One of the first classics I ever read was Oliver Twist. At school we had these children’s versions of classics, which is a great way of introducing children to these wonderful books in my opinion, and soon after I read the ‘real’ Oliver Twist. I was a tomboy, got in a lot of trouble at school and with adults in general and even stole the occasional apple from the market. So after reading Oliver Twist, I decided that if I ever were to marry, I would marry the Artful Dodger. But I wasn’t the only Dickens-lover at home. My mother studied English and I found her thesis on Dickens’ characters once, and it’s wonderful. I think we can both agree that the characters make Dickens’ stories great. And Oliver Twist has a few of my favourites.
On a dark and stormy night, a boy is born in Mudfog workhouse, and he is named Oliver Twist. His mother Agnes died in childbirth and Oliver is looked after through the ‘Poor Law’. When he turns nine, he is sent to the main workhouse to work. After losing when all the boys draw lots, Oliver gets up in the workhouse, asking for more food. Oliver is then sold to Mr. Sowerberry, an undertake, as an apprentice of sorts. But this doesn’t last long either: as Mr. Sowerberry’s other apprentice Noah insults Oliver’s mother, Oliver attacks him, gets locked up and eventually runs away to London. In London he meets the Artful Dodger, a young pickpocket. Oliver’s innocence makes him follow Dodger after just a few words and he takes him to the place where Fagin lives, the man who ‘employs’ a fair number of street thieves. In Fagin’s den, Oliver meets a young and sweet girl by the name of Nancy and her terrifying and abusive lover called Bill Sikes, who all the boys fear. Oliver still has no idea what the boys get up to and when he goes out with them and they steal, Oliver runs away and is blamed for the theft. He is eventually cleared in court, but falls ill from shock.
The gentleman who was robbed is Mr. Brownlow and he takes Oliver home with him, where his ward Rose looks after the boy. Fagin is scared however that Oliver will talk, so they abduct him and take him back to their den of thieves. Another part of the story, a parallel line in the novel if you like, is about a man we get to know as Mr. Monks. He talks with Fagin about Oliver and he wants Fagin to make the boy into a thief. Eventually, we find that he simply wants Oliver dead. Even Fagin wonders why a gentleman would take an interest in a simple workhouse boy, but Mr. Monks is willing to pay a lot for it. Nancy regrets having taken part in Oliver’s abduction and lets Rose know where he is, paying for her betrayal with her own life at the hand of Sikes. In the end, Oliver is saved, Mr. Monks is captured and revealed for who he truly is, as is Oliver, and we get our happy ending.
The reason I mentioned my mother was twofold: her thesis on Dickens’ characters and because she taught me a lot about the life of Dickens. She once mentioned that Dickens appeared to be almost afraid of women, like we were some mysterious creatures that could never really be understood. It is interesting to me then, the role that women play in this novel especially. Women are often only side-characters in Dickens’ books, as women often were in life at that time. But in Oliver Twist the women save the day. These two heroines are Nancy and Rose. They come from very different backgrounds, but both are often overlooked or not being taken seriously, because they are women. Rose has never given up looking for her sister Agnes, even though people kept telling her to give up. She is also the one who trusts in Nancy when she risks her life to tell her where Oliver is. Nancy is a thief and it is often said that she is a prostitute, though this is never mentioned in the novel, only assumed. She is still very young, but as determined as Rose is. When she changes her mind about Oliver, she risks everything to make things right. Her concerns for a young boy are more important to her than her loyalty to Fagin and Sikes, and this costs her her life. These two women together change the plot of the story completely, because if they wouldn’t have spoken, Oliver would just have disappeared into the underworld of London and Mr. Monks would have gotten his way and no one would have known who Oliver really was! I’d say that both girls are only seventeen or eighteen years old, but they are still my role models to this day.
Another thing that Dickens does very well is his social critique through stories and, again, characters. He describes the horrific effects of the new ‘Poor Laws’ on an innocent child. Oliver’s innocence is at times unrealistically exaggerated, but to make a point I think! The industrialism in 19th century England brought great poverty with it and Dickens doesn’t shy away from describing its effects, mostly on children. They appear to be either thieves or whores, living in filth and at the mercy of men like Sikes and Fagin. The gentlemen, the men on the board of the workhouse and people like Mr. Sowerberry, are hypocrites, reflecting the harshness and greediness of the times. Oliver is the exception and so are the Brownlows, but Dickens does make you think: what happens to all those other children living in poverty, who don’t have a benefactor somewhere out there? What happens to the other Nancys? It’s a sad image, but Victorian London unfortunately was.
Now, to be honest, Dickens’ plots aren’t always the greatest. This has a lot to do with him publishing his books often in monthly instalments, and I sometimes feel that Dickens doesn’t quite yet how he will end the book when he’s halfway through the story. Oliver Twist isn’t like that, or so I think, but the plot does unfold rather quickly and conveniently, which makes it less believable. But one doesn’t read Dickens for the plot, but for his way with words! Though first published in 1837, Dickens is easy to read and a master of language. His prose is often smooth, while his critique on society is razor-sharp. But there’s also humour, in the form of comical characters, but also the dark kind, the satire, which attacks society in a fashion that is both hilarious and spot-on. At times you even feel like Dickens is directly speaking to you, pointing out your flaws with beautiful words and phrases. However, I often read that people find Oliver Twist amusing and the characters funny, but I want to point out that they are not. Oliver Twist is a bitter satire, from the pen of a man bitter about the effects of ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ from 1834 on all people and deeply disappointed in society to let it come this far.
This was probably the hardest review for me to write, not because I didn’t know what else to say about this glorious piece of fiction and critique, but because my other versions were simply far too long. The things I could say on each character individually, I could write a whole review on Fagin alone! I could write more about the social developments in Victorian England and its obsession with death that came with it. I could write a long and angry essay on why Dickens isn’t appreciated as the rebel and fighter-for-justice-with-prose that he is. But I won’t, and for these things I would refer you to my mother, who taught me all I know on the subject. I would simply say: read the book; feel uncomfortable at its descriptions of pain and poverty and marvel at Dickens’ storytelling: a true classic, in every sense of the word.
Golden Watch Award: For all the gentlemen, hypocrites and pickpockets, roaming the streets together
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London, 1837-1839)