The gaunt, pathetic figure of orphan Oliver being refused more gruel has become a literary and cultural icon, embedded in the national consciousness as a searing image of poverty and helplessness, dramatizing as it does the extent to which what is taken for granted at home is denied in the workhouse. Yet the novel, a powerful indictment of the workhouse, is also more than that, for even as Oliver escapes its callous grasp, he is snared by the criminal underworld of Fagin's gang. Oliver's struggle to be free of Fagin and Sikes, and his desperate search for a loving, nurturing home, express the theme that forms the real crux of the book; the poignant depiction of the evils of homelessness and its consequences. Full of vivid characterizations, biting irony and ghoulish humor, Oliver Twist is one of Dickens most enduringly popular works. The Toby Press edition of Oliver Twist is based on the Gadshill Edition of 1897, and includes Dickens's preface to the third edition. It also features an introductory essay and chronology by Professor H.M. Daleski, the former President of the International Dickens Society and formerly Chairman of the Department of English at Hebrew University. Book jacket.… (more)
Under the tutelage of the satanic Fagin, the brutal Bill Sikes and the wily Artful Dodger, Oliver learns to survive, although he is destined not to stay with Fagin but to find his own place in the world.
With its terrifying evocation of the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the depths to which poverty pushes the human spirit, Oliver Twist is both a fascinating examination of evil and a poignant moving novel for all times.
The storyline of Oliver Twist is very well known. Oliver, born of an unwed mother in a workhouse, suffers a deprived childhood under the tender care of parish officials (it is here that he is punished for famously asking, "Please, sir, I want some more"). At age nine Oliver is apprenticed to a coffin-maker, but is eventually driven from that harsh home. Oliver makes his way to London, where he is picked up by the Artful Dodger, one of a small gang of criminals. This gang is led by Fagin, an elderly Jew who trains the band in the art of theft and picking pockets. But Fagin has a special reason for making Oliver a thief. There is some mystery surrounding Oliver's birth, but how can it be discovered? What is the real history of his nameless mother, and why would anyone still care?
What strikes me principally about Oliver Twist is its gritty feel. Dickens doesn't hesitate in his other books to show poverty and suffering, but this story goes beyond that and portrays the individuals who people the seamy side of London in all their foulness and degradation. And yet at the same time, innocent Oliver provides the moral center of the novel. Often his innocence is taken advantage of and his naive youth manipulated, but the message is clear: moral virtue will always be rewarded in the end. This has been likened to a fairy tale, in which the good always triumph and the wicked are always punished.
I suppose it is also like a fairy tale in the sense that our hero Oliver possesses such high principles and firm moral character when all his life has been spent among other wretched children under selfish, calloused overseers. No one is naturally that good. I also found it difficult to appreciate Dickens' angelic female, Rose Maylie. Sometimes the descriptions of Rose are too flowery to bear. Perhaps Dickens overdid it just a bit to refresh himself after writing all his realistic gritty villains?
But Dickens makes up for these weaknesses with several brilliant characters, most notably Nancy, the fallen woman who is almost redeemed. Her struggle with the inexplicable desire to stay in her wretched life is probably the truest thing Dickens ever wrote. Nancy can envision a different life should she accept the help of Oliver's friends, but something in her clings instead to her old life. She returns to the scenes of her degradation, loyal even to the fiends who dragged her there — and dies for it. It is utterly tragic, and the worst of it is that she could have been different if Fagin and others had not set out to corrupt her. Little acts of selfishness can change another person's life forever.
I imagine there are essays discussing Dickens' anti-Semitism as depicted in Fagin, the foul crook who is more often than not referred to as "the Jew." It can't be denied that Fagin is a singularly distasteful character, with a stereotypical love of lucre, but I think there is a little more to it. First, the unlovely descriptions of Fagin are not that different from the descriptions of Dickens' many other villains. And somehow Dickens makes me pity Fagin, despite all his crimes. The chapter near the end that deals with Fagin's trial and state of mind after being sentenced to death is a masterpiece of psychological scrutiny, entirely believable and, in its way, heart wringing. I think Dickens pities Fagin too, not for his Jewishness but for the dreadful sneaking life he has lived and the horror of his death.
