Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and the HBO television series The Wire are two works of art dealing with a similar subject matter: urban decay, poverty, and the various ways that poor people are corrupted by the societal ills of their time. But the similarities stop there.
One is a picaresque, while the other is a realistic depiction. One wraps up its ending in a neat little bow, while the other offers a largely unresolved plot. While one has spawned a hit Broadway musical, as well as the archetypical image of the Victorian street urchin, Broadway audiences would be hard-pressed to imagine the street characters of the other singing much of anything.
The difference between urban poverty as imagined by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist and the writers of The Wire are profound, so one could rightly ask why even try to compare them? To me, the answer to this question has more to do with form than content.
One should start by saying that David Simon and his team of writers were probably not thinking of Dickens when they were coming up with the storylines for The Wire. Simon no doubt thinks that Dickens’ version of Victorian-era London is overly “sentimental”, a word that is often used to describe Dickens, especially by artists working within the tradition of realism. But it’s interesting to notice that even the realism used on The Wire owes a debt to dramatic indulgences akin to those employed by Dickens in Oliver Twist.
All art dealing with subject matter that makes a claim to “the real” must deal with the very simple fact that art is an abstraction. At the very bottom of our understanding of art that tries to represent reality, we must understand that it is still just a representation. With The Wire, just as with Oliver Twist, one would be very foolish to confuse what we see in either with “what actually happens”; a savvy audience doesn’t take even a documentary film as gospel truth, much less a scripted television series. So the lesson one takes from viewing The Wire alongside reading a book (or watching the film version) like Oliver Twist is that to understand true-to-life stories, we must understand such stories as reality, and then some.
Barney Clark as Oliver in Oliver Twist (2005)
The subject matter taken up by both Oliver Twist and The Wire is, of course, very sad, and in their purest form the facts of this material would create not tragedies where we come away with our minds scrubbed clean by catharsis, nor even realism, but we come away only with tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The reality of Victorian London was that, for many, it was hell; countless children died, and no one will ever know their names. The same is true of many modern cities, where life is cheap and death walks among the living. There is no redeeming quality to these facts and of course, there shouldn’t be.
Baltimore’s drug trade as it exists now, or the life of the orphan in Victorian-era London, are not only unbearable but nearly incomprehensible in terms of what we understand as story, or even logic for that matter. In other words, if we are going to learn about the slow (and very undramatic) grinding of the human spirit as it occurs within these two settings, some necessary dramatic indulgences will have had to be made.
The “then some” that is added to the “reality” of these works makes the harshness of their message palatable to our aesthetic senses, and thus makes those messages effective. But again, it should be noted that palatability to the artistic senses and palatability to the moral or social sense are not the same. One deals with the means by which a message is given, the other deals with the message itself. The aesthetic sensibility that is appeased in the telling of a sad story often violates the moral sensibility. In fact, one could even posit that it is impossible to get across a sense of moral violation, without appeasing the aesthetic sensibility.
So the profoundly different ways that Oliver Twist and The Wire make use of “reality, and then some” being, respectively, sentimentality and realism, can be equally constructive to our aesthetic sensibilities, depending on our taste, and thus to our moral sensibilities as pertaining to the real things they are talking about. And this is important, if only for the reason that, when we understand that both these works have added a “then some” to the bare facts of their represented realities, we understand that reality better. In addition, the ways that either work adds their respective “then somes” are very relevant to the “realities” they are ultimately trying to express.
The “then some” used by Oliver Twist is, a sense of light-hearted adventure, and much more comedy than one would think possible of the material. Oliver is the uncorrupted orphan, and he is surrounded by clowns. He is the representation of all that is good and true, not just about poor people specifically, but humanity in general. He is that which is at stake in the cruel machinations of Fagin and Sikes, the ideal against which the base cleverness of the Artful Dodger is meant to be understood.
This is not to say that Fagin and Sikes and the Artful Dodger are wholly contemptible characters, but that they just aren’t Oliver. There are gradations to their states of corruption, some of which has to do with circumstance, some of which has to do with inner worth. But what Oliver shows is that ultimately the inner self is not subject to the outer world. And so the sentimentality (or idealism) of Oliver’s character makes a bold statement, that however bad this world gets, a person can remain oneself.
But even more interesting than what Oliver Twist has to say about the final effect of the “reality” of Victorian London is the transformation of contemptible characters into comedic entities. The fact that Oliver is safe, as it were, from being corrupted by his reality transforms many of his corrupters from villains to clowns. We get a sense throughout that Oliver will be okay in the end, and that even if he doesn’t make it back to good Mr. Brownlow, he will be whisked away to heaven like Elijah, the ultimate happy ending. And so Fagin and Sikes, in trying to topple Oliver’s unimpeachable goodness, become less like men corrupting a child and more like clowns tripping over their own shoes. Think Home Alone… This is a film, basically about home invasion, yet it’s funny because we know that Kevin is safe from the bumbling burglars.
While the villains of Oliver’s story are both very poor and very cruel, they are also totally blind to their own poverty and cruelty, so much so that the individual behavior that supports the larger infrastructure of London’s corruption appears as farce. We see characters of government workers who are so overdrawn in their willingness to mistreat the orphans in their charge, starving, beating, and enslaving them, that their particular character aspects become ridiculous, rather than sad.
Even small details like Ms. Corney and Mr. Bumble’s grotesque romance or Nancy’s fits of rage become funny. We ask, “How could Mr. Bumble quibble about the quality of tea, or even his own income, when children are dying because of his actions?” But we end by laughing rather than shaking or heads; these evil characters are caricatures, yes, but they are caricatures of thematic import. The way that this sentimental and comedic “then some” interlocks with the “reality” of the facts of the orphans’ lives create a thematic difference.
This is especially true when this thematic difference is viewed against the characters in The Wire, whose corruption is total. Individuals cannot stand against the particulars of their environment; characters are defined by where they happen to be, and there is no real escape from Baltimore. In fact, there is little to separate the characters from their setting. Setting is character, and each character is neither more nor less than the environment by which he or she is surrounded.
What’s more, all characters seem to be aware of this fact. The poor characters know that they are poor; the corrupted characters know that they are corrupted; the characters who know that they are destined for an early grave, defending a street corner that ultimately has no real value, are fully aware of themselves and their limited roles in this world.
And so the “then some” that emerges from these aspects of The Wire is a certain level of romance. The characters of The Wire revel in their lots; they rage against their circumstances, too, but their ultimate comforts are romantic, that they would solider through unthinkable odds and retain their dignity. Kima talks with a quiver in her voice about the patent leather shoes of the senior police officer who dropped the handcuffs, or “bracelets”, to her on her first arrest as a cadet. Bubs describes the slum where he will lay his head with the words, “Heaven ain’t far from here.”
Wallace, perhaps the closest analogue to Oliver Twist, is offered an escape from his life in “the game”; he can go live with his grandmother in the country. But he says, “It’s all right here” pointing to the streets where he has always lived, and he chooses to stay in Baltimore, even despite his very real danger.
Where in Oliver Twist, sentimentality merges with “reality” to yield comedy, the non-sentimentality of The Wire merges with “reality” to create romance. And while the differences between these effects are profound, such differences between two works of art pale in comparison to the difference between either one of them and “what really happens”.