Wherein we say farewell to our little sojourner as we glance back at the fifth week of the #DickensClub journey with Oliver Twist (week nineteen of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); With General Memoranda, and a summary of reading and discussion.
Friends, we’re at our final wrap-up for our third read already, Oliver Twist! What an adventure it has been, to experience together Dickens’ second novel–and what a divergence in tone from The Pickwick Papers.
We’ve discussed so many aspects of the novel that it will be impossible to cover them all here, but I’ll focus on summarizing three areas in our final wrap-up:
- This past week’s discussion.
- Distillation and summary on the discussion of antisemitism in the novel.
- A brief thematic wrap-up, based on the discussions over the past 5 weeks.
If you’re counting, this coming week will be week 20 of the #DickensClub as a whole (and today Day 133), and today we conclude our reading of Oliver Twist (our third read). Please feel free to comment below this post for any final thoughts on Oliver Twist, and/or contact Rach or Boze about any special interest topic on Oliver that you’d like to write a separate post on! Or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
We’d love to have new readers join us. If you’re interested: the updated Dickens Chronological Reading Club schedule can be found here (or click on the image to the left). If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, we’d love to add you! Please feel free to message us 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 Five Oliver Twist Summary (Chapters 47-53)
Fagin tells Sikes what Noah had overheard in Nancy’s meeting with Mr. Brownlow and Rose by the London Bridge. Sikes, enraged, rushes home and, ignoring her pleas for his understanding, kills Nancy violently, and flees from the expected retribution of justice.
But another sort of justice is already pursuing Sikes, in his own fear and paranoia of discovery, as he starts at every instance of whisperings or news along the way. He is haunted by the woman he has killed; haunted by the bloodstains on him and the looks and whispers everywhere. He shows his first signs of concern for others in helping out during a building fire. He tries to drown his dog, Bulls-eye, fearing that the dog will end up giving him away.
Meanwhile, Monks—whose real name is revealed to be Edward Leeford, a son of Brownlow’s old friend—is under Mr. Brownlow’s watchful eye. We come to find out that not only is Oliver Monk’s brother, but that Oliver was born of an affair between their father and a woman, Agnes, who was not his wife. Monks, therefore, is the “legitimate” child. When their father died, Monk’s mother ensured their own place in the inheritance by burning the legitimate will, and they went to live in the West Indies for a time—and this is why Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin had journeyed there, realizing that there were mysteries about this boy that were in some way connected with his old friend, and his family.
Justice finally arrives as Sikes is pursued by an angry mob at a dingy building on Jacob’s Island. (Fagin and Noah Claypole have already been apprehended, under mysterious circumstances.) There, in trying to flee the vengeful mob, including Charley Bates who is furious with Sikes, Sikes ends up climbing to the rooftop of the dilapidated old building, and, trying to use a rope to lower himself, accidentally ends up swinging by the neck from the noose he has himself created.
We find out, during the journey to Oliver’s birthplace town, that Rose is the sister of Oliver’s mother, Agnes. Not only that, but we find out more about the mysterious will of Mr. Leeford’s, that had been destroyed by Monks and his mother: if Agnes’ child had been a girl, she would have inherited the whole of the estate; if a boy, he would inherit it so long as he had committed no illegal act—which explains Monk’s wish to have Oliver corrupted by Fagin—otherwise, the inheritance would go to Mr. Leeford’s legal wife, and son.
Harry returns, having given up his ambitions to retire into quiet life as a country parson, and rejecting any of his friends who would have rejected Rose; and so, they are free to marry.
Oliver, with Mr. Brownlow, pays a final visit to Fagin in his jail cell on his last night of life. Not only does Fagin appear to cling to Oliver as to a life (or soul) preserver, but he reveals where Oliver can find the papers about Oliver’s true identity, which had been given to Fagin by Monks. Oliver leaves in tears, praying for mercy to be shown to his old abuser.
“Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the very centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.”
