Monday, 14 April 2014

'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens (1838)

Synopsis: In an unnamed town a penniless young woman stumbles into a workhouse, gives birth to a baby boy, and then dies soon after. The parish beadle, Mr Bumble, gives the child the name of Oliver Twist and the next ten years of Oliver's life are spent in the squalor of the workhouse. When Oliver then dares to ask for some more food Mr Bumble sells Oliver to an undertaker called Mr Sowerberry. Oliver's life isn't any better there and he soon decides to run away and seek his fortune in the great city of London. Upon his arrival, Oliver meets a cunning pickpocket called the Artful Dodger. The Dodger introduces Oliver to a man called Fagin who is the leader of a criminal gang that consists of pickpockets, prostitutes and burglars although Oliver is unaware of this. Fagin offers Oliver work but when Oliver goes out on his "first job" he finds himself being arrested. Fortunately, a kind man called Mr Brownlow takes pity on Oliver. He takes the boy into his home and cares for him. Oliver becomes very fond of Mr Brownlow and his housekeeper Mrs Bedwin but this happiness is short-lived. Fagin fears that Oliver will inform on him so he arranges for Bill Sikes, one of his criminal associates, to kidnap the boy. The only person with the power to save Oliver from the clutches of Fagin's gang is Bill's abused girlfriend Nancy.

After A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist is probably Dickens' most famous and adapted work. Back in 2012 I was fortunate enough to see a touring production of Oliver! The Musical which I absolutely loved :) But now that I've finally got round to reading Charles Dickens' novel I realise that my love for that particular stage production was more to do with the Lionel Bart songs and Samantha Barks' performance as Nancy than its story. Oliver Twist is my fifth Dickens book and it's unquestionably my least favourite. I really didn't like this one. Whereas the Fagin of the Lionel Bart musical is mostly used to provide comic relief, the Fagin of Dickens' book is a far more evil and sinister character. He has no redeeming features whatsoever and is constantly referred to as "The Jew". Fagin isn't a villain who just so happens to be Jewish either. His villainy and Jewishness always seem to be linked. I know that prejudice towards Jews was rife in Dickens' time but I still found the racism in the book rather upsetting. Another issue that I had with this book was Oliver Twist himself. He's so cloying! He always says and does the right thing, doesn't appear to have any flaws, is completely pure and innocent, and even talks in a more refined way than the other child characters do in this book. He's so good that it's sickening! Urgh! And my third and final problem with Oliver Twist was all of those massive coincidences. Mr Brownlow turn out to be the best friend of Oliver's father, Rose Maylie turns out to be the younger sister of Oliver's mother, and Monks turns out to be Oliver's evil half-brother! I know that London was a lot smaller back in Dickens' time but how many long-lost relatives can Oliver keep bumping into?! I could have accepted Oliver meeting just one long-lost relative but three?! 

Having said all that, I have to say that I didn't hate this book because I was still able to find a couple of things about it that I liked: namely the visual imagery and atmosphere of London and the character of Nancy - who might well be a 17 year old heavy drinking prostitute but is by far the most well-rounded, interesting and complex character in the entire book. Nancy has an inner kindness and strength that sets her apart from Fagin and the other members of his gang. She strikes me as being the female equivalent of Sydney Carton.

Rating: 2/5


Mònica said...

I might just read this book for Nancy, but aside from that I'm not sure how interested I am. :P Three miracle coincidences are a bit much.
Oh, before I forget, I put you down for this award thing If you feel like it. Just tell me if I'm starting to seem creepy and/or spammy. :)

Mònica said...

Oops, I put the wrong link.

Hamlette said...

I read this back in high school, and it's one of the reasons Dickens just isn't a favorite of mine -- like you said, too many coincidences, an uninteresting protagonist, and then he killed off the one character I really liked... I was not thrilled.

Hannah said...

Monica - Hehe! No that's fine, I like doing tags :) Thank you!

Hamlette - Dickens isn't everyone's cup of tea. One of my best friends has got almost the exact same taste in literature as me but she absolutely HATES Dickens. She was so disappointed with me when I ignored her advice about never reading his books :D I'm starting to think that Dickens is a hit-or-miss author for me. I love A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield but I wasn't keen on this one. Great Expectations didn't do a lot for me either.