25/02/2011

OF DICKENS, PICKPOCKETS, WORKHOUSES AND ... A LOST DVD: OLIVER TWIST

It's that time of the year again, the time when I start teaching about The Victorian Age to my last year students and reading pages from famous Victorian novels with them as well as watching scenes from their adaptations. As I told you in my previous post, I'm working on Dickens at the moment. We read some pages from Oliver Twist (1838). We had also started watching Roman Polanski 's 2005 film adaptation and we were supposed to finish watching it this morning ...if only we could have found my DVD where I had left it locked last Monday! It wasn't there any longer and the technician helping us teachers in the lab had no idea of what might have happened. Unexplicable mystery!


I want to reassure you: first, my school is a very small quiet one and  this kind of incidents are rather uncommon as we usually leave our stuff like books and CDs, magazines and DVDs ; second, nothing of mine had never been touched, spoilt or stolen so far.
The didactic result was an improvised revision lesson by a very disappointed (angry?) teacher. It  focused on the main themes in Oliver Twist, the social criticism and the context, some scenes we had seen in our last lesson in the lab ... whatever came to my puzzled (furious?) mind. An improvised lesson which, fortunately, turned into an animated , interesting discussion.
The practical definite result is that my beloved collection of  DVDs  has lost one item, gone for good. 
Oliver Twist deserves to be studied and Roman Polanski's film to be watched till the end, so  I'm sure  I'll find a solution,  though,  I'm quite certain,  NOT my DVD.

Let's say something about this novel, since we are here ...


The workhouses


Oliver Twist was first published in instalments by Dickens between 1837 and 1838. Oliver is an orphan born in workhouse. This setting allows Dickens to criticise Victorian policy toward the poor (The Poor Laws , 1834) .  Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse and his mother died immediately after his birth. He was taken by the attendants who announced his arrival into the workhouse by sticking a badge and a ticket on him.
Indeed much of the first part of the novel criticises the charity organisations run by church and government which stipulated that the poor could only be helped if they moved into workhouses, which were usually awfully severe places: children  were separated from their families and put into forced labour, food was rationed, clothing inadequate. Workhouses operated on the principle that poverty was the consiquence of laziness and that the regime of the workhouse would lead the the poor to improve their circumstances. However,  as Dickens describes in his novel, the officials who ran the workhouses were themselves often greedy, lazy and arrogant.
Mrs Mann,  the  lady that ran the branch-workhouse where Oliver Twist was brought up as an orphan, was in Dickens's words:
" ... an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. ... The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. so she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them." (chapter 2)

As Dickens points out, instead of alleviating the sufferings of the poor, the officials who ran workhouses, abused their rights as individuals and caused them further misery.

London's life vs country idyll

The most important setting of Oliver Twist is London, which is depicted at three different social levels. First, the parochial world of the workhouse  is revealed. The inhabitants of this world, belonging to the lower middle-class strata of society, are calculating and insensible to the feelings of the poor. Second, the criminal world is described with pickpoch├Čkets and murderers. Poverty drives them to crime abd the weapon they use to achieve their end is violence. They live in dirty, squalid slums with fear and generally die a miserable death. Finally,  the world of the Victorian middle-class is presented.  In this world live respectable people who show regard for moral values and believe in the principle of human dignity, like Mr Brownlow.
In Dickens's novel all the injustices and violence suffered by the poor occur in the city and seems to be the product of it. Indeed, among the most memorable pages are the descriptions of London and its outskirts, and the cramped, desperately unhealthy living conditions of its inhabitants.
On the other hand, when the Maylies take Oliver to the countryside he discovers a whole "new existence". In Oliver Twist, country scenes have the potential to "purify our thoughts" and cure the vices that develop in the city. In dickens's idealised countryside, the poor are free of the squalor that afflicts their urban counterparts.
This theme is rather Rousseauian and Dickens seem to use Oliver's character to challenge the victorian idea that the poor and criminals are already evil at birth, arguing instead that the real source of vice is a corrupt envinronment.



Nancy , a round character


As mantioned above, a  major concern of Oliver Twist is the question of whether a bad environment can irrevocably poison someone’s character and soul. As the novel progresses, the character who best illustrates the contradictory issues brought up by that question is Nancy. As a child of the streets, Nancy has been a thief and drinks to excess. The narrator’s reference to her “free and agreeable . . . manners” indicates that she is a prostitute. She is immersed in the vices condemned by her society, but she also commits perhaps the most noble act in the novel when she sacrifices her own life in order to protect Oliver. Nancy’s moral complexity is unique among the major characters in Oliver Twist. The novel is full of characters who are all good and can barely comprehend evil, such as Oliver, Rose, and Brownlow; and characters who are all evil and can barely comprehend good, such as Fagin, Sikes, and Monks. Only Nancy comprehends and is capable of both good and evil. Her ultimate choice to do good at a great personal cost is a strong argument in favor of the incorruptibility of basic goodness, no matter how many environmental obstacles it may face.

Nancy’s love for Sikes exemplifies the moral ambiguity of her character. As she herself points out to Rose, devotion to a man can be “a comfort and a pride” under the right circumstances. But for Nancy, such devotion is “a new means of violence and suffering”—indeed, her relationship with Sikes leads her to criminal acts for his sake and eventually to her own demise. The same behavior, in different circumstances, can have very different consequences and moral significance. In much of Oliver Twist, morality and nobility are black-and-white issues, but Nancy’s character suggests that the boundary between virtue and vice is not always clearly drawn.

Fagin and antisemitism



Although Dickens denied that anti-Semitism had influenced his portrait of Fagin, the Jewish thief’s characterization does seem to owe much to ethnic stereotypes. He is ugly, simpering, miserly, and avaricious. Constant references to him as “the Jew” seem to indicate that his negative traits are intimately connected to his ethnic identity. However, Fagin is more than a statement of ethnic prejudice. He is a richly drawn, resonant embodiment of terrifying villainy. At times, he seems like a child’s distorted vision of pure evil. Fagin is described as a “loathsome reptile” and as having “fangs such as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” Other characters occasionally refer to him as “the old one,” a popular nickname for the devil. Twice, in Chapter 9 and again in Chapter 34, Oliver wakes up to find Fagin nearby. Oliver encounters him in the hazy zone between sleep and waking, at the precise time when dreams and nightmares are born from “the mere silent presence of some external object.” Indeed, Fagin is meant to inspire nightmares in child and adult readers alike. Perhaps most frightening of all, though, is Chapter 52, in which we enter Fagin’s head for his “last night alive.” The gallows, and the fear they inspire in Fagin, are a specter even more horrifying to contemplate than Fagin himself.





1 comment:

Claudia said...

I'm sorry for your stolen DVD! I hope there'll be some repentance that will make the DVD reappear. The Polanski film is so good that I've watched more than once, even when it was recently broadcast on TV. It's so touching, I couldn't stop me from crying (and I'm not very emotional!). Anyway, since Oliver Twist is one of the few Dickens's novels I've read, this post reminds me that I had planned to read more of this author. Thank you!

Buona domenica,
Claudia