by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
"There are a good many books, are there not, my boy?" said Mr. Brownlow. […]
"A great number, sir," replied Oliver; "I never saw so many."
"You shall read them if you behave well," said the old gentleman kindly; "and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides,– that is, in some cases, because there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts."
"I suppose they are those heavy ones, sir," said Oliver[…]
[…] Oliver considered a little while, and at last said he should think it would be much better thing to be a bookseller. (14.13-20)
Whenever a novelist starts talking about books, and writing books, and reading books, it’s time to pay attention, because he’s really just talking about himself. What are the books Mr. Brownlow is referring to, here, when he says that some books might look nice, but actually suck? Is he talking about bad novels in general (there were plenty of them then, just like now)? He might be.
Another possibility is that Dickens is trying to suggest that his own book (Oliver Twist) is better than the other Newgate novels that it was being compared to. In any case, we’re reading a book right now – Dickens was in the middle of writing it. Surely Oliver Twist won’t fall into the category of the books "of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts"?
The last part of the passage, when Oliver says that he’d rather be a bookseller than an author, is a deliberate jab at Mr. Bentley, the publisher of Oliver Twist (see the "Overview" section again). Dickens wasn’t making much money off of the book, and Bentley was making money hand over fist. Eventually Dickens wised up and started his own magazines so that he’d be the one making the money, but that wasn’t not until later.
If it did not come strictly within the scope and bearing of my long-considered intentions and plans regarding this prose epic […] to leave the two old gentlemen sitting with the watch between them long after it grew too dark to see it […] I might take occasion to entertain the reader with many wise reflections on the obvious impolicy of ever attempting to do good to our fellow-creatures where there is no hope of earthly reward.
[…] But, as Mr. Brownlow was not one of these […] I shall not enter into any such digression in this place: and, if this be not a sufficient reason for this determination, I have a better, and indeed, a wholly unanswerable on, already stated; which is, that it forms no part of my original intention to do so. (15.1-2)
Oh, Dickens, you sly dog—you say you’re not going to do something even as you’re doing it. Dickens uses this rhetorical strategy in this long digression to imitate some earlier novelists that he admired, like Henry Fielding and Lawrence Sterne.
So, what’s the effect of that strategy? Is it just a way for him to sneak in his moralizing digression while pretending he’s not? Or is it his way of winking at the readers, saying, "look guys, we all know people like this, and although it’s not strictly part of my story to talk about it, I’ll throw in this totally absurd digression while pretending not to, which is a silly strategy that you, intelligent reader, will see right through."
We’re inclined to believe it’s the second option, because Dickens likes to nudge his reader every now and then and be playful, but we’re willing to entertain other options. Because remember: any time a writer steps back and tells you what he or she is doing and why is a moment that you should pay close attention to – especially if it’s someone like Dickens. It’s like if Manny Ramirez suddenly started giving a lecture on how to hit the other way: you should probably listen, because he knows what he’s talking about.
[…] overpowered by the conviction of the bystanders that he was really the hardened little wretch he was described to be, what could one poor child do? (15.63)
Oliver, once again, is misrepresented, and, once again, everyone around him believes the false story. What’s the deal with all these fake stories floating around? Will Oliver ever get to tell his own story?