Oliver drew the short straw. He didn’t just spontaneously get the idea to walk up there, through the workhouse eating hall and, ask for more. The boys were cooking up a revolution and no one had the courage to lead it. Hence the straw. Hence Oliver Twist.
When he started out his long walk up past the uneasy glances of the other boys and the suspicious stares of the workhouse staff, he was an orphaned waif. But as he progressed, and this is the genius of Dickens, he became ‘surprised at his own temerity’. He was finding within himself some will to accept and even take responsibility for the random fate that had befallen him. Cometh the hour, cometh the boy.
There are times when speech becomes more than just speech, times when the speech itself becomes an action. Oliver Twist’s sentence: “Please, Sir, I want some more” is an action that changes the course of his life. In fact, it is the act of giving birth to oneself. Up to that point in the novel Oliver has been totally passive. With his famous sentence he brings himself into being. And there is no going back. He has now become an agent in his own destiny.
Oliver has started causing trouble and his name is on the lips of the others boys, the beadle and the Board. He is literally making a name for himself.
Oliver wanted ‘some more’. Indeed, so did all the other boys. But when Oliver asked for more, when he spoke his desire, he became Oliver Twist. This orphan began to stand out from his background; he became an orphan with a ‘twist’. In fact, the great and the good began to think of him as ‘twisted’. One board member repeatedly opines, “that boy will come to be hung”.
Is there a lesson, albeit a slightly twisted one, here for all of us? Have I the courage of a nine year old orphan? Can I be bold enough to ask of life what I really want? Or am I like one of those sage (and portly) gentlemen of the board, tut-tutting that someone who has less than me should desire more?
It is interesting that Oliver asks for ‘more’ and not ‘more gruel’. Dickens has left an intriguing empty space here. What does Oliver really want? Of course, at the most immediate level, we could say he wants more food. But in reading Oliver’s appeal with twenty-first century eyes, we might be reminded of Jacques Lacan’s assertion that “Every demand is a request for love”. Oliver has not been loved, except in the womb; his mother died in childbirth. There is something missing in his life, he knows the gap is there but he has no conception of what might fill it. Gruel would be a start; love would be a bonus.
But even those of us who have food and love in our lives still resonate with Oliver’s request for more. And this wish for more is what keeps us truly alive. We must constantly speak our desire, constantly bring ourselves into being, give birth to ourselves, cause trouble and upset the great and the good. Of course we must not forget to eat the gruel we do get and to enjoy the love that might come our way – just like Oliver did later with the Artful Dodger and Co. Otherwise life is just an impossible, anguished yearning.
Paradoxically, even though we never have enough we occasionally get too much. We think that gruel or sausages or sex or love will fill our bowl. We seize upon one thing and manically pursue it, wanting it in ever larger quantities. These days we are particularly fascinated with more money, more fame, more thinness. When we make the mistake of filling that gap that Dickens left open, when we concretize our desire, when we specify the object that (we think) will satisfy us we risk addiction and overdose.
When I was growing up, if we had something nice for dinner or dessert, my father would say: “There’s a taste of more off it.” Maybe that’s the secret, enjoying that taste of more.