Retributive justice is a very pronounced element in Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist. Common knowledge to the experienced reader, Dickens was a man of sarcasm, who played on words and had a very straightforward, honest way of writing, unlike most of his characters’ personalities. Oliver Twist, who led a twisted lifestyle as a young boy, was influenced by various people: some good, some bad. Like karma, Dickens made sure to give the dishonest, viciously cruel characters what they truly deserved, which may have been just about the only honest thing to happen in their lives. Some of these characters who were treated the way they treated others, or who got what they deserved, were Mr. Bumble, Bill Sikes, Monks, as well as Fagin. Without retributive justice being a key element in Dickens’ novel, its classic success in the world of literacy would be virtually non-existent.
One of the novel’s characters, who is most present at the beginning of the story, was a victim of one of Dickens’ swift acts of retributive justice. Mr. Bumble was a self-absorbed, arrogant beadle, who thought rather highly of himself. He was a member of the workhouse in which Oliver was born. He was also a member of a Christian church, who preached about the moralities of Christians, yet bluntly contradicted himself with the manner in which he treated his paupers. He was cruel, the complete opposite of understanding, and showed absolutely no signs of compassion towards the people under his care. Dickens used his great understanding and knowledge in the use of name symbolism in the beadle’s name, “bumble”, to say that he stings like a bumblebee. Bumblebees may seem cute and fluffy on the outside, but when they sting, they hurt, much like Mr. Bumble’s personality. Dickens demonstrates Mr. Bumbles’ cold-hearted, stinging personality when he says: Oliver fell to his knees, and clasping his hands together, prayed that they would order him back to the dark room- that they would starve him- beat him- kill him if they pleased- rather than send him away with the dreadful man.
“Well!” said Mr. Bumble, raising his hands and eyes with most impressive solemnity. “Well! of all the artful and designing orphans that ever I see, Oliver, you are one of the most bare-facedest”. (Dickens 46) He received Dickens’ generous retributive justice when he ran away with Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse, where Oliver was born. Mrs. Corney was basically in charge of the workhouse and put Mr. Bumble in his place when he entered. He decided to try to order the ladies around after seeing them chatting amongst each other and Mrs. Corney wanted none of it. She quickly dismissed his, self-declared power, in front of all the workers. “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Bumble,” returned his lady. “We don’t want any of your interference. You’re a great deal too fond of poking your nose into things that don’t concern you, making everybody in the house laugh the moment your back is turned, and making yourself look like a fool every hour in the day. Be off; come!”. (Dickens 324)
This is an example of one of Dickens’ acts of retributive justice because Mr. Bumble – who’s used to having the authority and power that came with him being a beadle – was quickly and painfully taken away of the power he thought he had gained, by marrying Mrs. Corney. Another example of Dickens’ mischievous acts of retributive justice occurs to Bill Sikes. Sikes considered himself a “professional” burglar, which wouldn’t be so bad if being a burglar could be considered anything positive. He was brought up in Fagin’s gang and trained by Fagin, himself. Sikes is Nancy’s so-called, “lover”. He treats this young woman with a rather odd combination of cruelty and envious affection. Sikes gets the real sense of Dickens’ capabilities in his use of retributive justice after he brutally murders Nancy. While trying to avoid an angry mob of people, who have recently discovered that his identity is a match to Nancy’s murderer, he then accidentally hangs himself. Not only does his name imply that Sikes is somewhat psychotic, but he proves this to the readers.
While attempting to evade the angry mob, he decides to climb up through buildings, rather than away. He ties a rope to swing to another roof-top, but mistakenly and regretfully hangs himself. Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet. The noose was on his neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as a bow-string and swift as the arrow speeds. He fell for five-and-thirty feet. There was a sudden jerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hand. (Dickens 453) Dickens couldn’t have used retributive justice any better. He literally allowed Sikes through his clever writing abilities get treated the way he treated another person. Although, Sikes’ death was somewhat more brutal than Nancy’s he could have easily prevented his own death, had he not chosen to take his “lover’s” life.
Dickens’ didn’t just give the readers two scenes with acts of nemesis. On the contrary, he gave the readers numerous ones, some less apparent, dramatic or damaging than others, yet still present. One example of the less apparent demonstrations of Dickens’ power with retributive justice happened to Monks, whose formal name is Edward Leeford. Monks, who happens to be Oliver Twist’s half-brother through their father’s side, was awarded part of Mr. Leeford’s estate after his passing. Oliver was rightfully entitled to a portion of the estate, but on the condition that the family name’s reputation hadn’t gone wrong. Monks, by concealing Oliver’s true identity, along with his plan to give the young boy a bad reputation, prevented Oliver from being awarded his fair share. When Mr. Brownlow approached Monks about the will, Monks denied everything Mr. Brownlow had mentioned and stated the following sentence: “’I have no brother,’ replied Monks. You know I was an only child. Why do you talk to me of my brother? You know that as well as I’” (Dickens 434). In the end though, with the help of Mr. Brownlow, Dickens permits Oliver to be awarded his share of the estate, by forcing Monks to give Oliver his share.
A final act of nemesis, or retributive justice on Dickens’ part, occurs when Fagin is hanged for his crimes against the children he trained to be pickpockets and thieves. Fagin, who was a criminal by career, bought and sold, even traded stolen goods that the young children he had trained, stole. Fagin even stated: “Ah… They- they’re mine, Oliver; my little poverty. All I have to live upon, in my old age. The folks call me a miser. Only a miser, that’s all” (Dickens 90). When Fagin said this, Dickens’ made sure that it was obvious to the reader that he was being very sarcastic. Towards the ending of the book – even though he had rarely committed the crimes himself – Fagin is awarded his piece of justice that backfired with his previous statement, when he is hanged behind bars.
In conclusion, Dickens was probably one of the greatest authors of all classic literature; not only for his novels and other pieces of literature, but also for the various ways he easily incorporated literary components: pathetic fallacy, verbal irony and sensory appeal. More particularly, his use of nemesis and retributive justice in his works such as this novel, Oliver Twist, is what made him such a great writer. From Mr. Bumble to Fagin and all other characters in between, like Monks and Sikes, Charles Dickens didn’t hold back any of his talents. This let the readers truly get involved in the reading of this novel and also keeping them from wanting to put the book down, until they had absorbed every last word of his clever and humoristic abilities.
Courtney from Study Moose
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