The Violent Deaths of Oliver Twist
Federico, Annette, Papers on Language & Literature
Well before the terrifying murder of Nancy, Oliver Twist's story is accompanied by a haunting repertoire of dead people and images of death. His first encounter with a dead body occurs during his apprenticeship with the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, when they go to the poorest district of the city to carry away the corpse of a woman who has starved to death.
There were some ragged children [ ... ] and in a small recess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, something covered with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast his eyes towards the place: and crept involuntarily closer to his master; for though it was covered up, the boy felt that it was a corpse. (47)
When Sowerberry, Oliver, and Bumble return the following day for the burial, Dickens describes the village boys, who "played a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones: or varied their amusement by jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin" (49). The body is then put into an overflowing pauper's grave, and the grotesque interment is summed up: "The grave-digger shovelled in the earth; stamped it loosely down with his feet; shouldered his spade; and walked off: followed by the boys: who murmured very loud complaints at the fun being over so soon" (49). Dickens's outrage at the inhuman conditions under which poverty-stricken men and women live and die is compressed, but heavy hitting. The scene bluntly contrasts the accoutrements of a woman's death--the blanketed corpse, the coffin, the grave, and the mourners--with the indifference of the living, represented by the careless children, the detached grave-digger. It is a familiar and effective style: understatement and juxtaposition advance serious social protest and moral judgment.
Oliver Twist (1839) is Dickens's first avowal of the unavoidable necessity of looking at a world of suffering and injustice where human beings are opposed and estranged: a world of dark motives and death, cruelty and sanguinary acts. Significantly, this novel also includes Dickens's first public articulation of a deliberate aesthetic strategy, the so-called "streaky bacon" theory of melodramatic effect:
It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation [ ... ]. Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. (118) (1)
The purpose of art, Dickens implies, is to encourage the suspension of everyday activity in order to allow the "looker-on" to see more clearly the vicissitudes of life, and, importantly, the pervasiveness of death.
The treatment of death through both parallel and contrasting patterns of imagery in Oliver Twist is central to Dickens's development as a serious artist as well as to his awakening commitment to social reform. The murder in Oliver Twist is a defining moment in Dickens's writing; after 1837, violence and death are always present, central to Dickens's method and to his humanism, and carrying diverse and complex significations. For example, the nonhuman "something" covered with a blanket foreshadows the unburied body of Nancy, dehumanized by Sikes as "it--the body." "Why do they keep such ugly things above the ground for?" he demands (336). Yet the corpse of the starved pauper and the corpse of Nancy, both described as mere objects, as "things," clearly have different meanings. The deaths of innocent characters, such as Oliver's mother and little Dick, are intended to impress the reader with life's precariousness and poignancy, and Dickens offers the consolation that these brief lives, whether pure or "erring," will find peace in the hereafter. But the emotional center of Oliver Twist is not the untroubled death of an innocent, as it is in another early work, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), where the narrator explicitly assigns a meaning to little Nell's death: "Oh! It is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the Innocent and young [ ... ] a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it" (659). What "strikes down" Nell is an abstraction, Death; what literally strikes down Nancy is Bill Sikes, an enraged and ultimately tragic criminal. Dickens attaches no Victorian bromides or conventional pieties to the murder, yet it carries a set of meanings just as urgent for his art. For the scene of death acquires transformative potential when violence is introduced; vivid, sometimes graphic, description of the event replaces moral instruction; confronted with a violation of normalcy without the comfort of religious belief or the soothing voice of the narrator, the Victorian reader is forced to ask, "What does this death mean?" In this sense, Dickens's moral vision is metaphorically linked to the experience of reading as looking (or not looking) at death and dead bodies. The reader's abrupt involvement in the scene of death is somewhat analogous to the experience of visitors to the Paris morgue, described by Dickens in 1860:
There was a little pity, but not much, and that mostly with a selfish touch in it--as who would say, "Shall I, Poor I, look like that, when the time comes!" There was more of a brooding contemplation and curiosity [ ... ]. And there was a much more general, purposeless, vacant staring at it--like looking at a waxwork, without a catalogue, and not knowing what to make of it. But all these expressions concurred in possessing the one underlying expression of looking at something that could not return a look. ("Recollections" 203-04)
Looking at a cadaver, the person turned into an object, is the ultimate experience of emotional and intellectual alienation. As Dickens implies here, it is also metaphorically the ultimate measure of the spectator's humanity. Confronting the scene of death, for reader and participant, is a sense-making project that takes place on the level of conscious awareness ("not knowing what to make of it"), but also deeper in the human psyche: the blank, expressionless face of the dead person produces a "brooding consciousness" and confusing, contradictory emotions that seem both to exceed and demand articulation. For one cannot ask, "What is this thing, what is death?" without also asking "What is a human being, what is life?" How this question was understood by religious thinkers, philosophers, and economic and political theorists--and how it was addressed by mid-Victorian social institutions--is central to the ethos that determined Dickens's imaginative engagement with violence and death.
Lionel Trilling has explained that nineteenth-century morality was fundamentally about the importance of being, that is, the experience of "the self as an entity [ ... ] susceptible to influences that either increased or diminished its force." For the Victorians, the threat of alienation is not "the estrangement of the self from the self" but "the transformation of the self into what is not human," a machine or a thing (Sincerity 122-23). (2) The experience of both biological and emotional reality--of pain, pleasure, misery, and joy--are significant "because it was believed that each person happened only once and would never recur--which is to say, …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Violent Deaths of Oliver Twist. Contributors: Federico, Annette - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 47. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 363+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.