Wherein we glance back at the fourth week of the #DickensClub reading of Oliver Twist; With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week five, our final week with our little sojourner.
Friends, this coming week will be our last with Oliver Twist! We’ll then begin our break between reads before beginning our fourth, Nicholas Nickleby.
What treasures we have encountered in our reading over the past weeks, and what immensely rich discussions. It was particularly difficult to shorten or sum up this week’s wonderful analyses!
I can only say a heartfelt “thank you” again, friends, for carrying the conversation so stunningly this past week. What a gold mine of insights!
If you’re counting, this coming week will be week 19 of the #DickensClub as a whole (and today Day 126), and the fifth and final week of Oliver Twist (our third read). Please feel free to comment below this post for the fifth week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
This week, Boze and I will have the amended schedule posted, including the break between reads. Though it seems an age from now, this will mean that our fourth read, Nicholas Nickleby, will begin on Tuesday, 31 May, with Boze’s introduction to that work!
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. Boze’s most marvelous post on Fagin and antisemitism in Oliver Twist can be found here, and is an ongoing conversation. 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.
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 our marvelous Dickens Fellowship, 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!
Week Four Oliver Twist Summary (Chapters 35-46)
We left our little sojourner frightened by the eerie apparitions at the cottage window; the idea–the dreamlike, surreal images and voices–of Monks and Fagin were nonetheless real enough to Oliver. Harry and Dr. Losberne, however, are at a loss to find any traces of recent tracks.
Harry, who has prolonged his visit as Rose improves in health, declares his love and devotion to her. She is equally devoted to him, but will not allow him to commit himself, fearing that the mysterious secret and shadow on her name will blight him, especially considering the circles he moves in. Disheartened but not giving up, Harry begs her to listen to his appeal one more time after the passage of a year; if she is still of the same mind, he will not mention the subject again. She tearfully agrees.
“Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.”
Mr. Bumble has resigned both his single state and his parochial police duties and now serves both the workhouse and its mistress, Mrs. Corney, who gives him a hard time of it.
“Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten. He had decided propensity for bullying; derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favor than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for the office.”
Later, drinking away his troubles, Bumble is asked by the mysterious Monks to bring the lady who had spoken to Old Sally on her deathbed.
At their meeting with Monks, Mrs. Bumble née Corney tells about the pawnbroker’s receipt, discovered and redeemed by her, which proved to be for a locket enclosing a wedding ring, locks of hair, and the name Agnes with no surname. Monks, having procured both the locket and the information from Mrs. Bumble for payment, ties a weight to the former and disposes of it in the river.
Back with Fagin & Co, Nancy overhears a conversation between Monks and Fagin. Based on Monks’ disclosure, Nancy bravely seeks a meeting with Rose Maylie who is staying in town, and discloses to Rose her own part in Oliver’s history, and the information she overheard: that Monks is Oliver’s brother, and the former seeks to destroy any evidence of this; Monks wants to claim for himself an inheritance that should belong to Oliver.
Rose, filled with pity for Nancy’s situation, desperately tries to help her, but Nancy, though touched, refuses to leave Sikes. However, Nancy promises to always at London Bridge on Sunday between 11pm and midnight while she remains alive, in case of need.
Nancy, after a failed attempt to meet them due to Sikes’ irascibility and determination that she must stay home, is sought out the following Sunday, after a happy reunion between Oliver, Mr. Brownlow, and Mrs. Bedwin. Rose relays Nancy’s story to them, and they reveal it to the rest of their circle, except to Oliver.
Unfortunately, Nancy is suspected of something by Fagin, and all are noticing her nervous paleness and increasingly erratic behavior. Noah Claypole, Fagin’s new recruit (who had stolen from Mr. Sowerberry) is sent to spy on her.
On the Surrey side of London Bridge, Noah, hiding himself near the meeting place, overhears the conversation between Nancy, Mr. Brownlow, and Rose. The latter two promise not to involve Nancy’s associates in any action, and she, though painfully moved and showing an intense devotion to Rose, refuses again the many offers of help for herself.
“‘I have not done this for money. Let me have that to think of. And yet—give me something that you have worn: I should like to have something—no, no, not a ring—your gloves or handkerchief—anything that I can keep, as having belonged to you, sweet lady. Bless you! God bless you. Good night, good night!’
