Charles Dickens achieved tremendous popularity in his own time and has remained a celebrated author ever since thanks to the milestones he achieved as an author in bringing respect and honor to the field. Born to a genteel family lineage in 1812, Dickens had an early encounter with poverty and a simultaneous fall in social status. In 1824, shortly after his 12th birthday, he was taken away from school and sent away from his family in order to work in a factory in North London. Thanks to a large inheritance soon afterward, though, he was able to return to his middle-class status. This experience, however, provided him with numerous ideas regarding the social and economic disparities between the various classes, the subjects he wrote about in his many books. In addition to bringing forward concepts that were only just beginning to be discussed in fiction, such as these social disparities and the state of education within the nation, Dickens was a master of the voice, easily switching between narrative, monitored thought, monitored speech and directly quoted speech for a number of different effects as can be seen in the popular classic Oliver Twist.
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Narrative voice refers to those instances in which the author is speaking directly to the reader and describing what is seen or heard. This is the voice with which Dickens opens his novel: “Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born … the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter” (Ch. 1). In this passage, it can be seen that there are as yet no characters to be speaking, no separation of voice from the author, and, thus, the reader is left to assume that these introductory statements are indeed from Dickens himself. While many other aspects of narration are involved in this somewhat rambling sentence, the principal reason for an author to use the narrative voice is precisely to introduce information that does not have the benefit of a character as a witness. In simple narration, it can also be used as a means to describe the scene that the author is attempting to place before his audience, descriptions that the characters themselves might witness, but would not necessarily utter or think about in a more conscious manner. An example of this kind of simple narration can be found within any description throughout the novel, whether it be of a city or country landscape or even of an individual person, such as Mrs. Corney, “Her body was bent by age; her limbs trembled with palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer, resembled more the grotesque shaping of some wild pencil, than the work of Nature’s hand” (Ch. 24). However, narration such as this can also be put to use for more direct purposes.
In many cases, the narrative voice is used to interject comments and opinions of the author that would not otherwise be known through the characters’ experiences. It can also be used as a means of allowing the author to interject his own moral philosophies upon the events of the story as they are occurring. An example of this can be found in Chapter 33 of Oliver Twist at a point during which Oliver is thinking about the dying Rose Mayley and how he might have behaved differently to her had he known his time with her was going to be so short. “We need be careful how we deal with those about us, when every death carries to some small circle of survivors, thoughts of so much omitted, and so little done – of so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired! There is no remorse so deep as that which is unavailing; if we would be spared its tortures, let us remember this, in time.” While these are thoughts that might have been occurring to Oliver at this dark period, they are more a sermon or lesson directly addressed from Dickens to his readers. His shift in language, from the discussion of Oliver and what he was doing and thinking to a consideration of what we must do, signifies the switch from the simple narration of the story to direct narration in which the author speaks to his audience.
Monitored thought is yet another narrative device in which the author is able to express the general nature of his characters’ thoughts to the audience. This enables the audience to gain a more defined concept of who this character is. It provides depth to the character in that emotions and deep convictions are revealed that provide motives and inclinations that frequently come into play later in the story in the form of actions. An example of monitored thought occurs as Oliver considers Mr. Fagin’s warnings before he sent to Bill Sikes. “Oliver leaned his head upon his hand when the old man disappeared, and pondered, with a trembling heart, on the words he had just heard. The more he thought of the Jew’s admonition, the more he was at a loss to divine its real purpose and meaning. He could think of no bad object to be attained by sending him to Sikes, which would not be equally well answered by his remaining with Fagin; and after meditating for a long time, concluded that he had been selected to perform some ordinary menial offices for the housebreaker” (Ch. 20). By revealing Oliver’s thoughts in this way, Dickens is able to both demonstrate Oliver’s continued innocence, in that he is unable to think of anything he could do that was worse than what he’d been doing, yet also illustrates how Oliver isn’t completely innocent that what he’s been doing was not consistent with his own moral beliefs. Only through this window into Oliver’s thoughts is the audience able to understand fully how Oliver remains an innocent victim of the criminal world in which he moves as well as gain a grasp of how deep his moral convictions run.
Monitored speech works in much the same way as monitored thought, yet offers a means by which the author is able to skip over the specific language used by the various characters in order to present a more coherent and succinct piece of information. This can be seen when Oliver attempts to comfort Mrs. Mailey upon Rose’s becoming ill, “She gave way to such great grief, that Oliver, suppressing his own emotion, ventured to remonstrate with her; and to beg, earnestly, that, for the sake of the dear young lady herself, she would be calmer” (Ch. 33), through which the specific language might prove boring, too sentimental or otherwise lose its effectiveness. It is also used when introducing words or phrases that might not be commonly recognized, such as when Dickens monitors Oliver’s speech while he talks with the Dodger. When the Dodger uses a term unfamiliar to Oliver, talking about a Beak’s order, Dickens doesn’t allow Oliver to respond directly, “Oliver mildly replied, that he had always heard a bird’s mouth described by the term in question” (Ch. 8). By not answering the Dodger directly, Oliver is able to retain his higher moral status is not being reduced to the use of slang while still introducing the term into the language of the novel.
A novel of this sort would not be complete, however, without the use of directly quoted speech, which helps to establish their social class, education level, and general character. In this presentation, the characters seem to be speaking directly for themselves and, as such, introduce a wide variety of possibilities in and of themselves. For example, the Dodger, as has been mentioned, speaks in heavily accented slang, “you want grub, and you shall have it. I’m at low-water-mark myself – only one bob and a magpie; but, as far as it goes, I’ll fork out and stump. Up with you on your pins” (Ch. 8). In contrast, Mr. Brownlow reflects a great deal of education and moral standing when he chastises Monk for his use of the term bastard, “The term you use … is a reproach to those who long since passed beyond the feeble censure of the world. It reflects disgrace on no one living, except you who use it. Let that pass. He was born in this town” (Ch. 51). It is through this direct speech that the characters seem to come to life for those individuals reading the novel, hearing them and agreeing or disagreeing with their ideas, experiencing the new world of the streets or the educated fine homes of the upper-middle class.
Through narration, monitored thought monitored speech, and directly quoted speech, Dickens is able to present a complex, well-rounded world in which his characters are able to walk, talk, think and move while still imparting important messages to the audience. By shifting through these various voices, Dickens is able to retain the audience’s interest. Shifting perspectives not only through the various characters but including his own voice as well, summarizing where possible to eliminate uncomfortably or dragging dialogue and allowing his characters to distance from low actions as much as possible, Dickens presents a multicolored tapestry of language that effectively and artfully conveys his vision.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Tor Books, 1998.