“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”
Oliver Twist is not one of these books but it is not one of Dickens’ best.
The story of Oliver Twist is possibly the most well-known of all Dickens’ novels, partly because of the hit 1968 musical Oliver!, starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis. For many Oliver Twist or Christmas Carol are our gateway drugs into the Dickensian world.
This novel is perhaps most famous for the infamous scene in the parish workhouse, in which the young Oliver – egged on by his fellow half-starved waifs – politely asks for more gruel.
Please, sir. I want some more.
This scene comes very early in the book, it is part of the second chapter of 53. Oliver soon leaves the workhouse and walks from his local parish to London. (The subtitle of the book is ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’.) There, of course, he meets the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates (mischievously referred to as ‘Master Bates’ throughout), and the rest of the gang of pickpockets, led by Fagin (who himself is under the thrall of the criminal mastermind, Bill Sikes).
This is Dickens’ second novel, the portrayal of Fagin as a despicable and ugly Jew with “a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man“, is rather unsettling, the anti-semitism of Dickens was largely redeemed by his later writings, notably in “Our Mutual Friend” where Mr Riah is a Jew and a very sympathetic character. In the first 38 chapters, Fagin is often referred to simply as “the Jew”.
If you are only familiar with the 1968 film, you will think of Fagin and Sikes as the two main villains, but in the book the principal villain is Monks, whose scheming tries to keep Oliver in abject misery.
The character of Oliver, I found a little insipid, he doesn’t seem like a real child. Dickens later wrote much better child characters such as David Copperfield, Pip and Jenny Wren. Even in Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins AKA “The Artful Dodger” is a more interesting and engaging character than young Oliver, who cries and swoons an awful lot.
Dickens is wordy, the lengthy descriptions of the squalour of the less salubrious parts of London are fantastic. Dickens balances the dark descriptions with lighter humorous scenes, Dickens wanted to critique the Poor Law of the times but knew to reach a wide audience he would need to entertain them. Throughout his novels he creates wonderful, memorable characters. Oliver Twist holds together as a novel better than Pickwick Papers, the many plot threads running throughout the tale are brought together neatly at the end. In the preface to the novel’s third edition, in 1841, Dickens writes that he “wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” Maybe this is why the character of Oliver is so dull, the darker characters like Sikes, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Nancy are more engaging. The plot is too reliant on coincidence to be credible, but Dickens is a fantastic writer and many features of the tale recur in subsequent stories: orphans, misers, the underbelly of London society, transportation, adoptions, the River Thames etc…
My rating : 4 out of 5
My progress through Dickens’s novels
Charles Dickens left us fifteen novels, and in an ideal world everyone would read all of them. I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels:
I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.
Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.
Great Expectations (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.
Our Mutual Friend (1865)… I read at the beginning of the year, so far it is my joint favourite along with Great Expectations.
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) I read in 2019. Like Oliver Twist it is rather un-PC, the principal villain Quilp being a hideous dwarf.
I still have eight left to read:
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
Dombey and Son (1848)
David Copperfield (1850)
Bleak House (1853)
Little Dorrit (1857)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)
Which should I start next?