Dickens’ 1838 tale of a forlorn orphan, as everyone knows, begins as a social commentary about poverty in Victorian England. Nor do I doubt the truth of many of his complaints. We have documentation of the early industrial horrors that Dickens bewailed, although our reading of the evidence is often distorted. For example, the abject poverty that we equate with Dickens’ era was far worse in the 18th century. As for the Poor Laws, which the author justifiably excoriates, they were early welfare statist measures that had been around since the time of Elizabeth I, following the suppression of the monasteries that long provided private care for the indigent.
But I want to move beyond the question of “social justice” (which always strikes me as an inapt term) to the question of justice, plain and simple. Oliver Twist is at heart a drama of good and evil, of transgression and retribution, that we see played out in the career of the murderous Bill Sikes and his master-in-crime Fagin. Yet it is confusion about such things which lies at the heart of our modern ethical disorder.
At one point Dickens describes how the young Oliver spends his time reading a shocking “true crime” book while cooped up in Fagin’s house:
It was a history of the lives and trials of great criminals; and the pages were soiled and thumbed with use. Here, he read of dreadful crimes that made the blood run cold; of secret murders that had been committed by the lonely wayside; of bodies hidden from the eye of man in deep pits and wells: which would not keep them down, deep as they were, but had yielded them up at last, after many years, and so maddened the murderers with the sight, that in their horror they had confessed their guilt, and yelled for the gibbet to end their agony.
This view of the consciense haunted by its own deeds is rooted in a solid understanding of psychology. It does not try to escape the existential facts of our being—e.g., how our bad actions must ultimately be set aright in our own souls and in society as a whole.
While Dickens opposed public executions as gruesome spectacles, along with other forms of unnecessary cruelty and harshness, he had no qualms about capital punishment. I’ve always felt that opposition to the death penalty was due to an unfair bias towards offenders which undermines our sense of outrage at crimes against the innocent. By contrast, it is the metaphysical notion of innocence which lies at the heart of true justice and this no doubt accounts for the enduring appeal of a story like Oliver Twist.