Creating Contrast between the Self and Society in the Novel: Analysis of Oliver Twist

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Howes describes the self as ‘a construct of the mind, an hypothesis of being, socially formed even as it can be quickly turned against the very social formations that have brought it into birth’. By exploring literary narrative thinking, which emphasises the structure of events in terms of a human’s feelings and thoughts, a dual landscape is created by allowing for the contrast of the self’s stream of consciousness against society’s grouping and categorizing of the individual. In Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners, the self and society act as forces that enhance each other through their contrast, with the character of Moses’ self being isolated from London’s society by being perceived as the societal ‘other’. Similarly, Dickens’ Oliver Twist features a plethora of characters who are perceived as outsiders of civilised Victorian society, allowing for the exploration of how society limits the expression of the self. However, unlike Selvon’s characters, Dickens chooses to portray his characters primarily as products of society, suggesting that the self is created from society, whereas The Lonely Londoners presents the self as a separate entity from its society. In this essay I aim to explore how the differing narrative perspectives in both Oliver Twist and The Lonely Londoners influence the expression of society, its ideals, and the self in order to determine to what extent the novel’s different narrative forms highlight the differences between self and society.

The third person narrative present in Dickens’ Oliver Twist allows for an insight into the lives of a range of societal figures within of the early Victorian world. The story’s omniscient narrator enables the reader to understand the nature of the characters of the novel through their interactions with each-other and primarily through their treatment of Oliver, however this is at the expense of an effective analysis of the self as this narrative form limits the perspective of individual characters by instead having full knowledge of all characters and situations in the novel. Brown asserts that in regard to this narrative form ‘the writer of the traditional narrative sees further and speaks better than we do, but he or she is seeing through the same frame and speaking in the same code as the rest of us’ . In reference to Dickens’ novel this assertion implies that the self is not able to exist in this story because the reader only views the characters from the societal and public sphere, we are not able to witness characters in the private sphere but only able to see them interacting with Oliver. The characters of Oliver Twist are also restricted from their self by being portrayed and described through the lens of society’s values within the context of 1830s London. This is evident in the presentation of the characters of this novel, including Fagin who is first introduced to the reader through an anti-Semitic lens influenced by society’s opinion of Jewish people, with Dickens only focusing on the Jewishness of the character rather than viewing him outside of his religion. Fagin’s initial introduction describes him as ‘a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair’ . Fagin is referred to as ‘the Jew’ 436 times throughout the novel and limited to being characterised as a Jewish devil attempting to corrupt Christian children rather than a character with a range of embedded qualities . This generalisation of these characters as being one sided is something that Bagehot criticises claiming that Dickens ‘expands traits into people […] instead of determining human nature’ . Much unlike the characters within Selvon’s novel, Dickens’ characters are limited in portraying their emotional level and it is therefore increasingly difficult for the reader to view the conflict of the self, as Bagehot criticises that the author focuses on the wider societal position of his characters and the relationship between societal position and goodness.

Dickens’ writing of Oliver Twist is centred around societal figures as a response to the claimed purpose of his writings explained in the preface to the 1841 edition of the novel, where he writes:

‘It seems, a very coarse and shocking circumstance, that some of the characters in these pages are chosen from the most criminal and degraded of London's population; that Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods; that the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute […] It appeared to me […] to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect’

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Dickens’ ambition is to stay true to the experiences of those living in poverty and slum areas in London in the 1830s, having his characters act as representative of figures amongst society rather than individual beings with a range of emotion. Oliver Twist limits the portrayal of the self due to the lack of psychological depth of characters in the novel. In this fictional world of criminals, Nancy is the only character that has a higher degree of psychological depth revealed at the end of the novel as her self is discovered through her defiance of Victorian societal expectations of a woman of her status by doing good to save Oliver from a criminal lifestyle. However, Nancy is also a character that is necessary to identify how society has the power to engulf the self in literature. It can be argued that Rose Maylie and Nancy are foils to each other, both being without family and are orphans, yet they are contrasted against each other due to being raised by different parts of society. Nancy is brought up in the world of crime within Fagin’s gang whereas Rose is raised in a loving, religious, and middle class household – all reflective of the societal ideal of goodness at the time. Much like the majority of characters within this novel, Oliver lacks the self because of his purpose to act as a societal symbol. The third person narrative and omniscient narrator allow the novel to primarily focus on the restrictions of societal notions such as classism by portraying the characters as caricatures of real figures that would have lived in London at the time, instead of prioritising the characterisation of his figures as being separate from these societal figures, hence why it is so difficult for the self to be revealed in this community-focused novel.

