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The Devil XV Poverty


Fagin; Ignorance; Want; Oliver Twist.


Oliver Twist; A Christmas Carol.

         Charles Dickens began writing Oliver Twist while still writing The Pickwick Papers. Many people enchanted by the bumbling Mr. Pickwick found Mr. Bumble's cruelty to the workhouse orphan Oliver a disquieting darkening of tone. Lord Melbourne, the young queen's prime minister and mentor, informed Victoria “It's all Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets... I don't like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don't like them in reality, and therefore I don't wish them represented.” The queen herself, to her credit and edification, found it all “excessively interesting”.


 Oliver Twist's alternate title, A Parish Boy's Progress, suggests its kinship with the Christian allegory and moral instruction of The Pilgrim's Progress, The Rake's Progress, and The Harlot's Progress. When the orphan Oliver is born into the poverty and servitude of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, gives him the perverse surname Twist – a 19th Century colloquial term for death by hanging. As the novel unfolds, Oliver is taunted by the recurring assumption he will meet his fate on the gallows, just as he is dragged and coerced into a life of crime, the inescapable conclusion of which is capital punishment. When 9 – the age Dickens was when made to work at Warren's Blacking factory – Oliver is forced to unpick oakum – a tedious, damaging, filthy labour which consists of painstakingly unravelling old tar-soaked rope.


 This, and Oliver's famous line, “please, sir, I want some more”, is something of a satire on The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 – a Utilitarian inspiration which served to rejuvenate the old abuses in a more unpleasant form and allowed faults of the old law to continue under the new. Thus, Oliver Twist is seen to indulge in The Devil card what the previous Temperance card managed in Hard Times to moderate. It may be remembered that Dickens was not only just turned 25 when he undertook Oliver Twist, but during its execution his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died suddenly [cf. the Death card]. Dickens' polemic against the reductive Utilitarian concept of human life is fleshed out later in the novel by Fagin's homily to Noah Claypool, here aliased "Morris Bolter":


'Every man's his own friend... Some conjurors say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven. It's neither, my friend, neither. It's number one.'

'Ha! Ha!' cried Mr. Bolter. 'Number one for ever!'

'In a little community like ours,' said the Jew, who felt it necessary to qualify this position, 'we have a general number one; that is, you can't consider yourself as number one without considering me too as the same, and all the other young people.'

'Oh, the Devil!' exclaimed Mr. Bolter.


 This little scene also illuminates another very effective device utilized by gangs, organizations, and nations, namely: the atavistic tribal bond of loyalty, solidarity, and family. What Buddhism calls the three poisons or unwholesome roots – ignorance, attachment, and aversion. Dickens blackly plays on this misery which pervades Oliver Twist by indenturing the poor orphan to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. The aptly named Sowerberry, unhappily married, employs Oliver as a mourner at children's funerals on account of the boy's convincingly sorrowful countenance. When fellow apprentice Noah Claypool, envious of Oliver's employment as mute, baits the boy by insulting the honour of his dead mother, Oliver responds in a fury of violence – all serving to verify everyone's opinion of him as doomed for the gallows. Confined to his room, Oliver's weeping is not confined to mimicry.


 Running away to start a new, better life in London, Oliver falls in with Jack Dawkins, a.k.a. the Artful Dodger, and the good-humoured Charley Bates – whom Dickens can't seem to help himself from calling Master Bates. Oliver's peers provide the trusting boy with a free meal and tell him of a gentleman who will “give him lodgings for nothing and never ask for change.” In this way, Oliver is inveigled into the gang of juvenile pickpockets headed by the devilish Jew, Fagin. What follows is Oliver's inculcation into the world of petty street crime, punctuated by his rescue from it and placement in a secure home, only to be recaptured by Fagin through a series of accidents and adverse circumstances. In this way, like bread being kneaded or a bowl being moulded from clay, Dickens describes how ignorance, bad luck, necessity, the system, occasion, and want – or, in short, Poverty – lead to a human being's corruption.