The violent agitation of the girl, and the apprehension of some discovery which would subject her to ill-usage and violence, seemed to determine the gentleman to leave her, as she requested. The sound of retreating footsteps were audible, and the voices ceased…
Rose Maylie lingered, but the old gentleman drew her arm through his, and led her, with gentle force, away. As they disappeared, the girl sunk down nearly at her full length upon one of the stone stairs, and vented the anguish of her heart in bitter tears.”
What We Loved…
Boze lauded Dickens as “our best novelist, and Icona shared a marvelous passage, highlighting Dickens’ mastery of “cinematic” description:
Meanwhile, Cassandra, who has had to take a break, is looking forward to joining us again for Nicholas Nickleby!
Locales in Oliver Twist
Chris posted about the possible site of one of our characters (SPOILER ALERT): Cross Bones in Southwark, along Redcross Way.
I found an interesting little piece on “Nancy’s steps” on the Surrey side of London Bridge where Nancy meets with Brownlow and Rose.
Dickens’ Romanticism: the Ideal and Spirit of Childhood
In continuing our conversation about Dickens’ Romanticism, Lenny shared a passage with us from a pertinent work, The Romantic Legacy of Charles Dickens:
Lenny H. comments
He then shared with us Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”:
Lenny H. comments
Daniel is very intrigued by the various ideas that connect to Dickens’ Romanticism (“Eden, memory, death, and Wordsworthian tranquility that gives rise to vivid emotion”) and is considering writing a separate piece for us on it:
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: “Plot Contrivances and Coincidences”; the “Zig-Zag Narrative”; Narratives Mysterious and Surreal
Coincidences, contrivances, “clumsiness of the plotting in this section of Oliver”…Boze really gives us an insight into Dickens’ early haphazard plotting style. Perhaps, early on, Dickens was the ultimate “Pantser”? (As in, “seat-of-your-pants” style; as opposed to “Plotter.”)
Lenny adds to this, extrapolating on Dickens’ “zig-zag” narrative which we’ve been discussing related to the “multi-plot novel” that Dickens is familiarizing his readers with here. But Lenny also goes into why he is “not so bothered by these narrative inconsistencies and things that cause unresolved mysteries…and what Wordsworth in his PRELUDE speaks of as ‘Unknown modes of being’.” Lenny gives both literary and cinematic examples of the kinds of stories whose mysterious, almost surreal, narrative structures contain a psychological truth:
Lenny H. comments
“The Idea of Surprise”
Continuing with our consideration of Dickens’ plotting technique and narrative structure, Lenny considers that “Dickens’ second novel is built continuously on the idea of surprise.” He focuses particularly on the dynamic of “the ‘major’ TRAUMATIC surprises–usually harmful, physically and mentally– that happen as Oliver’s ‘pilgrimage’ proceeds. These ‘events’ seem to me to work on two levels, sometimes simultaneously–as they ‘happen’ to Oliver as well as to me, the reader.” And still, just when one thinks things can’t get any worse for our little hero, the “growing intensity” of each tragic episode of surprise continually surprises us anew.
At the same time, Lenny alludes to what could become a recurring theme/motif in Dickens as we move forward with our reading club: “there are many other characters whose mental states Dickens seems to want to express. One of those ‘states’ has to do with something akin to hallucinations–and these psychic events seem to follow after dire events that cause various characters to imagine otherworldly phantasms.” We’ll see this again and again, very noticeably in Dickens’ final unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Lenny H. comments
Chris responds to Lenny’s analyses with another marvelous piece. “How does one [a child], with no experience, process the ‘surprises’ of life?” Then Chris beautifully applies the theme of Oliver’s childlike surprise, to the surprise of the traumatized woman in Nancy:
Chris M. comments
“The Silent Movers and Shakers”: Dickens’ Women; Rose and Nancy as Light and Shadow; Doubling; Patterns of Abuse
One shouldn’t undervalue the homemakers and little “women of the house” that Dickens lauds again and again. Chris notes that “women at this time were not given a lot of outlets in terms of employment and that the Home became their realm”; more than that, these women are often “the silent movers and shakers of their particular novel”:
Chris M. comments
Lenny responds to Chris’ essay with insights on the abusive patterns in men like Sikes, and the haunting image of having Nancy’s voice torn out of her:
Lenny H. comments
Having A Tale of Two Cities once again on the brain–as so often happens, like the imposition of Charles I upon the mind of Mr. Dick in David Copperfield–I continue the conversation on Dickens’ women with the aspects of “doubling,” and the extremity of Nancy’s situation that justify the grand or “melodramatic” gestures:
Rach M. comments
Chris responds, seeing the pattern of abuse happening again in Charlotte and Noah:
A Look-ahead to Week Five of Oliver Twist (10-16 May)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 47-53, which constitute the monthly numbers XXI-XXIV, published Jan-April 1839.
