Boy’s Book

One of the first novels Dickens conceived, Oliver Twist, is both his most knowing and his most innocent book.1 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 at the encounter with adult cruelty or obtuseness. This is the organizing principle for Oliver Twist; and it is a subordinate theme in the other novels, especially the “autobiographical” ones—exemplified in the tie between David Copperfield and the socially irresponsible Wilkins Micawber, or in that between Pip and such socially marginal characters as the secluded Miss Havisham and the fugitive Abel Magwitch.2

In Oliver Twist, Dickens deliberately set out to shock his audience. He succeeded well enough that Lord Melbourne denounced the novel’s “bad, depraved, vicious taste,” and Thackeray accused Dickens of making his audience “expend our sympathies on cut-throats, and other such prodigies of evil.” The book was listed in police reports among other contributors to crime, and theatrical adaptations of it were banned by the Lord Chamberlain.3 Under the novel’s surface decorum, there lurk feverish visions of life in the underworld of London, brutal visions of a sadistic murderer and a masochistic prostitute, of a pederastic “fence” who has a small harem of assistants, and—last and most shocking—of a legal workhouse system that is even worse than the underworld from which it purports to save those trusted to its care.

Who are the real criminals, Dickens is asking, Fagin and Bill Sikes or Oliver’s workhouse persecutors, Beadle Bumble and Mrs. Mann? Where is Oliver’s spirit crushed more abjectly, in the workhouse or in Fagin’s “ken”? Oliver is more frequently admonished that he will be “hung” in the ordered world of law (if the Poor Law’s regime deserves that name) than he is in the company of whores and catamites. Among the latter, at least, he has the energy to laugh. When Fagin threatrically “rehearses” street thefts with his protégés, he does it “in such a very funny and natural manner, that Oliver laughed till the tears ran down his face.” It is the first time he laughs in the novel.


Admittedly, Oliver does not yet understand the criminal intent of these antics; but even after he is recaptured by Fagin’s “family,” he experiences a camaraderie that had not existed in the workhouse:

At other times, the old man would tell them stories of robberies he had committed in his younger days: mixed up with so much that was droll and curious, that Oliver could not help laughing heartily, and showing that he was amused in spite of all his better feelings.

In the workhouse system, Oliver had only one friend—Dick, who is too weak to run away with him. Undernourishment drains from the wards of the state all their initiative—except for the devisings of a cannibalistic desperation. Oliver is forced, in the famous dining hall scene, to ask for “more” (having secretly drawn straws with the others), because his fellow workhouse inmates are as frightened by each other as by their masters:

Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months; at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy: who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing, (for his father had kept a small cook’s shop): hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry, eye; and they implicitly believed him.

Even Fagin’s associates, for all their fear that one of them will inform (“blow”) on the others, are never reduced to such antisocial degradation as this. David Lean’s post-World War II movie version of Twist caught perfectly the bleak atmosphere of the workhouse by using images of Nazi prison camps.

“Normal” socialization for Oliver means promotion from the workhouse to indenture, another form of slavery. The apprentice, at the bottom of the trade ladder, is primarily to be taught that there is a ladder, and that his place is the lowest on it. Noah Claypole, confirming the law that the lower the office the greater is the officiousness, catechizes Oliver on his social rank:

“Yer don’t know who I am, I suppose, Work’us?” said the charity-boy, in continuation: descending from the top of the post, meanwhile, with edifying gravity.

“No, sir,” rejoined Oliver.

“I’m Mister Noah Claypole,” said the charity-boy, “and you’re under me.”

Fagin’s “ken” is attractive because such a nest of rebels, having rejected the stratifications of respectable society, allows for a degree of familiarity suggesting egality. Rank and degree are jumbled. Fagin’s form of address—“My dear”—echoes, at the bottom of society, the easy terms used within the charmed circles of gentility (the Brownlow and Maylie homes) Oliver will be taken into. There is a freedom at the top and the bottom of the social world that is squeezed out of those struggling for place in the middle, and Oliver only reaches the freedom of the upper world by falling first into the lower one.

