However, his fiction is not read for its social criticism nor for its realism. 0liver Twist, like others of his early works, is a sort of fairy tale in which good triumphs over evil. The workhouse where Oliver and his companions live is based on charitable institutions of the time which treated the poor as if poverty was a crime; the aim of Dickens's satire is to expose a form of public charity which eliminates poverty by starving the poor. But this is not the reason why the passage you have read is still enjoyable today. The scene is not realistic.
The novelist juxtaposes the hungry boys and the self-righteous officials, he creates the melodramatic climax of Oliver asking for more, and ironically insists on the disproportionate reaction of the people in charge; sympathy and irony are well balanced. Although reality is the writer's starting point, his exuberant distinctive style and his love for exaggeration create a tragic-comic vision of the Victorian world.
Dickens was primarily a great entertainer who could skilfully mix melodrama, humour and dramatic contrasts of lighter and darker effects.
The writer displays his greatest talent in the portrayal of character, not so much in his virtuous heroes and heroines as in the huge crowd of flawed human beings who populate his fictional world. These are 'flat' characters, larger-than-life figures or grotesque caricatures. Mr Bumble, the beadle you have briefly seen in 0liver Twist, is one of them.
A very good example is to be found in Nicholas Nickleby.
As to the pupils, although they are a pitiful group of boys bearing the marks of suffering, they stick in the reader's mind mainly because of the comic ill-treatment meted out to them by the Squeers family.
But the one memorable character is the villainous Mr Squeers, shown as a ridiculous figure when he sets himself up as a teacher who does not know the correct spelling of words and has a very weak knowledge of Latin.
Dickens's talents is also evident in the description of environment. Reality is again setting the starting point but the writer's imagination transforms a setting into a richly detailed fresco which includes the human beings inhabiting it.
Coketown in Hard Times, for example, recalls the actual environment of northern mill towns and, at the same time, becomes a symbolic representation of the economic and spiritual poverty that oppresses its working class. The name itself not only recalls the black colour that covers everything but also confirms the general impression of an ugly town where living is monotonous and unpleasant.
Although the writer was an effective critic of the injustices of Victorian society, he was no revolutionary and never questioned the basic values of his time. He shared the contemporary view that the secret of happiness was to be found in hard work, romantic love and family life. This assuring view, combined with his gift as a storyteller, largely accounts for the immense success that he enjoyed in his lifetime and continues to enjoy today.
Dickens is the one truly universal and popular genius English literature has produced since Shakespeare. Many characters, events and quotations from his novels have passed into the English language and into national culture. Yet literary critics have long found fault with his novels because of the sentimental and sensational elements in them.
<< Early life, literary success and other interests <<