The Villans of Oliver Twist

November 9, 2014

Full disclosure:  I love the novel Oliver Twist but I can’t say I love the title character.  He cries far to easily for my taste and he’s altogether too sweet for words.   Dickens wanted to show Oliver’s basic gentle nature couldn’t be corrupted by the environment he lived in but basically his protagonist is a Casper Milquetoast.  When people are kind to him, he laps it up and soaks them with tears of joy.   When they are unkind, he leaves and cries on himself.  A very soggy kid, needing someone to rescue and rehydrate him.  Occasionally, Oliver will stand up to a bully but on someone else’s behalf, like his dead mother. In this book it’s a lot easier to like the bad guys.

They have all the best lines in this book.  No one has ever developed supporting characters as thoroughly and lovingly as Charles Dickens and the villains in Oliver Twist are either strong and bad (like scary Bill Sikes) or weak and bad.  You know who the fun ones are, right?

Of course there’s Fagin.  A fence and corrupter of children, Fagin sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist.  People do have a habit of buying things that burglars are likely to steal but that’s not Fagin’s fault.   All he does is take the stolen goods off the burglars’ hands and send them back into the economy to be purchased again.   And he doesn’t put the stray children into London’s streets, does he?  Of course not.  Fagin will tell you, he’s providing a service getting those children shelter (in abandoned, unsafe buildings) and teaching them trades.   All right, he trains them to become petty criminals, but Fagin didn’t criminalize their behavior.  That was the work of Parliament.   That’s our Fagin, the man with a reason for everything.

 Then there is the wonderful Beadle Bumble (you can tell what a bumbling, bumptious oaf he’s going to be with that name) who takes careful inventory of Mrs. Corney’s possessions before he proposes marriage to her.   He’s so pompous and mean to everyone else, you can’t help but cheer when the coy Mrs. Corney becomes his tyrant after marriage.  English majors, feminists and law students all cheer when, apprised that the law assumes a man is in charge of his wife’s behavior, Bumble responds, “ If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The weakest of the bad boys is Noah Claypole, a sniveler if  there ever was one.  He’ll bully half-starved orphans because he’s better fed and knows the names of his parents (That’s all the genealogy Noah knows but it’s enough) but turns up his nose at snatching handbags because old ladies tend to fight back.  Big, bad Noah Claypole has to take ‘the kinchin lay,’ when he becomes a full-time criminal.  That is he steels the errand and pocket money from children who still have their moms.   His zenith is achieved when he becomes a stool-pigeon.

One of the characters that rarely makes it into an adaptation is Charley Bates, a friend of the Artful Dodger and fellow pickpocket.  Charley stands out against the rest of the bad guys because he’s cheerful.  Unlike the saturnine Dodger and Sykes, Charley  spends most of his time laughing.  He’s just as much a pickpocket as the Dodger but Charley can’t help seeing the funny side of life.   When he witnesses the violent side of crime, Charley rethinks his options and becomes an honest man.  

 And then there’s the Artful.   Jack Dawkins, ladies and gents, immortalized forever as The Artful Dodger.   Although he’s not as adorable as Jack Wild portrayed him in the 1960’s musical adaptation (where huge hunks of the story were chopped off) The Dodger steals every possible scene in Oliver’s life story and has to be transported to Australia to keep from absconding with the ending.  He’s cunning, naughty, impudent, deceitful and a wonderful counterpoint to the perpetual victim, Oliver.  

In the end, Twist is a serious story about the effects of poverty and I am glad that the book helped some real people and that the fictional Oliver eventually obtained enough security to stop dripping tears at the drop of a hat.  He deserved a happy ending, as did the poor of Victorian England.   But if Mr. Dickens had written sequels, as so many writers do these days, I wish he had told of Jack’s life in Australia.   The Dodger Down Under would have sold!

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