Certain moments stand out, crystalline in their emotional clarity. I think of Mr. Brownlow and Mr. Grimwig sitting across from one another with the watch between them, measuring Oliver's character. Or Nancy telling Rose through tears that "if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me." Or Sikes grinding his chair up against the wall, to keep the specter of his guilt from hovering at his back. Other moments are brilliant in their humor, like Mr. Grimwig threatening to eat his head and Mr. Giles telling of his daring exploits. There is just so much here.
I listened to this on audiobook read by Nadia May, and I understand why her work is so acclaimed. She has a warm voice and accent that wear well over the course of a long book like this. I could tell she was enjoying performing the story just as much as I was enjoying the performance. Her voice graces this story and I will certainly be looking for more audiobooks read by her.
All of this, this grand drama made up of petty cruelties, of small thefts and dramatic murders, of the uneven love between degraded man and degraded woman, of innocence, poverty, crime, desperation — all of this is Dickens' arena and he performs it like no one else. Oliver Twist reminds me why we still read classic literature today.
The plot has enough interesting elements, certainly. There's crime and punishment, kindness and cruelty, long-held secrets, and sudden reversals of fortune. Also huge honking coincidences, but at least Dickens introduces them gradually enough to give you time to shore up your suspension of disbelief. Oliver himself, though, really isn't much of a character. He's someone to whom things happen, not one who makes things happen, and his only defining traits are innocence, piteousness, and a vague, generic sort of sweetness. But this isn't necessarily a problem; he seems to me to be filling the role of a slightly sentimentalized everychild, and on that level he works well enough.
But what really makes this worth reading isn't the characters or the plot. It's the surprising little moments of human insight, the wonderfully sly and dark satiric humor, and the sharply pointed social commentary. And, unfortunately, while there may be no more workhouses in England, the attitudes towards the poor that Dickens targets here are still too familiar and relevant even now. It's brilliant writing, and if it occasionally brings a little bit of mawkishness or melodrama along with it, I find that entirely forgivable.
Somewhat less forgivable, though, is the portrayal of Fagin as an unpleasantly stereotypical villainous Jew. Interestingly enough, despite everything about this book that I already knew through cultural osmosis, I had never even realized that he was Jewish. Dickens, however, never lets you forget it for an instant. Every other sentence, he's referred to as "the Jew." My impression is that, for whatever it's worth, at least this is more thoughtless stereotyping than active maliciousness. A brief bit of research on the internet reveals that Dickens, having had the offensiveness of this pointed out to him, later revised the last fifteen chapters or so to tone it down. Which is something, I guess, but I don't know that it helps all that much. And it really is very unfortunate, both for the obvious reasons and because without the uncomfortable overtones of anti-Semitism, Fagin really could have been quite an entertainingly smarmy character. And he actually does get some surprisingly poignant moments at the end.
But I had forgotten how dark much of the book is -
Probably the reason the antisemitic aspect of the book gets so much attention is that the character of Fagin, like that of Sikes, and the other criminals, is far more interesting than any of the "good" characters. Oliver himself exists almost as a little puppet, to be buffetted about and rescued like a rag doll with about as much personality. Mr. Brounlow, Oliver's first patron, exists only to act as the Deus Ex Machina and explain the (many and ridiculous) coincidences that propel the plot. Even Nancy seems to become less interesting as she becomes "good," and the one false note in her otherwise shocking murder is her plea to Sikes to spare her and seek prayerful repentance.
As an early work of Dickens (his second novel, and written as he was finishing his first up), this book lacks the power of his later works. But when he is in the streets with London's criminals, or describing the ludicrous scenes in a police court (where he cut his teeth as a journalist), you see where this young man was heading.
