Recently, having run out of new books to read and lacking the funds to obtain more, I downloaded some e-book samples from Amazon.com. One of them was a sample of Artful: A Novel by Peter David. Since I spend all of seventh grade reading and rereading Oliver Twist [since if I declared myself finished I’d have had to write a book report on it], I thought it might be a good read.
Sadly, like all too many e-book samples, the sample of Artful was brief— too brief to get to the real beginning of the story. It was mostly the narrator showing bits of evidence of vampires in Oliver Twist (such as the fact that Fagin’s name could be rearranged to spell ‘I Fang’). And a lot of stuff about Oliver Twist was too passive and whiny, and it was amazing Charles Dickens didn’t have the wit to center the story on the Artful Dodger instead. (One retort that sprang instantly to mind was that if Dickens HAD, Peter David would have nothing to write about.)
I believe the criticisms of Oliver Twist are a sad sign of the tastes of our age. Because it wasn’t that Oliver Twist was passive— if he had been, he’d have died in the workhouse, unremarked. And it wasn’t that he was ‘whiny’. Yes, Oliver cried when other characters would have expressed anger, cynicism or just gone off and picked a pocket. But that was because Oliver was still possessed of that once cherished childhood quality of moral innocence, and the contrasting characters, having been already corrupted by an evil world, had lost that quality long ago.
Innocence was once a beautiful and attractive quality in fictional characters, much sought after by readers. Think of young Jane Eyre, or of Lucy and Mina from Dracula. We could see the evils afoot in the world more clearly when we saw characters like that, who had at least a touch of purity and light in them.
But what does the reader of today want? Dexter Morgan— the serial killer from Jeff Lindsey’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter and series. Here we have a serial killer as the first person narrator, and we see all of Dexter’s world from his corrupted point-of-view. The ‘good guys’ of the series such as Dexter’s late adoptive father Harry and his sister Deb are corrupted by their acceptance of Dexter’s serial killings, which are deemed OK since the victims are (mostly) uncaught murderers.
But I think the hunger for the innocent character is still there. Think of the anti-war novel series ‘The Hunger Games.’ Katniss Everdeen may be a minor-league rebel from the beginning with her illegal hunting and listening to Gale’s treason-talk. But she is innocent enough that when she decides the world is too awful to bring children into it, her method is to decide never to marry. Heck, today’s fifth graders are less innocent than that when the government-mandated sex education classes get through with them!
Don’t get me wrong— I like the Artful Dodger. And I’d love to read ‘Artful’ and see him in new adventures. But it is the pure and innocent characters of the world like Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre that really touch my heart. And it would be sad to see them wholly replaced by the cynical and the violent.
Random thought: maybe part of the appeal of Dexter Morgan is that though as a serial killer he is the ultimate in being a corrupted person, he also has a curious degree of innocence about social interactions— he doesn’t ‘get’ stuff that even a grade school kid gets about human relationships. To the point that often I felt Dexter seemed more like a person with Asperger Syndrome than a pure sociopath as the author probably intended.