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 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.