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Love in the Lower Depths

Aside from these passages in other works, the text of Oliver Twist itself points to something heinous in Fagin’s activities when the crowd reacts in frenzy to the discovery of his gang. In technical terms, the worst that Fagin is guilty of—and the charge on which he is hanged—is being an accessory before the fact to Nancy’s murder. It is hard to imagine that the mob hunts him down because of this indirect form of guilt, of which it has had little time to be informed. (The charge is so little inflammatory that Dickens does not even specify it in the dramatic chapter on Fagin’s trial.) The people hounding Fagin show the same indignation that the American public has recently shown over cases of child abuse. The most disgraceful thing about the man is his circle of corrupted boys.

Dickens’s narrator expresses this revulsion, out of proportion to the offenses he is permitted to make explicit by the code of the novel’s decorum. The revulsion expressed is clearly meant to be shared by the reader:

The mud lay thick upon the stones: and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down: and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew, to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

The loathsomeness of Dickens’s first and most frightening villain was completed by the author’s collaboration with Cruikshank in the illustrations. Chesterton, who began his own career as an art student and critic, catches the spirit of Cruikshank:

It was a strange and appropriate accident that Cruikshank and not “Phiz” should have illustrated this book. There was about Cruikshank’s art a kind of cramped energy which is almost the definition of the criminal mind. His drawings have a dark strength: yet he does not only draw morbidly, he draws meanly. In the doubled up figure and frightful eyes of Fagin in the condemned cell there is not only a baseness of subject; there is a kind of baseness in the very technique of it. It is not drawn with the free lines of a free man; it has the half-witted secrecies of a hunted thief. It does not look merely like a picture of Fagin; it looks like a picture by Fagin. Among these dark and detestable plates there is one which has, with a kind of black directness, struck the dreadful poetry that does inhere in the story, stumbling as it often is. It represents Oliver asleep at an open window in the house of one of his humaner patrons. And outside the window, but as big and close as if they were in the room, stand Fagin and the foul-faced Monks, staring at him with dark monstrous visages and great white wicked eyes, in the style of the simple devilry of the draughtsman. The very naivete of the horror is horrifying: the very woodenness of the two wicked men seems to make them worse than mere men who are wicked. But this picture of big devils at the window-sill does express, as has been suggested above, the thread of poetry in the whole thing; the sense, that is, of the thieves as a kind of army of devils compassing earth and sky crying for Oliver’s soul and besieging the house in which he is barred for safety.8

Many critics have concentrated on the last-described scene, of Oliver’s half-waking vision of Fagin at the window, as one of the eerier moments in all of Dickens’s fiction. Fred Kaplan finds in it a description of the hypnotized person’s sleeping consciousness, induced by the mesmeric eyes and repeated phrases of Fagin.9 Graham Greene notes the way Dickens is able to make of the novel a “closed Fagin universe”:

Fagin has always about him this quality of darkness and nightmare. He never appears on the daylight streets. Even when we see him last in the condemned cell, it is in the hours before the dawn. In the Fagin darkness Dickens’s hand seldom fumbles…. It is with a sense of relief that at last in twilight we see the faces of the Jew and Monks peer into the cottage window between the sprays of jessamine. At that moment we realize how the whole world, and not London only, belongs to these two after dark.10

Of course, some people think the frenzy of the mob against Fagin, and the narrator’s horror of him, and even Cruikshank’s touch of the diabolic in his portrait, all stem from the fact that Fagin is a Jew. The demonic forces Dickens has loosed are the simple but deep ones of anti-Semitism. This is a misunderstanding for which Dickens was, as he came to realize, guilty. The popular anti-Semitism he assumed in his audience, and shared with it, in the 1830s was one of the “covers” for the pederastic story he was telling.

He first conceived it as a blind for the censors. The reaction to a child abuser would be “explained,” on the story’s literal level, by the resentment at Jewish fences. Fatally convenient for his purpose lay the trial, in the preceding decade, of a criminal named Ikey Solomons, whose fame had carried him into the popular arts of his time—and into Dickens’s own Sketches by Boz, where a Solomon Jacobs, with his assistant Ikey, keeps one of those lock-up houses where debtors could settle their accounts before trial by the payment of extra fees.11 Dickens’s later attempts to calm the passions he aroused over Fagin show that he miscalculated the dangerous feelings he was playing with. Instead of merely “covering” the real subject, those feelings extinguished it. Thus there were artistic as well as moral reasons for his effort at erasing Fagin’s Jewishness, partially in later numbers and editions of the novel and entirely in his stage readings of it.12 There is no reference to Fagin’s being a Jew in his reading text, where he is introduced simply as “Fagin the receiver of stolen goods.”13 His vivid impersonation of Fagin had, we are told, no suggestion of the “stage Jew” at all.14