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.
Extraordinary wrap-up, Rach! You’ve recast so beautifully the many ideas that we in the group have come up with and added some of your own which spice up the OLIVER pot! I think that the “doubling” idea is very important, as we see Dickens in OLIVER working with a kind of symmetry as he balances the light and dark “ingredients” of the novel. And I recall an earlier comment (of yours?) regarding not just the doubling but how it works (as foil) to define further the oppositions between various characters and situations. Oliver/Sikes; Brownlow/Fagin; the Rose-Harry relationship/Sikes, Nancy, /Bumble Mrs. Bumble relationships; Mrs. Maylie/Mrs. Sowerberry, etc. Each of these doubles help, by their contrast, define one another, put each particular in relief against the other. We can, for example, compare–directly (with close analysis) or indirectly (“intuitively” while we initially read the novel)– the huge disparity between Rose/Harry and Sikes/Nancy through contrast and comparison. Dickens, the writer–with his narrative construction– makes these comparisons one of the key aspects of this and (as you have pointed out) other novels (TALE OF TWO CITIES, etc.).
That Nancy, in Tomlin’s view, demonstrates a weakness in the novel just blows me away. I wish you’d talk a bit more about her reasoning regarding this issue. As we’ve discussed, the Nancy/Oliver/Brownlow/Rose nexus really underscores a major segment of the last 1/2 of the novel. Nancy’s almost “loving” regard for and caring for Oliver is THE plot device that sets so much in motion. The things various of us have written about Nancy are “realistically” plausible and would be, I think, hard to dismiss. What goes on between Nancy, Sikes, Oliver, Rose, Brownlow intermingles with the central “mystery”–touches of which are hinted at (planted) earlier in the novel and reach their fruition with Nancy’s meetings with Rose and Brownlow. Her discussions and warnings about the threats to Oliver and the plotting of Fagin and Monks, are set against the negative “dealings” of these last two nefarious men. Thus, as I see it, this is the way the novel sets up its later structure–with these oppositions (Boze, I think this is part of your plotting methodology). Taking any part of Nancy out of the equation would just “gum up the works” it appears to me. How does Tomlin get around this?
Yes, we’ve discussed the character, personality and redemptive acts that codify Nancy, but what about Rose, her reception of Nancy and her “relationship” with Harry. I guess I’m very interested in the way Dickens weaves together (or interweaves) Rose’s incredible reception of and attempts to “save” Nancy, her furthering Oliver’s education and growth, and her juggling the precarious relationship she has with Harry. Chris has wonderfully started this analysis of Rose, getting at the truly “progressive” relationship she has with Nancy (sisters helping other sisters in today’s parlance) . Yet, what Chris has said about other critics’ writings about Rose (and Nancy) also baffles me–to the extent that they undermine the moral centers and very existences of these Women’s total personalities. ( As a personal sidelight, in my early [1960’s] reading of Jane Austen’s novels and the critics who wrote about them and the women in those novels, I found an incredible bias against the women, resulting in an almost unanimous applause for the central male characters. Over time, this “undermining” response toward Austen’s women has changed, but early on I found this strong bias to be true in various analyses of ALL the Austen novels.) Is this going to be the case with the Dickens’ novels going forward. I’m wondering, then, again, how Tomlin deals with the other women in Dickens….
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Lenny, thank you so much!!! That brightens the day immensely!! (One of those days when one was feeling a bit down & under the weather…!) So glad you enjoyed the wrap-up. The analyses were just SO MARVELOUS! i wanted to make entire separate blog posts for them, so that we could comment specifically on one subject.
Yes, I’ll grab the section from the Tomalin bio and share it here. I am floored too…I think Nancy is such a dynamic character, and pivotal as you say for moving the action forward!
Fabulous. I’m sure her perspective will be interesting!
