Thursday, December 15, 2016

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

"My sole desire to to proceed straight through this history with all convenient despatch." 

"Don't be afraid; we won't make an author of you, while there's an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to turn to."
-- from Oliver Twist (p. 135, 108)

It's funny that Oliver Twist is the Dickens novel that got the full-on musical treatment, with 1968's Oliver! Although the young Oliver Reed was dead-on casting for the brutal Bill Sikes. It's the grimmest of all the Dickens that I've read (so far). Unrelieved by comedic side trips, it sticks closely to Oliver's life and experience, only straying to relate what's going on with characters who pretty directly affect him, so it lacks the broad panorama-of-society effect of, say, Bleak House. Many of Dickens' novels depict squalor, poverty, and misery, in large doses, and also expose the corruption of society that allows them to exist, but in Oliver Twist, the darkness seems particularly unrelieved. Even the boy's brief escape to the home of kindly Mr. Brownlow comes off like a twist of the knife (oh, sorry about the pun), snatching away a glimmer of hope.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf annoyed me by saying of Charlotte Bronte's writings that " if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly." Well, it's pretty obvious that if Jane Eyre was written in a rage, so was Oliver Twist, and then some.

I'm not the only one to notice this: G. K. Chesterton wrote that even the humorous parts of Oliver Twist "amuse, but they cannot be enjoyed ... Dickens makes game of Mr. Bumble because he wants to kill Mr. Bumble" (25). The famous Fagin is described as "like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness" (Dickens 153), but even he's better than the heartless authorities who profit off human misery.

Eventually -- and sure, spoilers, why not? -- Oliver has to get shot before things in his life take a turn for the better, and he finally meets some people who don't view him as a number in a ledger column or a resource to be exploited, but as a little boy alone in the world, who needs some help.

The machinations of melodrama, with some fantastic but fully anticipated coincidences that connect various characters, seem a little balder here than in some of his other novels, although that leads to a refreshing, uh, twist, when Oliver's background is revealed. He was the son of a miserably married gentleman and a young lady he loved, making him the heir to a fortune, and bitterly resented by his dissipated half-brother. When the latter calls him a "bastard child," kindly Mr. Brownlow "sternly" says "that term ... reflects true disgrace on no one living, except you who use it" (431, 432). Right on!

Similarly, the most sympathetic character in the book is Nancy, whose position as a prostitute is only slightly obscured. She's clearly not responsible for the options she met with in life, and while there are some speeches on the subject, and her ultimate acts of nobility, I liked that her character was sketched so well in one early line: "There was no flinching about the girl" (161).

So, Dickens. Please, sir, may I have some more? I still have at least five full novels to go, and just don't know what's next. I'm still resistant to David Copperfield and Great Expectations, so I'm guessing those will be the last. Leaning toward Hard Times, or maybe Martin Chuzzlewit. I hear so much about his attacks on America that it sounds pretty entertaining.

Chesterton, G.K. Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens. Kelly Bray, Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2008.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin, 2003.


  1. I always struggled a bit to love Oliver as much as the other books and I think you've put your finger on why - the lack of real humour. I do love Martin Chuzzlewit though - the American scenes are fun! Mind you, I also love David Copperfield, even though it contains one of Dickens' most sickly sweet female characters of all... but there's also one of his strongest women to balance it up a bit.

  2. Yeah, it's good, and I'm glad I finally read it, but it's not in my top Dickens favorites. I respect it, but it's the first one I didn't really love.