Oliver Twist is one of Dickens’ early novels and one of his best loved. It has what you would expect from him: memorable characters, evocative descriptions, melodrama, a plot that relies on completely incredible coincidences.
Dickens is the master of descriptive narrative and he conjures a grim and compelling view of Victorian London. His over view of London is created through his own experience of growing up and experiencing the ‘badlands’ and the derelict surroundings put in front of him as a child and through his youth, in this novel he doesn’t hold back any knowledge about London or any details either, a true opinion which has made this novel so successful.
How does dickens use language to show the death of Bill Sikes in Chapter 50 of Oliver Twist.
What this title is asking me to do is to pick evidence out of the text to describe how Charles Dickens builds up tension and depicts and creates characters in Chapter 50.
It is simple to just look at the death of Bill Sikes as an accident and a coincidence, but there is an enormous amount more that Charles Dickens has done in this chapter.
Dickens ability to create an image in the readers head is outstanding, at the start of the chapter Dickens describes Jacobs Island, a small part of London where the story is basically set, he uses long descriptive sentences with superlatives such as blackest, dirtiest, filthiest, strangest, roughest, poorest, cheapest and coarsest, all of these words on the same page and even most in the same paragraph, he uses these words to put across his opinion of the area, the ‘est.’ words are the worst of the worst you can describe something as. He is describing the derelict ness and the poverty of Jacobs Island in this time by also describing the jobs and even the unemployment of the area, jobs such as ballast heavers, coal whippers and brazen women, all of these jobs are hard labouring jobs.
Dickens also creates a wide range of characters that make you as a reader know them, Dickens splits these characters apart by giving them their own sense of speech on a page, different language, in a sort of ‘slang’, strong language of criminal underclass which is used in great effect later explained.
Again Dickens reflects on the social difficulties and background of London itself in the 1830’s, London was swarmed with poverty, diseases, crime, different class’s of people, orphanages, overall a very commercial but saddened city.
Dickens ability to structure a chapter is also another point to look at, the way he progress’s from the description of Jacobs Island, he goes on to describe the river Thames, and then goes on to describe houses, windows, buckets, utensils, and then warehouses, which then develops into one house in particular where the criminals are uncovered which is Toby Crackits room and then to the old chimney which goes on to build more tension and more suspense and thus making the reader want to read on and on to uncover what entertainment lies ahead.
Charles Dickens doesn’t only have descriptive prestige in this book, he is very well known for his narrative devices, his dramatic use of the dog Bull’s Eye, that is so ‘in love’ with his owner (Sikes) so to speak really captivates the audience in a sense that you feel sorry for this dog, in the end Sikes’s dog comes back to haunt him as his dog leads the mob to him and that leads on to his death.
Which also bring the mob, which is another great example of Dickens’s dramatic narrative devices, the mob are described as a huge crowd all after one man, Bill Sikes, every man or woman in London seems to be chasing Bill Sikes and after his head in the way Dickens describes them, hundreds of angry, bloodthirsty citizens of London, in fact there were so many of them as he describes they got themselves in grave danger, falling over each other and nearly crushing each other. Before the mob is introduced there is a coming together of little Charley Bates and Bill Sikes which leads to the mob coming, Charley stands up to bates and a fight breaks out, the description of the fight is outstanding,
‘Pouring out the cries, and accompanying them with violent gesticulation, the boy actually threw himself, single-handed, upon the strong man, and in the intensity of his energy and the suddenness of his surprise, brought him heavily to the ground’. These words give you a sense of tension and happiness as Charley attacks the murderer, but also leaves you with anxiety as to whether Charley has a chance.
The title of the chapter ‘Pursuit and Escape’ is a cliff-hanger itself, because the title immediately gives you the impression that Bill Sikes escapes, and that is what the whole audience doesn’t want, so it makes it more interesting and makes people want to read on and find out if Sikes does escape or not, which is dramatic entertainment.
