My friend Avery recommended Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, a recent novel that has the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist as the main character (Oliver doesn’t appear). It was a fun, quick read that sent me back to Dickens; I doubt that I’d read O.T. since I was an adolescent.
Pratchett's characters are able to rise out of their dismal circumstances through the force of their intelligence or personality. Dodger—a much more likeable character than in O.T.—holds his own with Disraeli, London police chief Robert Peel, and even Queen Victoria.
While many common-born people are heroic in his novels, Dickens often relies on miracles and coincidences, and people are good if their birth is good. Is it plausible that Oliver’s family background can keep him genteel throughout a really awful upbringing of criminal neglect, despite the fact that his mother died giving birth to him? Maybe: My cat Buster was a rescued feral cat who has the sweetest temperament of any cat I’ve ever known. Is that a fair comparison? Aren’t cats way more nature than nurture?
Dickens is much more relentlessly dark—his criminals have few or no redeeming qualities—but also more hopeful, with wider swings of ups and downs. As Avery noted, “Many of his characters can be a little all or nothing. When they are good they are very very good, when they are bad they are horrid.” Pratchett fits in with contemporary mores in that we have less taste or tolerance for neglected children and hard-ass adults. Could the people who run workhouse and orphanage be portrayed as quite so naïve these days? Could kids now really have no social services to speak of and be allowed to run quite as wild as Fagin’s gang did?
Dodger never makes you horrified at him being an orphaned thief, and Solomon Cohen (i.e., Fagin) is benign, intelligent and justified. Dickens (a character in Dodger, a sharp-eyed and ubiquitous journalist) never lets up on making you well aware that he disapproves of the mores that reward and fatten a beadle for starving the children in his care. One sees oneself in Dickens’ characters in a way that Pratchett leaves you outside of. I feel guilty for letting Oliver starve, that is, but feel mostly like an observer of Pratchett’s people—a delighted observer for sure, but not implicated. They know how to help themselves, so they don’t need me to intervene. Dodger isn’t piteous or needy or helpless, the way Oliver is. He’s not a victim, Avery points out, even though society is trying to victimize him.