 As evil as Fagin is, there is something nevertheless ambiguous about him. In what way and why becomes a little clearer when we remember that Dickens was himself as a boy removed from school, had his home broken up, was hired out as a menial labourer, and left alone “as a lodger to a reduced old lady”. As he later recalled, “But for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” Fagin, treacherous sponsor that he is, also has something pathetic and almost pitiable about him. Perhaps it is because his race is relentlessly singled-out and made so unsavoury a generalization of? Perhaps because we, like Oliver, are being taken in? Or perhaps because, when the 12-year-old Dickens found himself alone and frightened in the blacking warehouse, the kindly boy who took him under his wing, called him “the young gentleman”, showed him the tricks of the trade, and nursed him when he was ill, was a boy of Dickens' own age named Bob Fagin. That the boy Fagin showed such kindness to the young author at such a dark episode in his life placed Dickens in a kind of double bind – what he later recalled as “the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship”, since this very kindness, by softening the blow, threatened to inure “the young gentleman” to a life of hopelessness, hardship, and inescapable poverty.


 Dickens, of course, was one of the lucky few, able through circumstance and intercession to escape this fate. In fact, though it haunted him his entire life, and unlike many who experience no such luck or intercession from birth to death, Dickens was reduced to this humiliating and menial station for only 9 months. Still, it can be said the primary concern throughout Dickens' life was for the condition of children and the pernicious effects of Poverty on all aspects of the world they are born into. When he read of the deplorable condition of child labour in the Second report of Children's Employment Commission of 1843, Dickens undertook to write a pamphlet in response entitled An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child. Thinking better of it, as pointed out in the previous card Temperance, he wrote A Christmas Carol instead. There, on Temperance, Angela Coutts acting as angel leads a boy and girl child through the world's perils; here, on The Devil card, an angelic female figure - her face obscured - presents to the reader the girl Want and the boy Ignorance from A Christmas Carol. As the Spirit tells Scrooge:


 “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ”Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

 “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

 “Are there no prisons” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses.”


 In this way, the problem of Poverty, first seriously essayed by Dickens in Oliver Twist, may find its solution in the Judgment XX Ebenezer Scrooge card. But initially, here in the real world, Dickens found the solution to Poverty not in more democratic rights – or, frankly, more rights period – for the poor and disenfranchised, but rather in education. As he aged, Dickens' disparagement of suffrage grew more absolute to where, a year before he died, he pronounced before a select assembly: “My faith in the people governing is, on the whole, infinitesimal; my faith in the people governed, is, on the whole, illimitable.” Concomitant with this, Dickens came to doubt the value of education as a solution to Poverty. Feeling himself trapped - unable to write about life truthfully, or live his life truthfully instead of in shame and secrecy - Dickens chafed and kicked against his own shackles. The self-made man who had argued in the Hard Times of the Temperance card for the rewards – spiritual and otherwise – of a liberal education, came in the end to unmake this man, as reflected in the characters of Bradley Headstone and Charlie Hexam. Conversely, Dickens' sympathies began to accrue in disaffected, profligate, almost dandified individualists like Eugene Wrayburn and Sydney Carton.


 Even in his novel Hard Times and the Temperance card itself, cracks can be seen forming as Dickens strains to argue fancifully for the value of fantasy while meantime, in the real world, he applauds the inculcation of facts and the tutelage of functional utility in poor children [cf. 5 of Air – Thomas Gradgrind]. Education, with its promise of redemption, had become for Dickens a surface affectation – after all, when soberly considered, he had not really had much in the way of a proper education himself. Education came to be seen as just another veneer, like all other societal presumptions. No matter how much education was afforded a poor child, the individual's nature and merit went fundamentally unchanged below the surface – or worse, it eventually curdled and buckled under the stress. In the end, then, through his own Poverty as it were, Dickens harboured and became fettered to an idée fixe first glimpsed as early as Oliver Twist. For, unlike actual Oliver Twists suffering the Poverty of the real world, the Oliver Twist of Oliver Twist was inherently good, and so born of noble blood. The point Dickens ostensibly attempts to make – that any child may be corrupted by the cruel exigencies of Poverty, regardless of class – is contradicted and undone by Dickens himself. By making Oliver unique, as he, Dickens - “the young gentleman” - considered himself to be, he undermined and refuted his own proposition.


 That is, unless we see all life as inherently good from the beginning, decry Original Sin, and hold the world itself as evil. The reflexive view of oneself as inherently good and the reactionary internalization of the man-made system of class epitomizes the blindness and slight of hand implicit in The Devil card – its Ignorance, Want, and Doom. Or, its Poverty of the soul.



 This particular salvation from perdition - one made in Dickens' own image, hewn from his childhood, applied to all, and the only one available to him in the end - is the central meaning of The Devil card, but there are others. As the poor are always with us, Poverty is a cruel bondage for the majority of people in the world, innocent and guilty alike – a living Hell on earth less discerning than the eschatological one. When one contingent of the population hide behind ignorance to retain superiority over the remaining contingent of people struggling in want, the whole family of humanity languishes in servitude, there is no progress – the great Parish of Man is doomed to perish.