The story itself is gripping, which has many meanings, the book reflects Dickens’s life and how he grew up, Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, his parents were poor and he had a very upsetting young part to his life, after spending a happy filled time in Chatham his father John Dickens fell into financial problems and had to move to a derelict area of Camden Town, Charles had to get a job and he worked in a blacking factory, which is relevant to the story, as Oliver worked in one. Charles worked hard and for a living, visiting his dad one day a week in debt prison and working the rest, you cant help to think that Dickens work comes from his own background and the way he grew up, but with a tale involved.
The time this book was published was in 1838, but the book took shape in the Bentleys Miscellany, which was one of the most popular papers around in that time, which was where Dickens entered an episode every two weeks, each episode was about 9000 words in length. The book really showed its audience about London and what problems lie there.
Dickens entry’s every two weeks were always ended on a cliff hanger, take chapter 50 for example, it ends with Sikes’s death and his dog Bulls Eye jumping off a building and dashing its brains on the floor, which is a shocking ending but wants the reader again to want to buy the next issue and read on.
Dickens use of dialogue to create realism and variety through be able to change a person by their criminal language, or ‘flash’, when you hear Kags, Chitling and Toby Crackit talking, you right away can notice a difference in speech compared to all the other characters in the book, words used like, ‘blunder -head, made our lucky up the wash’ us chimney’, which means a chimney that’s full of traps, you see Dickens couldn’t swear or use blasphemy in his work because of the audience he was sending it out to, the Victorians didn’t take very likely to such words, so Dickens used substitutes for it, such as ‘by G–!’ which is supposed to say by God! Also the use of slang, the language of the criminal class, ‘strait-wescut which is a straight jacket or ‘this is a smash’ which is typical cockney rhyming slang in east end London common among thieves.
Dickens dialogue also gives the reader additional information, e.g. Fagin being arrested at The Cripples which was a pub all the locals went to, especially the criminal cockney types, and the fate of the rest of the gang, Dickens didn’t write about them directly because he wanted suspense and use a flashback scene , on page 488 Chitling has a flashback,
‘you should of heard the people groan’, said Chitling, ‘the officers fought like devils, or they’d have torn him away. He was down once, but they made a ring round him, and fought their way along. You should have seen how he looked about him, all muddy and bleeding, and clung to them as if they were his dearest friends. I can see ’em now, not able to stand upright with the pressing of the mob, and dragging him along amongst ’em; I can see the people jumping up, one behind another, and snarling their teeth making at him; I can see the blood upon his hair and beard, and hear the cries with which the women worked themselves into the centre of the crowd at the street corner, and swore they’d tear his heart out!’ which is showing Bets ordeal when she was dragged away in a straight jacket in a flashback that was not described in the early parts of Oliver Twist, this is used to explain to the reader and sort of add more pieces, or the missing pieces to the ‘puzzle’.
Also Dickens informs the reader about the brutality of Nancy’s murder so the death of Sikes was a justice for her death and it shows how the Victorian society deal with murderers and criminals.
He uses dialogue to show the different relationships between the characters, the arrival of Sikes page 491 into the upper room is key, Sikes is sarcastic in his manor towards the other three criminals, former friends, they seem scared of Sikes because of the ear that Sikes is a murderer and that he can get them in serious trouble. The intimidation of Sikes changes the whole scene, ‘Damn you all!’ which is showing Sikes aggression, ‘Have you nothing to say to me?’ Sikes presence keeps the men silent, the situation Dickens has created with a dark room with only one candle and three men just waiting around, hanging low for a while immediately gives the scene a sense of fear and uneasiness, and the climax of the scene is when Sikes comes in and then the scene benefit’s the character and exploits the intimidating aspects of Sikes.
When Bates stands up to Sikes, it’s a key turning point, the dialogue used is heroic from Bates, speeches such as, ‘ witness you three – im not afraid of him- if they come here after him, ill give him up; I will. I tell you out at once. He may kill me for it if he likes, or if he dares, but if I am here ill give him up. Id give him up if he was to be boiled alive. Murder! Help! If there’s the pluck of a man among you three, you’ll help me. Murder! Help! Down with him!’ this speech is so inspiring and heroic that the reader gets really excited at this point and is left with astonishment that a young boy could do such a speech and the actions the follow when he pounces on Sikes. This is used to move the story on and create tension in a very gripping way.
