Thursday, June 8, 2017

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is a very famous novel. Many people who have not read the book itself have likely seen film or stage adaptions. Others may be familiar with the story just from hearing and reading what others have said or written about it. Although this is a reread for me, it has been a very long time since I last read this book.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, this is a chronicle of the early years of Oliver’s life. Oliver is an orphan. The book opens with his mother’s death in childbirth. The novel’s protagonist spends his first nine years in a workhouse and for a short time apprentices to an undertaker. During this time, he is subjected to both physical and mental abuse meted out by various malevolent characters. Unable to take the cruelty any longer, Oliver runs away to London. There he meets a band of young thieves controlled and led by the nefarious Fagin.

Oliver also encounters various benevolent people, including the wealthy and compassionate Mr. Brownlow and the virtuous young girl, Rose Maylie. These people show him affection and try to help him. Much of the narrative concerns itself with Fagin and his malicious friends holding Oliver against his will or trying to kidnap him away from the decent people for their own evil purposes.

Because this work is so famous and is often read by children, I think that people tend to underestimate just how original and imaginative it is. A fresh reading of this book reveals its strangeness.  I use the term strange in a good way. The world that Dickens creates here is a feast for the imagination. This is a surreal novel. Both characters and locations are described as grotesque, bizarre and extreme ways,

The initial description of Fagin is a good example. He is painted as,

“very old shriveled… whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare”

The word  “phantasmagoric” is often used to describe the world that Dickens builds. Having read more than a few of his books, this effort seems the most over the top in this novel.  I find the entire effect to be a marvel of creativity.

There is a lot going on in this work.  So much has been said about it. I want to write a few words about one particular aspect.

There is something that is present in multiple Dickens novels. It is an observation that there is great pain and suffering in the universe. Furthermore, death is inevitable. Death, however, can seem almost a comfort. At one point, after some particularly arduous experiences, Oliver drifts off to sleep.

“Gradually, he fell into that deep tranquil sleep which ease from recent suffering alone imparts; that calm and peaceful rest which it is pain to wake from. Who, if this were death, would be roused again to all the struggles and turmoils of life; to all its cares for the present; its anxieties for the future; more than all, its weary recollections of the past! “


Similar passages can be found throughout the narrative. The pain of life is compared to the peace of inevitable death. However, Dickens is no nihilist. He finds a source of hope in a world full of suffering and death.

Mr. Brownlow is an older man. At one point, he observes how the people that he has loved most in the world are dead. Though saddened by this reality, he takes comfort and solace in the act of helping others. He observes that he will help Oliver, despite the fact that people in similar circumstances have taken advantage of his kindness,

“I have been deceived, before, in the objects whom I have endeavoured to benefit; but I feel strongly disposed to trust you, nevertheless; and I am more interested in your behalf than I can well account for, even to myself.

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.' “

This is a line of philosophy that manifested itself in other Dickens novels. The world is a cruel and nasty place. Death awaits everyone. However, solace can be found in helping others. Charity and altruism can counteract the darkness.

I wrote more about this tendency Dickens’s novels here.

I want mention the fact that this book has been called anti-Semitic. In his time, Dickens was accused of being bigoted against Jews for his portrayal of Fagin. Again and again, the criminal is referred to as “the Jew.” This was laid on so heavily that it did strike me as anti-Semitic. Dickens denied the allegations. In response, he subsequently spoke out against anti-Semitism throughout his career and had the word “Jew” omitted in some versions of the book.  Furthermore, in his work of In Our Mutual Friend, he attacked anti-Semitism and tried to highlight the plight of Jewish people exposed to it. I think one can conclude that Dickens did show ugly bias when he wrote this book. It seems that he came to regret this and made serious efforts to make up for it.

There was a time that I had mixed feelings about Dickens and his exaggerated world views as well as his over use of one-dimensional characters and coincidences.   However, I have come to realize that he was not the kind of writer, such as Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, who tried to portray the human condition in a realistic way. Instead, I have come to appreciate the surreal, exaggerated picture of people and reality that he creates. As he builds this image of the world, he does so with equally flamboyant prose. Dickens created a unique fictional world that was fantastic and original. In some ways, this book can be seen as a kind of fantasy. His books also include his important social commentary and insightful philosophy as well as very entertaining stories. Thus, I have come to see him as a writer who was brilliantly creative. Oliver Twist is among his most vividly brilliant creations.