While definitely not the best of Dickens' work, Oliver Twist gets much more
I very much enjoyed the ironic tone of Dickens as he describes the conditions of the poor who were subject to the New Poor Law at the time, which in fact did little to help them and in many ways made their lives even more miserable. This novel is a powerful social commentary as is well known, and it's easy to see where Dickens' sympathies lie. The lengthy narrative of this story which was originally published in monthly instalments is best enjoyed in small doses and I found that trying to listen to too many chapters at once kept me from enjoying the excellent quality of the writing and quickly became tedious. With the exception of Nancy, a young prostitute and Bill Sikes' girlfriend who decided to do all she could to help young Oliver—and came to a very brutal end for that reason—most of the characters were shown as being either all good or all bad.
This was especially problematic for me in the portrayal of Fagan—usually referred to as 'The Jew'—who was depicted as a reprehensible, cruel and grotesque creature throughout; a real caricature of the miserly Jew at his absolute worst. When he was accused of anti-semitism, Dickens asserted that he had simply meant to depict a specific kind of criminal, who at that time just so happened to usually be a Jewish man, and apparently tried to remedy to that by referring to him mostly as the less offensive 'Fagan' in the last chapters of the serial. But even though allowing for the fact that the novel was written at a time when prejudices were openly aired, it was hard for me to bear and took away from my general enjoyment of the story, to which I would have otherwise given a higher rating.
Actually, it's probably an interesting example of an author yet to develop his true writing skills (Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this).
Despite its verbosity, sentimentality, and exaggerated characterizations, how can you not love this book? Like a dog at your feet, it's there to be loved. What else are you going to do with it?
It also turns out to be much
Mr. Bumble...had a decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for office.
Dickens misses no opportunity to underscore the social ills of his time and place and to distribute ample helpings of blame freely up and down the social scale. He also holds us captive with a story that keeps us reading and soaking up his message.
So here they all are, the characters we know so well in so many incarnations, embedded as they are in the cultures of the English-speaking world and probably well beyond: the ever-so-good good guys: tender, mistreated Oliver; kindly, open-hearted Mr. Brownlow; sweet, sweet Rose, so impossibly angelic that it's a wonder she doesn't suffocate of her own virtue; and poor brave, doomed Nancy, without whom nothing could have turned out right; and the bad guys, not one of whom is without at least some small spark of sympathetic humanity to argue for redemption: sadistic Mr. Bumble; cocky Artful Dodger; unregenerate, duplicitous Fagin; mysterious, menacing Monks; and cruel, brutal Bill Sikes, a monster who comes to a fitting end that yet inspires horror.
Of the rambling story with its odd, protracted word-count-stretching digressions and amazing coincidences I have no comment to add to the immense body of commentary on the literature of Dickens: but to say that the story is brightest in single scenes and episodes, with the long arc serving mainly to string those together. It's in those vignettes that the brilliance of Dickens' characterization is displayed, and that, indeed, is why we fall in love.
For those unfamiliar with the story, we're taken on adventures with Oliver Twist…a boy who was born to an unknown woman in a poorhouse and spent his early life in poverty and obscurity. He leaves the poorhouse on an apprenticeship and later runs away to London where he encounters a band of thieves and ruffians and struggles to find his way in the world. That's the high level view of the story.
Being a Dickens novel, there is no shortage of characters or of vivid (sometimes overly lengthy) descriptions of people, places, things and events. In addition, there is frequent coincidental interactions between characters otherwise unrelated but linked through their acquaintance with our young hero. These coincidental meetings are believable at times and at other times Dickens stretches credibility to the limit by having these people's paths cross the way they do. I definitely acknowledge that "It's a Small World" and that karma and coincidental interactions are more frequent than we may admit, but the nature and degree that they happen in Dickens is sometimes comical.
Anyway, the arc of Oliver's life is a generally depressing one. He's scorned, imprisoned, tricked, beaten and wholly maltreated in spite of him being a very angelic and innocent young boy with no vices to speak of. In fact, Oliver's character may be too perfect…with his only flaws being flaws of circumstance rather than flaws of character and behavior.
