Dickens the Narrator

March 29, 2021

Michael Shelichach, a lecturer at Queens College, shares a ghastly passage from Oliver Twist with clues to help illuminate Dickens as the writer and narrator. 



So, how is it that when you read a series of letters on a page, you end up experiencing new feelings and having new thoughts? To try to figure this out let's look at an excerpt from Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist.

To give you some context, Charles Dickens was by far the most famous British writer of the 1800s. He wrote the novel, A Christmas Carol, which you're probably all familiar with as it's been made into a movie, I don't know how many times. It's the story, you know, about the old miser who hates Christmas, who on Christmas Eve is visited by three ghosts, who teach him the error of his ways and the meaning of Christmas, and then he's happy. There's also a Muppet version. It's actually a great book and the Muppet version is excellent.

Oliver Twist is another of his famous novels, far darker than A Christmas Carol. One thing you should know is that Dickens used to give public readings of chapters from his books and the excerpt I've given you is from a chapter that he would read frequently.

He would read this chapter in a very dramatic, intense voice. So intense that after reading it, there would be an intermission and he would have to go rest behind the stage. All you need to know to follow this excerpt is that a criminal was breaking into a young woman's apartment. I'll read it, though, probably not as dramatically as Dickens.

"The house breaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind, even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

"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 and holding it up, and her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as our feeble strength would allow, breathed into 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 struck her down."

So that kind of text is going to have some kind of effect on you. For me, that text is very emotional, very upsetting, tragic, dramatic, even melodramatic. It deeply involves me in the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and I also see the scene very clearly in my mind's eye. I can understand why Dickens felt he had to lie down after reading it out loud.

What happens in the scene? To try to figure it out we're going to perform close readings. First, we'll look at word choice. The specific words, Dickens chose to use.

Note how Dickens refers to the man in this scene. Dickens doesn't refer to him as a man or by a name, Dickens refers to him as the "housebreaker," and later as the "murderer." Dickens labels the man according to the crimes he's committed. He's judging the man for his crimes, and in a way, trying to get you to judge him for these crimes, too. This passage, we can say, doesn't just portray a murder, it condemns a murder.

Toward the end, Dickens even writes, "It was a ghastly figure to look upon." Dickens is telling you this scene is ghastly. Horrible. He's telling you how to feel about the scene. He's telling you, you should be deeply upset by what this man has done.

Let's look now at sentence structure, Dickens's sentences are quite long. They carry or almost pull you along with them. They force you to keep reading because it takes so long to reach the end of them, and as such, they kind of force you to enter the scene as well. But look at how Dickens uses punctuation: colons, semi-colons, and commas. He also forces you to pause along the way as you read each sentence.

And he forces you to pause at particularly dramatic details. "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 and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer of mercy to her Maker." It's almost like Dickens is writing as a camera, that's not letting you turn away from the violence, and that's also carefully recording each moment of the woman's suffering.

Let's look now at how all of these sentences are arranged into paragraphs or paragraph structure. The Dickens excerpt describes a man stumbling into an apartment, beating a woman twice with the handle of a pistol, and then hitting her with a club.

The action of the scene takes maybe, I don't know, 10 or 15 seconds. But Dickens gives these 15 seconds, three separate paragraphs. It's like he's drawing out these 15 seconds, as long as he can, emphasizing that he thinks what happens here is tragic and important, and he wants us to pay close attention to it.

We get a similar sense of the importance or lack of it, in the passage's imagery. Texts tend to bring images to your mind, but they do so very differently and with different degrees of vividness.

Dickens describes the young woman as being "nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead." The blood is compared to rain. there's so much of it. The gash is deep. Dickens not only wants you to see all the gory details, but he also wants you to see them as exaggerated, almost over-the-top. He's playing up the horror of what's going on.

Finally, you want to consider the point of view from which each scene is described or the text's perspective.

The narrator is a typical third-person, omniscient narrator. He appears to have full knowledge of everything that's happening and he can enter the mind of either character. He tells us the "certainty of immediate detection, if [the man] fired, flashed across [the man's] mind" and the young woman" breathed one prayer of mercy to her Maker."

But we can tell more about Dickens as narrator than just that. Although the narrator has access to both characters' minds, he clearly sympathizes with the young woman. He emphasizes her suffering, and he clearly condemns the man whom he calls a housebreaker and a murderer. The narrator is a third-person, omniscient narrator, but he's also emotional, moral, and judgmental.

We can even tell more than that. When the narrator refers to Heaven, he capitalizes it. And when he refers to God, he calls him the "Maker" and he capitalizes that as well. If the narrator himself is capitalizing those words, that tells you that the person telling this story believes in and reverences God. The narrator is religious. This story takes place in a universe where God exists and where crimes have serious ethical consequences.



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

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