Book Review: Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

After Oliver Twist asks nasty Mr Bumble for more food, he has to flee the workhouse for the streets of London. Here he meets the Artful Dodger, who leads him to Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. When a thieving mission goes wrong, Oliver narrowly avoids prison and finds himself in the care of kind Mr Brownlow. But Fagin and the brutal Bill Sikes go in search of the young orphan, determined to drag him back. . .

Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own.

I know Oliver Twist, of course I do. Doesn’t everyone know Oliver Twist?

Fagin. Sykes. The Artful Dodger.

“Please sir, could I have some more?”

Of course I know Oliver Twist. I teach English Literature. I have an MA from Cambridge University in English Literature. Obviously, I know Oliver Twist.

Turns out, I did not know Oliver Twist. I had never read it. Never.

Also, as it turns out, it is bloody brilliant! I guess it depends on how thick you like your irony – because it is applied thickly in this novel – but I loved it. And it is much darker than I imagined.

Plotwise, yes, I was basically aware of the bones of the plot: orphan boy Oliver is born into the workhouse and, abused by the institution in the shape of Mr Bumble and the board, he flees to London where he meets The Artful Dodger, Fagin and his band of child crooks.

But there is so much more!

What I didn’t remember – or what had not been captured in the film versions I’ve seen – was just how sinister (and uncomfortably, horrifically anti-Semitic) the characterisation of Fagin was. Behind every “my dear” was a sneering manipulation – he came across actually very modern in that manipulation: were it re-set to today, Fagin would be the spider at the heart of a County Lines ring. And much of what he does echoes exactly those strategies used today: vulnerable children, out of education, isolated from support, groomed, trapped by committing petty crimes to having no escape from the bigger demands. He was genuinely chilling.

And the supporting characters in London – Nancy whose instinctual empathy for Oliver conflicted with her love for Bill Sikes; Sikes’ own isolation and self-hatred caused by the violence of his nature; the Artful Dodger’s exuberant, precocious loquacity. These were surprisingly – shockingly – complex and developed characters. And the echoes of the relationships between Sikes and Nancy, and Sikes and his dog – both dependent, fearful, anxious, loving… and both Nancy and Sikes’ and his dog’s deaths were genuinely moving and touching. For me, in fact, they were the some of the best parts of the novel.

And the plotting was exquisite. Every character that we met became significant if not critical to the plot. Yes, it strained credulity a little that every time Oliver was sent out to commit a crime – a pickpocketting or a house breaking – it introduced him to a benevolent character who took him in, and turned out to be a relative. Yet, somehow, the charm of Oliver himself and the wit of Dickens allowed me to swallow that incredulity and put it to one side.

What did irk me a little was, actually, Oliver. He was charming and endearing, yes, but also unremittingly good, to the point of being just a little saccharine. Whilst Nancy was complex and tragic, struggling to do what is right despite every disadvantage of her youth, gender, class, lack of education as well as her own complex emotional ties, Oliver was simply good. It is the same trouble I have with Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol: these characters are anodyne, insipid, two dimensional. And I understand that he is a foil to all the other underworld characters, but even so as a character he did not grip in the same way that, as a literary device, he did mainly work.

I also had issues with the second aspect of the novel, the mystery / detective element as Oliver’s new friends – Mr Brownlow, Rose Maylie and Mr Losberne – seek to discover the truth of his parentage, whilst Sikes and Fagin try to keep it buried. Does his role as this working class paragon despite having no advantage or privilege work, when we discover that he was a gentleman’s son after all…? Does it not detract from what we all know to be Dickens’ deep sympathy with the poor and his dissatisfaction with The Poor Laws that the only ‘good’ characters are those born with advantage, genetic if not pecuniary? No apologies for that spoiler, by the way: this book is nearly 200 years old – even if I hadn’t read it before!

All in all, this was a fantastic read, albeit perhaps a little mired in its own time.

What I Liked

  • The humour: thickly ironic, especially of the institituion of the workhouses, the Poor Laws and Mr Bumble and the Board.
  • The complexity of many of the characters and their relationships.
  • The tragedy of Nancy’s and Sikes’ deaths – and, appallingly, Sikes’ dog’s death.
  • Mr Grimwig – a ridiculous, typically Dickensian, buffoon with the tendency to “eat my head”, I did find him oddly endearing.

What Could Have Been Different

  • Oliver himself could have been fleshed out, rounded out, made more credible as a character.
  • Fagin is hard to read as anything other than a racist stereotype and there is only so much that “a story of its time” can forgive: Shakespeare’s Shylock was less problematic (but still not without his own issues)
  • The ‘good’ characters were all rather uninspiring, sweet and trusting, which made their sudden shift into detectives seeking out and interrogating Monks rather unconvincing.

Overall:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Page Count:

608

Publisher:

Penguin Classics

Date:

1837 – 1839

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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