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Morning, all! 🙂
Per Lenny’s request, here’s the passage from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, pgs 97-98. I’ll include the preceding paragraph b/c I think it’s of interest & helps set the context. SPOILER ALERT re: the last sentence and 1/2. Here it is:
“In PICKWICK, an innocent middle-aged man is confronted with crooked lawyers and prison, and saved by his street-wise servant Sam Weller. OLIVER set up a darker scene from the start, as the infant hero and his dying, unmarried mother, two innocents, are confronted with evil licensed by a state system meant to protect and help them. As a charity child, Oliver shows some spirit and gets into trouble that allows Dickens to give voice to a passionate indignation. Then, when he falls into the hands of a professional criminal, Fagin, who trains boys like the Artful Dodger to pick pockets, Dickens shows the mixture of terror and fascination that they produce in Oliver: they are kind to him, amuse him, feed him, shelter him and explain the world to him. Fagin and the Artful Dodger are the stars of the book, as every dramatization has made clear. The only thing that stops Oliver succumbing to their charm and being happily corrupted is that he has had a glimpse of another world, peaceful and orderly, where he might be given an education. He also unwittingly acquires an ally in Nancy, the prostitute who pities Oliver and tries to protect him and help him get away from Fagin. Then Dickens tightens the tension and horror of the plot by making Nancy’s lover Sikes a brutal burglar, and also an ally of Fagin.
“It is melodrama, but with moments of real terror, as Oliver tries to escape the villains and they in turn are hunted to the death. Apart from the colourless virtuous characters, the chief failure of the book is Nancy, on whom Dickens lavished great care and whom he claimed to have modelled on a young woman he had known. He was proud of his portrait and said it was drawn from life, but he fails because he makes her behave like an actress in a bad play: she tears her hair and clothes, writhes, wrings her hands, sinks to her knees and contrives to lie down on a stone staircase in the street. She has visions of shrouds, coffins and blood, and is loaded with false theatrical speeches. ‘I am that infamous creature,’ she tells a would-be benefactress. ‘The poorest women fall back, as I make my way along the crowded pavement…the alley and the gutter were mine, as they will be my death-bed.’ Again, ‘Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them…I shall come to that at last.’ Dickens must many times have observed prostitutes in the streets, yet he is creating a stereotype here, one he used again in later novels: the penitent woman who tears her hair and seeks the river to make an end of things. But Nancy’s falsity could not spoil the success of OLIVER, which rose to a fearful conclusion with her murder by Sikes and his subsequent grisly end. Fagin is hanged, and the Artful Dodger redeems the criminal classes with his great performance in the dock, cheeking the magistrate and making even the jailer grin.”
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Rach, thanks so much for putting this “analysis” in the mix. I’m wondering if this very basic summary is IT as far as what Tomlin has to say about the novel, or does she go into more depth. Jeez, I’m also wondering how many people might might skip the novel because of this rather off-putting “discussion.”
“Colorless Virtuous characters”–I question what she has in mind in terms of the more sane and recognizably “good” People in OLIVER. If Dickens were to dress Brownlow and Rose up too much, make them, I don’t know, too strange and weird–wouldn’t they then become mere “caricatures” as opposed to more or less realistic creations OF SOMETHING LIKE NORMALITY. Then I think the novel would lose much of the “foiling” and doubling that goes on.
I’m struggling with this quote, sort of at a loss for words, as I fail to see how it gives any clue about the wonders of the novel and its complexity on so many levels.
Gads. I truly hope others in our group will chime in with their thoughts!!!!
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I’m going to do a whole comment about Fagin and then do a separate comment about some characters because he’s so controversial and if people are offended by what I write about him, they can still like my other comment. OK?
It’s interesting that the only reference to Judaism in the novel I can remember portrays Fagin as rejecting it. (“At one time he raved and blasphemed; and at another howled and tore his hair. 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.”) Because of this I feel like Fagin, for all the antisemitic stereotypes he embodies, isn’t as defined by being Jewish as, say, Shylock is in The Merchant of Venice.
I don’t want to excuse any racism on the book’s part, but for all the negative stereotyping Dickens did with Fagin, I don’t get the vibe that his motivation in writing Oliver Twist was specifically to make readers hate Jewish people. It was more about making them hate beadles. While I don’t like the criminal villains, I don’t get as angry at them as I do at the “respectable” ones whom you’d expect to treat Oliver with decency. Then again, you could say that’s more dehumanizing and offensive since it implies Fagin and Sikes are naturally evil and not responsible for their actions like Mr. Bumble or Mrs. Sowerberry.
