Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
It would be easy to say that Oliver Twist is a Victorian story about an orphaned boy who has to join a gang of ruffians in order to survive life on the streets but then, through some dues-ex-machina, is saved and rewarded beyond imagination. The truth is, though, that Oliver Twist is not about any one boy’s plight; in fact, the character Oliver is probably not directly engaged in the story for more than perhaps half of the novel. So, what is this story about, then? It is about every orphaned boy or girl, and the misery they are forced to endure. It is about the hypocrisy of a Christian society, who prides itself on the “charity” it provides to the poor, all the while blaming the poor for their own unfortunate circumstances and punishing any who dare to ask for more aid or better care. Dickens manages to tell a nation’s story through the life of one boy; he exposes a dark, seedy underbelly to the public eye, and forces shame upon those who would stand by and do nothing, while innocents suffer.
3 – Characters well developed.
As with many Dickens novels, the characters in Oliver Twist tend to more caricatures than believable people. The “bad” guys are purely bad, and the innocent Oliver is almost saint-like in every possible way. The former gets frustrating when one considers that evil-incarnate is rather a rare thing, and typically the easy way out in fiction; and the latter is almost nauseating – Oliver is so sweet and tearfully good that it is hard for a realistic reader like myself not to just want to smack him around a bit. Still, the point is taken – there is good and there is bad. Good people are used and taken advantage of, bad people will scheme and plot with little regard for consequences, and often come to bad ends. Be good, don’t be bad. What redeems the book in terms of characterization, though, are the few very interesting and multi-layered characters, like Mr. Brownlow and Nancy. Both of these two have darker, dangerous sides, but turn out to be genuinely good people who sometimes have to go to extreme measures either to survive or to protect the ones they love. Mr. Losberne, too, who is an incredibly decent man, turns out to have a temper that can spoil any progress that Oliver or the others make in resolving their major issues (such as who is out to destroy Oliver, and why?). Most of the characters are flat and static because they need to be, and because the story does not span a great length of time; but the characters who do change and who interact with one another are so much fun to watch and (let’s admit it) to laugh at, well, the pages just turn and turn.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
Discussing Dickens and prose sometimes gets me into trouble. I believe Dickens was a great writer, but I think, had he lived in a time which would have rewarded him (financially) based on the literary and social merits of his work, rather than the word-count or page-length of it, he may have been even greater than he was. I get highly distracted by the prose of his early works because he will go on for sentences and paragraphs, describing (very long-windedly) rather menial things, that could have been more purposefully and poignantly described in a few words or sentences. Of course, Dickens does it because he was paid by word, so using ten words to describe “red hair” would have been highly advantageous. Unfortunately, it makes his books chunky and burdensome at times, and it resulted in my not at all enjoying the first 80-pages or so of Oliver Twist. Fortunately, Dickens is a great writer despite this handicap, and his satire and sarcasm are what truly carry his works, Oliver Twist included. Additional
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What makes this book so great is something that I mentioned above: it is not just about a boy named Oliver Twist who has it rough. It is about human nature and a whole society which has gone ridiculously awry in its priorities – a society which has lost track of or forgotten how to read its moral compass. You have a judge, for instance, perfectly willing to convict a boy of pick-pocketing, sending him to prison for life, without any evidence whatsoever that the boy committed the crime (leaving alone the sentencing of a young boy to life in prison for stealing a handkerchief). You also have a community Beadle, the man responsible for caring for the local poor and homeless, who takes advantage of them, blames them for putting themselves into poverty (despite most of them having been born into it or left parentless at birth), and who sets the youth out to work hard labor at the slightest impetus, such as one asking for more porridge. The book is highly cynical, but balances the critical with the satirical, painting this portrait of ridiculousness over the whole society – the low are made lower, and the high are brought down to Earth. Had this been simply a book about a boy in trouble, it could have been interesting, sad, and heartwarming, but it would have lacked that larger impact – the condemnation of a people’s attitudes and actions towards the underprivileged and the needling-at of social consciousness. Many have found fault in Dickens’s use of certain derogatory terms for people of particular races or religions, such as “The Jew” or “niggers,” and in his descriptive depiction of the murder of one of the prostitutes; while I can understand these concerns (and while I know enough about Dickens to feel generally uncomfortable about his potential for bigotry), I do believe that each of these descriptors was appropriate to the purpose of the novel, which was to depict a realistically dirty, gruff story about an equally damaged and soiled society.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Advanced Teenager, Adult
Interest: History, Class, Society, Poverty, Caste System, Britain
“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love, lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up, forever, on my best affections. Deep affliction has but strengthened and refined them.”
“But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble’s soul; his heart was waterproof.”
“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.”
“As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”
“. . . there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”
“There is a drowsy state, between sleeping and waking, when you dream more in five minutes with your eyes half open, and yourself half conscious of everything that is passing around you, than you would in five nights with your eyes fast closed, and your senses wrapt in perfect unconsciousness. At such time, a mortal knows just enough of what his mind is doing, to form some glimmering conception of its mighty powers, its bounding from earth and spurning time and space, when freed from the restraint of its corporeal associate.”