Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress: What kind of book does this title encourage us to expect? What kind of hero does it offer?
April 10, 2012
A response from Aoife Mannix to the first of our online book group discussion points. Please add your own comments here and/or join the discussion on facebook. http://www.facebook.com/cityreadlondon
Check out Aoife’s guest blog post for Foyles here http://www.foyles.co.uk/guest-blog-london-through-the-eyes-of-dickens
I first read Oliver Twist when I was twelve years old. My mother had taken me to see the musical on Broadway as we lived in New York at the time. Mainly I remember being devastated by Nancy’s death. I loved the show so much I thought I’d try the book. Admittedly it didn’t have the catchy songs and there were quite a lot of big words but it seemed to be about a boy around my age struggling to make sense of a strange adult world. Despite our very different circumstances, there was a lot I could relate to.
Coming back to it a quarter of a century later, I realise I’d completely forgotten the full title is ‘Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress.’ It’s a title that introduces Oliver as a young hero who begins in poverty but manages to advance himself. It seems to appeal to a certain Victorian Christian ideal of charity and hard work. The Victorians were rather fond of dividing the poor into those that were deserving of sympathy and those that were lazy and degenerate. The title sets up a certain expectation of this being a moral tale of the triumph of virtue and innocence over corruption. Which on one level the novel almost certainly is.
However from the first pages Dickens undermines the moralising tone with his dark sense of humour. He describes how the newborn Oliver is struggling to draw his first breath in circumstances of shocking neglect.
Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
Dickens doesn’t of course really believe that a baby should be born with nobody paying any attention as to whether he lives or dies. Yet rather than preaching at his readers about Victorian London’s appalling child mortality rate, he pokes fun at the notion of progress under such inhuman conditions. It seems to me that from the outset, Dickens is questioning his own title and the Victorian morality behind it.