Also, while everyone calls Fagin “the Jew”, it’s mainly the negative characters of Sikes and Monks who use Jew as an insult. (I think there might be one instance of a good character using it that way, but I can’t remember where it is.) I’m actually more offended by Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House using the expression “rich as a Jew” and Micawber in David Copperfield and Flora Finching in Little Dorrit perpetrating the stereotype that Jewish people sell fake notes, even though those are technically easier to edit out of the books.
For an opposing take to Tomalin’s on Nancy, I offer John Bowen’s summation in his “Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit”:
p. 99 – “Readers have disagreed sharply about the portrayal of Nancy n the novel. For Dickens’s later collaborator Wilkie Collins, she was ‘the finest thing he ever did. He never afterwards saw all the sides of a woman’s character.’ For [W. M.] Thackeray, by contrast, she was ‘the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gessner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench’. For Angus Wilson, she is an ‘oleograph madonna’ with ‘only the shadowiest existence’, but to Michael Slater, ‘the only character in whose portrayal Dickens seems to be seeking to explore a conception of female nature itself’.”
Expanding on Slater’s critique, see his “Dickens and Women”:
Pp 221-22 – “. . . Nancy does shine among all the female characters as a bright particular star. She is the only character in whose portrayal Dickens seems to be seeking to explore a conception of female nature itself rather than simply presenting aspects of it, no matter how vividly, as perceived by men. It is undeniable that Nancy’s speech, appearance and general demeanour lack the kind of social verisimilitude that Thackeray condemned Dickens for glossing over . . . But, as Dickens portrays her, with her resourcefulness and quick-witted cleverness, her various moods, her fears and her courage, she emerges as a far more complete embodiment of his conception of woman’s nature than any of his other early female characters.
“. . . The mystery of her unswerving devotion to the brutish man who is in every way her inferior, and the paradoxical strength and dignity of this devotion gives her, ‘fallen woman’ though she is, fascinate Dickens and inspire him to develop her into the only one of his early female characters that an be taken at all seriously.”
Pp 240-241 – “Nancy . . . transcends her typecasting, above all through asserting an independence of action, both implicitly against Sikes by seeking to save Oliver and explicitly against Brownlow by refusing to betray or abandon Sikes.”
P 259 – re Nancy’s character type: “This type is characterized by a passionate nature and a strong intelligence – not the intuitive heart-wisdom of the heroines but an intellectual ability to analyze and generalize her own particular predicament. Nancy alone in the earlier fiction had been allowed to manifest this sort of intelligence . . . and . . . had been allowed to show strong feelings.”
There is also a very good analysis of Dickens’s use of melodrama in some of the Nancy scenes in George J. Worth’s “Dickensian Melodrama: A Reading of the Novels”. Discussing the first meeting between Nancy and Rose he says:
“For all the strain and unnaturalness in such [melodramatic] speeches by Rose and, especially Nancy, this melodramatic scene has undeniable power. The reader’s propensity to disbelief when confronted with such soaring, carefully patterned language has been weakened by the excitement aroused through the narrative of Nancy’s escape and whild journey to the hotel and by Nancy’s own gripping account of mysteries that have not previously been unfolded to us. Embedded in such a context, this dialogue not only does not jar or offend: it succeeds.” (p. 48)
I tend to agree with these and not with Tomalin.
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Just a note to you commending you for all your hard work, here, assembling these various quotes. I’ve just reread each of them over and find, in the main, that they applaud Dickens presentation of Nancy as a “well-rounded” portrait of an active, intelligent woman. But what about her age and how that factors into her impulsiveness and high energy? I suppose some critics do mention her age and go into more details concerning her behavior as a teenager.
Moreover: As I was scrolling through the chapters last night, I lit on Chapter 16 where her first, I think, challenge to the authority of Fagin and Sikes arises. At this early point, she really threatens to do harm to Fagin if he dare hit Oliver one more time, and has to be restrained by Sikes to keep her from doing real damage to Fagin’s face as those talons have come out. And verbally she seems to be venting her frustration over the situation she has found herself in at such a young stage in her life. There is SO much pent up anger here, and it’s Oliver’s presence in the novel that seems to bring it all to the surface. Her anima is in full sway as it attacks their male-oriented and venal demands on Oliver (and herself).
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I haven’t seen anything that specifically references her behavior as a teenager – but I’ll keep looking.
