Goodreads: Oliver Twist
Orphaned at birth, Oliver Twist has grown up starved for food and for love. He has nothing more to look forward to in life than an apprenticeship where he can expect the same ill treatment. Alone and scared, Oliver sets off for London, no plan in mind. A boy known as the Artful Dodger promises he can have a home, but Oliver does not realize he will be expected to earn his keep as a pickpocket. Other kindly souls take notice of his plight, however, and thereafter ensues a struggle for Oliver’s very soul.
Oliver Twist has permeated popular culture to such an extent that I thought I had a vague idea of its plot. After all, everyone knows the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This, combined with snippets I have seen of the musical Oliver! as well references in literary criticism to the thief Fagin, gave me the impression that the book followed Oliver from the workhouse to the streets of London, where he subsequently lived a merry life with a gang of pickpockets led by a singing and dancing leader who was some sort of latter-day Falstaff. What I read was actually much more Dickensian than that.
Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second published novel and his preoccupations with the poor and the unjust laws that keep them so are already clear. Oliver’s mother dies at his birth, so readers can follow him from his early days in the workhouse (where the officials purposely keep the orphans underfed and the local impoverished unprovided for so that they will eventually cease requests for more handouts) to the streets of London where he is introduced to the children who must steal to survive. Dickens has plenty of blame to throw around. He directs most of his biting humor at the government officials, but ordinary people receive personal censure for not extending the kind word or the helping hand that might have saved a child from being forced to sin in order to live. The thieves do not get off free, either, however–the portraits Dickens draws are various, and one or two illustrate characters who delight in, rather than shrink from, the sordid lifestyle they lead.
Readers can never know if some of the characters they meet were once like Oliver–young and innocent and repulsed by the notion of doing wrong even to save themselves. Fagin’s observations about women like Nancy–that they take interest in orphans like Oliver until they go to the bad, so to speak–suggest that some of them were. Thus, even in depicting the thieves in their worst moments, Dickens suggests that they could, they might, be better. He may even seem to hint that society is remiss in offering opportunities of repentance and freedom only to those they deem worthy.
Ultimately, Dickens refuses to romanticize the thieving lifestyle. Nancy may repent, but her desperate cries to save the others fall on deaf ears and she herself does not know how to leave the only life she knows. Fagin tellingly reveals his character when he reveals how he keeps boys in the business–he traps them in their own sense of sin and shame so they feel they can never get out. And, no matter how the boys may delight in the “game”, eventually they will all end up either at the gallows or on a ship to be deported. The group talks about giving it to society when they make their final speeches at their trials, but the gesture is ultimately meaningless, and the readers know it, even if the boys do not.
Of course, Dickens was not above romanticizing a good deal of his book, even if he refused to do it for criminals (excepting, of course, Nancy–Dickens’s requisite angelic woman). The main plot line actually follows the fortunes of Oliver as he falls into various kindly hands and a “mystery” surrounding his birth soon develops. It is not hard to figure out where that mystery is headed–both because the device is familiar and because Dickens is such a careful craftsman. Already in this book he shows his beautiful economy, never wasting a scene or a character. Everything and everyone comes back full circle and readers get a snugly wrapped-up conclusion to reward their interest.
I do not think Oliver Twist is Dickens at his best, even if it seems ever-present in our culture. It does, however, showcase many of the author’s great strengths and talents–his social commentary, his dry humor, and his ridiculous characters. Though it was not what I expected, it certainly was classic Dickens.