32 comments:

Tim Davis said...

Yes! Dickens' exaggerations fascinate me. I don't read him for plot and themes but for characterizations and exaggerations. Your posting, which is quite good, reminds me that I am long overdue for a Dickens fix. Perhaps I will give _Oliver Twist_ a visit. Thanks for reminding me that I've been neglecting Dickens for too long.

Kathy's Corner said...

Thanks Brian, I learn so much from your very fine reviews. I have read Great Expectations and its a brilliant classic but none of the characters grabbed me the way I was hoping. But maybe I am reading Dickens wrong. As you say his characters are not so much realistic as exaggerated (you don't see someone like Miss Haversham every day). I know there is a Dickens' book out there for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tim. About two years ago I stated to reread and read for the first time, various Dickens novels. I am glad that I stopped neglecting him :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy.

I think that I liked Great Expectations less then other Dickens that I have read. Of the novels that I have read, Bleak House and Great Expectations are my favorites.

Jonathan said...

I love the surreal or hyperreal aspect of Dickens' work. The characterisations are also mesmerising; in fact my post on Bleak House consisted just of character descriptions. Oliver Twist will probably be my next Dickens read so it's interesting hearing your take on it.

Mudpuddle said...

perceptive and accurate, an enjoyable post... tx for sharing your views, Brian...

Suko said...

Excellent commentary about a true classic! Wonderful post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - Bleak House was a great novel. I found it to be much mire realistic then this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

James said...

Thanks for your fine commentary about this classic novel from the pen of the young Dickens. The exaggeration you refer to may be a way for Dickens to heighten the melodrama of his stories (especially the early one). He always loved the stage and sometimes would act out scenes as he was writing.
I have always enjoyed his ability to create memorable characters that often have characteristics that help make them unforgettable.
Finally, Oliver Twist has a special place in my memory as the first Dickens' novel that I read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

The imagery heightened the melodrama. It does many other things too. What an imaginative and brilliant writer Dickens is.

Jillian said...

About Dickens's exaggerations: I used to find them annoying, but then I thought about the fact that he was sharing this novel in serial form, and sometimes that meant months between segments, I think. I read Oliver Twist six years ago, and there are still a LOT of segments of it seared into my brain. I've never seen a film version. I have a feeling he wrote with exaggeration so people would keep that story in them through the months between installments.

Possible not, but that's my theory. :) Excellent thoughts on this book, Brian. Like some others in this comment thread, I need to get to another Dickens. Bleak House? POSSIBLY. My favorite is David Copperfield.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jillian - It is interesting how many of us came to appreciate Dickens after a few years or even after we got a little older.

I agree he created these exaggeration to stick into a reader's mind. But I also think that there were many reasons. It is so ingrained in his writing style.


Bleak House and David Copperfield are my two favorite Dickens books.

So many books, so little time said...

Lovely take on it Brian. I have seen the movie but never read the book, I think I need to get a wee copy after reading your review xxx


Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

I think that you would like the book.

thecuecard said...

Oh I love Dickens, no one can tell stories or create all the characters he did! Authors are still trying to emulate him. It's been a long long time since I read Oliver Twist, but I loved reading it when I was young. It's probably time for a reread for me too. Great Expectations is another favorite of mine. But I need to conquer David Copperfield someday. Have you read that one? thx for the review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - David Copperfield and Bleak House are my favorite Dickens books. I think that you would like both.

The Reader's Tales said...

Another outstanding review, Brian. I have seen the film, but never read the book, I also saw Great Expectations but never read the book. I hope to read these classics one day :-)
I wish you a lovely day!! It does not matter how good my weekend was. Life is just so hard on Monday...hahaha...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales.

Dickens books tend to make great films. His prose are so visual and his characters are so lively that he translates well to the screen.

I feel the same way about Monday!

Sharon Wilfong said...

All I can remember about Oliver Twist is "more gruel, sir?"

Dickens' characters are over the top. In college is when I read a lot of his books and enjoyed them very much. Later I found his characters to be too cartoony.

Maybe I am now of the age I can overlook the exaggerated stereotypes and see what he is actually saying. Your review makes some good points about death and good works.

I am encouraged to re read this book. I also have a biography of Dickens that has been on the shelf for a while that needs attention.

JaneGS said...

