Sunday, February 6, 2011

Oliver Twist

Dear Mr. Dickens,

     I am writing to wish you well on the occasion of your 199th birthday.  Those who share your birthdate,  February 7, are fortunate indeed to be in the company of both a master storyteller and a proponent of social reform.  Despite your desire to forget the miseries of your childhood, beginning with your father's stay in debtor's prison and continuing through your devastating employment in the shoe polish factory, your readers are aware that without such experiences you may not have been able to so accurately portray the plight of the lower classes of London.  By your own admission, you were a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy", echoes of which can be found in both Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
     I understand that Oliver Twist in particular was intended to shed light on the great London waif crisis.  Indeed it did, with the public being so shocked by your descriptions of crime and squalor that the slum Jacob's Island was cleared as a result.  But Oliver, now, Oliver himself was conceived in irony, was he not?  The subtitle of Oliver Twist: the parish boy's progress alerts the reader that this work stands in contrast to John Bunyan's well-known The Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's main character finds himself journeying toward heaven, while your unfortunate Oliver, by dint of circumstance and societal structure, finds himself dragged into a living hell.  Even Oliver's surname, "Twist", darkly foreshadows his likely demise at the end of a hangman's noose, a common fate for pickpockets, thieves and criminals on the streets of London.  Several characters who observed the ragged child predicted, "He'll hang." The fact that an orphan's homelessness and pennilessness would cause any child to steal for his bread was apparently lost on the judges and magistrates who handed down sentences in those days.
     As for Nancy, it was too late for her, wasn't it?  Surely you saw her in the young women of Urania Cottage, the prostitutes and thieves whom you found in prisons and workhouses and invited to the Cottage where they learned to read, write and re-enter society.  This was one of the first halfway houses for women on record, and the 100 women who were rehabilitated there bore witness to your sense of justice.
    Of course, there is one final character in Oliver Twist that I must mention.  She appears in beauty and in squalor, and though you describe her in detail, Oliver Twist alone is not enough to paint a complete picture of her.  She lives in all your other works as well: singing, mourning, lounging, sprinting, bustling, resting, pining, laughing, blooming, dying.  She is London, and you knew her like a lover.
     And so, Mr. Dickens, I congratulate you on another year.  Although you've spent it in the ground, your words have been read by thousands of people over the last 365 days, and so you've spent it in our hearts and minds as well.  Happy birthday.

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