Another act of mercy still remains: that Oliver’s inheritance should be divided (by the agreement of Oliver and his new guardian, Mr. Brownlow) between Oliver and Monks. It is not used well by the latter, who ends up in prison abroad, after having figuratively cast his money to the winds and led a dissolute life of it. Noah is shown some mercy due to his incriminating testimony about Fagin. Charley comes out better than all from the old gang, showing that one can turn one’s life around completely, and he lives an honest life after. Oliver is happy in his state as adopted son; the circle of family and friends, including Harry and Rose, Mrs. Maylie, Losberne, Grimwig (and a regular bromance is developing between the latter two), and the Brownlows, all end up living in close proximity to one another, and we anticipate a quiet and happy life for them all.
“I have said that they were truly happy; and without strong affection, and humanity of heart, and gratitude to that Being whose code is Mercy, and whose great attribute is Benevolence to all things that breathe, true happiness can never be attained.”
Discussion Wrap-Up: Week Five
Whimsy, and In Other News…
Friends, remember Pickwick Cottage in Dulwich, that our friend Maria so kindly sent us pictures of about a month and a half ago?
At the time, we were musing on whether it might be wisteria growing over the entryway. Well, it is wisteria season in London, so our friend Maria took another trip out to this remarkable little corner, and delighted us with her discovery: it is indeed wisteria, and now I for one am ready to move into 31 College Rd.
Chris delighted in her Mother’s Day gift: a Dickensian puzzle!
Now, if only our Dickens Club could all gather ’round to help her put it together…
Cassandra, meanwhile, is as eager as Boze and I are to get going on Nicholas Nickleby!
And I was delighting in the unusual “image” of sound, described in Oliver as “appearing”! Almost as though London sound itself might be a haunting Spirit.
Light, Darkness, and Doubling
Lenny started us out this week by commenting on my late contribution to the previous week: the “doubling” that is characteristic of several of Dickens’ works–most literally/strikingly in A Tale of Two Cities–and which we see in Oliver in Rose and Nancy: two young women of the same age, with such divergent paths in life. One might almost “hear” Nancy borrowing Carton’s words about Darnay: “a good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was…?”
Lenny highlights the use of doubling as it works to “foil” or “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.” And he applies the “doubling” to the light-dark aspects of the novel itself: “we see Dickens in OLIVER working with a kind of symmetry as he balances the light and dark ‘ingredients’ of the novel.”
Nancy and Her Critics
Lenny also got the ball rolling on questioning the critics of Nancy, specifically Claire Tomalin’s take on her from the biography of Dickens. Lenny writes, surprised at the idea of Nancy as the “failure” of Oliver Twist: “Nancy’s almost ‘loving’ regard for and caring for Oliver is THE plot device that sets so much in motion.” Lenny had earlier written about her extreme words/gestures (the melodramatic element objected to by Tomalin) as being true to life of a person (particularly in this case a very young person) in crisis situations, and having panic attacks.
Lenny H. comment
In response to Lenny’s comment, I shared with the group the passage from Claire Tomalin’s biography that we’d been discussing, including the kind of introductory paragraph which helps set the tone:
From Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, shared by Rach M.
Chris offered us several opposing views of Nancy, from John Bowen, Michael Slater, and George J. Worth:
Chris M. comments
Lenny and I both respond, feeling more in line, on this subject, with the scholars who have sided with Nancy. Here are a couple of Lenny’s comments on the subject.
Lenny H. comments
Lenny had also brought up again Nancy’s age, and whether critics have focused on that important element to understanding Nancy’s words, gestures, and crisis. Chris kindly did some searches on this subject. Though not finding something initially about her age, Chris did hit on a piece suggesting a diagnosis of syphilis for Nancy:
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Imagery
Boze brings us ’round to Dickens’ “writing lab,” suggesting that “stylistically [Oliver is] not one of Dickens’ better books” but that “visually it contains some of his most striking imagery,” and hence it almost “works better as a film than it does as literature.” He’s rewatching several adaptations, and I for one hope that we see a forthcoming post about this subject!
