Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled

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Helpless Babes of Renown

I can't be the first person to think of Oliver Twist as a human MacGuffin. I finished reading Charles Dickens' 1838 novel to-day, a novel I'd found at turns fascinatingly charming and fascinatingly dull. Dull because of how obnoxiously pure and flat all the good characters are, like Oliver and Rose, charming because of how complex and distinctive the wicked characters are. I don't know how much of this was intentional on Dickens' part, but he must have been aware of it on some level because at around the two thirds point, Oliver, who'd been an almost completely passive point of view character throughout the book, disappears from the narrative entirely and focus is placed entirely on the world of thieves and prostitutes that ensnared and tormented Oliver for unlikely reasons.

The other half of the book's plot concerns polite London society and a complicated business about Oliver's parentage. Passages where Dickens has the characters at length discussing these things are usually pretty lame, and serve to reinforce the fact that Oliver's best employed as a motive for the more colourful characters. Dickens establishes these characters partly through their colloquial dialect, and partly through a frequent amusing, understated translation standing in for it, which takes the form of extremely long sentences that read like piles of amendments in a legal document. Dig the doozy at the end of this exchange;

'Then why don't you send this new cove [to the police-office]?' asked Master Bates, laying his hand on Noah's arm. 'Nobody knows him.'

'Why, if he didn't mind—' observed Fagin.

'Mind!' interposed Charley [Bates]. 'What should he have to mind?'

'Really nothing, my dear,' said Fagin, turning to Mr. Bolter [Noah], 'really nothing.'

'Oh, I dare say about that, yer know,' observed Noah, backing towards the door, and shaking his head with a kind of sober alarm. 'No, no—none of that. It's not in my department, that ain't.'

'Wot department has he got, Fagin?' inquired Master Bates, surveying Noah's lank form with much disgust. 'The cutting away when there's anything wrong, and the eating all the wittles when there's everything right; is that his branch?'

'Never mind,' retorted Mr. Bolter; 'and don't yer take liberties with yer superiors, little boy, or yer'll find yerself in the wrong shop.'

Master Bates laughed so vehemently at this magnificent threat, that it was some time before Fagin could interpose, and represent to Mr. Bolter that he incurred no possible danger in visiting the police-office; that, inasmuch as no account of the little affair in which he had engaged, nor any description of his person, had yet been forwarded to the metropolis, it was very probable that he was not even suspected of having resorted to it for shelter; and that, if he were properly disguised, it would be as safe a spot for him to visit as any in London, inasmuch as it would be, of all places, the very last, to which he could be supposed likely to resort of his own free will.

And yes, there's a character called "Master Bates", a young pick pocket, whose appellation I don't think was given in ignorance by Dickens. I thought it sort of funny and telling that what turns Master Bates eventually against a life of crime was that one of his associates murders a woman.

The murder, the circumstances of it, and the flight of the perpetrator, read like literary Hitchcock. Again, a striking contrast to the stuffy scenes in proper society of Rose Maylie turning down the marriage proposal of the man who loves her because she fears disgracing him, and he persists in his love like Lancelot. Somehow in the same book there's Bill Sikes, bludgeoning to death his prostitute girlfriend, graphically described, and his escape from London told from his POV. One of the greatest moments in the book has Sikes in a tavern encountering a peddler, caught up in his sales pitch, offering to remove the bloodstains from Sikes' cap with his product.

The leader of the band of thieves is Fagin, who on the one hand is a disgustingly anti-Semitic caricature, and on the other is one of the most complex characters in the book. The descriptions from his point of view, his paranoia and pride in his lifestyle, are refreshing contrasted with the downright obnoxious portrayal of Oliver, Rose, and their friends settling matters, writhing in mutual adoration, and Rose picturesquely fainting at some shocking good news. I'm tempted to think the whole book was designed to make Dickens' more uptight Victorian readers a bit uncomfortable by showing them, without much fuss, what's actually interesting and human, and what's false in their moral pretensions.

Here are some pictures I've taken this past week;

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