It is not often enough remembered that Oliver was a criminal even before the Dodger found him on the streets of London. By running away from the undertaker’s shop, Oliver has broken his indenture. (The rebellious apprentice would be a symbol of larger revolutionary forces in Barnaby Rudge, which Dickens was planning as he wrote Twist). Oliver has the classic criminal excuse—society made him an outlaw. He broke the rules because the rules were dehumanizing. His sense of human dignity, preserved in the ideal image he has formed of his mother, makes him resist the system, as much by his attitude as by any acts. He cannot be blamed or credited for the appeal against short rations, since others forced him into that. But Beadle Bumble rightly sees nonconformity in Oliver’s very carriage, his shrinking from authority, his struggle against indenture to the brutal chimney sweep, his refusal to adopt the proper terms of submission:

The accounts of his ferocity, as related by Mrs. Sowerberry and Charlotte, were of so startling a nature, that Mr. Bumble judged it prudent to parley, before opening the door. With this view, he gave a kick at the outside, by way of prelude; and then, applying his mouth to the keyhole, said, in a deep and impressive tone:


“Come; you let me out!” replied Oliver, from the inside.

“Do you know this here voice, Oliver?” said Mr. Bumble.

“Yes,” replied Oliver.

“Ain’t you afraid of it, sir? Ain’t you a-trembling while I speak, sir?” said Mr. Bumble.

“No!” replied Oliver boldly.

An answer so different from the one he had expected to elicit, and was in the habit of receiving, staggered Mr. Bumble not a little. He stepped back from the keyhole; drew himself up to his full height; and looked from one to another of the three bystanders, in mute astonishment.

“Oh, you know, Mr. Bumble, he must be mad,” said Mrs. Sowerberry. “No boy in half his senses could venture to speak so to you.”

“It’s not Madness, ma’am,” replied Mr. Bumble, after a few moments of deep meditation, “it’s Meat.”

“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.

“Meat, ma’am, meat,” replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. “You’ve overfed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a artifical soul and spirit in him, ma’am, unbecoming a person of his condition….”

It is Oliver’s “artifical soul”—roused not by Mrs. Sowerberry’s “wittles” but by Noah Claypole’s challenge to the image of Oliver’s mother—that makes Oliver escape the “condition” prescribed him by society. Oliver escapes by an act as deliberate as Huck Finn’s. Huck feigns his own death to get beyond the brutal reach of his “Pap.” Oliver walks over eighty miles to make himself invisible in the disreputable streets of London. Later, he will try to regain visibility in those same streets, only to be trapped when Nancy and Bill, pretending to respectability, rail at Oliver as an unnatural rebel who has deserted his mother.




Oliver, though frightened by Fagin, is also fascinated by him. Indeed, the power of Dickens’s most lurid novel lies in his ability to make Fagin and Sikes charismatically creepy, the more so as we understand their vileness. Sikes comes most vigorously to life when we see him commit the most vicious murder. And Fagin intrigues us precisely because of his sexual dominance over children. No wonder Thackeray accused Dickens of rousing admiration for “prodigies of evil.”

Dickens does not, it is true, call Fagin a pederast directly—as he nowhere calls Nancy a prostitute. Yet Nancy’s prostitution clearly underlies all her outbursts of grievance against Fagin, who put her on the streets; and Fagin’s pederasty as clearly underlies much of Oliver’s fear and fascination. “As he glanced timidly up, and met the Jew’s searching look, he felt that his pale face and trembling limbs were neither unnoticed, nor unrelished by, that wary old gentleman.” The hostile distance between Fagin and Sikes is created in part by the latter’s brutal heterosexuality, contemptuous of Fagin’s silken charms. In the pub that serves as the criminal “flash house,” the flash (knowing) talk about Fagin’s boys is a staple:

“Wud of Bister Fagin’s lads,” exclaimed Barney [the keeper of the flash house], with a grin.4

“Fagin’s eh!” exclaimed Toby [Crackit], looking at Oliver. “Wot an inwalable boy that’ll make, for the old ladies’ pockets in chapels. His mug is a fortun’ to him.”

