Thursday, May 31, 2012

Oliver Twist: Stages of Inquiry

Oliver Twist Charles Dickens

First level of inquiry:

What is the book’s most important event?  When does the character change?
The most important event is the botched robbery, when Oliver is shot, left behind, and finds himself in the care of Mrs. Maylie and Rose.  Only after that happens they are able to begin to help him find the truth about his identity so that the mystery is solved, and everything Oliver ever wanted, to love and be loved, may come to fruition.

Does he really ever change internally because of this event?  Dickens tells the reader that Oliver’s father, Mr. Leeford, was “confident that Oliver would share [his mother’s] gentle heart, and noble nature.”  From the very introduction of Oliver, he is tenderhearted, forgiving, and innocent or na├»ve of the dark side of life.  

For example, he is concerned about his friend Dick, and after he learns of his own small fortune, he immediately wants to use it to save his friend, that is until he learns that he has died; he is sympathetic toward Nancy, even though she was the reason he was separated from Mr. Brownlow; and finally, he is merciful toward Fagin – even praying that God would save his soul!   I believe Oliver remains the same throughout the story, and it is only his physical position in the world that changes.
Second level of inquiry:
What is the author trying to convince you of?  What evidence does he give you for believing this argument?  
If Dickens is attempting to make the case that London in the 1800s was a cesspool for the poor, he makes a good one; but if he is presenting a solution to this problem, I am not sure what that is. 

Surely, justice comes to those who are lawless, while those who are cruel in their power, eventually lose their positions.  Yes, the Poor Laws were unfair, the treatment of the poor was unfair, people only looking out for themselves is unfair; just the idea of being poor seems unfair. 

But if it were not for the well off in this case, Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie, Oliver would probably still be on the streets.  And thank God they were honorable, righteous, compassionate, and justice-loving people. 

I especially love how they are bold in confronting injustice and risk their lives to find the truth without even involving the law. These people genuinely care about little Oliver, and they were doing everything possible to protect him and keep him safe and well.  There is something very honorable about their actions.

What does the central character want?  What is standing in his or her way?  What strategy does he pursue in order to overcome this block?
Oliver wants to be loved and to share his own love with others, but what he has no control over is what is preventing him from this.  There is a sense that he, being a child, is like a rag doll being pulled apart by savage dogs. 

He had the misfortune of being born an orphan, only to be abused and despised by every character in his path: Mrs. Mann, Mr. Bumble, the man in the white waistcoat, Noah Claypole and Charlotte, Fagin, Bates and Dodger, until he crosses Mr. Brownlow’s path. 

When we think he has finally been saved from this vicious cycle of blame, lies, and mistrust, he is dragged into the pit again.  Then he suffers more at the hands of Sikes and his associates, until the botched robbery. 

It is only until he is left behind that he returns to the home of Mrs. Maylie, and Rose, who is compassionate because he is a child and cannot believe he is capable of being a criminal.  Again, the reader, being relieved that he is in good hands, learns that a new evil, his half-brother, Monks, is lurking, and Oliver is vulnerable. 

But goodness, mercy, and righteousness prevail, and Oliver is rescued and protected by the wisdom of Brownlow, who has returned to London, the crazy wit of his associate, Mr. Grimwig, and the love and support of Mrs. Maylie and Rose.  They literally become his new family.

Images and metaphors?  
Dickens used many contrasting ideas: goodness v. evil or vice, light (sun) v. darkness, privileged social classes v. poverty, life v. death, love v. lack of love, justice v. injustice, law v. crime, sleep v.  wakefulness, kindness v. cruelty, Satan v. heaven, youth v. old age, men v. women. There are probably more, and I would have given examples if I took better notes.  I just know that he used these so frequently to juxtapose ideas.

Is it resolution (no further event can take place), or is it logical exhaustion (infinite repetition)?  Do you agree? 
There seems to be resolution for Oliver, especially given that a good man, Mr. Brownlow, adopts him.  Furthermore, they live in a community with Rose, Harry, Mrs. Maylie, and all of their associates who love Oliver.  He is safe from the dark world he was exposed to, while all of the people who abused Oliver are either in prison, dead, or not in positions of power.

Third Level of Inquiry:
Is there an argument in this book?  What is the idea?  Do you agree?  Is the book true?
One of Dickens' arguments is that death is not prejudice.  When Rose is very ill, and Oliver considers how “the grave is for cold and cheerless winter: not for sunlight and fragrance…shrouds were for the old and shrunken; and that they never wrapped the young and graceful form within their ghastly folds.”  And in the next paragraph, the church bells toll for a funeral service, and there among the mourners is a weeping mother. 

Another argument is that vice does not discriminate.  When Mrs. Maylie and Rose meet Oliver for the first time after the botched robbery, Rose cannot believe he followed through with this crime on his own; but the surgeon remarks, “Vice takes up her abode in many temples; and who can say that a fair outside shall not enshrine her?  Crime, like death, is not confined to the old and withered alone.  The youngest and fairest are too often its chosen victims.”  (There’s that reference to death again.)  While Oliver may not have succumbed to vice, many young people do.  

When Rose recovered from her illness, Dickens described how Oliver thought that the “dew seemed to sparkle more brightly on the green leaves; the air to rustle among them with a sweeter music; and the sky itself to look more blue and bright.”  The author adds, “Men who look on nature, and their fellowmen, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the somber colors are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts.  The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.” 

This is the case that life and its surroundings are what you make it; the world is dark and gloomy because your heart is dark and gloomy; maybe you need a heart transplant in order to see people and the world differently.  Maybe you need a chance to be loved and shown mercy and to love back and a chance to show mercy to others.  That sounds cheesy, but it’s true. 

For a while, Oliver doubted himself, and was confused that maybe he was born to be a thief; but something always called him away from that life.  He even prayed that God would never allow him to be used for that purpose.  He needed the opportunity to see the world clearer from a safe and healthy and good place, and then he would have a fair chance to witness goodness and mercy in people and in the world.  Everyone deserves that.

1 comment:

  1. I was not a fan of this book - but I did enjoy the way Dickens played with opposites and contrasts. -Sarah