Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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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?

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Reviewed on September 28, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve read Great Expectations twice (moved btwn 9th and 10th grade, and the different high schools did them in different years), A Christmas Carol, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and two-thirds of Pickwick Papers (I gave up on it). The only one of those I loved was A Tale of Two Cities, although I enjoyed Hard Times (read it w/ my mom was I was in like 8th grade) and A Christmas Carol was ok. I loathed Great Expectations.

    It’s occurred to me that I’ve been avoiding Dickens for a long time, mainly because of GE and Pickwick Papers (I’ve tried to read it twice!). But maybe I should give him another shot one of these days.

  • Thanks to my recent experience with Wilkie Collins, I’ve been thinking I should give Dickens a try. I’ve only read the Christmas novellas and a few of his ghost stories. I asked Trish, and she recommended I start with Great Expectations, so I added it to my mental 2010 list (yes, I have one of those already :P) I’m happy to hear you found Oliver Twist so readable!

  • I have to confess: I have never made it through a Dickens novel! I know, I know, I should love him, and yet every time I try to read Great Expectations I fail! I get so bored when I read him, and then I panic because of all the times I have failed in the past and then it all ends in disaster.

    Maybe my problem is that I am starting with Great Expectations (and my expectations are too great?!? hardy har har!)… but then I think that maybe I will only read one Dickens in my lifetime, and if that’s the case, then perhaps I should stick with what is ostensibly his masterpiece…

  • I’ve got five left to read – David Copperfield, Hard Times, Little Dorritt, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend. Every one I’ve read is worth reading, but some moreso than others.

    Rebecca – could you expand on “wordy”?

    “Convenient” I understand, although I would use a different word – “terrible”. Although, come to think if it, that first time Oliver is captured – that gave me a jolt, even though I knew it had to happen for the book to move forward. The only thing worse than the plotting is the characterization of Rose and what’s-his-name, her suitor.

  • The only Dickens I’ve ever read is A Christmas Carol, and I hated it. I knew the plot beforehand, but the writing was just so awful that it took me a whole month to trudge through it. I’ve been a bit shy of reading any Dickens since.

    I do have plans to read Great Expectations and Bleak House, though.

  • I haven’t read this yet, so I didn’t read through your review, but I’ve read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and Nicholas Nickleby. Two Cities is my favorite so far, but I adored Nicholas Nickleby!


  • I loved Great Expectations and Bleak House, but the David Copperfield didn’t do much for me, and A Tale of Two Cities put me right to sleep every time I tried to read it.

    I think I mostly loved Great Expectations because it was the first serious classic I ever read, and it wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. I didn’t expect suspense and crazy people. Plus, I felt very clever to be reading it 🙂

    I read Bleak House in college at the same time as The Sound and the Fury. (I was an English major and both were assigned reading). Compared to the Faulkner, Bleak House felt like vacation reading!

  • Eva, maybe this is just not a favorite author for you 🙂 It sounds like people either love GE or hate it. And maybe that’s how Dickens is in general!

    This one was not a spectacular book, but good for me to begin on Dickens because it wasn’t intimidating at all, short (ok 480 pages), and rather amusingly formulaic. I liked it despite all that!!

    KAthy, I think I’m in the enjoy Dickens camp too!!

    Nymeth, if you wanted to start smaller, this one would be a good one. I have physical 2010 lists already. It’s probably a bit more intimidating that way!!

    Steph, well, it sounds like many people who dislike Dickens dislike GE, so try smaller? Maybe Tale of Two Cities? I know you’ll say you’ll only read one, but if your hating GE, what kind of an experience is that?!

  • Amateur Reader, I know you read a LOT of 19th century literature, so for you this probably wasn’t WORDY. Just compared to other stuff, I guess is what I’m thinking. As in, it takes two paragraphs for the book to start. But I’m sure the much longer GE and Hard Times are even more wordy, so something to look forward to!!

    I get the impression you did not like this one much ;). I certainly did NOT mean terrible when I say convenient. I thought it was refreshing to read a story that was formulaic. I had expected it to be overwhelming, but that it certainly was not. I like the Maylie episode — it wasn’t in any of the movies, so it was all new to me. lol!

    Amanda, I love Christmas Carol — it is my Christmas tradition to reread it! But we already knew we differed in some ways, huh, I also loved Melville’s Moby Dick!

    Lezlie, oh so many to look forward to! Glad you liked Nicholas Nickleby.

