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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