Jen Padgett Bohle's Reviews > Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
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Apr 03, 2010

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bookshelves: victorian-lit

We all know Oliver Twist somehow, either from pop allusions or musicals or BBC productions, but actually reading Oliver Twist and experiencing the story firsthand definitely gave me a special appreciation for Dickens’ sentence structure, imagery, and portrayals of Victorian London, plus I get to claim obnoxious bragging rights (and I’ll start off being a little haughty right now: Oliver never actually says “please, sir, may I have some more?” he says “please sir, I want some more.” Now you, too, can make people look stupid when they misquote the novel! We all win here.)

So anyway, I enjoyed Oliver Twist immensely and I had difficulty setting it aside to go to bed at night. The suspense and action and twists of fate in every chapter kept me completely enmeshed in the novel. Like, seriously addicted in the evenings. German television’s paltry offerings drove me to Dickens, but now I understand how literate people before the mid twentieth century stayed entertained. The text was originally published as serials in a monthly paper so Dickens relied on soap opera suspense techniques to keep readers interested. And his writing has this certain inexplicable, charming quality.

That said, both Dickens and Oliver Twist are a little problematic for me. Modernity and the passing years have rendered Dickens a trifle trite and he has become kind of like the Thomas Kincade of literature. He's just oozing sentimentality. And he's safe. Sure, there'll be whores and murders, and drinki’n and thievi'n, but in the end everything is always alright. The good guy always comes out ahead. And your protagonist remains a saint. A sweet, tender-hearted saint who somehow never sours on life. You're not exactly taking any chances with Dickens.

For modern readers, sometimes Dickens feels hopelessly outdated. Fagin's absolutely black and white portrayal as an evil Jew street gang leader is appallingly anti-semitic. But, as usual in my head, nothing is ever clear and I’m stuck between admiring Dickens’ handiwork in creating such a chilling villain in appearance, deed, and speech and loathing the way he characterizes Fagin as first and foremost a Jew. In fact, most of the time he’s simply called the Jew by our narrator and various characters. Can we still like the crafting of a character who is this outdated and wrong? Can we overlook the anti-Semitism? I tend to with, for example, Merchant of Venice, because Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is a least a bit more nuanced and sympathetic, but there’s nothing redeeming about Fagin. No easy answers on this one, though I don’t think we can overlook the positive political impact Dickens’ body of work had on the Victorian social code and the political movements and laws they inspired. Dickens is, after all, the guy who practically began the whole notion of Victorian charity and inspired child labor laws.

Two of the important characters of this work, providing some comic relief and relatively sophisticated satire are The Beadle, Mr. Bumble, leader of the orphanage and workhouse, and his eventual wife, a manager of the workhouse for the poor. These two, through their dysfunctional marriage and misguided ideals of public service, satirize the banally evil and officious bourgeois who are only concerned with status, title, and their own material comforts. Nancy, one of the female members of Fagin’s gang of thieves, is also subtle and well-written and she may actually be one of the only truly round characters in the work.

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message 3: by Kathrina (new)

Kathrina I love your enthusiasm for Dickens! I recommend you take a look at Dan Simmons' Drood, released in paperback last month. He paints a well-rounded (OK, a little heavy on the neurotic) portrait of Dickens and his contemporary, Wilkie Collins. The book is a thriller and full of fictional exploitation, but it's grounded by Simmons' excellent and encyclopedic knowledge of Dickens and his work. Simmons spins his story from Dickens' last unfinished novel, The Story of Edwin Drood, and it's just plain wicked fun. And you'll end up wanting to read every last Dickens novel you can find, plus a few by Collins and all the rest by Simmons, too.

message 2: by Drew (new)

Drew Great review Jen. I must have another go at Dickens. He's always been a closed book (sorry for that one) to me. And I know what you mean about German television ;)
Maybe it is the right time (and place) for Dickens after all!

message 1: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Kathrina, I will definitely add Drood to my to-read shelf and hope that I can order it sometime soon. I haven't yet read Collins, but know I need to get to him eventually.
Drew, thanks for the compliment! Dickens goes fast and is entertaining (sometimes if only to see just how maudlin he can get), so do pick him up again. And if I have to see another Stefan Robb undertaking or any other show filmed in a giant arena with an audience full of spiessig (American keyboard) geriatrics...well, it could get ugly!

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