Oliver Twist surprised me.
Oliver’s story is familiar to me: I watched the musical many times as a young girl (my mother fast forwarding past That Scene). I loved the music and found the characters delightful. I always loved Artful Dodger!
And yet, when I read the book, I was surprised.
I expected this book to elegantly written, engrossing, complicated, and suspenseful, and I won’t say that it wasn’t those things at various points. I really enjoyed reading it, and I really loved some of the characters. However, to me, most of Oliver Twist was convenient and pretty ordinary. I felt Dickens had a little bit of genius, and yet something was missing from the novel as a whole. As I reviewed his list of novels this morning, I realized that Oliver Twist was one of his first. I wonder, then, if Dickens was still working toward a masterpiece.
The bonus of Oliver Twist being “convenient” is that I don’t think anyone should be intimidated by it. Although it is Dickens’ wordy writing (and that takes a little getting used to), Oliver Twist is easy to follow, the characters are delightfully described, and the plot is not overly complicated. Plot-wise, it felt like a modern novel. It was a best-seller of its day, and I’m not surprised.
There is something comforting about a familiar “rags to riches” story. Oliver kept being brought to the upper class society and then loosing it again, for one reason or another, and as a reader I could not help but hope for him. I loved the parts of the story that had been eliminated in the movies I’d seen and I wish, now that I know the entire story, they hadn’t been eliminated because I liked those characters and the setting. I saw the end coming from a mile away, but it was okay. Dickens’ plot was convenient (as characters just “happened” to be in the right place at the right time, etc.), but that made it accessible and hopeful. I’ve seen Oliver compared to Cinderella, and I would have to agree there are similarities between the stories.
One thing that stood out to me was the concept of nature versus nurture. Oliver, an orphaned boy, still had instincts to do right, and he was consistently appalled by the vices surrounding him. Nancy also had similar instincts: although she’d been raised in “poverty’s vices,” she wanted to do “good.” (What “good” is, of course, can be debated.)
I loved Nancy’s character. She was much more complicated than the movies make her out to be, for she truly loved Bill Sikes. I’m not sure why – that is never clear to me, even in the book – but she does. She won’t save herself unless she saves him too. I thought it was beautiful.
The characters of Fagin, Artful Dodger, Mr. Fang, and Mr. Bumble (to name a few) were perfect caricatures, and I loved “meeting” them through Dickens’ descriptions. (From those names alone, guess which one is a bad guy. Now guess which one is the comic relief.). Even Fagin and Dodger, though, had some complicated depth to them. Dickens obviously hopes the reader learns a lesson in compassion by reading about the struggles of the lowest class. I found I had sympathy for the Artful Dodger and even Fagin, who do ultimately meet their “deserved punishments.” I couldn’t help but wish some different ending were possible for them. I wish they had more a chance to live. As it was, they seemed rather stuck.
Although Oliver is surrounded by horrible situations, I still felt Dickens had a tone of hope underscoring it all. At points, I wondered if that was because I knew what would happen in the end. But I know Dickens intended Oliver Twist to be somewhat humorous. For example, by illustrating the dichotomy of the wealthy, fat parish leaders feasting while orphaned work house children starve on gruel, Dickens could make fun of the wealthy, all the while underscoring the need for something to be done differently. There’s also humor among Fagin’s boys, especially the Artful Dodger. (I loved the account of his appearance before the beaks!)
There are so many other things that stood out to me about Oliver Twist, but as this book is the subject of the book club I’m leading in two and a half weeks, I think I’ll stop this post here. I look forward to revisiting this novel again in the coming weeks as I prepare for the book club. I think it’s one that provides plenty of discussion, but also could be read for simple pleasure if you desire. There’s adventure, action, and suspense, but also humor and tender characters.
I haven’t read much Charles Dickens, and I’m glad this was one of my first experiences with Dickens. Last year, I read all of his Christmas novellas, which I enjoyed for the most part, and I may have read A Tale of Two Cities as a teenager, although I remember none of it (a reread is on the schedule).
What Dickens novels have you read?
If you have reviewed Oliver Twist on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.