What does it mean to be one of the family? Aoife Mannix responding to our online book group discussion
April 28, 2012
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Oliver Twist is perhaps the most famous orphan in British literature. His mother, who’s unmarried, dies shortly after his birth in a workhouse and his father is unknown. The state proves to be a very poor parent indeed. All those who are officially responsible for taking care of the young boy are criminally negligent. From the drunken nursemaid who robs his mother before her body’s even cold, to Mrs Mann at the baby farm where he is starved and beaten, to Mr Bumble the Beadle who puts him into slavery working for an undertaker, Oliver is badly let down by his legal guardians.
Oliver’s first experience of ‘family’ is the mafia mentality of Fagin and his gang. Though as Fagin later explains to his all too eager new recruit, Noah Claypole, this is loyalty based on neither blood nor fellow feeling. It is based on the philosophy of looking out for number one. The thieves don’t betray each other out of a shared desire for survival and they are utterly without mercy towards any of the group who breaks this code. Something poor Nancy discovers to her cost. Sikes murders her despite the fact that she’s nursed him through a dangerous illness and he probably wouldn’t be alive without her help. It’s a cruel irony that the one member of the criminal underworld who seems capable of love is beaten to death by the man she adores. Sikes is incapable of caring for anyone other than himself. Despite being haunted by the murder, he even attempts to drown his own dog when he thinks the unfortunate animal might help identify him as a killer on the run.
Yet Sikes and Nancy are not the only dysfunctional couple in the book. Dickens doesn’t appear to be a huge fan of the institution of marriage. The undertaker’s wife takes an instant dislike to Oliver purely on the basis that her husband seems to like him. This unhappy marriage is echoed in the comedy of Mr Bumble’s marriage to Mrs Corney.
‘I sold myself,’ said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of reflection, ‘for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt cheap!’
Too late, Mr Bumble discovers that in marrying for money, he has found a partner even more cruel and selfish than himself. Oliver’s own father was pushed into marrying a woman he didn’t love and was utterly miserable in his respectable married life. He only found real love with Oliver’s mother who becomes pregnant outside of marriage.
We discover this from Mr Brownlow, Oliver’s father’s best friend who is a bachelor. Though no blood relation to Oliver, Mr Brownlow treats the boy as his own son. As Dr. Holly Furneaux points out in our online book group discussion, most contemporary adaptations, including the famous musical, turn Brownlow into Oliver’s grandfather. This gives the story a conventional twist that puts Oliver back with his blood relations. It seems in the 20th and 21st century, we have not let go of Victorian ideals of what the family should be.
Yet Dickens’s purpose in writing Oliver Twist was to critique a society that claimed to be obsessed with ‘morality’ yet treated the poor and vulnerable with such contempt. This was not just on the legal level of pointing out the cruelties of the new Poor Law but also on the deeply personal level of human relations. The young Rose, who is the epitome of all that is kind and good, feels she cannot marry the love of her life because society does not consider her respectable. This is because she is of uncertain birth and thus does not fit with the accepted Victorian definition of ‘the family.’ Though Rose does turn out to be related to Oliver so is Monks, the brother who has betrayed him all his life. What Dickens makes clear is that the official labels society gives to its members are false and hypocritical. What actually matters is the state of your own heart. Mr Brownlow truly loves Oliver as his son and this makes him the perfect father regardless of biology or society. An idea that even in 2012 is radical and challenging.