For the record, Charles Dickens is my favourite author of all time. What I admire most about his stories is how they changed the world using a narrative that is simple, charming, and universal. “A Christmas Carol” forever altered how we perceive Christmas, and in its time, Oliver Twist gave reason for society to rethink how it should view and treat orphans and the lower class. In the end, however, a story needs to be entertaining and wholly readable, in order to really be worthwhile for the maximum amount of potential readers, and this review will treat Oliver Twist as a casual read.
In the first chapter we are given the circumstances of Oliver’s birth, which is surprisingly a major plot point for the entire novel itself, but is merely treated as a set up for Oliver’s early and unfortunate station in life. The first third of the novel takes place at the orphanage/workhouse where Oliver grows up as a boy. The cruelty and misery Oliver experiences effectively turns him into a symbol of innocence mistreated, and most readers will likely sympathize with the protagonist. There is something about Dickens’ prose that either tugs at your heart strings, or makes you want to punch a purely fictional character in the face, and yet, whether you feel one way or another, both types of characters have their own brand of charm.
I think Dickens’ greatest strength was his ability to create such casts of unique and ever-lasting characters. Every one of them, from the protagonist to the one-off characters, feel distinctly alive and full of personality. They are painted on the page so naturally and effortlessly that they never feel like moral or literary props. Yes, from the literary perspective Oliver represents the lower-lower class, and what happens to him in this story is a commentary on the social injustice to the working poor in real life, but as readers all we genuinely care about is a boy trying to retain his identity of goodness and virtue. No matter what the satirical agenda is, these characters are just fun to read about, and this goes for almost everyone, from the bumbling Mr. Bumble to the dastardly Fagin.
In the second third of the story, Oliver becomes ensnared by Fagin and his gang of thieves. The best part about this narrative is it’s honesty. The narrator makes no excuse for the thieves, nor are we meant to sympathize with them, but we don’t get the sense that they are genuinely evil people either (well, maybe Sikes, because dog-kickers suck). The novel is honest because it treats its characters as human beings (from all walks of life) as they are, without trying to stuff some idealized version into the reader’s face. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates are just two street-smart kids trying to get by. Nancy is the whore with a heart of gold. Even Fagin earns some pity points by novel’s end. The key factor here is that Dickens knows that the world is not black and white, but mostly grey. Good people can do bad things, and bad people can sometimes do good.
The final third of the novel brings everything to a head. I won’t spoil anything here, but I do feel the major reveal of the novel to be somewhat cheap and hollow. Yes, we do get clues throughout the story about Oliver’s origins, and it is pretty clever how that ends up being the impetus for the entire story, but I couldn’t help but groan as Mr. Brownlow explained everything in just a couple of paragraphs. The circumstances of Oliver’s birth and the identities of his parents didn’t really have an emotional impact, since they never figured into the story until now, and it felt sort of like a deus ex machina, but instead of a miraculous resolution, its a farfetched and convoluted explanation. Perhaps readers in the 1800s were more receptive to such sensationalism, but it just didn’t work for me.
Despite this, the book as a whole was a satisfying experience, and the ending isn’t entirely lost. Fagin’s last chapter stood out for me because I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire chapter devoted to an antagonist’s last moments. This section was remarkably sombre, and appropriately the very opposite of a celebration. The bad guy has been foiled, but the reader doesn’t feel happiness nor anger, but rather pity for the villain, and that is a remarkable achievement. The chapter moves along like a dirge, and while no one is excited to see Fagin die, it is also the case that no one is there to comfort or lament his fate either, and that is Fagin’s true punishment. It is nice to see that Dickens is capable of making us feel sorry for a character outside of the ‘young boy suffers misfortunes’ scenario that he does so well.
Being a Dickens fan, I highly recommend Oliver Twist as a one-chapter-per-night-before-you-go-to-bed type of read. The prose has Dickens’ usual charm and wit, and a full ensemble of engaging characters. While the story isn’t as strong as his later works (the story is an evident precursor to David Copper Field and Great Expectations), it does contain a worthwhile story of goodness and evil, faith and failure, and the struggles of people trying to get by in an unfair world.
This has been a gamobo review.