January 11, 2011
THE TRULY interesting thing about Oliver Twist is that no matter how much brutality and common vulgarity he encounters, his exquisite sensitiveness remains unchanged. This unfortunate bastard is raised under the most heartless of conditions in a parochial poorhouse, sold as an apprentice to an undertaker and then waylaid by a band of thieves, living in London’s “foul and frowsy dens, where vice is closely packed.” Yet through it all, he radiates a persuasive charm, sweetness and innocence. He possesses unshakable innocence. This is why Mr. Brownlow loves him and Mrs. Sowerberry hates him. His vengeful half-brother Monks senses his goodness, which makes Monks all the more determined.
That is the compelling theme of Charles Dickens’ immortal tale: a sensitive creature in a coarse world. A bureacratic world. A thieving world. A world where Mr. Bumble and Noah Claypole feel at home. Oliver’s youthfulness and sensitiveness are such that he cannot assert himself. He can only be good. Who can save him? Will it be great public projects of reform? Will it be new political parties or social movements? In the end, the thing that saves Oliver is other sensitive individuals. Who but Oliver would motivate the martyrdom of a shabby whore?
Nancy has no real reason to give her life for Oliver other than his goodness, which calls to mind her own lost innocence. Though she has been mistreated all her life, though she has lived “in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness,” Nancy is conscious of her own complicity. She is sensitive in a way that is both exalted and doomed, disappointed by her own sins and retaining love for a violent man because it is the only love she has experienced:
“Whether it is God’s wrath for the wrong I have done, I do not know; but I am drawn back to him [Sykes] through every suffering and ill usage; and should be, I believe, if I knew that I was about to die at his hand at last.”
She does die. Much would have been easier if Oliver had been a regular “jolter-headed” juvenile. Who then would have cared to save him from Fagin? Sensitiveness is a misfortune and a gift. Regardless, it is not something chosen. Oliver was born into a whirlwind. Unable to assert himself, he could only follow his own innocence through the shelterless streets of London.