“There—there’s enough of that,” interposed Sikes, impatiently; and stooping over his recumbent friend, he whispered a few words in his ear: at which Mr. Crackit laughed immensely, and honoured Oliver with a long stare of astonishment.

What astonishes Toby? Not the fact that Oliver is one of Fagin’s boys. That was taken for granted in his first remark. The only thing that would astonish him is that Oliver had not done what was taken for granted. Fagin’s method is one of seduction, not force—he usually leaves the force to Bill Sikes: and Oliver has refused to be seduced. On the level of overt action, this means that Oliver refuses to become a thief. He rebels against Fagin’s system as he had against the more respectable institutions of society. Fagin, we learn in time, has been hired by Oliver’s unknown half-brother (“Monks”) to debase Oliver so thoroughly that he will not dare, later in his life, to lay claim to the family estate in the West Indies. Monks resorts to this indirect way of eliminating Oliver’s claims since he feels the taboo against actual fratricide. His demands on Fagin explain the pederast’s panic at the thought that Sikes would risk the boy’s life, putting Monks’s bribes in peril:

“Once let him feel that he is one of us, once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he’s ours! Ours for his life! Oho! It couldn’t have come about better!” The old man crossed his arms upon his breast; and, drawing his head and shoulders into a heap, literally hugged himself for joy.

“Ours!” said Sikes. “Yours you mean.”

“Perhaps I do, my dear,” said the Jew, with a shrill chuckle. “Mine, if you like, Bill.”

“And wot,” said Sikes, scowling fiercely on his agreeable friend, “wot makes you take so much pains about one chalk-faced kid, when you know there are fifty boys snoozing about Common Garden every night, as you might pick and choose from?”

“Because they’re of no use to me, my dear,” replied the Jew with some confusion, “not worth the taking.”

Fagin speaks with confusion because he cannot tell Sikes about the bargain with Monks. Instead, he invents a reason for his solicitude that Oliver not be killed—the boy’s innocent look is useful for gulling victims of the gang’s theft.

When I first read Oliver Twist, in my own childhood, I did not know that Sikes’s lover Nancy is a prostitute; and it is safe to bet that Queen Victoria, enthusiastically following the novel as it appeared in serial numbers, did not realize that Fagin is a pederast. Did Dickens expect his knowledgeable adult readers to understand this fact, as important to Fagin’s speeches as her prostitution is to Nancy’s? There are many things, within the novel itself as well as in Dickens’s other works, to indicate that he did expect such understanding. Fred Kaplan notes that “Dickens’s knowledgeability about sexual relationships between males (particularly between older men and young boys) can hardly be doubted.” His good friend and fellow mesmerist Chauncy Hare Townshend had a boy subject for his hypnotizing sessions who seems to have been his catamite.5

Nor was Dickens’s awareness of homosexuality confined to male lovers. In Little Dorrit, the relationship of Miss Wade to Tattycoram is clearly lesbian. Miss Wade describes a girlhood experience that seems to have set the pattern for her later emotional experiences. As a girl of twelve, she was obsessed with a “chosen friend” at school, a friend who humiliated her by acts of kindness to Miss Wade herself and to all others, acts (Miss Wade is convinced) meant deliberately to contrast with her own suspicion and jealousy:

I so loved that unworthy girl, that my life was made stormy by my fondness for her. I was constantly lectured and disgraced for what was called “trying her”; in other words, charging her with her little perfidy and throwing her into tears by showing her that I read her heart. However, I loved her, faithfully; and one time I went home with her for the holidays.

She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd of cousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and went out to dances at other houses, and, both at home and out, she tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all fond of her—and so drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar and endearing with them all—and so make me mad with envying them. When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river—where I would still hold her, after we were both dead.