    Teresa, I think the “clever to be reading it” thing is what scares me about picking up GE! I don’t feel clever yet. Someday I’ll get to it. I remember liking Two Cities. We’ll have to see once I pick it up for my reread.

  • Rebecca, I felt clever about GE because I was 14 and it seemed so grown up to be reading Dickens! I don’t think you’d find it particularly challenging. (Whether you’d find it enjoyable is another question.) But, for what it’s worth, I’m not a huge Dickens fan in general. There are many Victorians I like much more.

  • Oh dear, Dickens…

    Where I do I even start?!??! At first I thought I had the same problem as Steph (i.e. Great Expectations), but then I tried Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities and didn’t like any of those either. Little Dorrit I hated because his sense of humour seemed so stuffy and pompous; Great Expectations – I’ve just failed so many times it wears me out by the time I reach halfway; A Tale of Two Cities I quite liked but I got bored and put it back on the shelf.

    I think my personal problem with Dickens is that he’s out-famoused himself. Even with Oliver Twist – I’ve never read the actual book, but I know every single detail about the story from film adaptations, other books, articles, just about every English teacher I’ve ever had, etc etc.

    And it’s not like his writing style particularly captivates me.

    ….. It’s just caught my attention that I really like to talk about how much I hate Dickens!

  • I have limited experience with Dickens, too. First was Great Expectations back in high school (but I honestly don’t remember a thing), then A Christmas Carol and Tale of Two Cities. Didn’t love them, but am glad to have read them. I’m considering Bleak House for a winter read…

  • I actually really love Dickens, but I’ve never read Oliver Twist or David Copperfield – only the more dire ones, like Bleak House, Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend. Great Expectations is one of my favorite novels.

    But certainly the “convenient” aspect of Dickens’s writing never goes away – long-lost relatives are revealed to be next-door neighbors with large fortunes, letters arrive just in time or are conveniently mislaid, people minutes from death manage to wait several hours while their friends go hunt up the person to whom they must deliver their parting words. It’s kind of hokey, but since I know it will be that way going in it doesn’t bother me at all. His wordiness to me is like cozying down in a big, overstuffed armchair with a cup of tea. 🙂

  • I read The Christmas Carol when I was little; emboldened, I bought a cheap copy of Oliver Twist and read it at age nine. I think a lot of it flew over my head, but it put me off Dickens for life. I reread Oliver Twist at university, and although I caught more of the jokes, I didn’t love it enough to go seek out more Dickens. It’s a terrible hole in my reading that I need to correct! (but just don’t want to :P)

  • Teresa, I can see why people don’t like Dickens the most! He’s really formulaic, a popular fiction writer. I’m enjoying my immersion in Victorian lit this fall already! Ready for more!

    tuesday, you’re welcome to keep going on if you want! I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, but I still have more to read! I guess I’ll see what I think when I’ve read more.

    JoAnn, I hope you enjoy it when you read it!

    Emily, this one didn’t really feel dire. Certainly, the poverty and crime aspects were dire, but it was more of a lecture to the rest of us. And therefore, not *that* depressing.

    I like the convenient. For me, it was refreshing to read a predictable plot.

    Jenny, oh no! I can see how reading it age 9 could be a turn off. As you can see, some people never like Dickens, so maybe it’s not a hole, maybe Dickens just isn’t for you!

  • My first Dickens was Great Expectations, in college, and I was so surprised that I loved it. I didn’t get back to Dickens until recently, after I watched the BBC adaptation of Bleak House which is amazing — I even got my girls (then 7 and 11) hooked on it (though we did sort of gloss over a few adult situations like illegitimate children). Bleak House has everything — drama, humor, romance, social satire, and a great mystery with one of the first English detectives.

    After BH, I did read Oliver Twist last year, and I thought Dickens did a great job with the plot, though Oliver himself is a little underdeveloped, in my opinion. I’ve been trying to read Dickens with an online group that’s all Dickens, but I’m taking a break right now. They’re reading Pickwick Papers now but they’re reading the novels in order. They should start OT around the end of the year. Here’s the link if anyone is interested:


  • A little confusion – I love Oliver Twist. But not for the plot. Plots like this you can find anywhere. And not for the pallid heroes.

    It’s the gallery of characters that keeps Oliver Twist alive – Fagin, Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble. Any number of minor characters. And the criminal scenes, especially, have a powerful imaginative existence of their own. You’re right, there is a lot of formula is this book. It’s in the criminal scenes, and the orphanage, where Dickens finds something more original.