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Chris, thank you SO much for compiling these wonderful quotes/references! Such a wealth here, and it is fascinating how divided people are but I also tend to agree with the ones you have referenced here. It is evident to me, and I daresay to most, how much stage melodrama impacted Oliver Twist, everything from the character portrayals to the last-minute relationship reveals to the necessity of wrapping things up happily, and of poetic justice coming to the villains. But unlike Tomalin, I don’t see this as a weakness/detriment. I think Dickens pulled off something here which really **works**. It’s never been a favorite Dickens of mine, but heck, it just works, and keeps the reader on pins and needles so effectively, and goes for the jugular with the horror and pathos of it all.
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I agree with your agreement, Chris!!! As you’ve reminded us MANY times, Nancy’s only 17 years old. She’s a teenager and given that she’s given to histrionics, etc. in her speech and actions, she seems quite natural! And in this case, Dickens has NAILED her personality. The hormones are flowing, she’s in the midst of crisis almost ALL the time, given the environment within which she lives! In essence, her situation is as horrible as she says it is–and probably worse that even Dickens or we can imagine. She comes to new realizations about herself and the conditions under which she is living and is trying–in spite of all this baggage–to reach some kind of redemption while at the same time saving Oliver and thwarting the “plot” that Monks and Fagin are cooking up. We have to regard her new endeavors as heroic as she puts herself at terrible risk.
I’ve witnessed these “histrionics” in my granddaughter who is 15. When she is with a friend or two, I feel, sometimes, as though the very roof is about to blow off the house! These emotions come to the fore when suddenly she and her friends hear one of their favorite songs or talk about their favorite boy band singers. Real emotions–stereotypical or not. They just flood the house with their vitality!
And this is what Fagin and Sikes cannot understand! Their ‘grooming’ of Nancy has begun to fade as their hostage is beginning to break free of their cage. They don’t understand this and what is happening to their caged bird. No longer their pigeon, she’s become a young raptor ready to take wing and get the hell out! A huge toast to Nancy, bless her soul!
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Lenny – This is fantastic! I love the caged bird/pigeon turning into a raptor analogy! Superb!
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When I first read the book, I was surprised by Charley Bates’s redemption. There really wasn’t much setup for it except for him being upset about the Artful Dodger’s fate and even that kind of told against him. (He expected the Dodger to be transported for a cooler crime.) I later read that it wasn’t part of Dickens’s original plan. A friend of his really liked the character of Bates and begged for him to be saved. I don’t know where to confirm if this is true or not, but, reading the novel, it feels believable. And I think, on the whole, I like what Dickens does with the character. It’s nice that there’s one criminal character who turns his life around and, unlike Nancy, doesn’t die for it and it’s satisfying to read about someone standing up to Sikes.
I wonder how believable it is that the other criminals would be so shocked by the murder of Nancy. I mean I buy that Sikes would be haunted by her since he presumably hadn’t killed someone with whom he’d shared his bed for a long time before. But he had been killing a lot of other people. That was why Fagin had him around, wasn’t it? I’d assume the other members of the gang would be used to it. But I’m willing to ignore that because this book’s writing is so great.
Speaking of bad guys, Monks is an awesome melodramatic villain! It’s a shame that he gets cut in shorter adaptations.
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I don’t think murder was part of the Gang’s repertoire – they were pickpockets, thieves, burglars, prostitutes, but not murderers. Bill is a “housebreaker” and Fagin is a “fence”, these two excel at bullying and seducing little kids (mainly but not exclusively) to do the dirty work. I think lately Bill has begun to demand more from Fagin, which is why Fagin has had enough of him. The murder of Nancy, instigated & encouraged by Fagin (he can, literally, kills two birds with the one stone of the instigation – he gets rid of Nancy the snitch and Bill for her murder), is a knee-jerk reaction but one that was inevitable. Bill bullies and terrifies everybody in the book, and I think he talks big, but I don’t get the sense that he’s a regular murderer – breaking kneecaps seems more in his line. This, coupled with his and the Gang’s close relationship with Nancy, is why the murder has such a terrible effect on him and on everybody else – it just wasn’t done, or, if it was, it wasn’t done in such violent or obvious (i.e., easily detected) manner, nor to one of their own so to speak (she is one of the inner circle). And perhaps, if we can spare a teensy bit of sympathy for Bill, he felt something way, way, way, deep down for Nancy which might explained why she loved him and why her eyes haunted him so.
