2.03.2013

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist
I think that most people have a PG conception of Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist in their heads rather than the very adult original, kind of like they do for the Grimm brother's fairy tales and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Even though I haven't seen the musical, I was still expecting something a lot lighter than I found. I've read Dickens before, so I should have known better. Dickens has a reputation for being a social crusader, but I don't think I've seen this side of him as clearly as I did in Oliver Twist. The opening chapters in particular, which describe Oliver's early life at a baby farm and in the workhouse, are absolutely scathing, dripping with sarcasm for the people are supposed to be taking care of the poor and the orphaned.

Doing some background reading about Oliver Twist helped me appreciate it more. Apparently, Dickens favorite books when he was younger were the picaresques of Henry Fielding and others. This goes a long way to explaining why Dickens books are notorious for surprising incidents of extraordinary good and bad luck and amazing coincidences. Even though there are scads of characters, Dickens' books always seem like they're taking place in the proverbial small world because all the named cast keep running into each other or witnessing critical events in the plot. Oliver Twist, of course, is no exception. Unless you read this as a picaresque, you'll spend most of the novel rolling your eyes thinking, "What are the odds?"

I'm sure the beginning of this book is fairly well know. Oliver is born and immediately becomes an orphan. He grows up in extreme poverty. Shortly after being sold to apprentice to an undertaker, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls in with the Artful Dodger and Fagin's small criminal empire. Because Oliver is a preternaturally good child, he resists their attempts to turn him into a pickpocket. After a short run of good luck, Oliver is forced to help the terrifying Bill Sikes rob a house. When it goes wrong, Oliver actually manages to fall in with good people. From there, in spite of numerous plots against him, Oliver's life turns around. Since this book was published in 1839, I don't have any qualms about telling you that Oliver gets a happy ending.

The last 100 pages of this book were my favorite. Even though I knew what Dickens has modeled his story on, it took a long time for me to adjust to the amazing luck (good and bad) of the characters. It also took me a long time to adjust to the lack of subtlety in the characters. Most of the characters are either very, very bad or very, very good. Apparently, Dickens took note of the reaction each time a new part of the book was published and actually adjusted the characters as he went. I could actually see it with Sikes. For most of the book, he is psychopathic. You never know what's going to set him off. But after he murders Nancy, his sense of guilt seems to get the better of him:
He [Sikes] when on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, and plunged into the solitude and darkness of the road, he felt a dread and awe creeping upon him which shook him to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or moving, took the semblance of some fearful thing (Chapter XLVIII*)
Sikes grows more and more paranoid and Dickens leaves the exact intent of his death ambiguous, so that we're not sure if his death was accidental or a suicide. For me, this was the climax of the book. Reading about Oliver's happy ending was almost boring after Sikes' death.

All of which makes me think that Oliver is just a flimsy glue to keep the plot together. You wouldn't have to work hard to argue that this book is more about poverty and crime than it is about any single person. The parts of the book that describe the rookeries of  London and the workhouses are the most richly detailed parts of the book. The other parts seem wan in comparison. In later books, Dickens does a much better job of bringing everything, settings and characters, to life. But then Oliver Twist was only his second novel. It's a little strange to look at a master's early works, before they quite knew what they were doing.

* I read the Project Gutenberg version of the book. Who knows what page this quote comes from?

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