It is clear from Dickens’s dramatization of his own text that modern adaptations of the story for the theater should not make Fagin a Jew, repeating an artistic mistake that Dickens rectified on the stage. Correspondingly, it is clear that modern interpreters of Fagin’s role should go farther than Alec Guinness did, in the David Lean film of 1948, to indicate that Fagin is a pederast (Guinness merely gave him a lisp). The 1966 BBC production for television, though it was explicitly violent enough in the depiction of Nancy’s murder to prompt calls in Parliament for censorship, was too delicate to make clear the sexual climate of Fagin’s ken.15

Without a clear recognition of Fagin’s pederasty, the intensity of Dickens’s assault on the workhouse and indenture systems cannot fully be appreciated. Better Fagin than Bumble, Dickens continues to insist, even after we know that Fagin is a child abuser. Better a crippled or twisted love than no love at all. The workhouse was emotionally as well as physically starved. Oliver resisted Fagin, but he also laughs with him. He is emotionally involved with him. That is why he is taken to see him in his cell at the end. The plot motivation for this is to let Oliver learn where Fagin has hidden the papers he took from Monks, papers that establish Oliver’s identity. But the emotional reason is for Oliver to express his sympathy with Fagin, along with his continuing fear of him, and his forgiveness. He asks Fagin to pray with him—not, pointedly, in any Christian form. The narrator has already told us that Fagin rejected the attempts of rabbis to have him pray in the Jewish forms. Dickens’s Christians, unlike Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice, do not try to convert the Jewish villain. Dickens’s cruelly thoughtless anti-Semitism of the 1830s was a social prejudice, not a religious one.


Nancy and Bill

The possibility of real love even in the seamy world of Fagin is the point of Nancy. Not that the love she has for Bill is ennobling. That is a degrading addiction—as Dickens indicates by ranking her devotion with that of Bull’s-eye, the kicked dog who comes back and back to Sikes, and even throws itself off the roof-top to follow him in death. Nancy’s genuine love is expressed not in her relationship with Bill, but in her self-sacrifice for Oliver. Only after she pretends to be acting for his mother during the kidnapping scene on the street does Nancy begin to protect him in the thieves’ ken, slamming the door so the dog cannot get at him, wrestling the club from Fagin’s hand when the latter yields to an uncharacteristic fit of violence. The respectable people who feigned a motherly care for Oliver in the workhouse system were acting in their own interest, exploiting the child while they claimed to be caring for him. Oliver’s idealized image of his mother finds its most dramatic fulfillment in a whore masochistically submissive to a thug.

Nancy, more than any other character but “Little Nell,” demonstrates the shift of taste that has occurred between Dickens’s time and our own. We find it difficult to take Nancy seriously; yet Wilkie Collins wrote, in 1890: “The character of ‘Nancy’ is the finest thing he ever did. He never afterwards saw all sides of a woman’s character—saw all round her.”16 What measures our distance from the past is that most people today find it hard to accept Nancy’s goodness, the proverbial golden heart in her tart’s breast. What Dickens’s contemporaries found incredible was her badness, her return to Bill when she has been offered not only escape but respectability. In terms of rational morality, her return to Bill is suicide—which Dickens does not defend on any grounds but clinical observation: “It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE. Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life knows it to be so” (preface to third edition).

He made the same defense of his truthfulness to character in the similarly masochistic prostitute of Dombey and Son, Alice Marwood. Alice is a Nancy morbidly attached to a far subtler villain than Sikes, to James Carker, whom she both loves and hates. Alice, too, shows some motherly feeling toward Florence; but not the redeeming kind that Nancy is allowed. Dickens could create subtler women characters in his later work—but none that he seems to have felt more deeply than Nancy. Despite the vitality he gave to Fagin and Sikes in his final public readings, many in the audience found that the most moving passage in the whole performance was his delivery of Nancy’s final speech to Bill.17

Another obstacle to our appreciation of Nancy is the importance of class difference in Dickens’s time. Nancy seems too self-abasing before the social superiority of Rose Maylie, just as Rose seems too condescending to Nancy. We underestimate the social abyss that kept a Victorian woman from contact with prostitutes. Nancy fully expects to be prevented from the interview with Rose on which Oliver’s life depends. She is proportionately grateful when Rose countermands the efforts of her servants to keep this unworthy thing from their mistress’s view. After Rose hears what prompts Nancy, she tries to give her more concrete evidence of her affection than the handkerchief that Nancy will lift up as she dies, the emblem of her bond with a gentlewoman. As usually happens in Dickens, women are able to transcend social barriers by their concern for a child. Not fraternity but maternity is the principle of equality in Dickens’s world.

