Charles Dickens Challenge: Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist is arguably the most famous of Charles Dickens' novels, and the only one I had much knowledge of before I started the Charles Dickens Challenge (though admittedly said knowledge mainly came from a Ladybird book version I had as a kid and I'd Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV series that aimed to 'find a Nancy' - pun, I suspect, intentional - to star in a new West End version of the musical). As most of you will know, the eponymous Oliver is orphaned at birth and sent to the workhouse, where he is starved and abused by the beadle Mr Bumble, before escaping to London and falling in with Fagin and his gang of pickpockets.

I've mentioned before that one of the most interesting things I've found in doing this challenge is seeing the overarching themes that I associate with Dickens emerge, particularly that strong sense of injustice at the divisions between the haves and have-nots in Victorian society. There are bits of that in The Pickwick Papers, but Oliver Twist takes those elements and turns them up to 11. The workhouse scenes and the atmosphere of Fagin and Bill Sikes' dens in London are relentlessly grim, and even in the likes of Mr Brownlow's house the sense of foreboding never quite goes away until the ending. It also has a surprisingly dark ending; I know the version I read when I was younger would have been edited but there are quite a few scenes which could be described as bleak and fairly graphic in the last couple of chapters of the book.

The characters also seem a little one-dimensional and very much split into 'goodies' and 'baddies', with the exception of Nancy, who finds her loyalties divided between her love for Bill Sikes and her wish to keep Oliver out of the gang life. Whilst the setting leaps off the page, the characters don't seem to have the same roundedness that those of The Pickwick Papers do. Instead, it just feels like everyone is a cartoonish representation of either good or evil, and this is only increasingly exaggerated as the novel goes on. Even at those moments where you're meant to sympathise with certain characters, I couldn't bring myself to do it and instead just felt nothing towards them.

Overall, I have to say I felt quite ambivalent towards Oliver Twist. It is incredibly well-written and the settings are brilliantly portrayed, but it feels much more moralising and - dare I say it - almost a little bit preachy in comparison to The Pickwick Papers. But it does create a wonderful atmosphere of London life at the time and sets the scene for a lot of what we perceive as 'typical' Dickens, particularly his outrage at social injustices.

Have you read Oliver Twist or any other Charles Dickens novels?

2 comments:

  1. I've always wanted to read Oliver Twist but after attempting to read Great Expectations and failing miserably I've yet to do so. Charles Dickens novels and I don't really get on.
    I'm sure he has written more exciting novels than Great Expectations but I'm not entirely sure I can handle reading them.

    Raise The Waves

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    1. Great Expectations is a way off for me but thanks for the heads-up! So far I've found The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby much more enjoyable than Oliver Twist as they've got a bit more humour in them so they might be worth a try if you want to reattempt Dickens...

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