Gregg A. Hecimovich
University of North Carolina
Distortions of Religious Language in Victorian Society
Oliver Twist (1839) explores the manifestation of Christian doctrines in Victorian society; in the novel Dickens applies "Christian sentiment and language" to the workhouse, the underworld of crime, and the bourgeoise to test, as it were, the ability of all three to uphold Christian values. In doing so Dickens exposes the deep hypocrisy and contradictions of his society, the way in which Christian sentiment and language can become distorted. Oliver Twist exposes distorted religious views by juxtaposing the novel's "different worlds". Thus, the sharp boundaries between Bumble's poor-house world, Fagin's underworld, and Maylie/Brownlow's world serve as distinct backdrops with which to compare Christianity's influence; these juxtapositions elucidate the contrasts, similarities, and distortions of various Christian doctrines within Oliver Twist. This paper will deal with the complicit presence of The Good Samaritan parable as it is re-enacted beyond each threshold. As Janet Larson notes, Oliver crosses the thresholds to each of the three worlds of Oliver Twist through variations on the Good Samaritan tale. The novel can be seen as a subtext, or Victorian portrayal of the Biblical tale of the Good Samaritan. As I have mentioned, the novel is sharply divided into three worlds. The first "subtext" of the parable is enacted in the workhouse, where Oliver is born into a world of "sorrow" and "trouble". Like the injured man in Jesus' tale, Oliver is nameless, a simple "item of mortality", left not in the road, but to "the tender mercies of church wardens and overseers" (O.T. 4). Rather than being carried to an inn to be healed, as the dispossessed man is described in the parable, Oliver is "thrust upon the poor laws." In the "charitable" world of the parochial workhouse, Oliver is "brought up by hand"; he is described as a "juvenile offender against the poor laws", a "culprit", one who requires "superintendence" (O.T. 5); thus in the world of the poor-house, Christian beneficence becomes dispensed in a warden-like manner to "offenders". Instead of the generous help offered in Jesus' parable by the Good Samaritan, Oliver receives the "sage, deep, philosophic" provisions regulated by the board; instead of Jesus' decree "provide for thy neighbor" the law of the Poor House Board is: "all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by the quick one out of it" (O.T. 13).
The parochial beadle, Mr. Bumble, becomes emblematic of the hypocrisy of the Church concerning its own principles. In Chapter four Mr. Sowerberry remarks upon a very large button the beadle is wearing:
'Yes, I think it is rather pretty,' said the beadle, glancing proudly downwards at the large brass buttons which embellished his coat. 'The die is the same as the porochial seal-- The Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man... I put it on, I remember, for the first time, to attend the inquest on that reduced tradesman, who died in a doorway at midnight.'
'I recollect,' said the undertaker, '...Died from exposture to the cold, and want of the common necessaries of life...?
Mr. Bumble nodded.
'And they made it a special verdict, I think,' said the undertaker, 'by adding some words to the effect, that if the relieving officer had-- [not refused him]'
Here, Dickens presents us with the ultimate sign of parochial hypocrisy. Mr. Bumble looks down to admire his own "Good Samaritan" buttons, the same buttons he received on a night his ministry turned away a man to die in the streets; hence, in the world of the work-house, Good Samaritanism becomes nothing more than ornament, something which is "pretty", the actual carrying out of samanitarian ethics is consider by Bumble as "Tush!" and "Foolery!" Obviously, Bumble is sentimental about religion, the "pretty" buttons of the Samaritan, and his scrupulous beadle-like dress attest to that; but he does not embrace the scripture behind it.
Just as Mr. Bumble and the work-house Board is "sentimental" about religion, they are also very much fond of Christian language. Appearing before the Poor House Board, the Board asks Oliver if he prays; they are interested in the "voicing religion". Yet despite the Board's demand for prayer, they never teach prayer; they only teach oakum picking. Thus, the parochial Board gestures towards Christianity without providing any spiritual substance. This becomes a recurring problem with the Board. Very biblically Mr. Bumble calls Oliver, "a dead-weight; a millstone, as I may say; round the parochial throat." But in saying so, Mr. Bumble distorts Biblical text: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believes in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matt. 18:6). Just like his society which places the blame on the dispossessed orphan in its own version of The Good Samaritan tale, the beadle turns scripture inside out. Instead of indicting himself as one who should have a millstone hung about his own neck, he turns it upon "God's little one." Coincidentally, it is not long after Bumble has figuratively roped Oliver with the millstone, that the work-house Board is ready to send him off to sea (most likely to be drowned). Thus, the complete distortion of Biblical text. Even when the evil Chimney Sweep, Mr. Gamfield, comes before the board to employ Oliver, he is not refused on any moral ground, not on the fact that he had already "bruised three or four boys to death", but because chimney sweeping is "a nasty business." The board refuses to release Oliver unless the Chimney Sweep will "take something less than the premium" (O.T. 19).
