by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
It is the custom on the stage in all good, murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes in as regular alternation as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon […] Such changes appear absurd, but they are by no means unnatural. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling, only there we are busy actors instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. (17.1-2)
This is the digression opening Chapter Seventeen, and it’s a pretty famous one. First of all, the analogy is hilarious – Dickens compares the switching back and forth between comedy and tragedy to the stripes in bacon (mmm, bacon).
That analogy seems absurd to us, but then, it’s supposed to – Dickens is showing us just how absurd and mechanical the shifts are, but then turns around and tells us that the shifts happen in real life, too – one day you’re at a party, the next day you’re at a funeral. That’s life.
And good authorship, Dickens tells us, is to make the shifts seem natural. Is it working? The digression to tell us about all of this isn’t "natural," maybe, but why else might it be there? Another cool thing about this passage is that Oliver Twist was, in fact, turned into the same kind of "good, murderous melodrama" that Dickens is making fun of – it got produced in at least eight different versions in the nineteenth century (well before the musical Oliver! came out).
Is it possible that Dickens was writing Oliver Twist in the hopes that it would be turned into a play so that he could make more money on it? Maybe that’s why he swaps back and forth between comedy and tragedy – to make it easier to turn it into "murderous melodrama."
[…] I have no room for digressions, even if I possessed the inclination; and I merely make this one in order to set myself quite right with the reader, between whom and the historian it is essentially necessary that perfect faith should be kept, and a good understanding preserved. (17.3)
This is the tail end of the digression that opens Chapter Seventeen. Dickens says that he wants everything he does to be totally transparent and obvious to the reader – no secrets between friends, and all that. Is it working? He’s going out of his way to show us what he’s thinking as he writes – do we believe him? Or is it just another strategy to get us to go along with what he’s doing? And if so, do we feel manipulated, or are we okay with it? Do we feel like we have a "good understanding" with the author?
Mr. Bumble […] after a few moments’ reflection, commenced his story.
It would be tedious if given in the beadle’s words, occupying as it did some twenty minutes in the telling; but the sum and substance of it was, that Oliver was a foundling […] who had terminated his brief career in the place of his birth, by making a sanguinary and cowardly attack on an unoffending lad, and then running away in the night-time from his master’s house. (17.82-3)
Here’s yet another instance of someone else getting to tell Oliver’s story for him – and it’s an awfully complete version, if not an altogether accurate one. Oliver didn’t have a chance to tell Brownlow his story before Mr. Grimwig arrived, so Mr. Bumble’s doing it for him. The story of Oliver Twist seems to be a story that just has to be told – everyone’s interested in it (including us), and Brownlow’s even willing to pay good money for it (as are we all, unless you’re reading it online).