Adventures with Oliver Twist

An English major who hasn’t read Oliver Twist is almost a tragedy so when I was trying to choose my next book to read from the pile I never ended up getting through this summer, I couldn’t help but notice Dickens’s classic. I was expecting a bit of light reading and maybe a sense of satisfaction that I had made my way through another classic, but I must admit I was a little surprised.

Dickens’s Oliver was born into a workhouse in urban England in the early 1800s and became an orphan when he was barely a few minutes old. His social and economic circumstances weren’t exactly desirable and he wouldn’t be one that most would choose as a child with promise for a prosperous and successful life. Even so, Oliver’s struggle for his first breath offers an interesting insight about advantage, disadvantage and how we see the two. I must give Charles Dickens the credit for this: “Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable cicumstance that can possibly befal a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration, – a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious auntes, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being noboy by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few stuggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had no been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.”

The narrator suggests a few things that counter our ideas about advantage and disadvantage:

1) Being born into a workhouse was the best thing that could have happened to Oliver.

2) Oliver survived because the unqualified and unworthy people attending to him, a drunk old woman and an inadequate doctor, left him to struggle for his life.

3) Despite his circumstances, Oliver found his voice, a voice that was undoubtedly loud enough for others to hear him.

Many of us, myself included, would be likely to argue that we are blessed to be born in a country where we don’t have to always be concerned about disadvantage like Oliver’s. And we are. When we hear of people in need overseas, I think many of us are likely to pity their circumstances and be motivated to respond because of our pity. Dickens makes an interesting point when he suggests that there was something positive about the circumstances of Oliver’s birth. Should it be pity that we give people with a birth we feel is less privileged than ours?

I also think many of us are likely to assume that the best way to remedy disadvantage is to come to the rescue of those we feel need it. Dickens tosses this aside, too, when he suggests that, in Oliver’s struggle for his first breath, his survival was ensured by the actions of the unqualified and unwealthy rather than the careful care and pity he would have received by being born into a wealthy family. Are we too quick to assume our money and our willingness to give it makes us heros?

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Dickens also tosses aside a somewhat popular view of the less fortunate as voiceless. To many of us they are voiceless. To those who go where they are and to those who face that same reality every day, the cries of Olivers are not silent; they’re screams. Is our inability to hear those voices more of a reflection of our attitudes than their circumstances?

I think advantage and disadvantage are both burdens of sorts. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to change the way I respond to people in need or if a change is necessary, but I think Dickens helped me change my perspective. What am I missing because of the burden of advantage?

Until next time,

Kate

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