Curious Character Arcs: Charley Bates; Bill Sikes
The Stationmaster was surprised but pleased by “Charley Bates’s redemption”; there “wasn’t much setup” for it but “it’s nice that there’s one criminal character who turns his life around”:
As to his question about how believable it is that certain criminal members of the gang are shocked at Nancy’s murder, Chris answers:
Then Chris offers a stunning look at Bill Sikes, who, paradoxically, almost seems to finally develop something like humanity and a conscience after the murder of Nancy:
But Chris had also had two questions/considerations for us, and perhaps below we might comment below on our thoughts on these:
1.) “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?”
2.) “The ‘secret’ of the Oliver-Monks connection is the foundation for the action of the novel, though it is really rather incidental….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.”
~Chris M. comments
My only thought on the first was that Charley was so horrified by Nancy’s brutal murder, that he is one of those to pursue Sikes to the end, and he is the one who is changed/redeemed. Later, I have considered the possibility of Noah, too, as he was the spy on Nancy for Fagin (and might well be spying on them both after Fagin had incited Sikes’ rage against Nancy), and Noah is let off with more leniency due to his testimony against Fagin. Seeing what happens to Nancy, Noah, the most recent recruit who’d done little more than steal and spy, was perhaps terrified enough to go against the gang. Does the text support anything of this, or something else?
As to the second, I wrote: “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…?”
Wrap-Up on Discussion of Fagin and Antisemitism in Oliver Twist
In our first week of Oliver Twist, Boze had written a marvelous essay on “Making Sense of Fagin, Dickens’ Most Troubling Character”, asking us the difficult question: “What’s a Dickens-lover to make of Fagin?”
“Fagin’s uncomplicated portrayal as a wizened, repulsive-looking, smelly old man who hungers for money and snatches innocent Christian children away from their homes traffics in the most durable and disgusting antisemitic stereotypes.”
This spurred some real dialogue; this week, our Stationmaster commented on the distinction between the stereotyping of the culture/race, versus the religion:
“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...“
I had written, in response to Boze’s moving essay:
“I really appreciate what you say here, too, about those things which make Dickens such a genius (his sense of the popular mind/imagination), can also be a HUGE blind-spot, as he plays into the old hatreds, stereotypes, and…Humbug.
“This is one of the reasons why Oliver is my least favorite Dickens to read, though there are still many, many marvels in it. But I’m so glad you got this discussion really and truly started ~ I don’t want to side-step this most important and troubling reality.”
Dana, regretting that this kind of stereotyping, and the “Blood Libel,” is “a trope that just won’t die,” and refers us to Timothy Snyder:
The Stationmaster responded, about my comments on how some of the many repetitions of “the Jew” were replaced in a later edition with Fagin’s proper name, in response to the criticism, that it still seems like we see that phrase so often. He also asks about the original “Fagin” that Dickens knew from the blacking factory:
Chris responds about the original Bob Fagin:
Chris M. comments
Daniel, who has been for years engaging in the rich practice of Mussar and has been actively involved in the welcoming Jewish community in Ashland, Oregon, finds such stereotyping “a source of anguish” and was grateful to Boze “for shining light on this issue of social/cultural antisemitism” with its concluding note of hope that, in Boze’s words, “hard hearts can soften; slumbering consciences can be stirred; a life can be made right”:
Daniel M. comments
Final Thematic Wrap-Up
As I did with Pickwick, I thought I’d try to briefly capture the overall themes we discussed in Oliver, based on the original, anticipated thematic overview in the introduction, with the changes/additions that we actually encountered in our journey:
1.) Light and Shadow, Comedy and Tragedy (Lenny has been bringing us back to Jung, and archetypes; see also “Doubling”.)
2.) Crime and Violence (A big theme, discussed especially in relation to Sikes’ brutal murder, but also how the criminal underworld seems often less culpable and more humane than the Law itself.)
3.) Theatricality (Boze and I have been especially interested in this topic, ongoing from the Sketches and Pickwick. The theatricality of Oliver was decidedly that of the Gothic and melodramatic stage. In Oliver, we see the influence of such Victorian melodrama–big emotions/gestures, the sense of the paranormal/numinous/foreboding; big convergences and final character/relationship reveals; poetic justice coming to the villains and a neat, happy wrap-up for the heroes.)