The gift of one’s own handkerchief was a particularly intimate exchange for Victorian women. That is why Dickens puts such mysterious weight on Esther Summerson’s reception of Lady Dedlock’s gift before Esther knows that Honoria Dedlock is her mother. That handkerchief travels conspicuously through the plot of Bleak House, as a symbol of the literal implication of people in one another’s lives. The symbol is more important than any parallel gift would be today because of the intrinsic value of Victorian handkerchiefs made of silk and because of the special designs created to express the owner’s identity. In Dombey and Son we learn that “Sir Barnet Skettles expressed his personal consequence chiefly through an antique gold snuff-box, and a ponderous silk pocket-handkerchief, which he had an imposing manner of drawing out of his pocket like a banner.” We know from Henry Mayhew that there was a heavy traffic in stolen handkerchiefs; and the value of individual ones is indicated by Fagin’s care to remove identifying initials from them. The thieves’ elaborate exercises in extracting handkerchiefs from unwilling victims is contrasted with Rose’s free gift, the pledge that Nancy lifts up in her bloodied last moment as Cyrano lifts his plume. Dickens cut, from his public readings of the novel’s last scenes, most of the details that depend on knowledge of what went before, but not the handkerchief.

The crowning proof that love can exist in the depths of Fagin’s world is, astonishingly, Sikes. Dickens claimed, in his “Author’s Preface to the Third Edition,” that Sikes has no redeeming qualities. But his own artifact confutes him. Many have noted the paradox that Bill is an entirely unsympathetic character until the moment when he should forfeit our sympathy. Yet Bill, an animal much less worthy than the one he punishes throughout the book, becomes a man only after he has killed a woman. John Bayley goes so far as to describe Sikes’s murder as a metaphysically transmuting act, and to compare it with Raskolnikov’s murder of the woman in Crime and Punishment18 . But Sikes does not consciously commit a crime as an experiment upon himself. All his life has been one continual series of criminal acts, including (Fagin hints repeatedly) prior murders. It is not as a connoisseur of guilt that Sikes wins our compassion. What haunts him in his flight is the unshakable vision of Nancy’s form and face and—particularly—eyes. He is still brute enough to attempt further killings—of his dog on the road and of Charley Bates in the Jacob’s Island ken. What the murder of Nancy stirs in the inert stuff of Sikes is belated recognition of his love for her. Killing her was not one of his ordinary acts of cruelty. Fagin, knowing this would be the case, had screwed him up to the act with a series of hypotheticals: Would he kill this person for blowing? Would he kill that one? In a carefully graduated series of “thought experiments,” Fagin builds Sikes’s fury to a crescendo before revealing (and skewing at the same time) the things that Noah Claypole heard Nancy reveal to Mr. Maylie.

The wrench of Nancy’s loss leaves Sikes bewildered by the beginnings of human feeling in him. He sits guilty wake upon the body, trying to dispel the visionary eyes by taking the cover off the real eyes wide open in her beaten face. But he cannot, as in the past, ignore or accept the stark evidence of his violence. He flees, seeking solitude. Even the dog is unwelcome company now, not only as an identifying mark to others but as an accusing witness of the crime. Then, in the most psychologically powerful scene of the book, Sikes tries to find human company in a crowd that is fighting fires in the village of Hatfield, where his flight has taken him. He throws himself into a frenzy of rescue. Only in the spontaneous responses to communal disaster can he blot out, for a moment, the insistent eyes:

There were people there—men and women—light, bustle. It was like new life to him. He darted onward—straight, headlong—dashing through brier and brake, and leaping gate and fence as madly as the dog, who careered with loud and sounding bark before him…. Women and children shrieked, and men encouraged each other with noisy shouts and cheers. The clanking of the engine-pumps, and the spirting and hissing of the water as it fell upon the blazing wood, added to the tremendous roar. He shouted, too, till he was hoarse; and, flying from memory and himself, plunged into the thickest of the throng.

Hither and thither he dived that night: now working at the pumps, and now hurrying through the smoke and flame, but never ceasing to engage himself wherever noise and men were thickest. Up and down the ladders, upon the roofs of buildings, over floors that quaked and trembled with his weight, under the lee of falling bricks and stones, in every part of that great fire was he; but he bore a charmed life, and had neither scratch nor bruise, nor weariness nor thought, till morning dawned again, and only smoke and blackened ruins remained.

But as soon as the excitement dies down, Bill feels himself isolated again. “He looked suspiciously about him, for the men were conversing in groups, and he feared to be the subject of their talk.” He slinks off with Bull’s-eye, hoping not to be noticed. When he struggles back to the Jacob’s Island hideout, even his former comrades try to exclude him.