I am very fond of Oliver Twist myself--even when I was in my anti-Dickens phase, which is thankfully over, I still liked this book. You're right--it is original, powerful, and insightful. The anti-Semitic tone always bugs me, but, as you point out, Dickens tried to rectify this. OT was written by a fairly young Dickens and it's nice to see when people learn and grow as they mature.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - That is a very famous line.

Though it is not reflected in the above comments, it seems that a fair chunk of readers do not like Dickens because of his inclination to go over the top.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - It is interesting that you continued to like this book when you did not like other Dickens. I found it to be the most over the top of all the Dickens novels that I have read.

I am glad to hear that you are liking Dickens now :)

Tracy Terry said...

Familiar with the book because of the film, I did try reading Oliver Twist as an adolescent but admit to not thinking much of it at that time. Perhaps having read several of Dickens' other works now is the time to give it another try though I'm sure I will never look upon in in the same depths as you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It seems that for many of us, opinions on Dickens vary wildly as we get older.

Carol said...

The musicals that sprung from the book don't convey the darkness of some of his characters. Fagin for example, but more so Bill Sikes. He was awful in the book, although the musicals did reveal some of his character, his truly evil nature was so much more chilling in the book. Dicken's characters are so memorable & even the names of his characters inform us of their qualities/baseness at times. He did a fantastic job, I think. G.K. Chesterton wrote a book on Dickens that you might find interesting: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22362/22362-h/22362-h.htm#OLIVER

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - The musical version really did change things. I do consider a seperate work in and of itself.

Thanks for the link. That G.K. Chesterton book looks good. I would love to read it. I am always torn between reading about authors and books or reading more original works themselves. There is to much to read!

HKatz said...

I haven't yet read Oliver Twist or seen any adaptations (that I can remember - maybe when I was very young)... at some point in the past, I got tired of Dickens, and I'm not sure why. In any case, I'd like to read more of him. Our Mutual Friend is on my list, and Dombey and Son.

I like how you were able to find fresh, imaginative qualities in a work that "everyone" knows about.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I think a lot of folks get tired of Dickens at some point. There is something about his tendency to go over the top.

I have not read Dombay and Son. I thought Our Mutual Friend was excellent.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT commentary as usual, Brian!!

Charles Dickens has always been one of my favorite writers of all time! I actually ADORE his work! This is not to say that I am unwilling to overlook his flaws, and the anti-Semitism in this novel is one of them, unfortunately. Shakespeare, as we all know, was guilty of the same offense in "The Merchant of Venice".

It is indeed unfortunate that such brilliant, creative geniuses should have such a racist strain in their work, marring it to some extent..... I'm glad, though, that Dickens went to such great lengths to correct this in a later novel (which I must DEFINITELY read). It speaks very highly of him that he was willing to admit a mistake, and strive to correct it!

Going beyond this, I LOVE the depiction of characters in "Oliver Twist", as well as in other Dickens works. I would characterize him as an idealist. Perhaps this is why his characters seem to be one-dimensional, and his world surreal, even fantastical. I do admire his dedication to exposing the evils of the society he lived in, such as child labor, the extreme poverty of the lower classes, and so forth.

I also love his prose style. His sentences are full of sonorous cadences, and are perfect for reading aloud.

I, too, read "Oliver Twist" many years ago, and should really read it again, because, of course, one's appreciation of a book changes over time.

What I like the most about this novel is that poor Oliver does get to meet several kind people throughout, and he does experience justice in the end. Sadly, that doesn't often happen in the real world.....

I also love the fact that Dickens, far from being a nihilist, does see the virtues of charity and altruism as giving meaning to life. Again, I see him as an idealistic writer.

You've made me think of revisiting not only "Oliver Twist", but other Dickens favorites as well, such as "A Tale of Two Cities", "David Copperfield", and "A Christmas Carol". But I also need to read other Dickens books I've never delved into, such as "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations".

Some people -- readers and critics alike -- have put down Dickens as being "too sentimental". I can see why, and yet, I actually find this quality very endearing.

In short, I SO wish I could sit down with this great writer and have a cozy chat with him over tea! :)

Thanks so much for sharing your insightful thoughts!! Have a WONDERFUL weekend!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

He did try to make up for his depiction of Fagin later on.

I thought that both Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House were super book though I found Great Expectations to be not as good as his other works.

I find the over the top sentimentality part of the overall surreal nature of his works.

I would also love to have a chat with Dickens with many other authors.