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Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens book cover
Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy's Progress (1838) is Charles Dickens's second novel and possibly his best known, certainly the most frequently adapted for screen and stage. The novel follows the fortunes of young Oliver Twist, an orphan who begins life in the work house but is quickly sold into the employ of the local undertaker. Finding the situation intolerable, young Oliver runs away to London, where he is inducted in the art of pick-pocketing by Jack Dawkins (the artful dodger), and lured into joining a gang of thieves, presided over by the conniving Fagin. London's underworld is a dark and terrible place for a lonely parish boy to find himself, and even the kindly Nancy, girlfriend to the violent house-burglar Bill Sikes, can’t make Oliver comfortable in his new surroundings. When Oliver crosses paths with some well-to-do members of society the question is, will any of those proclaiming to be of charitable heart take pity on the fragile orphan, and intervene in his life for the better?   

Dickens's political ideas come to the fore, with his messages about the inequality of society and the perils of pauperism as lucid as ever they are. Oliver comes to represent the plight of the impoverished; Dickens cleverly using the misfortunes of this one little boy to expose the hypocrisy evident in the higher society, who claimed to care for the poor. In delivering this message Dickens draws fairly one-dimensional characters, and there is a sense that most are either “good” or “bad”, that morality is polarised in this way. Modern readers may find this unacceptable. However, the central tension in the novel, the pull between the gang of thieves and the well-wishers of society, for Oliver's affiliation, is an interesting and poignant one.

Oliver is a wholly angelic, and therefore a wholly dull, character; a circumstance necessary to appease the book-buying public, and allow them to sympathize with the orphan. On the other hand, Fagin and, to a lesser extent the Artful Dodger, are wonderful creations, standing out against the slightly flat cast around them. Fagin is a complex character who acts as both a surrogate mother and father to the boys he runs, and displays a dangerous mix of nurture and malevolence, of scheming and manipulating; as much as any of the characters he epitomises the contrasts between darkness and light so evident in the work. Fagin, regularly referred to as “the Jew”, is considered an anti-semitic character by today's standards, but it's worth noting that even at the original publication of Oliver Twist there were complaints against this portrayal of Jewishness. In light of this, Dickens chose to remove many of the references to Fagin's ethnic and religious background from later editions.

As only his second novel, there is still some refinement needed before Dickens reached the heights of his most critically-acclaimed works, however, Dickens's scorching wit, his wonderful irony and satire are on display here, and in many respects Oliver Twist could be considered a comic novel, despite the grave circumstances the protagonist faces. The prose can be a little bloated at times, but this is understandable given the system of financial recompense under which Dickens wrote, he being rewarded on the basis of word count. The number of coincidences that drive the plot may frustrate, and there is a neatness to the conclusion that smacks of fiction, and which sits badly with the realism the modern reader is now conditioned to. As one of Dickens’s best known stories, Oliver Twist offers an excellent introduction to his works, and is well worth re-visiting, no matter how well one may imagine one knows the story.

This is the first Dickens that I've read as a (relatively) mature reader, and I really enjoyed it. I don't think people realise how funny Dickens was, and is. Yes, the writing was a little verbose at times but there is so much to enjoy, in what is a well-known story.


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14 comments:

I agree, he is funny! Finally someone said it! :)

I'm sure it's been said before, but he is. Really funny. Now on to Great Expectations

That's interesting about Dickens removing the references to Fagin's ethnic background - I didn't know that.

I have to admit that the only Dickens I have read is A Christmas Carol. Oliver Twist probably appeals to me the most out of all his other novels.

Yes, I was actually quite surprised on two counts; (i) That it was seen as anti-semitic, even back then. I think we have a tendency to assume these things come with hindsight; (ii) If the version I read was the cleaned up manuscript then the original must have been pretty bad.

I'm just getting started on Dickens - I've always been slightly embarassed to admit that I've never opened one of his books, so I'm putting it right now. I'd definitely recommend Oliver Twist as a good starting point.

Oliver Twist is my least favorite of the Dickens I've read, but I still loved it. I hope you enjoy Great Expectations. I love the humor in it!

Really? Well that's pretty exciting then, because I enjoyed Oliver Twist, but if that's just the tip of the iceberg then I've got a lot to look forward to :)

I plan on cracking open Great Expectations this weekend - I'm really surprised at how well Dickens's humour translates to our times. Often, I struggle with humour from that long ago (although I could just be a humourless grump? possible).

I read this one last year and really struggled through the first 2/3, for all the reasons you state above. But it pulled through for me in the final stretch, and I ended up liking it. I think eventually I'll want to reread it to better appreciate that first 2/3. :D

If you want funny, you should read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. :D
I'm going to try to read Great Expectations after David Copperfield. I look forward to your thoughts. :D

Yes, there's were passages where it meandered too much for me, but the humour kept me going. I'm not finding Great Expectations as witty, but it definitely has a stronger plot so far.

I read Northanger Abbey after I visited Bath a couple of years ago. You're right, it is funny, and having just visited a lot of the places made it all the better for me :)

Thanks for a good review. However, I think I would have mentioned a few other things too. The effect of the 1834 poor law on the book, for example. Pathetic fallacy though, with the whole country vs city thing going on, and I disagree with you a bit about the polarisation of characters, and about oliver. I agree he is horrifically boring, but think it was really a mistake on dickens' part. But then, that only stands if you read the characters as more complex than you found them. I think mr bumble should've got a mention too.

Yes, the poor law - I probably should have mentioned that. Mr bumble wouldn't fit in my tight form unfortunately, which is a shame because he was one of my favourite characters. So Oliver is a result of poor writing, not constrained writing?

Ah, see to me Mr Bumble is the most important character in terms of the comment Dickens makes on society. He's the only bad character of the lot, because he should know better and is in a position where he could do good, yet he exploits it. Hypocritical and self intetested, inkeeping with Dickens' attitude towards treatment of the poor overall. Oliver is a problem. Dickens is trying to suggest poor people aren't inherently bad, then turns around and makes Oliver saintly and able to resist any temptation suggesting that people aren't really a result of their circumstances after all.

I'm not sure about Mr Bumble. Dickens seems to dish out rewards/punishments based on how he viewed the characters behaviours, which puts Bumble mid-range. I also think he didn't really have power to change anything. He was middle-management, and fairly incompetent at that. It's the governors who are the real problem, perhaps. Oliver is interesting, dickens was capable of writing much better characters so why didn't he? Perhaps it was just bad writing, it seems extremely strange to me. Oliver barely had any dialogue, maybe even Dickens was bored by him?

Ha ha, you won't like pip much either then. I think in a lot of ways oliver isn't really important, he's a means of highlighting the things going on in society that Dickens wants to talk about. I often feel that the central characters in his stories are more a means to get somewhere than intersting in their own right, e.g in bleak house it's all about the courts, failings of the legal system and love, not Ada, Richard and Esther. The social commentary bit is more important than the novel bit. As for bumble, middle management yes, but he stands as a representative of everything Dickens doesn't like.

Yes, that's the impression I got. Oliver just had to be inoffensive and allow Dickens to work his points around him. I think the Bumble thing is probably just an example of why the novel is good, not great. The satire is funny, but not scathing, not well-directed enough.