I’m also happy about and happy for Charley Bates. And, re Monks – one can hear the boos and hisses every time he walks on stage, as it were!
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I can actually feel sorry for Monks and his mother a schmeensy bit. I mean it must have been painful for them that Leeford preferred this other woman and her child to them so much.
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Further to Lenny’s question/comment about Nancy: “But what about her age and how that factors into her impulsiveness and high energy? I suppose some critics do mention her age and go into more details concerning her behavior as a teenager.” I did a quick search and while I didn’t find anything relative to her age, I did find this interesting article which attributes her behavior to late-stage syphilis. I will be interested in the Groups’ thoughts. (Let me know if you have any trouble with the link below.)
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I spent today re-visiting some of the film adaptations of Oliver (in preparation for a piece I *might* be writing next week) as I read the second half of the book, and I’m tempted to say this novel works better as a film than it does as literature. Stylistically it’s not one of Dickens’ better books – the prose is sparse and workmanlike when it’s not being sentimental – but visually it contains some of his most striking imagery: the rows of boys hunched over their gruel, Mr. Bumble with his tricorn hat and staff, Sikes standing over the body of Nancy, Fagin ascending the scaffold, Monks peering through the window. You could almost remove all dialogue from the story and have it work as a silent film, without any of the sense being lost. That’s how powerful the imagery is, and that’s the measure of Dickens’ gifts as a storyteller, that a work like Oliver can be stripped to the bare bones and still communicate a story of incredible power.
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I actually tend to dislike movie adaptations of Oliver Twist. They keep cutting Monks and making the Artful Dodger a good guy. I really don’t understand that last one. When in the book did he ever do anything good?
Oooh I missed this comment! I hope you do write about it, Boze!!!
These final chapters give us a good taste of what’s to come in Dickens’s novels – especially, though not solely, his later ones. Dickens’s psychological exploration and exposition is pretty deep especially for the pre-Freudian days in which he lived. Descriptively – Sikes’s flight, Jacob’s Island & Folly Ditch, the mob chasing Sikes – Dickens is just cutting his teeth. These chapters also contain what will become “typical Dickens” – the long-winded, convoluted reveal of the “secret” followed by the “wrapping up” chapter.
As I said in an earlier post, I think Nancy’s murder is a knee-jerk reaction. Had Fagin considered the situation beyond the Nancy-must-pay stage, he could have found a less public way to dispose of her. Instead he incites Sikes’s fury. But Fagin didn’t consider the psychological impact of the deed upon Sikes. Indeed, I think it came as a complete surprise – to Sikes most of all. After he hits Nancy “twice” in the face with his pistol he could have stopped; he could have stopped after he “struck her down” with his club at the end of chapter 47 – she is still alive as “there had been a moan and a motion of the hand”. But seeing the horror of what he had already done, “with terror added to hate he had struck and struck again”. Fagin’s caution to be “not too violent” became instead a guideline.
Ironically this brutal act makes a “man” out of Sikes. In their discussions of Sikes both John Bayley and Geoffrey Thurley stress the humanizing effects of the murder upon him. Bayley argues, “Other murderers become conscienceless animals, but [Sikes] acquires the form and conscience of a man” (60). Thurley expands upon this: “A complete brute may fear death and capture, and even experience an inchoate discomfort that may appear a primitive remorse. But a man who distinguishes himself, as Skies does in the fire, by acts of heroism and self-forgetfulness, is responding to more highly evolved and human drives. These are the first and last socially constructive and selfless acts Sikes ever commits. It is himself he is fleeing in committing them, but that in itself is a distinctly human requirement” (48). The only argument I have with Thurley’s comment is I wonder how much of Sikes’s selflessness here is actually motivated by a death-wish, a hope that he will be killed in the fire and thus released from his guilt. But such suicidal remorse/shame, too, is “distinctly human”.
Further, Thurley posits that “Sikes is, paradoxically, brought closer to humanity by his crime” because it “forces him into an awareness of his need for human society and companionship – a need which of course Nancy had satisfied before without his knowing it.” (47-48). This again expands upon Bayley’s idea that there is a “distinction between crime and murder” because crime is impersonal whereas murder is very personal: “Crime is like animal or mechanical society, cold, separated, and professional, but murder is like the warmth and conviviality which Dickens always praises – a great uniter” (59). It is the murder of Nancy that brings all the characters of the novel together – Nancy, Sikes, Fagin, the Gang, Oliver, the Maylie’s, Brownlow, Monks, the Bumbles & the workhouse people, and Society at large (the firefighters, the mob chasing Sikes) – and thus “unites” the community.
