Love in the Lower Depths

One of the first novels Dickens conceived, Oliver Twist, is both his most knowing and his most innocent book. It is a Newgate School “thriller,” lurid enough to provoke Victorian censors. It is also the classic “boy’s book,” written to a formula he put his stamp on forever. When Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson use the formula they are imitating him, without ever surpassing him.

The formula has these basic elements: a boy separated from his family (usually by being orphaned) finds a mentor in some social outcast. Deprived of “normal” socialization, the boy is forced to cope with society as an outsider, partly taking on the critical attitude of his abnormal guide. He learns from an “eccentric” before he acquires real experience of the center. The formula not only provides the child with perilous adventure but throws a questioning light on those social ties the boy has been deprived of (or delivered from).

Once the formula is described, examples of it spring to mind—in Stevenson, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, or David Balfour and Alan Breck; in Twain, Huck and Jim. Stevenson made a less successful use of the formula when he paired Dick Shelton with the outlaw Ellis Duckworth (in The Black Arrow), as did Twain when he made the banished Miles Herndon protect his prince disguised as a pauper. Tom Sawyer fails, among other reasons, because Tom merely keeps running across Injun Joe in the commission of improbable nocturnal crimes, instead of being forced into a sustained companionship with him. Variations on the formula can be traced from Kipling’s Captains Courageous to such light entertainment as Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame. Graham Greene, a particular admirer of Oliver Twist and a distant relative of Robert Louis Stevenson, tried out the formula in several short stories before making it the basis of his late and comparatively minor novel The Captain and the Enemy. E.L. Doctorow brings the scheme back to triumphant life in Billy Bathgate.

The action in most of these novels takes place at night, when the child’s imagination comes most alive to danger. The books breath an air of adult secrets only half heard or understood, portentous words that come to an eavesdropping child when he is supposed to be asleep. Jim Hawkins catches his first hint of the sinister when, hiding in the ship’s apple barrel, he overhears Long John talking to his confederates. And Oliver, watching through half-waking eyes while Fagin goes over his secret treasure, is first threatened by Fagin’s knife when it becomes clear that he has seen what he should not have. Graham Greene created an intense vision of evil—primarily of the innocent’s power to bring about evil consequences—in his story “The Basement Room,” where the boy misunderstands his idolized butler’s insignificant adultery.

But for a complete exploration of the formula’s possibilities, one must go to Dickens, who had a special gift for understanding childhood despair …

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