 There remains one thing worth noting that Oliver Twist was uniquely able to do. Written as it was concurrently with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist infused the latter section of Pickwick with some of the dark realities it had uncovered while reporting on London's poor. By placing the guileless Pickwick unjustly in the poor house for all England to see, Dickens accomplished something almost fiendish in nature, namely: his second work of fiction influenced his first. The Devil seduced and entrapped The Fool. As life is not static, neither is the Tarot – it is a journey of both the universal and the unique. By making Oliver an outsider, with no family, no friends, no home, and no recourse through human institutions to his own humanity, Dickens was able to reveal to us in Oliver Twist our own alienation - as well as our very acts of alienating – from the inside out.



Notes for General Circulation : 


  • The Devil represents stagnation, material frustration, hindrances to moral development, and finally the barriers to spiritual emancipation.

  • Rather than depict the Devil himself, whose role is easily misinterpreted, the central representational figure on The Devil card is obscure. The characters in Oliver Twist are as the layers of an onion or the Stations of the Cross - they lead one regressively from Oliver to Noah Claypool to the Artful Dodger to Fagin to Bill Sykes to Monks. It will be remembered that much of Oliver Twist's misfortune is in actuality orchestrated from the shadows by Oliver's own half-brother, Monks. This enigmatic, nefarious figure represents the malevolent aspects inherent in the fraternity of man - his very epithet, Monks, being a black joke on the reclusive religious order of brothers.

  • The two figures on either side of the card, and the male and female children, draw an affiliation between The Lovers, Temperance, and The Devil cards. Choices bond up in the 6th Arcanum may become as the bondage of the 15th. The 14th Arcanum may attempt to ameliorate the manacles of duality, or it may indeed reveal that what in the beginning seemed to be choices were in the end not choices at all. As written on the forehead of Want, Doom may be sponged from the stone, for these are not the shadows of things that Will be, but the shadows of things that May be, only. In this way, the dialectic of these 3 cards May be seen in the 20th Arcanum: Judgment.

  • In the smoke-choked maze of London streets which forms The Devil card's background, the elements Fire, Air, and Earth are represented, but not Water. The undine element is missing precisely because it loosens, refreshes, dissolves; The Devil XV Poverty card represents rigidity, rigor mortis, the state of being insensate - it is in desperate want of Water, essential symbol of life itself. 

  • Oliver and Fagin on either side of The Devil card suggest the penitent and impenitent thieves of Christ's Crucifixion. That 2 males supplant the tradition male/female dichotomy of the 15th Arcanum highlights the principally male aspect of incarceration and impasse The Devil represents. The obscured angelic figure and the children she shields highlight man's conflation of sexual neurosis and Original Sin, symbolized in the novel by the disgrace and obfuscation surrounding Oliver's birth.

  • On the literal, superficial, mundane plane, The Devil indicates the disruption and corruption of character, loss of power and money, and a reduction to animal subsistence. On a deeper, more accurate level, The Devil represents stagnation, deadlock, obstruction, vexation, and a sense of insuperable spiritual ostracism. As the ensuing 16th Arcanum card implies, something has to give before even one more step can be taken. 

  • Only through sacrifice or suffering can regeneration occur. Thus, The Devil, reaching here an impasse, is sent back to the Death card. It will be remembered that Mary Hogarth died while Dickens was writing Oliver Twist. The character of Oliver's angelic aunt Rose Maylie is homage to Mary Hogarth. Dickens contrived to have Rose Maylie fall deathly ill, but he could not bring himself to kill her. Instead, this death would have to wait until Little Nell Trent, whose name and nature are a clear allusion to Nelly Ternan, The High Priestess.  

  • Superficially, The Devil is affiliated with Taurus, the most material of the zodiacal signs. This creates a fraternity between The Devil and The Hierophant. Where there was putatively displayed transparency and pride, here the veil is rent to reveal Stygian obscurity and abasement. On a deeper, more accurate level, The Devil is affiliated with Taurus' polarity, Scorpio, where Water stagnates, intentions remain incomplete, truths stay half true, lies fester, and frustrations fetter the soul. All crimes and deficiencies of spirit are contained within the Scorpionic domain, awaiting regeneration through self-sacrifice. This, symbolized by the universality of the crawling crustacean, is Scorpio's damnation; seen in its highest symbol the sole Phoenix, it is Scorpio's salvation.


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