The one thing I can’t figure out is how Fagin and the Gang were discovered? When Nancy talks with Rose & Mr Brownlow she insists and is promised that Fagin, et al, not be taken; even if information about Fagin is given by Monks, Brownlow promises her “they shall go scott free”. I assume the discovery of Nancy’s body leads to Fagin & Gang being taken, but who finds her? It wasn’t Bet, for she went to identify the body but didn’t discover it, and if it had been one of the Gang, wouldn’t they have gone straight to Fagin who would have quietly disposed of the body to keep the integrity of the Gang intact? Who did the detective work here? Suggestions?
The “secret” of the Oliver-Monks connection is the foundation for the action of the novel, though it is really rather incidental. It is not terribly important that we understand the details so long as we understand that there IS a connection and that it’s (1) the reason Oliver was in the Workhouse system which led to his related trials, (2) the link between Oliver, Brownlow and the Maylie’s, and (3) the motivation for Monks to pay Fagin to corrupt Oliver which leads to everything else that happens. These explanatory chapters (not just here but in other novels also) are dense and confusing and need an attentive reader – I often wonder why Dickens, with all his talent, wasn’t better at inserting clues earlier or somehow revealing this information in a more dramatic (i.e., showing rather than telling) way.
John Bayley, “Oliver Twist: ‘Things as They Really Are’” in “Dickens and the Twentieth Centrury”, ed. Gross & Pearson (1962)
Geoffrey Thurley, ““The Dickens Myth: Its Genesis and Structure” (1976)
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Chris, this is Excellent!!! I really LOVE your delving into the ironic, belated “humanity” shown in Sikes *after* the murder. It really is fascinating the way Dickens did it. I always remember thinking of Sikes as one of those villains I can’t bear to read about…but then one gets to the scene where he is helping in the fire, and *almost* like him. A tiny bit.
As to your two final questions for discussion…I have to go back to the scenes in question again, but I was wondering the same thing about the Fagin gang. Was there a suggestion that Charley discovered the body, or one of those? His ganging up on Sikes at the end…? Obviously, many are horrified at what he’s done, and as you say, especially to one of their own…? Clearly, Charley is so horrified…
Or I suppose the body could’ve been discovered by a disconnected person, the authorities alerted, and something incriminating found there, but that seems less likely…
As to why Dickens didn’t set certain things up earlier…I’m thinking of what Boze wrote about a few weeks ago, and that Dickens hadn’t the faintest idea himself of the direction the story was going in. I wonder if he even knew that “Monks” would come into it, at the beginning…?
“These chapters also contain what will become “typical Dickens” – the long-winded, convoluted reveal of the “secret” followed by the “wrapping up” chapter.”
I was just thinking I would love to do a study on the motif of secret parentage in Dickens. I think one of the keys to the success of his stories is that he takes the Greco-Roman mythic model – child of illustrious parents is hidden in obscurity and then slowly discovers his hidden lineage – and brings it into the present day. In this he was inspired by Henry Fielding, who had written the first modern version of the mythic motif in Tom Jones. And because Dickens is essentially writing mystery novels before mysteries were a thing, we see in Oliver a bridge between the ancient, mythic mode of storytelling and the novels of Agatha Christie and her ilk.
As to your last question, why was so Dickens so bad at inserting clues into his earlier chapters, I remember reading – I think in Slater’s biography – that with Oliver he was juggling two different stories with very little connection to one another: the first was the story of Fagin and his gang, the second the story of Oliver’s gradual acceptance into the middle-class world of Mr. Brownlow and Rose. Midway through the novel he realized he needed a way to bridge those two stories, and thus the character of Monks was born. He really was, as Rachel says, making it up as he went along – inventing the whole future of English literature on the fly. A remarkable man in every sense.
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I got the impression that Fagin’s normal modus operandi with a compatriot who had become dangerous was to arrange somehow for them to get caught by the police and executed. I can’t remember why he didn’t do this with Nancy besides that, like Sikes, he was too angry to think straight at first. Was it that he believed she had already told everything to the police and that she would be protected?