Oliver Twist

2010-04-22

in Books and literature, Politics, Writing

The latest audiobook I have worked by way through in snatches while walking or taking the bus was Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The version I listened to was provided by the same University of Southern Florida program I mentioned previously. The files are available for free online.

The book is a decidedly interesting one, and an worthwhile commentary on such matters as class relations and the nature of crime. At the very least, it is worth listening to or reading the first few chapters. They are an excellent satirical denunciation of the English Poor Laws, which I would say has contemporary relevance as well:

For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in ‘the house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for, the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when the child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.

This sort of treatment is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, and seems to be quite an effective form of social criticism. Rather than make a direct argument that a particular approach is unethical, you can defend the approach in such a preposterous way as to convey that message indirectly.

One thing I found odd about listening to the book was the antisemitic treatment of the character Fagin. Fagin is very frequently referred to as “The Jew” and it is at least implied that part of the reason for his criminal and unethical behaviour is tied to his Judaism. As a child, I was never exposed to any writing in which a character was portrayed as especially wicked, partly as a result of being Jewish. Indeed, I came across the concept of antisemitism academically long before I saw any examples of it in fiction or real world discourses. Possibly because of that, it has always struck me as an absurd point of view. I wonder whether exposing children to books like Oliver Twist subtly pre-conditions them to find antisemitism a plausible point of view.

Normally, I am very much of the view that censorship is an odious practice, even when supposedly done for the benefit of children. That being said, it does seem regrettable that literature might act as a vector for the transmission of baseless ideas from one generation and set of social circumstances to another.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 22, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I’ve always fond censorship for the benefit of children pathetic. Children are not idiots (at least, no more than adults). They can understand that moral standards were different in different periods. Concealing anti-semitism in literature guarantees their comprehension of moral progress will be purely ideological, and not based on any real evidence.

Milan April 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Still, it seems plausible to me that if a generation of children grew up without ever hearing of antisemitism, it would essentially cease to exist.

Tristan April 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Do you think the primary place children hear racism is from literature like Shakespeare and Oliver Twist?

No. Every generation is raised by their parents – this is where much racism is reproduced. This is why it’s essential that children are raised both by the state and by parents – we need the parents to protect children from the insane state, and the state to protect them from the insane parents.

I believe that if people live in peace and prosperity, they will largely not be taken in by hilariously bad stories which explain why their lives have not turned out as well as they would have liked, i.e. the “caniving Jew”, or anything the Tea Party says.

If you care about racism and it’s elimination, you should care about the conditions of oppression that result in real grievances, which motivate people to look for answers, any answer, and racism is one of the easiest answers to pick. Don’t underestimate the power bullshit talk radio has over people who are upset. So, the objective cause of grievances – poverty, the destruction of the North American productive economy, these have much more to do with racism than some remark in Oliver Twist.

Milan April 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm

All that is plausible enough.

Still, I am glad I didn’t read Oliver Twist or The Merchant of Venice as a child.

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