At the very moment when he has come to feel the need for human community, there is none to receive him. He is like a moral astronaut, blasted off from the atmosphere of human things, who has a permanent reentry problem. The cohesion of the community he has violated thickens to resist him. Even in the low conviviality of the tavern Sikes stops at, a peddler terrifies him with the chanted slogans for his cleanser—takes out “water-stains, paint-stains, pitch-stains, mud-stains, blood-stains.” He realizes that everyone is talking about him because they are talking about the homely ordinary world he cannot share. Everything human was killed for him in the one thing recognizably human, even to him, that he has slain. He killed the world, and cannot reenter what he has destroyed. He cannot bear the one form of companionship still vouchsafed him, that of Bull’s-eye. All the traces of the human that still cling to him turn against him, becoming tracks that his pursuers can follow.

Two years after Dickens wrote the searing end of his tale, Poe, who was following Dickens’s writings very carefully at this stage, wrote “The Man of the Crowd,” in which a narrator follows a man of strikingly troubled aspect all night long, as the man rushes from one crowded human scene to another, always seeking the presence of others but remaining anonymous in their midst. At last the narrator leaves him, at dawn, convinced that his secrets are so dreadful that a mercy keeps him unreadable (er lasst sich nicht lesen).19

Dickens felt the compulsion to mingle in reassuring crowds. He compulsively reenacted Sikes’s crime in his days of waning health and haggard need for new audiences. Fired up at the end of a performance, he sometimes wanted to begin the ordeal all over again. When his friends restrained him, he wandered out alone, through the streets, feeling wanted for some crime of his own. He felt exalted downward, lifted out of himself by a lowering of his mind into Sikes’s hyperconsciousness of everything denied him. Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, says he must commit a crime in his own mind, become the criminal, in order to find the criminal. Dickens not only did that, but draws his readers into doing it. Sikes is not, as Bayley thought, experimenting with crime in the story; Dickens is experimenting with crime in Sikes. As Chesterton wrote of Twist, “Characters which are not very clearly conceived as regards their own psychology are yet, at certain moments, managed so as to shake to its foundation our own psychology.”20 We are frightened by Fagin, and join in sympathy with those who hunt him down. But we are frightened with Bill Sikes, and shy away from those who bay for his life. Sikes is the dark aspect of ourselves that we are surprised to find within us, and that gripped Dickens so firmly as simultaneously to draw him into crowds and drive him from them. The Victorian censors were right to feel troubled by this novel. It opens moral trapdoors under us.

  1. 8

    G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens (1906; reprinted by Schocken Books, 1965), pp. 110–112.

  2. 9

    Kaplan, Dickens and Mesmerism, p. 130.

  3. 10

    Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), pp. 83, 84, and 86.

  4. 11

    Ikey says of his sharp master: “Our governor’s wide awake, he is, I’ll never say anythin’ agin him, nor no man; but he knows what o’clock, he does, uncommon.” “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” Sketches by Boz (illustrated Oxford edition, 1987), p. 445. A consensus has recently been forming (against the earlier consensus) that Dickens did not have Ikey Solomons in mind when he conceived Fagin in the 1830s. Cf. J.J. Tobias, Prince of Fences: The Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 147–150. But the use of the names Ikey and Solomon in the Sketch of 1830 seems to make this impossible. See Edgar Rosenberg, Tabloid Jews and Fungoid Scribblers (KATV Publishing House, 1972), pp. 34–35.

  5. 12

    For elimination of the identifying phrase “the Jew” from later numbers in later editions, see Tillotson’s introduction to the Clarendon edition, pp. xxvii–xxvii.

  6. 13

    Philip Collins, Charles Dickens: The Public Readings (Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 472.

  7. 14

    Collins, Charles Dickens: The Public Readings, p. 469.

  8. 15

    Collins, Charles Dickens: The Public Readings, p. 466. Collins notes that “probably no episode in Victorian fiction has had such a stormy theatrical history” as the murder of Nancy.

  9. 16

    Collins, Dickens and Crime, p. 349. The testimony of Wilkie Collins is especially interesting, since it came from the most worldly-wise friend in Dickens’s intimate circle, the one who openly kept mistresses and boasted of his “bohemian” ways.

  10. 17

    Collins, Charles Dickens: The Public Readings, p. 469.

  11. 18

    John Bayley, “Oliver Twist: ‘Things as They Really Are,” in Stephen Wall, ed., Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1970), pp. 452–453.

  12. 19

    Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin have made Poe’s tale a favorite with modern critics; but they consider the makeup of the modern crowd rather than the inscrutability of the man who needs to join it and cannot. See Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1969), pp. 170–176.

  13. 20

    G.K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (E.P. Dutton, 1911), pp. 41–42.

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