Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature

By Marah Gubar | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
“Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast”

Given the sad fate suffered by so many of Charles Dickens’s child characters, it is perhaps unsurprising that the “Artful Dodger” fails to live up to his jaunty nickname. Proving himself the least artful in dodging punishment, young Jack Dawkins is caught before any of the other thieves, a full one hundred pages before Oliver Twist (1837–39) concludes. As Dickens’s description of his trial reveals, the Dodger’s skill with language does not enable him to resist the power of the adults who surround him. Transported for life, he disappears entirely from the narrative, thus belying Fagin’s assertion that we should not consider him “a victim” because he establishes for himself “a glorious reputation” at his trial (391, 396). In fact, neither the narrator nor a single one of the novel’s characters ever mentions him again. For Dickens, even an Artful Dodger cannot function as an escape artist: though ostensibly a shrewd collaborator whose collusion with adult thieves leads him to adopt “all the airs and manners of a man” (100), the Dodger’s dismal fate proves that we should instead regard him as yet another casualty of a corrupt society that starves orphan boys and ruins their female counterparts. Here and elsewhere in Dickens’s work, precocity is presented as a problem: to the extent that the Dodger and other “sharp” little youngsters like Jenny Wren interact with and come to resemble adults, they are stunted, damaged, and often doomed (Our Mutual Friend 402).

To be disturbed by precocity, as Dickens and many other socially conscious Victorians were, indicates one’s commitment to the idea that there ought to be a strict dividing line separating child from adult. Scholars such as Peter Coveney, Hugh Cunningham, and Judith Plotz have ably shown that Victorians committed to this position embraced a strand of Romantic thinking that

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