Becoming Reacquainted With Oliver Twist

I first met Oliver Twist when I was around fifteen years old. I remember that I liked the book, but I didn’t like it enough to go on and read more Dickens. So when I found that Allie at A Literary Odyssey was hosting a readalong of Oliver Twist I didn’t rush to sign up.

But then the idea began to grow on me. I realised that when I thought of Oliver images from Lionel Bart’s musical came to mind. It was time to replace those images with Dickens’ original words, time to revisit a classic text.

I signed up!

The story opened quietly, a child orphaned in infancy and growing up in a workhouse. There was no wordiness, there were virtually no descriptions, the story was grey. And it worked, focusing attention on the child’s plight and on the callous disregard that those responsible. so-called pillars of society, had for their charges.

And yet Oliver had spirit, and was prepared to stand up and ask for more when he was elected by his fellows.

He suffered for it, and was sold into virtual slavery. And by telling his story simply and clearly Dickens delivers a stinging condemnation of the treatment of the poor in Victorian Britain.

It was hard not to cheer as Oliver made his escape, and colour found its way into his story.

Colour in the form of The Artful Dodger, a wonderful creation, and in the form of Fagin. I still can’t make my mind up about Fagin. Did he think he was helping his boys. Was he doing his best for his boys, giving them means to survive in a cruel world? Or was he simply exploiting them, keeping them sweet to serve his own ends? I do wonder what his history was, what brought him to that place in life.

I was vexed though by Dickens’ decision to give his Jewish villain an Irish name and then repeatedly refer to him as the Jew. words fail me – why?!

But I was swept along by the story, through many twists and turns: Oliver’s apprenticeship as a thief, his unexpected path into a different life, and his unwished for return into Fagin’s clutches.

I was fascinated by the emergence of the complex character of Nancy, by the appearance of Bill Sykes, as effective a villain as I have met in the pages of any book.

And I was particularly struck by the study in between Oliver’s three guardians: the unthinking, uncaring, self-interested Mr Bumble; the manipulative, watchful Fagin; and the compassionate, maybe socially concerned, Mr Brownlow.

What a story, what a picture of Victorian society!

I like this simpler, more straightforward narrative from a relatively young Dickens, and I think now that maybe it is time I worked by way through his novels chronologically, building up steadily to the more elaborate, more acclaimed later works.

That’s something to ponder, but what I want now is to press on with Oliver’s story, to find out what happens next …

9 responses

  1. I struggled with images from the movie Oliver! during my first reading but this second reading has been refreshing in that I don’t have the musical crowding in. I think it would be fascinating to read Dickens chronologically. Just comparing my recent reading of Little Dorrit to OT has been eye-opening. Enjoy the second part:)

  2. SUCH a great book! It’s one of my favorite Dickens. I read this one and Bleak House last year, both were rereads, so I think I’m going through a little Dickens withdrawal. I don’t know if I can read another Dickens AND Villette at the same time — that might be just too much Victorian lit, if you know what I mean.

    I know what you mean about the constant referral to “The Jew,” which bothers me. I think Dickens was just a product of his time. Apparently, he regretted it later in life and made a point of creating a much more sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read it yet but I’ve heard it’s one of his best.

  3. I’m glad you’re enjoying this! I haven’t seen the musical, so I have nothing to compare the story to. That might be a good thing.

    I hate that Fagin is always called “the Jew.” It just irritates me. Why couldn’t he just call him by his name? You know?

    Thanks for participating!

  4. Like many people, I suspect, I first became acquainted with Oliver through the musical. So, when I eventually got round to reading it I was amazed at how much more there is to the book. I love Dickens. I have a sort of unwritten rule that I go back to at least one of his books every year. Maybe this year it ought to be Oliver’s turn.

  5. Dickens really was an incredible writer and he packed in so much plot into every one of his novels. For many years I was put off reading Dickens merely by the size of the books, but then I did a course in Dickens at Birkbeck and read four or five of his novels over two terms and was completely converted. His works are absolutely a product of the time and much of the power they held for the Victorians is no longer as potent (The Old Curiosity Shop is perhaps the best example – it seems terribly mawkish and sentimental to the modern reader, but the Victorians adored it). Enjoy the journey!

  6. Thank you for your thoughts on Oliver Twist! I’ve been gradually working my way through Dickens’ novels I haven’t read over the past year and a half; I’ve read quite a a few of his novels, but I’ve never read Oliver Twist, one of the ones I’ve heard the most about. You have given me the inspiration to put it in my TBR list after I read The Old Curiosity Shop. I probably won’t read it for a long time, though, because I like to space Dickens out. Thanks again!

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