It’s not one of Dickens’s better novels.
Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan, born illegitimately (a shocking enough notion for early Victorian literature). His early years are spent in a workhouse run by incompetent and sometimes venal caretakers. He’s “sold” to a coffin maker; the practice of selling (officially, “apprenticing”) orphan children was common at the time. He runs away to London, and falls in with a criminal gang led by the miserly Fagin. The gang includes the Artful Dodger, John Dawkins; the vicious Bill Sikes; the thief Charley Bates; Toby Crackit, a burglar; and the thief Nancy, Sikes’s lover, who will die for trying to save Oliver.
Oliver moves in and out of potentially criminal situations, Dickens managing to keep him just out of reach of the law. He’s taken in twice and cared for, once by the elderly gentleman Mr. Brownlow and once by a lady, Mrs. Maylie, and her daughter Rose. But the criminals are always hovering around Oliver, and for a good reason: they need to get him caught in criminal activity.
The story was serialized monthly in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1836 to 1837, with illustrations by George Cruikshank. It overlapped the serialization of Pickwick Papers by 10 months, so, to be fair to Dickens, Oliver Twist and Pickwick were being written and published at the same time. And Dickens was serving as editor of Bentley’s, in addition to other writing activities. This was also Dickens’s first official novel, Pickwick being more a series of related short stories. We find that Oliver disappears for fairly extended stretches of the work, and Dickens had to do some concentrated plot advancement toward the end of the book. Later, Dickens would take to planning his serialized novels, but Oliver Twist is one that developed rather organically.
No, it is not one of his better novels. That said, it does contain much of what makes Dickens’s novels the enduring works that they are.
Even at this early date, Dickens was demonstrating a genius for scene description that puts the reader right smack into the narrative. We are in-the-room witnesses to Oliver’s birth. We experience what he did in the workhouses and the coffin maker’s business. We find ourselves cringing at walking through London’s slums and Fagin’s criminal den. Many critics have pointed out that Dickens had a photographic gift for scene description; photography as a new art was just getting started at the same time (Dickens himself didn’t like the official photograph portraits taken of him throughout his life).
Surprisingly, the scene in the book that Dickens would become most famous for—the acting out of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, a performance that caused screaming and fainting in his audiences—is relatively subdued in the book. Or perhaps the modern reader is more jaded to violence.
Dickens also demonstrates in Oliver Twist a genius for his character descriptions. His vivid words for describing Fagin, for example, would eventually lead to charges of his being anti-Semitic. While he was more likely reflecting the prejudices of the time, he would, in later editions of the book, remove the repeated second references of Fagin from “the Jew” to “the old man.” But all of his descriptions make the reader see the characters as real people, down to their clothes, mannerisms, and facial expressions.
Oliver Twist was written and published at a time when the young Charles Dickens (all of 24) was in the first flush of public success. His articles, collected under the title of Sketches by Boz, had been widely popular. The serialized Pickwick Papers was a sensation, with the sayings of one of the characters, Sam Weller, becoming famous throughout Britain and beyond. As he was finishing Oliver Twist, he was already on to the next serialized novel, Nicholas Nickleby.
No, Oliver Twist wasn’t the best novel Dickens wrote, and it could have been more tightly constructed. But it was full of the promise of what would come later.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
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—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish