Tuesday, 30 January 2001

Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1837)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 734

The story of Oliver Twist is extremely well known, mainly because of children's versions of the novel and the film and musical versions. It is a melodrama, about the orphan who grows up in the workhouse, is apprenticed and escapes to London. There, he falls in with a group of young thieves led by the Jew Fagin, but also meets kindly, well off people who help him to the point where his history is discovered and he is restored to his estates.

Oliver Twist was Dicken's first real novel (The Pickwick Papers being a series of episodes), and in fact shows more signs of careful planning and structural thought than some of his more mature works. Like them, Oliver Twist was published in serial form, but reading it in a single volume reveals few signs that this was the case. It is also one of Dickens' shorter novels, which may have also helped its structural unity.

It is of course inspired by the way in which the English Poor Law operated, where the poor were treated more like criminals than anything else, where the system allowed corrupt bullies like Mr Bumble the beadle a free hand, where children were effectively sold as apprentices to tradesmen looking for the cheapest of cheap labour. The social campaigning side of the novel is not handled as well in Oliver Twist as it is in many of Dickens' later books; it frequently threatens to overwhelm the story, which then descends into sentimentality. This is partly because Oliver, like a several other children in Dickens (Little Nell and Paul Dombey are other examples) is very colourless and bland. He is both too naive and powerless to provide much of a commentary on what happens to him.

The most interesting characters in the novel, in fact, turn out to be Fagin and his gang of thieves. He is a bit of a stock character, and has led to accusations of anti-Semitism against the novel. (The character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend is to some extent intended as an apology for Fagin.) These are to a certain extent justifiable (he is consistently described in such terms as "villainous Jew", for example), but Dickens is quite mild by comparison with some of his contemporaries, and he is, of course, a man of his period. There is no particular reason why Fagin should be Jewish, except that Jews have always been accused by their enemies of making up a kind of underground community, closer to their co-religionists than to Gentile neighbours. This is used to give him links to accomplices in other parts of the country.

Nancy is the most three dimensional of all the characters, torn between her pity for Oliver and her desire to do something right on the one side and her love for the unpleasant Bill Sikes and her fear of Fagin on the other. She refuses an offer to help her escape her life, but is then killed because of Fagin's suspicions that she might betray him. Her tragic situation raised Dickens to write better once it had been established, and makes the last hundred or so pages of Oliver Twist come alive much more than the duller earlier sections.

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