What’s Up With the Ending?
George Gissing, another Victorian novelist, said that one "blemish" of Oliver Twist as a novel was "the feeble idyllicism of the Maylie group." Remember that the final chapter of the book features the "good" characters all gathered together in some idyllic little country town, living happily ever after, cut off from all the badness of London and the wider world. The bad guys, meanwhile, get what is coming to them. Monks dies far from home in prison, and Fagin is completely alienated from the entire human race in the days leading up to his public execution – rather extreme punishments. Even after the narrator has told us what happened to all the main characters, good and bad, he says that he wants to "linger yet" with the good ones, and "share their happiness by endeavouring to depict it" (53.14). Then he gives us that final description of Rose and Harry’s happy little family.
Now why does Gissing dislike the ending of the novel? Why does he call the happiness of the good characters "feeble idyllicism"? Maybe because, at the close of a novel that’s all about the gritty realism of everyday life in London, this seems like a cop-out. It’s unrealistic to have the characters cut off from all the grime and poverty that Dickens had been so keen on describing before.
And what is going on with the very last lines of the novel? Agnes gets the final words, even though she only appeared in the novel for about four paragraphs in the first chapter before kicking the bucket. Dickens comes in with a rare first-person moment – he says, in the last sentence of the novel, "I do believe that the shade of that poor girl often hovers about that solemn nook – ay, though it is a church, and she was weak and erring." Almost all of the earlier descriptions of churches and church organizations (like the workhouse or the baby farm) are negative – they make the Church of England seem institutionalized, unforgiving, and removed from real human life (see, for example, 2.1 and 2.59). But these last lines suggest that Agnes could find a place in the church – could even find forgiveness there, despite the fact that (gasp! scandal!) she had a baby without being married. And that seems like a hopeful place to end the book, until you remember that, oh right, she’s DEAD. Would she have been able to find forgiveness if she had lived?
Remember that the other "fallen woman" of the novel, Nancy, died as well. Given this, we have to ask whether Dickens ends his novel on an optimistic note or not. You could really argue either way. It’s an important point to consider, because the way you interpret the ending of the novel can impact the way you interpret the novel as a whole. For example, if you read the final lines as offering some hope for change in a system that Dickens has condemned for the whole preceding novel, you’re left with an optimistic sense that the system may already be moving in that direction. If, on the other hand, you read the final lines as retaining some doubt or pessimism about the system, you, the reader, may feel that the author is calling on you to do something about it. So the way you read these final lines can impact not only your attitude towards the whole novel, but your attitude towards the system it condemns: are you being called to action, or asked to stay comfortable, because the system is already mending itself?