Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dickens and Death

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

After he became established as a novelist Charles Dickens would regularly give readings from his works for audiences throughout Great Britain. These were very popular and lucrative for the author. While the readings from A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol were popular, according to the discussion in our Newberry Library class, reading Dickens" Oliver Twist, that just ended, the most popular reading from Dickens' works was the scene describing the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist. This suggested to me the idea of noting some of the more interesting deaths portrayed by Dickens over the course of his fourteen novels and commenting upon some of them.
While he started as a comic novelist with Pickwick Papers, Dickens soon began to portray darker themes in his subsequent works beginning with Oliver Twist. In the third and final section of the novel, after Nancy meets with Rose Maylie and is overheard by Noah Claypole, who reports to Fagin, she is set upon by an enraged Bill Sikes who has been incited by Fagin to act. The scene is short and drawn with uncharacteristic brevity of words by the author. After Sikes hits her twice with the butt-end of his pistol the scene ends thus:

She staggered and fell, nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead, but raising herself with difficulty on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief - Rose Maylie's own - and holding it up in her folded hands as high towards heaven as her feeble strength would let her, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.
It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.(pp. 396-7)

It is the rage of Sikes that strikes the reader while the abbreviated scene emphasizes the power that this rage. Dickens describes the scene as draped in dark just before dawn, and contrasts the dark with the light of the sun as the next chapter begins (p. 397). There would be other deaths before the end of the book, with both the incarceration and hanging of Fagin and the flight of Sikes, which has his end on the rooftops of a particularly unsavory section of London hanging by his own rope as he falls from the rooftop in a dramatic ending to his brutal career.

One other death, however, had occurred at the very beginning of the novel. Dickens starts his story with the scene in which Oliver becomes an orphan, for he is born to an unwed mother who rather suddenly and unexpectedly dies following giving birth to Oliver. Just after the birth the doctor says to her, "Oh, you must not talk about dying, yet."(p. 4); but just three paragraphs later the young mother kisses the baby and, "gazed wildly around, shuddered, fell back - and died."(p. 5) Perhaps this seems too sudden, but it introduces the mystery of Oliver's parentage (who was the father?) and makes for an engaging opening to the story of the young boy's life.

So what can we make of these deaths, and those to come in later novels? Are they merely part of the realism that Dickens was trying to chronicle in his story-telling, or are there deeper meanings to be found? In the story of Oliver Twist one might intuit a bit of retribution in the deaths of Fagin and Sikes; but, why did Nancy, basically a good person, have to die? I will have to think about these questions as I compare these deaths to some of the others in a future post. In the meantime I'm looking forward to rereading Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop next month, and hoping that they will be less dark than the story told in Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2002 (1837)

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