Everywhere, the Christian institutions erected by the Poor Laws operate by warped, unchristian values. Juxtaposed next to this "parochial" world is the world of the Jew. But despite the Den's base and vile atmosphere of smoke and filth, we see it is no less unchristian than the Christian institutions Oliver has already encountered. Oliver Twist enters upon Fagin's den through another "Good Samaritan" scenario. This time Oliver is famished and wasted on the Kings Highway. Throughout his escape to London he has encountered very little Good Samaritanism; in fact, he has been abused by the outside passengers of coaches, who make false shows of throwing half pennies so that the bloody and blistered child will run along side. But the Artful Dodger does take in Oliver. True to Biblical form he takes him to an Inn to feed him. When Oliver relates to the Dodger that he has no money or lodgings in London, the Dodger offers to provide: "I know a 'spectable old genelman, as lives there, wot'll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change..." (O.T. 64). Certainly, the Dodger describes his patron's Good Samaritanism in terms much more flattering than the terms
the boy received from the board, who framed the boy as a "juvenile offender against the poor laws." Still, as Oliver soon learns the "Good Samaritanism" of the Den of thieves is very much like that of the work-house. Like the work-house, Charity means exacting a "stern moral" earning of your own keep: "Whenever the Dodger or Charley Bates came home at night, empty-handed, he [Fagin] would expatiate with great vehemence on the misery of idle and lazy habits; and would enforce upon them the necessity of an active life, by sending them supperless to bed" (O.T. 76).
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the Christian parochial world, with the unchristian Den of the Jew, draws out their frightful similarity. Thus, when Fagin forwards the edict,
"the man against the child, for a bag of gold!" we know he is only giving voice to an edict that we have already seen in the workhouse. Perhaps the most frightful thing the reader finds, however, is that he/she begins to prefer the Den's treatment of Oliver to that of the Poor Law Board. Certainly, Fagin despite all his "my dears" and dusty laughter, is a criminal, dangerous and ultimately evil. But if anything, Fagin is not a simple "Devil figure," though gestures everywhere point towards his likeness to "the Old Gentleman". Fagin is something of an enigma. For despite all his deceiving ways, Fagin creates the only convincing domestic life in a novel populated with orphans and unmarried people. Just as Fagin is a devil figure standing before the fire with his toasting fork, he, too, is a mother figure, providing "for his boys". For the first time Oliver is fed not from some medal cauldron, nor on the floor with dog scraps, but from the hands of his "patron". Of course Fagin's status as mother figure/Good Samaritan is a distorted one; he stands before the flames in a "greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare" and the fork that stirs Oliver's gruel and sausages is the same fork that tries to force him into a life of crime. Fagin is a strange conflation of mother and devil. Despite the little kindness, and the small sense of domesticity Fagin does manage to provide, his Den, like the Board's work-house, is a corrupter of Biblical text. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus instructs his listener: "You shall love... your neighbor as yourself." The listener trying to justify himself asks "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10: 26). It is in describing who "the neighbor is" that Jesus tells the tale of the Good Samaritan, a tale of mercy.
Indeed, Fagin does take up the role of Good Samaritan. But the source of his Good Samaritanism is distorted. Fagin describes his own religious edicts to the naive Noah Claypole (Mr. Bolter):
'To keep in the easy road, and keep it a distance, is object number one with you.'
'Of course it is,' replied Mr. Bolter. 'What do yer talk about such things of?'
'Only to show you my meaning clearly,' said the Jew, raising his eyebrows. 'To be able to do that, you depend on me. To keep my little business all snug, I depend on you. The first is your number one, the second my number one. The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so we are come at last to what I told you at first-- that a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.' (O.T. 381)
Here, Fagin puts forward his distortion of "love your neighbor as yourself." For Fagin one's only neighbor is his self-interest; his Good Samaritanism does not rise out of "mercy", but rather out of "opportunity". He will enlist and aid Oliver and take him on as a satellite only because Oliver will increase his profits. It is this "Rule of Number One" upon which Fagin's dark religion depends.Just as Fagin distorts "love thy neighbor as thyself," the Den everywhere distorts religious terminology. In proclaiming himself a thief, the Dodger says "he'd scorn to be anything else." The Dodger unabashingly goes on to describe everyone around him as "thieves" aligning them all with Sikes' dog. With this the dog is described as the least "given to preaching", and an "out-and-out Christian" (O.T. 154). Sikes echoes the bible when he tells Fagin, "Don't come between me and my dog!" Thus, the dog can be seen as an inversion of Christianity. Though it sounds ridiculous to mention that dog, spells God backwards (like listening for "Devil whispers" by playing Kiss albums backwards), certainly by aligning the whole gang with the dog, the Dodger is showing the Den's religious distortion. The dog becomes a sort of centerpiece to the underworld; it is he, not the police, that can transverse the dirty labyrinthine streets and find the hideouts and dives of the underworld. We meet him blinking at Sikes, and leave him, after a "dismal howl", "striking his head against a stone, dash[ing] out his brains" (O.T. 453).