When Miss Wade finds Tattycoram chafing under her service at the Meagleses’, she recruits her to a sisterhood of resentment. Tattycoram’s break with the Meagleses resembles Miss Wade’s angry departure from her childhood friend’s house. Tattycoram has grown increasingly jealous of “Pet,” the Meagleses’ child, who is in love with a young man. On the night she leaves the house, Tattycoram denounces the family in words that Mr. Meagles recalls: “When we pretended to be so fond of one another, we exulted over her; that was what we did; we exulted over her, and shamed her.” Tattycoram runs off to join Miss Wade, who establishes a passionate hold over her. When Mr. Meagles fails in his appeal to Tattycoram, Miss Wade claims her prize:

Miss Wade, who had watched her under this final appeal with that strange attentive smile, and that repressing hand upon her own bosom, with which she had watched her in her struggle at Marseilles, then put her arm about her waist as if she took possession of her for evermore.

This is the bond that Meagles had feared, giving a special emphasis to his words with Miss Wade: “If it should happen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enough to have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you against yourself” (italics added).

Miss Wade takes Tattycoram captive, as Fagin is supposed to subjugate Oliver, in a way that will make it impossible for the victim to rejoin respectable society. So Tattycoram, even when she is beginning to rebel against her thralldom to Miss Wade, rejects the idea that she could ever go back to the Meagleses. “You know very well that I have thrown them off, and never can, never shall, never will, go back to them.” When she does go back, proving the depth of kindness in the Meagleses, it is with an almost hysterical self-abasement:

“Oh! I have been so wretched,” cried Tattycoram, weeping much more, after that, than before; “always so unhappy, and so repentant! I was afraid of her, from the first time I ever saw her. I knew she had got a power over me, through understanding what was bad in me, so well. It was madness in me, and she could raise it whenever she liked.” 6

A closer parallel to Oliver’s situation at Fagin’s is to be found in Dombey and Son. Indeed, Dickens seems deliberately to have gone back to Oliver Twist, in this novel, to “update” its themes in one of his larger social tales. Thus Florence is kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” stripped of her fine clothes and dressed in rags, like Oliver after Nancy and Bill bring him back to the ken. But the more important parallel is between Oliver’s tutelage and that of Robin Toodle (“Rob the Grinder”). Rob may in fact be considered an Oliver who does not escape the snares of the criminals he deals with.7 Sent to a charity school, where he is beaten and brutalized, he joins a street gang fencing its goods to Mrs. Brown, and then falls into the literal clutches of James Carker, who immediately shows his repressed violence by almost strangling the young boy of fifteen. Despite this harsh first encounter, or because of it, Rob becomes abjectly devoted to Carker, constantly fixing on him “eyes, which were nailed upon him as if he had won the boy by a charm, body and soul.” Dickens describes the boy’s “stupor of submission,” his “reverie of worshipful terror,” in terms that would perfectly express Oliver’s bondage to Fagin if he had surrendered to him:

[Rob] could not have quaked more, through his whole being, before the teeth [of Carker], though he had come into the service of some powerful enchanter, and they had been his strongest spells. The boy had a sense of power and authority in this patron of his that engrossed his whole attention and exacted his most implicit submission and obedience. He hardly considered himself safe in thinking about him when he was absent, lest he should feel himself immediately taken by the throat again, as on the morning when he first became bound to him, and should see every one of the teeth finding him out, and taxing him with every fancy of his mind. Face to face with him, Rob had no more doubt that Mr. Carker read his secret thoughts, or that he could read them by the least exertion of his will if he were so inclined, than he had that Mr. Carker saw him when he looked at him. The ascendancy was so complete, and held him in such enthralment, that, hardly daring to think at all but with his mind filled with a constantly dilating impression of his patron’s irresistible command over him, and power of doing anything with him, he would stand watching his pleasure, and trying to anticipate his orders, in a state of mental suspension, as to all other things.

[italics added]

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.

This Issue

October 26, 1989