    I’d like to suggest that Dickens is actually constantly struggling against formula. He was an experimental writer who changed what he did from book to book and was conscious of his flaws. He struggled, for example, to create more interesting young heroes and heroines.

    Do you want a word other than “wordy”? A longer book is wordier than a shorter one, by definition, it seems. And do you want to get rid of the joke at the end of the 2nd paragraph of Oliver Twist?

  • I have some Charles Dickens, but just have not really read him! We were required to read “Great Expectations” in HS, and I remember not hating it, but not loving it either.

    I tried reading Nicholas Nickelby in installments from DailyLit, even keeping in mind that this work and many of Dickens’ others were originially published in newspaper serial form –but after a while I ended up unsubscribing. I would still like to try Nicholas Nickelby again, but in book form instead.

  • Karenlibrarian, that is so cool that you got your kids interested in Dickens too! I have to agree about Oliver being underdeveloped, but I think the other characters (like Nancy) make up for it!

    Amateur Reader, thanks for the clarification. I did misunderstand because I thought your word “terrible” meant you didn’t like it. I agree on the characters! Love them. I haven’t read enough Dickens (or Victorian lit) to know about where he fits in but I do know I want to know more?

    I don’t want to change Dickens. I like it as it is. I said “wordy” because the first page took me two reads to get into the swing of things. It was just different from whatever I’d read before this book.

    Valerie, My problem with Daily Lit is that I never have yet more time to sit in front of my email. I’m always blogging if I’m at the computer! But I like the idea of it.

  • I recently read and Great Expectations. And last year I read Hard Times. I read and loved A Tale of Two Cities long ago.

    Oliver Twist, on the other hand, falls into the category of Dickens books I think I’ve read but can’t remember. So I plan to read (re-read?) it soon. Like you, I watched the movie so many times that I think I won’t like the book, but you changed my mind.

  • Rose City Reader, Oliver Twist the novel still kind of blurs into the movies for me — simply because I kept picturing the actors when I read the descriptions of each character! But I did especially like Nancy. More depth than the movies show. I hope you enjoy it if you do reread it.

  • I’ve been meaning to read this one but I always have to work myself up to reading Dickens. Glad to hear that this one might be a little less intimidating than his later ones (and much shorter than Our Mutual Friend which I loved).

    I think the idea of nature versus nurture is a very Victorian one–something that I’ve always in my mind associated with Darwin.

    If you haven’t read Great Expectations–add it to your list. Everyone groans over it because they had to read it in high school (why schools do that to kids I don’t know), but it is such a fantastic read. Dickens, I’m convinced, has the best characters.

  • Ladytink, I liked it but it wasn’t a favorite. I hope you enjoy it if you do read it!

    Trish, I haven’t read his later books, but it sure wasn’t intimidating to me!

    I think that’s a great point about Darwin. It’s certainly the right era!
    I never had to read Dickens in High School (A Christmas Carol was 7th grade) but I’m so glad to hear you liked GE.

  • What is it about modern high school curricula that forces 14 and 15 year old students to read 400-page books that are so heavily laden with vocabulary and antiquated syntax that kids are turned off completely to the world of reading as a consequence. I would like to hear about English teachers approaching literature with tactics of inducing children to open books through intelligible choices. It seems as though many schools rate themselves based on the complexity of reading assignments rather than on creating life-long-readers through appropriately challenging selections of books, not trials of endurance. Just because a kid has trudged through Great Expectations or Othello as a young teenager does not mean he appreciated it, or understood it. I think this approach to learning is misused and deleterious to our young people. I don’t get it. By the way, I enjoy all of Dickens’ writings.

  • Greg McIntyre, I never read Dickens in school besides A Christmas Carol, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with it! I don’t think we need to baby high school students by thinking they can’t handle Dickens. I do think students should have a selection of books from which to choose — not everyone will get Dickens. But just because a student is in high school doesn’t mean they can’t understand Great Expectations or Othello. I loved Shakespeare in high school! Give kids more of a chance!

  • I decided, to celebrate Dickens’s bicentenary, that I would read as many of his books as possible this year – starting with Oliver Twist! What a treat, and a great introduction to Dickens. As you point out, it’s fairly lightweight compared to his later masterpieces, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, and might surprise a few people, who think they know the story from the musical.

    My review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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