October 8, 2009 at 6:12 pm (Core Course)

Sorry for getting so hoarse towards the end of this evening’s core course class: but I enjoyed the discussion of all the eyes at the end of Oliver Twist: from the crowd spectating Sikes’ final moments on Jacob’s Island (not to mention Nancy’s spectral eyes prompting his fatal fall: ‘”The eyes again!” he cried in an unearthly screech’) to Fagin in the room of eyes:

The court was paved, from floor to roof, with human faces. Inquisitive and eager eyes peered from every inch of space. From the rail before the dock, away into the sharpest angle of the smallest corner in the galleries, all looks were fixed upon one man–Fagin. Before him and behind: above, below, on the right and on the left: he seemed to stand surrounded by a firmament, all bright with gleaming eyes. He stood there, in all this glare of living light … Looking round, he saw that the juryman had turned together, to consider their verdict. As his eyes wandered to the gallery, he could see the people rising above each other to see his face: some hastily applying their glasses to their eyes: and others whispering their neighbours with looks expressive of abhorrence. [ch. 52]

We talked a little about Bentham’s Panopticon, about Foucault’s celebrated utilization of the panopticon in Discipline and Punish; and finally a little about D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (here’s a link to the Google Books version) for its reading of the nineteenth-century novel itself in the context of surveillance and policing. (The image at the head of this post is of Bentham’s original design for the panopticon; or a schematic representation of The Novel, if you’re Miller).

Here are some more spectating eyes, surrounding one of the novel’s key scenes:

And here’s Fagin’s last night alive. Don’t all those round cobblestones in the cell wall look a little bit like … ? Or, wait, perhaps I’m taking it too far.
Fagin the condemned cell

Plus, of course: watch this space for news of next week’s Mayhew class. [AR]



  1. Caitlin Gallagher said,

    Though I’ve read the novel before, I had never really given much thought to Oliver’s name. In Chapter 12, however, Mr. Brownlow notes its apparent peculiarity by crying “Queer name!” While Mr. Brownlow doesn’t explain why he finds the name queer, his pronouncement did encourage me to consider the possible meaning of Oliver’s given name and surname. In the Charlemagne legends Oliver is a close friend of Roland, the latter going on to defend western Christendom against the ‘evil’ Saracens. I’m not sure whether Dickens was acquainted with medieval French literature, yet the name itself already implies a kind of moral ‘purity’ that is central to his novel. Twist, conversely, seems to suggest darkness, for to twist something is to twine or to coil, that is, to distort an object so that its original form is still present but the facade corrupted. In Dickens’ novel, too, the reader is introduced to the idea of a distorted London. Hence Oliver’s name appears to embody both light and obscurity, although this dualism may be read as overly simplistic.

    In addition, I was drawn to a specific passage in Chapter 8 concerning the ostensible promise of London: “The name awakened a new train of ideas in the boy’s mind. London!–that great large place!–nobody–not even Mr. Bumble–could ever find him there! He had often heard the old man in the workhouse, too, say that no lad of spirit need want in London” (50). In some respects, Dickens’ portrayal of London as a site of fulfillment and riches is evocative of the romanticized vision of America fostered by European immigrants in the 19th century. Like the New World, London is imagined here as a dream world where one may transcend the limitations of reality, particularly social station. Upon arriving, however, Oliver finds that London has the power to render its inhabitants either invisible or grotesque, and that the prospect of forging a new identity in the metropolis looks bleak. Thus Victorian London–and, to a certain extent, America–simultaneously serve as places of illusion and disenchantment.

  2. Selena Collins said,

    I’d considered the relevance of names and naming in the text before – I agree with your point about light and obscurity (I don’t think it is simplistic). I hadn’t thought about the links between the New World and London though. Your suggestion is really interesting and opens up all sorts of ideas. You got me thinking about the exile of the young pickpocket, Jack (‘Dodger’). Offered the prospect of reinvention in a ‘new world’ at the close of the novel, he mirrors Oliver’s prospects in the early stages – but as you imply, the hope and the reality were often very different. ‘Dodger’ – who is as likely to enter a new world of new criminal opportunity as he is to find himself ‘out of harm’s way’ – might be safely ‘invisible’ to the reader but the grotesque is also still possible. Dodger is certainly presented as a ‘lad of spirit’, capable of finding ways and means to avoid ‘want’.

    Going back, then, to the idea of surveillance: the ‘problem’ can be hidden from the immediate consciousness of the reader (or society) but there is also an open-endedness with the possibilities still ‘out there’ for ‘Dodger’ and others of Dickens’ imagined and real worlds. I’m looking again at Miller’s ‘The Novel and the Police’ where he talks about ‘delinquent careers’ in ‘Oliver Twist’ being ones of “superficial movement in which nothing really changes” (p.4). He also says that the world of delinquency presented in this text “encompasses not only the delinquents themselves” but those people and institutions expected to “reform” or “prevent” the delinquency. Are ideas about what happens when the gaze is obstructed/restricted/ deliberately averted and by whom worth considering further with this text – and perhaps others? Which? Or does this stray too far from our ‘London’ theme?

  3. jspe said,

    Thought this review of a new biography on Dickens might be of interest.

  4. rhulvictorian said,

    Excellent stuff. Here’s part of an email I already sent to Caitlin:

    Your thoughts on Oliver’s name are fascinating: I hadn’t twigged the Charlemagnean connection, although I like your ‘dualism’ argument very much. CD’s names often signify promiscuously: so ‘twist’ was Victorian slang for ‘appetite’ or ‘hunger’ (‘I’ve got a good twist on me’ would mean ‘I’m peckish); and of course twist is also what the hangman’s rope does to your neck … a fate some predict for Oliver of course.

    I agree with Selena that the ‘new world’ idea is an intriguing one. One notion we talked about a little in seminar was of the way the topography of London in the novel, literally and semiotically, is bent out of shape by the central presence of Newgate (which is to say, death) right at the centre. I’ve sometimes wondered if there isn’t a kind of gravitational pull at work in Dickens, dragging characters back to London … they may leave for the countryside, as Oliver does, but London magnetically pulls them back again. Even Australia isn’t far enough away; Magwitch is transported there, but still comes back.

    Jane: I haven’t yet read Michael Slater’s new bio, but I’m looking forward to it. He’s both a genuinely lovely man, and an absolute walking Dickens encyclopedia. His Dickens and Women book is still worthwhile, even after all this time. [Adam R]

  5. Decorating ideas for a living room said,

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  6. rhulvictorian said,

    Thank you for your kind comments, Mr Decorating. I’ll be honest, though: I don’t quite see how they relate to the novel.

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