Academic journal article Style

The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy

Academic journal article Style

The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy

Article excerpt

Very early in Oliver Twist, Oliver makes the famous blunder of begging for more food, an offense that promptly brings him before the board of commissioners of the workhouse. When Bumble the beadle confirms that Oliver has asked for more after consuming the supper allotted by the dietary, "the man in the white waistcoat" declares: "That boy will be hung ... I know that boy will be hung" (11). Nobody controverts the man in the white waistcoat; Oliver is instantly confined and a notice is posted on the outside gate of the workhouse advertising his availability for apprenticeship to any trade. The gentleman in the white waistcoat asserts himself again: "'I never was more convinced of anything in my life,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate and read the bill next morning: 'I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am, that that boy will come to be hung'" (12). This episode might have ended chapter 2, but the young Dickens does not drop the subject; instead, the narrator emphasizes his own relationship to the diegesis, linking his narrative task to the claims of the gentleman in the white waistcoat: "As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white-waistcoated gentleman was right or not, 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" (37).

Since the full title of Dickens's novel is Oliver Twist, Or, The Parish Boy's Progress, there is room for doubt about his ultimate fate. How much can be expected of a child born in a workhouse and brought up on the rates at the mercy of a penny-wise middle-class bureaucracy? Poverty and squalor are more likely to produce a criminal than a law-abiding citizen among any orphans who happen to survive the conditions of the workhouse. Oliver's late might be that of Bulwer's Paul Clifford or Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard. Nonetheless, the narrator's obvious sympathy for Oliver from the outset makes it unlikely that he will progress to the gallows. Thus the narrator's coy positioning of himself in relation to the gentleman in the white waistcoat seems to constitute an opposition, not a conundrum. At this point in the narrative, the narrator already knows the outcome of his narrative; the gentleman with the white waistcoat does not. He is simply confident that he does. Two unnamed individuals--the narrator and the man in the white waistcoat--present their forms of authority before their mutual audience, the novel's readers.

But this anonymous character has not finished his part in Oliver's drama. As chapter 3 begins, the narrator comments that, if the imprisoned Oliver had taken the gentleman with the white waistcoast's "sage advice," he would have hanged himself in his cell with his pocket handkerchief, except for the fact that, handkerchiefs being luxuries, workhouse boys have no access to them (l 2). This is an interesting proleptic moment, for a major part of the trade to which Fagin apprentices Oliver in London is the stealing of pocket handkerchiefs, potentially a hanging offense. (1) So this apparent aside has a resonance known only to the narrator. This is a secret bit of metonymy--the luxury of handkerchiefs equals crime--that prepares for a similar metonymy involving the white waistcoat. Morever, the connection to Fagin is not accidental, for the man in the white waistcoat acts for Oliver much in the way the Artful Dodger does--as an agent for a potential employer. He encourages Gamfield the chimney sweep, "exactly the sort of master Oliver Twist wanted," to apply for the boy and even becomes his advocate, introducing him to the board (14). Mr. Limbkin, the head of the board of commissioners, realizes what a dangerous and revolting occupation chimney sweeping is for the boys who must climb up the flues, and he expresses some sympathy along those lines, enough to drive a hard financial bargain with Gamfield. …

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