April 10, 2012

Whatever happened to Charley Bates

So at the end of Oliver Twist, Fagin gets hanged, Sikes is dead, Bet goes mad, Noah Claypole begins a career as a thief, Charlotte his paramour becomes a whore, the Artful is transported and Monks becomes destitute. Villainy obviously isn't a good career choice for any of them- even Sikes' dog ends up falling to its death, dashing its brains out and an obviously sympathetic character like Nancy has hers bludgeoned out on her bedroom floor. There is one exception to this tide of woe- and that's Charley Bates. Why?

Well first off- who? Charley Bates is the only other direct member of Fagin's gang named in the novel- you could make an argument for one other but everyone else functions like Sikes as an associate of Fagin. Charley is the Artful Dodger's best friend- he accompanies him and Oliver to pickpocket Mr Brownlow, gambles with the Dodger and generally plays the role of ally and friend. The difference between them appears to be that whereas the Artful is more calculated Bates is addicted to humour: so when they lose Oliver, the Artful immediately realises that Fagin will be furious, Bates finds it funny. Likewise in gambling, the Dodger is deceitful and cheats: Bates finds losing funny and does nothing to stop the cheating- even though he loses money. The distinction between the two young criminals is one of maturity but its also one of philosophy.

This is crucial- because Dickens wants to establish crime not as a deed but as a way of seeing the world- it is he says at one point a poison. That's why Oliver despite his criminal acquaintance is not a criminal- his upright heart protects him (even implausibly) against contagion. Nancy is a criminal but recognises the stain on her conscience- and hence can be redeemed (even if that redemption is at the cost of her life). Mr Bumble has committed no crime- but in essense is as one with Fagin's gang because his philosophy is the same as theirs- and Dickens continuously asks his readers to think about the logic of the thief and the fence and how many of their allies it applies to. The comic device of calling the Artful a gentleman is not merely a parody of his presumption- but also a satire which asks the question what exactly apart from his ill fitting clothes makes him no gentleman.

To return to Charley: what distinguishes Charley is in a lesser sense to Oliver, that which distinguishes the other boy. Charley is a lighthearted fool, but that isn't a crime. Charley is a criminal- but unlike the rest he does not think as a criminal. He is not so philosophical as to cheat at cards or understand Fagin's wrath- thus as he is less of the politician, he is less culpable. Whereas the Dodger cannot be redeemed- nor can Fagin or Sikes- Charley can because his intentions are not purely evil. Ultimately when judged against someone like Noah Claypole, the pickpocket emerges as a less criminally minded figure than the savage youth. This distinction- which I've not quite managed to capture- is I think very important to what Dickens wanted to say: Charley Bates is vital to the novel's message, which isn't that we should all feel smug that we aren't Fagin and Sikes- but to ask which of us has behaved like Fagin or Sikes and saved ourselves from their position, by virtue of our wealth and power.

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