As a narrator, the author was openly satirical. Early in the novel, for example, when Oliver is apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry, he incurs the ire of Mr. Bumble the beadle by defending the honor of his unknown mother. Mr. Bumble declares that Oliver's spirit must come from too rich a diet. The narrator comments, "The liberality of Mrs. Sowerberry to Oliver had consisted in a profuse bestowal upon him of all the dirty odds and ends which nobody else would eat, so there was a great deal of meekness and self-devotion in her voluntarily remaining under Mr. Bumble's heavy accusation. Of which, to do her justice, she was wholly innocent in thought, word, and deed." And Oliver Twist is especially rich in dialogue (perhaps evidence of Dickens's concurrent play-writing); the objects of the author's scorn repeatedly satirize themselves: "'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his eyes upon [his wife]. ('If she stands such an eye as that,' said Mr. Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is an eye I never knew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power is gone.')" But, of course, Oliver Twist is as famous for melodrama as for satire, and Dickens's ironic tone frequently gives way to something more sentimental (as with Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie) and to something more sinister (as with Bill Sikes and Monks). In fact, Oliver's journey offers Dickens the perfect opportunity to experiment, in the rather tight confines of a simple plot, with a diversity of character voices, almost all of them extreme— Oliver is extremely young and innocent, Mr. Bumble is extremely pompous, Mr. Brownlow is extremely benevolent, Bill Sikes is extremely cruel, Fagin is extremely cunning—and with variety in the narrative voice.

Every novelist seeks, both consciously and unconsciously, to extend his range of expression. Dickens was especially energetic in seeking out dramatic incidents and unusual characters and new material; he also possessed a constitutional restlessness that brought him into contact with a range of classes and individuals almost uniquely broad. In his twenties, he was not unlike other youthful authors. Even though he was a genius, he had artistic ambitions that he was not yet technically equipped to fulfill, and he used his first three books to write his way toward fulfilling them. The Sketches expressed the plenitude of his interests but did not unify them. Pickwick gave voice to his very rich and ready comic sensibility but suffered from a certain bland digressiveness. Oliver Twist allowed him access to a wide variety of strong emotions, both through and about his characters and their world, but was too vividly colored and suffered from a lack of the very naturalness that the other books had possessed.

Nevertheless, between December 1, 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and November 9, 1838, when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist. Victoria herself was only newly crowned (as of January 1837). Novelists who were later to emerge as Dickens's contemporaries and rivals, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, were still at home or in school. Even Elizabeth Gaskell, close in age to Dickens, hadn't begun to write. In a very real sense, he was in the process of creating the literary age that the others would be part of. He was so popular and so dominant a figure as both author and editor that the others would have to create their literary sensibilities more or less in reference to his.

But Charles Dickens was not only a famous author, he was also a self-conscious and responsible citizen, who never forgot that his fame gave him an unusual opportunity to comment upon and influence political events. Already by 1839, at the age of twenty-seven, Dickens was being honored by his friends for his active benevolence—Macready declared that Dickens "had made the amelioration of his fellow man the object of all his labors." Consciousness of the sufferings of the impoverished classes ran through all his activities, from the walks he took that carried him into every neighborhood, to the issues, such as the New Poor Law, that he wrote about, both in fiction and in his journalism, to the public speeches that he made and the fund-raisers that he organized to benefit fellow artists or their dependents.

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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