Hence, the Den's distortion of Christianity through its "Rule of Number One" becomes almost its own religion with the dog as its centerpiece, and Fagin its titular head. Functioning as its own little church with its rituals such as the "pocket picking game", the Den endeavors to indoctrinate Oliver. "If you don't take pocket-handkerchers and watches," says the Dodger, "some other cove will; so that the coves that lose 'em will be all the worse, and you'll be all the worse too, and nobody half ha'p'orth the better, except the caps wot gets them-- and you've just a good a right to them as they have." Here, the Dodger describes individualism as the thief's right to other's property; Fagin calls this the "catechism" of "the trade" (O.T. 156-157).
Certainly within the spheres of the work-house world, and Fagin's world, Dickens is showing how Biblical language and text can become distorted in Victorian society; he is showing parables of False Samaritanship. Still, even this False Samaritanship can be seen to echo the orginal Biblical Parable; the beadle, Bumble, and the Jew, Fagin, despite their gestures towards "Good Samaritanism," finally confirm the role of the priest and the Levite in scripture: "Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him [the beaten and stripped man] he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side" (Luke 10: 31). As in the parable, Bumble and Fagin forsake Oliver.
Once again upon entering another threshold Oliver is placed into the context of the parable to be rescued by another "Good Samaritan". This time instead of being born "half-dead" to be taken up by the Poor Laws, and instead of being "wasted" and "half-dead" upon the Kings Highway to be taken up by the Den, Oliver is left in a ditch to be taken up only by death: "The air became more sharp and piercing, as its first dull hue: the death of night, rather than the birth of day: glimmered faintly in the sky" (O.T. 239). At this point Oliver resembles most fully the dispossessed man in the parable: "he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead" (Luke 10: 30). But instead of dying, Oliver "summon[s] up all his strength for one last trial" (O.T. 241). And it is only through this perseverance that Oliver finally receives true mercy; he enters the sunny world of the Maylies. Taken in by the Maylies, Oliver enters a paradisiacal world, where, as in the parable, his wounds are bound up and he is given wine. Here, the language of religion is used correctly, and meaningfully, Rose says, "...think that he may never have known a mother's love, or the comfort of a home... Aunt, dear aunt, for mercy's sake, think of this, before you let them drag this sick child to prison" (O.T. 252). As in the parable "thy neighbor" is he "who showed mercy." In this ideal Christian world Mr. Brownlow, complete with saintly "powdered head and gold spectacles" (O.T. 114), works to redeem Oliver's inheritance and identity. Meanwhile Oliver is attended on by the angelic Rose Maylie:
The younger lady was in the lovely bloom and springtime of womanhood; at that age, if ever angels be for God's good purposes enthroned in mortal forms, they may be, without impiety, supposed to abide in such as hers. (O.T. 264)
But even in the exemplary world of the Maylie's Good Samaritan parable, there are problems. The Maylie/Brownlow world seems too idealized in a novel that is emphatically concerned with verisimilitude. Certainly, it might be possible to function with such undaunted Christianity in the sterile world of the bourgeoisie, but the bourgeoisie world is not the world that most of the characters in the novel populate. The novel raises the question of what happens to a character involved in a more complicated situation? A character who wants to show mercy towards Oliver and still preserve her own life? In the Den world of Fagin, Nancy's attempt at mercy only brings about her own death. She is sacrificed. By introducing Nancy's demise into the novel, Dickens' seems to be questioning the parable he is at once affirming.
Beside the problematic nature of "mercy's" ability to transcend all three worlds in Oliver Twist, there is also the very strange life Oliver is left to lead at the close of the novel. He and Rose are said to "pass whole hours together in picturing the friends whom [we] had so sadly lost" (O.T. 480). It is almost as if to live in the "Good Samaritan" parable, Oliver has to recede from life. Indeed, the "Good Samaritan" parable, as it is enacted in the world of the work house and the world of the Den, exposes how religious "sentiment and language" is distorted in English society. Still, the failure of the successful "Good Samaritan" parable in the world of the Maylie's undercuts, not the truth of the parable, but the sufficiency of the parable to speak to Dickens' society. With Oliver Twist, Dickens explores the complexity of religious language and mercy, its distortion, and its place in Victorian society.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1962
Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Windsor Press,
Larson, Janet, L. Dickens and The Broken Scripture. University of
Georgia Press, Athens, 1985.
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