Does Dickens glamorise crime in Oliver Twist? – Aoife Mannix responding to our online book group discussion
April 18, 2012
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Check out Aoife’s guest post for the Museum of London on their wonderful Dickens’ exhibition http://www.mymuseumoflondon.org.uk/blogs/blog/what-does-dickens-mean-to-london-a-visit-to-the-museum-of-london%E2%80%99s-dickens-and-london-exhibition/
In the musical version, the famous scene where Fagin teaches Oliver how to pick pockets is great fun. ‘You got to pick a pocket or two’ sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument in a world where the rich are so cruel and indifferent to the starving poor. Indeed thieving seems not only a way to fight back but to have a laugh at the expense of those stupid fools who deserve to lose their handkerchiefs. If not exactly glamorous, it’s certainly cleverer than going hungry. The Artful Dodger is presented as a cheeky chappy and if not quite a kindly uncle, Fagin seems to care for his boys considerably more than those who were supposed to be looking after Oliver at the workhouse.
Yet reading the book again, I discover that my rather fond memories of Fagin and his gang have been greatly coloured by the musical and indeed various film and TV versions I’ve seen over the years. For in the origina,l when Oliver first meets Fagin’s gang, they don’t tell him ‘consider yourself one of the family.’ Instead they rob him of the very little he has. Though Oliver in his innocence believes Fagin’s pick pocketing training to be a kind of game, he very quickly wakes up to its dark reality when he goes out on the streets with the boys for the first time. When the old gentleman shouts ‘Stop thief’ mistakenly believing Oliver to be the one whose robbed him, the other two boys join in chasing Oliver. This successfully disguises the fact that they are the true criminals. When Oliver is punched and knocked to the ground, they have long since disappeared. They have no qualms in leaving their new friend to be arrested for their crime. So much for honour amongst thieves.
Far from glamour, I think what Dickens is showing is the inevitable way in which an orphan boy in Victorian London would be sucked into a life of crime. Not unlike the gangs of today, young boys are drawn to Fagin because they are vulnerable and frightened. The gang does offer a kind of family but not one that is particularly loving or supportive. It brutalises those who join it so that their sense of right and wrong is rapidly worn away. Though Dickens has often been accused of sentimentality, there is very little that is sentimental in his description of the Artful Dodger and even the naïve Oliver senses his new mate is less than trustworthy.
Dickens doesn’t glamorise but he does make even the dark criminal underworld funny. Rather like the TV show ‘The Wire’ for modern audiences, he demonstrates that the line between good and evil is not a legal one. His portrayal of the police and the justice system is damning. The kind old gentleman who accuses Oliver of being a thief has in fact accidentally stolen a book himself. Perhaps what Dickens is trying to say is that being on the right side of the law has as much to do with circumstance as it has to do with morality. When his contemporaries accused Dickens of glamorising crime, perhaps what they really meant was that they were deeply uncomfortable with Dickens questioning of who the true criminals are. Fagin is undoubtedly not a good guy but is he any worse than Mr Fang the police magistrate or Mr Bumble the beadle?