I enjoyed reading Oliver Twist. It was an easy read, with no unconnected subplots — it is much more streamlined than most of Dickens’s later works. A great deal of the story line is quite improbable. (How likely was it that Oliver would first accidentally turn up at the house of a dear friend of his father’s and then, also accidentally, at the home of his aunt?) Still, there were fewer windings about than is common with Dickens, which gave the story a tighter feel. It seems to be one of Dickens’s most popular books, with an impressive line of movie adaptations.
The story follows the birth and childhood of Oliver Twist. Born in a workhouse, to an unwed mother who promptly dies, Oliver is an orphan brought up on the grudging, meagre charity of those around him. Starved and ill-treated, he eventually runs away to London, where he is taken in by Fagin, a criminal who lives mostly by training children to be pickpockets. Oliver is saved from becoming a thief by the kindness of Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Maylie, and has a happy ending — unlike a number of the book’s other characters.
Oliver Twist is filled with colorful and dramatic characters. One of my favorites was the young pickpocket Charley Bates, with his exuberant personality and irrepressible sense of humor. I also enjoyed the character Barney, though he doesn’t appear much. He is a confederate of Fagin’s, works at the Three Cripples (a resort popular with Fagin’s gang), and does very little in the story except talk through his nose: “‘Dot a shoul,’ replied Barney; whose words: whether they came from the heart or not: made their way through the nose.” (Ch. XV). Mr. Bumble is not one of my favorite characters, but I was entertained by his speech on the law being a bachelor:
‘That is no excuse,’ replied Mr. Brownlow. ‘You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.’
‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is … a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.’
Laying great stress on the repetition of these two words, Mr. Bumble fixed his hat on very tight, and putting his hands in his pockets, followed his helpmate downstairs. (Ch. LI)
(Dickens often portrayed browbeaten husbands bullied by their wives, and in Oliver Twist there are two sets of them — Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry as well as Mr. and Mrs. Bumble.) I also found Bill Sikes, though one of the less savory characters, to be very interesting. He is strongly drawn, his interactions with Fagin and Nancy were quite forceful, and his famous murder of Nancy and the aftermath was dramatic. I look forward to comparing him with Bradley Headstone, another of Dickens’s murderers, when I read Our Mutual Friend.
Nancy herself was quite an interesting character. She is a clever girl and a very good actress, causing Sikes to declare, “Strike me blind, if I don’t honour that ‘ere girl, for her native talents.” Though she has grown up as a thief among thieves, taught from young childhood by Fagin, she develops a soft spot for Oliver when she sees him misused. He has friends that offer him a chance for a better life, and Nancy, although she will not seek it for herself, risks her life to try to obtain it for him. Despite her growing loathing for the life she leads, she is attached to it by habit and her affection for Sikes, and she will not betray her associates, for “I have led a bad life too; there are many of us who have kept the same courses together, and I’ll not turn upon them, who might—any of them—have turned upon me, but didn’t, bad as they are.” (Ch. XLVI).
I read somewhere that Nancy’s speech is very theatrical. I didn’t observe it to be any more theatrical than any of the other characters’ speech. One thing I did notice, however, was Oliver’s speech. For a child brought up in the workhouse around paupers and such characters as Mr. Bumble (whose speech, though pretentious, is thoroughly unrefined), his speech is very correct and polished, and his ideas remarkably lofty (what with his talk of angels and all).
Fagin was a contradictory character. Often referred to as “the merry old gentleman”, he can be very cruel — beating children and instigating murder. He is underhand and sly, with an ugly, smooth, smiling exterior. He talks easily of sending old companions to the gallows. He hides resentment under a pretense of jesting. It would not be pleasant to be in his power, as so many are in the story.
There were a few characters in Oliver Twist that I did not like. One was Mr. Grimwig. I fail to see what is so amusing about him being so ready to argue with everyone, just for the unadulterated purpose of conflict. In real life, someone who always contradicted everyone despite having no good reason to do so would be very annoying. Take for example the time when “he contradicted a very old postboy about the nearest road to London, and maintained he knew it best, though he had only come that way once, and that time fast asleep” (Ch. LI). Although his friends may know, and therefore overlook, this characteristic, strangers, such as the postboy, can hardly be expected to. Still, his repeated offers to eat his own head can be amusing at times.
My least favorite characters were Rose and Harry Maylie. At times, I wanted to slap them, knock their silly heads together, and make them talk some sense for once in their lives. Harry’s proposal was verbosely melodramatic and Rose’s refusal soppy. Since Rose will not have him in the public career that he has spent years building up to lay at her feet, he abandons it. Rose then graciously rewards him with her hand. They deserved each other.
Rose is a kind girl, very gentle and generous to Oliver, but she is also a very delicate girl who takes deathly ill apparently from taking too long of a walk. She also doesn’t seem to have much sense. When Nancy gives her information that could lead to the discovery of Oliver’s history, she is understandably puzzled as to how to use it, but why did she go to Mr. Brownlow for advice instead of Doctor Losberne? She didn’t know that he wouldn’t be every bit as impulsive as the doctor — how could she? She had never met him before.
The last chapter of the book was sentimental. It neatly wraps up the fates of various of the characters, but then descends into a rhapsody about Rose’s perfections (she, with Oliver, passes “whole hours together in picturing the friends whom they had so sadly lost”) and then ends by telling of a tablet put up in the village church in honor of Oliver’s mother, Agnes — and “if the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth, to visit spots hallowed by the love—the love beyond the grave—of those whom they knew in life, I believe that the shade of Agnes sometimes hovers round that solemn nook. I believe it none the less because that nook is in a Church, and she was weak and erring.” Despite the rhetoric, Agnes was, after all, the not-so-innocent cause of all of Oliver’s sufferings. Besides the obvious sin that caused her to get pregnant, she also decided to be melodramatic, and practically drive herself to death, causing her own death and the orphanhood of her son. If she had thought of the consequences of her behaviour on her child, she might have stayed at home and braved out her disgrace. It certainly would have been better for Oliver. I’m not saying that she wasn’t tempted, or that she shouldn’t be pitied and forgiven, but, still, sin has consequences, and it was rather tacky to end the book with everyone venerating her.
Since the characters that I don’t like take up very little space in the book, it being filled by the more interesting characters, they are only a slight drawback. Oliver Twist was a delightful book, and one I would be willing to read again.
I illustrated this post with drawings by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke, 1856-1937) and photographs from The Liebler Company’s Centenary Celebration production of J. Comyn Carr’s Adaptation of the Novel, first acted by a special cast at the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York City, February 26, 1912. My copy of Oliver Twist (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers) is illustrated with the latter and four more photographs from the same play. The cast includes Marie Doro as Oliver Twist, Constance Collier as Nancy, Nat C. Goodwin as Fagin, and Lyn Harding as Bill Sikes. I read Oliver Twist August 7 – 11, 2012.