The Violent Deaths of Oliver Twist

By Federico, Annette | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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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!

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