As I mentioned, I knew the general plot progression from the movie/play, but I was somewhat surprised at a couple of significant differences. The first difference wasn't very striking (the introduction of a second wealthy family) and I could see why they left it out of the movie (it just adds additional levels of detail which is interesting and insightful but doesn't really progress the story in a vital way).
The second difference was much more important and was very interesting to me. (*slight spoiler, but I'll keep it high level*). In the movie/play, the thieves are primarily "led" by Fagin and Bill Sikes. The book actually includes a 3rd character kept even more in shadowy mystery until nearly the end of the book. And once again, this 3rd character is victim to Dickens's crazy circumstantial coincidence in that he has an intriguing tie to Oliver. I found this plot point intriguing and fun to unravel, but again, it wasn't wholly vital to the core of the story so I can see why it's excluded from modern productions. Still, it was a fun new angle for me.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It's definitely Dickens…true to his style in many regards. The language. The characters. The settings. All very Dickens. So if you're put off by Dickens, this isn't the story for you. Granted, it is a bit lighter than some of his other works but it is heavier than Christmas Carol or shorter stories and it's definitely not near as light as the treatment given in the play/movie. Furthermore, it's more depressing than the play/movie, so if you're looking for the lighthearted fun of Fagin and Dodger that you know from the modern production, you may be disappointed.
Overall, it was an enjoyable read. It wasn't as strong to me as other Dickens work but it was still a very worthwhile read and I'm glad I read it.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Many have seen the musical Oliver and other are certainly familiar with the story and many of the characters (Fagin, Bill Sykes and the Artful Dodger). Oliver became an orphan soon after birth and found himself in the tragic, hopeless life that met such destitute characters in Victorian England. After finally escaping from an abusive apprenticeship, he finds himself bounced back and forth between the mean streets of London (under the control of Fagin and Sykes) and the tender mercies of upper class patrons who take pity upon his condition (both physical and financial).
Having read several Dickens works prior to this one, I was aware that a period of acclimation is required before becoming comfortable with both the language and the cultural landscape, however the comfort that I eventually attained in the previous novels was more difficult to come by here. Deep into the book I found myself having a problem following some of the prose. Most frustrating, at the key point in the narrative where “all is explained”, I was at great pains to understand much of what was being related.
In addition, the book is very predictable and strains credibility in several instances. Quite simply, this is by far the weakest of the Dickens books I have sampled to date.
The constant identification of Fagin as a Jew I was forewarned about and it did make me uncomfortable, although I read sufficiently into the background of this novel that I was able to make a peace with Dickens' use of it. I also abided the infamous truckload of coincidences directing the plot. What I didn't expect - and appreciated - was the narrative tone, filled with (arch? caustic? sarcastic?) commentary on the goings-on. This novel has humour to rival that of The Pickwick Papers, but it's decidedly darker in tone and aimed at social commentary. I'm amused by the foreshadowing of personality through character naming - although, "Mr. Fang" sounds like a Chinese villain from a James Bond thriller, not a white police magistrate in 19th century London.
Where I disagree with the preface analysis is its statement that Oliver's tidy ending bespeaks a lack of imagination about how to end his story more realistically, as though Dickens shied away from addressing the truth about the lives of kids on the streets. I think we only need to look at Nancy, the Dodger, Oliver's friends he left behind, and a host of other characters to see where this life typically led. If Oliver is spared, it's to spare the readers (and not to lose their following; there will be opportunities to explore tragedy later, once he has them firmly in hand.) Dickens did perform a great service by introducing realistic lower classes to literature instead of romanticizing or avoiding them.
Dickens is difficult to get into at first and always a slow read for me, but never because he is boring; only because what he writes is so rich that I don't want to overlook a word of detail. Pickwick was hilarious and Oliver Twist has pulled my heartstrings, Nicholas Nickleby I read some years ago and liked its theatricality. Happily there's still many more novels to read.
The most interesting thing about Oliver Twist is that it works so well without any great
This e-book was originally released in serial format, to match how the book was originally released. That gave me a greater appreciation of how the book was originally experienced.