In contrast to this, Selvon’s novel is able to explore the self to a greater extent through a form of narrative that is partially voiced by Moses, a black, working-class man who observes his life as an outsider in postcolonial English society. In contrast to the function of Dickens’ narrative form, critic Brown argues that ‘unlike writers of conventional narratives, the postmodern authors invent new ways of reading the world. Instead of reconstructing the world in terms of an earlier, conventional code, they deconstruct conventional experience through new forms of encoding’ . This is evident in the analysis of Selvon’s shifting of the third person narrative focus to Moses’ consciousness through focalisation, allowing the reader to witness Moses’ self and how he interacts within society from the perspective of an outsider. Although the third-person narrator can still be described as a speaker that remains omnipresent throughout the novel , Moses becomes the viewpoint that readers experience Selvon’s London through. This novel also includes a range of scenes that provide an insight into the expectations of 1950s London society and how the characters attempt to change their selves in order to conform to this society’s expectations , such as Galahad’s efforts to ‘dress like an Englishman’ and desire to date Daisy, a white woman. Selvon’s novel provides a higher degree of insight into the self and allows for a better exploration of how society and the self contrast each other, as Moses’ self remains separate from a societal role, that is to say that he doesn’t conform to what is expected of a black immigrant in the white, English sphere of society. Unlike Oliver Twist, where the self is restricted due to the characters’ willingness to only exist as aspects of English society and therefore conform to a supposed role, The Lonely Londoners narrative form enables the reader to witness how the self is only able to truly exist by a character’s defiance of society and the role they are assigned to be societal expectations.

Selvon, like many other Windrush novelists that portray the isolating black immigrant experience during the 1950s, such as Naipaul's The Mimic Men, also portray similar themes related to the Caribbean conscious remaining ‘other’ in an imperialist English society. Selvon's novel portrays a compelling reflection of the relationship between the Windrush writers of the 1950s and their confinement to their self by being rejected from ideal society. The focus of the isolation of the individual by being grouped as society’s is also explored within the physical setting of the novel, readers are able to experience Moses’ personal sphere in the setting of his room which allows him to experience ‘profound realism in his life’ , which is separate from the public sphere governed by society’s anticipations. His character acts as the linking factor between the societal ideal and the realistic self . Selvon’s novel seeks to rewrite London by contrasting the city as an unreal place of promise with thriving opportunity against the reality of lonely struggle that the majority of the novel’s characters experience . Moses describes these spheres of self and society using the location of the different boroughs of London that ‘divide up into little worlds’ , where these separated space act as sites of community for the black immigrants which is separate from wider London society and allows for the self to be revealed. The London portrayed by Selvon acts as a highly fragmentary construction of communities, with the rupture between these communities metaphorically acting as a portrayal of the ideal London against the realistic city. This is evident through the glaring contrast between the characters of Galahad, who longs to conform to society’s portrayal of the ‘big romance’ of London by altering his self, and Moses, who has lived in London for many years and suffers the struggles of not conforming to this ideal. This is further reflected in the character’s language, Moses’ Caribbean dialect is evident in the structure of his language whereas Galahad rejects this and instead attempts to talk with a London dialect, conveying his desire to obscure his identity to match the societal ideal. In The Lonely Londoners the reader is able to understand the isolation of the self within a society where it doesn’t conform to its expectations by viewing the events and characters from a perspective within a community conventionally denied entrance into London’s white and English society, and the relationship that creates an identity crisis between the self and the societal expectations that limit the self’s expression.

Oches and Capps argue that in literature, the self ‘embodiments of one or more points of view rather than objective, omniscient accounts’ , in reference to Selvon’s novel it allows for a further analysis of how the narrative reflects the self. The narrative form allows for a range of character’s views to be witnessed by the reader, in contrast to Oliver Twist where Dickens limits his characters’ expression of self by restricting his narrative form in such a way that constrains the novel to a focus on societal standards. The relationship between the self and society is not presented as dual, the self is not able to exist in a way that is separate to society because the characters exist to allow Dickens to represent the ‘dregs’ of society and make a social criticism via the writing of his novel. Selvon, however, emphasises his characters’ identity crises, and therefore their exploration of self, by contrasting his black characters as ‘other’ in the context of the white, English society during the Windrush period. Despite the seeming difference regarding the presentation of the self in these novels, it appears conclusive that the self can only be created by a defiance of society’s expectations of a character and the role in society they should play to as a result of their race, religion, or monetary situation. Overall, it remains evident that in the novel the self, an embodiment of new ideas and thinking, can only be created by a character’s defiance of their expected societal role and the resistance of the values of society.

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Creating Contrast between the Self and Society in the Novel: Analysis of Oliver Twist. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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