impersonal system.
“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.”
Not long after, little Oliver is farmed out to “a branch workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing.” Dickens compares the children’s care by this Mrs. Mann to that of a horse-owner who had experimented with just how little that gentleman could manage to feed the poor animal and still keep it alive. Clearly, many have died under Mrs. Mann’s “care,” and she uses resources for herself which were intended for the children. Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who had named Oliver, pays a visit, and brings Oliver with him to the workhouse to stand before the board, who declare their intention to educate him into some useful trade.
In the large stone-walled refectory where the boys have their meal, the famous scene ensues: Oliver draws the short straw in a challenge with the other boys ~ one of whom looks about ready to eat his companions ~ and ventures to ask for “more”: for another bowl of the thin gruel that is supposed to sustain them.
The beadle is called for, “Oliver was ordered into instant confinement; and a bill was next morning pasted on the outside of the gate, offering a reward of five pounds to anybody who would take Oliver Twist off the hands of the parish.”
Seeking a drudge assistant and a means to pay off debt all at once, Mr. Gamfield the chimney-sweeper tries to take him, but is prevented by a moment of pity on the part of the magistrate, for Oliver’s obvious terror. Oliver ends up instead with the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and lives for a time among coffins, eating the dog’s leftovers, tormented by the bullying Noah Claypole. Oliver ends up in a fight with Claypole, who has insulted Oliver’s mother, after which Oliver is beaten and locked up.
Finally, Oliver runs away, making the long foot-journey to London. Arriving at its outskirts, weakened from fatigue and hunger, Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, a.k.a. the “artful Dodger,” dressed in a man’s coat and a side-cocked hat. The Dodger assures Oliver that he can have a place to stay with “a ‘spectable old gentleman…wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink.” He leads him through the labyrinth of London at nightfall, through Saffron-hill.
“A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odors…the sole places that seemed to prosper, amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses…”
He brings Oliver to a house near Field Lane, and introduces him to Fagin, “a very old shrivelled Jew” who is cooking sausages. (If you haven’t read it yet, please see see Boze’s wonderful piece on Dickens’ very problematic character.) That night, Oliver sees Fagin pulling out a box filled with jewels from a hiding place in the ground, and Fagin is paranoid of being watched. Later, Oliver is introduced to the game Fagin and the boys play, of dodging and pick-pocketing, not understanding the implications until he sees the Dodger do it in real life, taking a handkerchief from the pocket of a gentleman at a book stall. Frightened and horrified, Oliver runs; due to this, he is taken for being the thief, and is pursued and brought before the magistrate.
The gentleman who is robbed, Mr. Brownlow, appears kindly disposed towards the boy, and begins to doubt Oliver’s guilt, when a shop-keeper runs in, and bears witness to the fact that it was not Oliver who was guilty, but two other boys. Oliver faints with weakness, and is taken into a coach by Mr. Brownlow.
We also had the wonderful piece by Boze on the antisemitism in Oliver Twist, and the very problematic character of Fagin. I’ll keep linking back to this, since we have a whole other discussion happening there; I won’t try to summarize that conversation in the weekly wrap-ups (except perhaps in the final), as it is a conversation that I’m sure will be ongoing throughout our read. We’ve only just met Fagin, and already a couple of us are hit in the face by the repetition of “the Jew” in relation to him.
Where We’re At
Dana is thoroughly enjoying Jonathan Pryce’s audio reading of Oliver, and is struck by the social commentary ~ the “’angry young man’ mode,” as Chris called it. Steve is bravely finishing Pickwick while he begins; and his comment about not rushing Dickens really sparked a question which Boze and I have been pondering, and we’d love some input, as there are some exciting possibilities…more on this in a post in a day or two. (There’s been some illness in the family and my little niece is going to need her auntie more than usual this week!) So, thank you, Steve, for sparking some wonderful ideas and questions!
The Adaptation Stationmaster loved the scene where Mr. Bumble gets put in his place by the magistrate who has a moment of pity for Oliver.
“Full ‘Angry Young Man’ Mode”
We have been discussing the ironic, painful, dark humor in Oliver, such a contrast from the rambling shenanigans in Pickwick! Every line, it sometimes seems, is bitter, biting, and a jab at the system. Chris wrote beautifully on the experience of rereading this so far, and on the tone of the young, angry Dickens. Here in “gallery mode” (click on each to see enlarged):
Chris M. comments (above)
We’re seeing products of the inhumane system too. The shadow is coming forward, threatening to engulf the light, as Lenny writes:
“Such vicious, sadistic treatment, which involves beatings and starvation, can only be seen as the actions of depraved people who have totally been swallowed by the darker sides of their personalities, venting their angers and frustrations on the innocent subjects who are readymade victims for their wrath. Our Oliver, by chance, is sadly one of them.”
And I agree:
Rach M. comments (above)
Entrapment/Claustrophobia; the Place as Image of the Person
Lenny’s first word for us was “Claustrophobia,” and he remarked on how the physical setting is a “dire illustration of Oliver’s state of mind.” (I am curious to see how often we will see this come ’round again in Dickens: the place as illustrative of the person and his/her interior state.)
Lenny discusses a passage in the third chapter where Oliver is imprisoned in a dark and solitary room a week after the “more” incident, and where “the wall, itself, becomes his protective ‘womb'”:
“He only cried bitterly all day; and, when the long, dismal night came on, spread his little hands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching in the corner, tried to sleep: ever and anon waking with a start and tremble, and drawing himself closer and closer to the wall, as if to feel even its cold hard surface were a protection in the gloom and loneliness which surrounded him.”
“Once again, only in a more elaborate way, the confined, dark, cold setting both causes his depression and operates to mirror the horrible and empty feelings he has about his circumstances. As readers we keep hoping that this incarceration motif will only be temporary, and that soon this young boy’s circumstances will improve. But as we can see in the next excerpt, Mrs. Sowerberry’s treatment of him is as sadistically vicious as his other tormentors; here in Chapter 4, she, too, takes up the theme of starvation and in her actions carries forth what has been typical thus far–the cynical theme of adults versus children, especially ‘parish’ children, or, rather, children she would just as soon watch perish; her verbal and physical abuse is symbolic of the latter:
‘”Ah! I dare say he will,” replied the lady pettishly, “on our victuals and our drink. I see no saving in parish children, not I; for they always cost more to keep, than they’re worth…”‘”
And Lenny continues the theme of darkness and entrapment:
Lenny H. comments (above)
I respond to the entrapment issue, with an emphasis on the light/dark contrast which has been part of our ongoing conversation:
Rach M. comments (above)
Lenny H. comments (above)
“A Reproach to the System”: The Criminality of Lawbreaking vs. the Criminality of/within the Law
I just want to emphasize again Lenny’s final comment from the above passage, under a heading that will perhaps come ’round again and again:
“And, I feel, that underpinning both ‘methods’ of crime is the ever present theme of GREED. Ironically, money can be made from the baby farm and workhouse just as fully but maybe more subtly than the more obvious methods of crime involving the stealing of handkerchiefs and wallets. In this way, the novel presents two, greed motivated, ‘SYSTEMS’ or ‘INDUSTRIES’ that kill, maim and fleece the British society of this time in the late 1830’s.”
And Chris and I have a little dialogue here in response to Lenny’s comment:
Finally, Steve has a question to leave us with: Did those Dickens wrote about recognize themselves in this judgement?
A Look-ahead to Week Two of Oliver Twist (19-25 April)
This week we’ll be reading Chapters 12-22, which constitute the monthly numbers VI-X, published in Aug, Sept, Nov, and Dec 1837, and Jan of 1838.
You can read the text in full at The Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.