Someone said Dickens' characters do not grow or change--they just become more themselves. Likewise, Robert Tracy in "Modish Fiction and Fictional ModeSomeone said Dickens' characters do not grow or change--they just become more themselves. Likewise, Robert Tracy in "Modish Fiction and Fictional Modes" (an essay bundled up with other criticism and reviews in the Norton Critical edition of Oliver Twist) argues that the novel doesn't actually progress as the subtitle "The Parish Boy's Progress" would suggest, but rather just changes modes and directions. The story itself seems uneven--a result, I assumed, of the serialization of the novel, though Tracy argues that the unevenness results from Dickens' experimentation with different conventions, themes, and modes, as if Dickens was switching from one to the other--trying them out while still pushing their boundaries. The novel changes from a "Workhouse" novel to a "Newgate" novel (popular fictional mode in Nineteenth Century England that focused on thieves and the underworld), and finally to a kind of Gothic novel with the twisted, decrepit ruins of London taking the place of crumbling castles; murderers and swindlers in place of ghosts and monsters.
But the story begins as a "sardonic account of a child's life as a ward of public charity," and it's these first chapters that I think are the most brilliant. They are comical, lucid, dark, ironic, in some places warm and other places unforgiving. It's this "sardonic" voice and black humor that make these early chapters feel completely modern despite long Victorian era sentences--or even because of them. In the beginning of the book, Dickens' voice is energetic and original. Here is the narrator on the subject of feeding children in the workhouses:
"Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher, who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well , that he got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would most unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, just four and twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended her system; for the very moment when a child has contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half smothered by accident, in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this."
This playful, ironic, dark narrator would be totally at home in contemporary fiction. First he addresses the reader informally: "Everyone knows the story..." Then follows sharp social commentary on the workhouse system--a system designed to starve the poor into looking for menial employment--all in a voice that is observant yet detached and distant. The sarcastic tone in the very beginning--"experimental philosopher, who had a great theory..." continues with the comical reference to a would be dead child as an "it" who "eight and a half cases (!) out of ten" dies horribly under the care of such a watchful philosopher. The darkness in the tone casts an ominous shadow over the regal "summoned into another world." The cavalier descriptions of dead and dying children give way to the childlike vision of heaven, but it gives way so quickly that the effect is is disturbing rather than comforting: the words "fell into the fire from neglect" appear a little too close to "gathered to the fathers" to feel all that comfortable at the end. In fact, it is uncomfortably funny.
Passages like these remind me of Jose Saramago's work--Saramago employs a playful, ironic voice in the books of his I've read, and although his voice is distinct (Someone--might have been Harold Bloom--said Saramago's narration is like a bunch of wise, cantankerous elders sharing one voice), both authors use narrators that are wise and sarcastic, as if the narrators are akin to the characters, the time, and the place--but also ironically distant enough to see those people and places for what they really are. Here's a passage from Saramago's "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" (1984) describing the brilliant leadership of early twentieth century Portugal:
"The newspapers here also say that most of the country has reaped the abundant fruits of an exemplary administration keen on maintaining public order, and if such a statement smacks of self praise, read that paper from Geneva, Switzerland, which at length and with greater authority, because it is in French, describes the above mentioned director of Portugal, calling us most fortunate to be led by the wise leader, and the author of the article is absolutely right, and we thank him with all our hearts. But please bear in mind that Pacheco is no less wise if tomorrow he should say, as say he will, that elementary education must be given its due and no more, because knowledge, if imparted too soon, serves no real purpose, and also that an education based on materialism and paganism, which stifles noble impulses, is much worse that the darkness of illiteracy, therefore Pacheco concludes that Salazar is the greatest educator of the century , if that is not too bold an assertion when we are only one-third of the way through it."
Now here's Dickens one hundred twenty years earlier on his own political leadership:
"The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered--the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes"
To discourage what was seen as free government handouts, those in charge enacted the "poor laws" which sought to make life in the workhouses so abominable that paupers would do just about anything to avoid this costly charity. This is the result of these wise new policies:
"It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker's bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two's gruel. But the number or workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstacies."
Both narrators use blunt irony in showing the absurdity of their leaders by explaining how brilliant they are. In Saramago's Portugal, the leaders are brilliant because they see what perhaps the rest of us do not see--that education is wasted on, if not dangerous for the very young. At first, this idea may strike the average citizen as absurd (the narrator knows this and so warns the reader to think Pacheco "no less wise" if those in charge stifle public education), but we are urged to continue believing in Salazar's educational wisdom. Likewise, In Dickens' London, the "sages" also see what the common Londoner cannot. These leaders are brilliant despite the evidence, wise despite their absurdity, and powerful despite the results of their fiats--death, misery, starving children.
And who are these narrators? I really like the idea that Saramago's voice is the combined voices of the culture, the truly wise and the truly ignorant--the men and women of Portugal--the people you pass on the street and exchange bits of news and an opinion or two. In the above passage, the narrator is Saramago, but he is also someone you might meet on the street--someone who has read the papers and who sees the absurdity of Portugal's leadership, and yet still decides to continue believing in those leaders: "and we thank him with all our hearts." Is this sarcasm? Is he or she serious? How about both? This narrator is also a true patriot, someone who believes in Salazar. The narrator is everybody: the poetry, wisdom, crudeness, and contradictions of the entire cultural body, which is why the voice can sometimes sound like a wise, self-contradicting, cantankerous old man. Who is the narrator of Oliver Twist? Dickens? I'd like to think the narrator is the same wise, poetic, sardonic spirit of people--Londoners. Why not? All of London saw themselves in Dickens after all.
Saramago is noted for his long paragraphs, run-on sentences and spare use of punctuation, but really, his sentences are like twisted versions of Dickens sentences. Shed the punctuation from the Victorian era constructions and you have something close to the structure of a Saramago sentence--asides and all. The few people I've talked Dickens with mentioned that they had a difficult time with the long Victorian prose style. I also found it difficult at times, being so far removed from contemporary style, yet because I've read Saramago, I can't help but read Dickens in that similar modern, ironic voice, as if he's not following the syntactical conventions of his time, but rather playing with them. Not true you say? True--Not true, yet check out this passage early on where the narrator breaks the fourth wall sort to speak and addresses the reader:
"As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white waistcoated gentleman was right or not, [whether Oliver is to be hanged]I should perhaps mar the interest of this narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if I ventured to hint just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no."
The narrator doesn't just step out of the narrative--he or she or they question the efficacy of the narrative thus far. There's that ironic distance again--that modern ironic distance. I think Dickens' voice is strongest here--it's like he let himself go, but this voice dissipates as the novel progresses--or doesn't progress. Anyway, here's Saramago in "Ricardo Reis" stepping in and out of the narrative as well:
"It would be nine-thirty on the dot, Salvador promised him, and did not promise in vain, for here at nine-thirty on the dot, Lydia is knocking at the door. The observant reader will say this is impossible, she has both arms occupied, but we would be in a sorry state if we had to hire only servants who possess three arms or more..."
But actually I shouldn't say the narrators are stepping in and out of the narrative because in and out feel the same. Part of what makes them so great is that both modes feel natural. We know the narrators have been talking with us the whole time and their voices are so familiar to us, so comfortable that it isn't really shocking when they admit their authorial role--when they admit that an omniscient narrator isn't telling the story--the people are.