Another classic of Dickens’s work is the descriptions he gives of characters for example, Kags who is described in a way that reminds the reader what criminals actually look like and gives the reader a very edgy feel,
‘the third a robber of fifty years whose nose had been almost beaten in in some old scuffle, and whose face bore a frightful scar which might probably be traced to the same occasion. This man was a returned transport, and his name was kags’. A very long description but gives you a lot of ideas of what life was like in these times, a returned transport which is a term used to describe convicted thieves that have been sent to other British colonies such as Australia and serve a certain amount of time there for their felony. The immediate impression of Kags when you read the description is that he may not be a likable character, I think dickens’s has used this character to show that in Chapter 50 Page 490/491 when Sikes enters the darkness filled room how much, you could say prestige in a way but not in a good way, a sort of fear and prestige, showing that even the meanest looking and ‘hard’ characters in a sense are baffled and afraid of Sikes and this all is creating a mood and feeling in a scene.
All the characters that Dickens’s has labelled criminals, Toby Crackit, Mr Chitling and Kags Adress and respond to each other very sarcastically and also very aggressively, in a way that suggests to the reader that they are not all friends as you first think and that they have no loyalty to each other and are just with each other because they have the same basis of work and business ethics.
Fagin is described in chapter 50 as he is getting arrested as a rough, battling character struggling with the police and being all muddy and bleeding, Dickens has put Fagin in this situation which could best describe him and what he is all about, not necessarily his features, but his links with the police and his links with crime.
Dickens describes the main criminal in chapter 50 at his lowest point, when he enters that room with his fellow criminals,
‘Blanched face, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, beard of three days’ growth, wasted flesh, short thick breath; it was the very ghost of Sikes. This sentence is full of short descriptive sentences that are saying to the readers that Sikes is destroyed, he has been hiding away for the crime of murder and is just a translucent figure of Sikes when he used to be a strong and ironically ghastly figure with no power, Sikes is now battered, Sikes has now got nothing and Sikes is on the run!
Leading up to the climax of chapter 50 Dickens describes the mob of Londoners chasing down Sikes in the tight alleys and roads of London, he depicts them as a crowd of a ‘strong struggling current of angry faces’ that are all out after Sikes ‘the murderer’, Dickens has used those descriptions to show the sheer scale of the force wanting to capture this one man, a current of people, suggesting it is like a river of people flowing along the streets. Later in the scene an old man cries ‘I will give fifty pounds to the man who takes him alive’, fifty pounds in those times was an enormous amount of money which again shows the sheer scale of the wanting of this man.
The climax is ultimately the death of Bill Sikes in this chapter, when Sikes is on that roof ready to try his escape Dickens finally de-humanises the villain at last by instead of calling him Sikes calling him ‘the murderer’ to tell the audience just exactly what he is, which is nothing. The way Dickens depicts the death of Sikes is very dramatic in the way that he dies, jumping off a roof and accidentally hanging yourself isn’t the best way to go or the most common in any story, Dickens used this way of death to give justice, melodrama and a gothic feel which would add real feel to how the audience would feel at the death of a person who has been hated by most throughout the whole story.
The speed of Sikes death is quite important, the use of verbs such as staggering, tumbled, which is when Sikes loses his balance and goes over the edge of the building.
Sikes death is also set at night time to add a little more drama and a chase factor to the dramatic end.
The noose in those times was common for convicted murderers to receive when arrested, so for Sikes to die in a noose was justified in the end. Dickens had a message to the reader in the end of this chapter which is to draw attention to a range of social injustices in those times, which means a lot of people getting away with crimes which obviously dickens felt strongly about, Dickens didn’t just simply tell people about this he used a range of techniques to excite the reader and to please the reader.
Overall Dickens created this chapter to avenge Nancy’s death, we know this because Sikes cries ‘The eyes again!’ referring to Nancy’s eyes. Which leaves the reader feeling happy about Sikes death and making the reader want to read his next edition in his paper.