4.) Rich versus Poor; Dickens’ Social Conscience (See #6. And as Chris has observed, we see Dickens “in full ‘angry young man’ mode” in Oliver.)
5.) Dickens’ Women (We’ve all discussed this in relation to several characters, but particularly Nancy. Chris notes that Dickens’ women are often “the movers and shakers” of the novels.)
6.) The Law/Institutional Shortcomings–or Evils/Oliver as “A Reproach to the System”/The Criminality of Lawbreaking vs. the Criminality of/within the Law (The workhouse, the New Poor Law, the police, etc. Chris and many of us have discussed this; the Law and institutional evils sometimes seem even more inhumane than the criminal underworld.)
7.) Sense of Place; City versus Country (We discussed this particularly in relation to Dickens’ Romanticism.)
8.) Voice/Language in Creating Character (Perhaps not so commented on as the Jinglese and Wellerisms in Pickwick, but we have noted it throughout.)
9.) Mutability and Mortality (I’ve kept it in the summary, though we’ve not referred to it as often or with the particularlity that we have in our previous reads, but it is embedded in all of our discussions, and is a carryover, thematically, since the Sketches.)
10.) Memory (Rach has been particularly interested in this topic; Lenny and Daniel have also commented on it. Memory as something almost of “religious significance,” referencing Peter Ackroyd’s marvelous passages on this topic.)
11.) Change/Redemption in Suffering (Chris and the Stationmaster have both written about this in terms of Charley Bates and even Sikes. We’ve all written about it in reference to Nancy.)
12.) Benevolence as the Reconciling Influence (e.g. Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Bedwin, Rose Maylie, Harry, Dr. Losberne.)
13.) The Child as Hero ~ and Victim of Society
14.) Surrogate or Honorary Parents
15.) Dickens’ Romanticism (Lenny, Daniel and I have been discussing this, and Peter Ackroyd discussed this beautifully in the introduction to the work, which Chris shared in our first week. Lenny has been referring particularly to Wordsworthian Romanticism, and the Romantic Poets. “The Child is father of the Man”; the primacy of Nature.)
16.) Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Imagery; Craftsmanship; Foreshadowing; Mystery/Surprise; Surrealism; “Plot Contrivances and Coincidences”; the Multi-Plot or “Zig-zag” novel (Boze has particularly been highlighting this for us in our journey with Oliver, though we’ve all commented on it, and Lenny has been very active in this topic as well.)
17.) Doubling (Rach and Lenny have both written on this; both in terms of characters and, as Lenny noted, in terms of the light-dark themes.)
18.) Entrapment/Claustrophobia; the Place as Image of the Person (Lenny has particularly written about this; entrapment was a theme late in Pickwick. Now, in Oliver, it pervades the atmosphere–at least, until we get to the country.)
19.) Rest (We’ve referred to this in relation to Memory, and to the nature of the country–as opposed to the city. For one so maniacally and perpetually active and working as Dickens was, the theme of “rest” seems unusually strong, and is connected to being cared for for one’s own sake, and not for what one can do or produce or accomplish. This will keep coming ’round again. Perhaps the longing for what we too often lack in life.)
A Look-Ahead to the Next Two Weeks…
Friends, based on our updated Dickens Club reading schedule, this will be our first “Break” in-between reads; however, since we’ve only just recently altered the schedule, we don’t have events planned. (But always open to suggestions/brainstorms!) Speaking for myself, Oliver wasn’t one of the reads I had intended to do a special-interest post on, unless it be to delve further into the discussion on Memory, guided by Peter Ackroyd. (Though perhaps I’ll go back and write up that one on Sam Weller…)
But our break will be a great time to catch up on what Chris calls our “in-between reading,” on your other non-Dickens reads, or to get a head start on our next…Nicholas Nickleby!
I’m sure we’ll be engaged in some great conversation before we start tagging along with Nicholas and Smike, but at the very latest…we’ll see you on May 31 for our “Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby“!