by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Criminality Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
"What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men never repent; dead men never bring awkward stories to light. The prospect of the gallows, too, makes them hardy and bold. Ah, it’s a fine thing for the trade! Five of them strung up in a row, and none left to play booty or turn white-livered!" (9.9)
Fagin’s reflection on capital punishment shows another way that the system of institutionalized control just permeates society. Is capital punishment actually a good motivator for criminals? In Oliver Twist, the fear of being hanged makes members of Fagin’s gang betray each other, more often than not. Fagin still thinks he can stay one step ahead of all of them. This is Fagin’s version of the old "dead men tell no tales" line. And, of course, to "turn white-livered" means to lose courage and turn yourself (or your fellow criminals) in to the authorities. So this speech is ironic on a couple of levels: first, it’s clearly the opposite of what the author (and, presumably, the reader) believes about capital punishment. Second, it’s dramatic irony – we know that Fagin will eventually be betrayed and turned in to the police himself.
"Stop thief! stop thief!" There is a human passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched, breathless child, panting with exhaustion, terror in his looks, agony in his eye, large drops of perspiration streaming down his face, strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant, they hail his decreasing strength with still louder shouts, and whoop and scream with joy "Stop thief!" – Ay, stop him for God’s sake, were it only in mercy! (10.21)
This is another of those moments when the mob gets dehumanized. The whole crowd of people chasing Oliver isn’t a group of individuals, but a mass of instinct, with the common desire to hunt and pursue. It makes the crowd seem savage and wild, and almost like animals, doesn’t it? And Dickens suggests that that urge is common to every "human breast." Ick. We don’t like to think that we’d join an angry mob trying to tackle a nine-year-old in the street, but Dickens sure thinks we would. And that description of the mob is in the present tense ("There is a human passion…"), which makes the scene seem very immediate, as well as more universal. Finally Dickens steps in as a narrator, talking to the characters in the book and telling them how to behave. And the effect of that? It also makes the chase seem more immediate – he’s telling them to "stop him!" right now.
Stopped at last. A clever blow that. He’s down upon the pavement, and the crowd eagerly gather round him; each new comer jostling and struggling with the others to catch a glimpse. "Stand aside!" – "Give him a little air!" – "Nonsense! he don’t deserve it." – "Where’s the gentleman?" – "Here he is, coming down the street." – "Make room there for the gentleman!" – "Is this the boy, sir?" – "Yes." (10.22)
This paragraph immediately follows the chase scene we quoted above. Notice anything funny about the verb tense? Yep, we’re in the present tense again. This might be the only place in the book where Dickens does this (it’s certainly the first place so far). Jumping to the present tense like this has several possible effects – again, it makes the action seem more immediate, obviously: it’s happening in the present, right now.
And then all the crowd is "jostling" around Oliver, who’s been smacked to the ground. And, like in the paragraph before, none of the members of the crowd are differentiated. They’re just a mob of voices. Nothing is separated by "he said," or "she exclaimed," because the crowd is basically acting with a single consciousness: the desire to "hunt something," as Dickens put it in the previous paragraph. Even the old gentleman, who turns out to be a pretty good guy (possibly the best guy in the book) seems to be part of the crowd and its mob mentality – even he doesn’t get a "he said." He’s just one voice among the many that was hunting poor little Oliver. Oliver’s the only one who’s not just a part of the mob in this scene. It’s him against the world.