Sunday, 18 August 2013

Oliver Twist

Prepare yourself for a series of posts related to the story of Oliver Twist! I will start off with the original novel of course and then continue the Oliver theme with the 1968 movie musical (which was supposed to be July's MoMoMu but things got in the way). Let's begin!

WARNING – this blog post contains details about the plot because I found it extremely difficult to discuss noteworthy things without including those details.

Oliver Twist, subtitled The Parish Boy's Progress, was Charles Dickens' second novel. The author was aged just 26 when Oliver Twist was published in 1838. It was quite a remarkable book even before it reached its greatest fame: it was the first English novel ever to feature a child protagonist and drew wide attention to the appalling conditions of the poor in the society. The most desperate people led a starving, hopeless life in parish workhouses, which is where Oliver Twist is born and almost immediately orphaned. After somehow surviving several years in the "care" of the parish and Mr Bumble the mad beadle, he makes his way to London. There, he falls in with the "Artful Dodger" and friends, too naive and ignorant of the world to realize that the boys are actually pickpockets who deliver their stolen goods to Fagin, who sells them on. Being a penniless, lonely child in London, Oliver's destiny continues to be thrown about – for better and for worse – by everyone else but himself. However, through all his difficulties and encounters with the most terrible sort of people, he manages to cling on to some innate sense of morality that he has in him, which pays off in the end.

As I mentioned before, Oliver Twist was only Dickens' second novel, and although the young Dickens holds up well against many more mature writers, I think that it shows somewhat in the narrative structure that he's not at the height of his genius yet. After Oliver comes to London, the plot gets curiously repetitive: Oliver joins Fagin's pickpockets; he goes out to "work" with the other boys; he gets into trouble but in the end he is rescued by Mr Brownlow, the same man whose possessions he was accused of stealing; then he spends the happiest time of his life in Mr Brownlow's house. This goes on for some time, and then the wheel turns round again: Bill Sikes and Nancy, Fagin's used-to-be "pupils", capture Oliver and bring him back to Fagin; then he's ordered on a burglary mission with Bill Sikes; he gets shot but the residents of the house take pity on him and take him to live with them, and then he's happy again. And although the story's events center mainly around Oliver, the narrator also occasionally leaves Oliver to show what the other characters are up to. While these subplots all do have a vital point to the story, the length of the Oliver-less gaps is on the verge of building up impatience ("Hey, it's been five chapters now, I want to know what's happened to Oliver since we last saw him! You just left him in the night with a gunshot wound!") rather than suspense. So these are slight structural problems in my view – I haven't really heard anybody else's opinions on Oliver Twist so I don't know if it is entirely my personal opinion.

However, as it is Dickens we're talking about, there are some incredible pieces of masterwork in this book. While Oliver himself isn't the most interesting character in the world because he really doesn't do much to steer his own life, there are many, many characters of the  Dickensian top quality. Mr Bumble the workhouse tyrant gets the award of "most chuckle-worthy Dickens name" in this book, and in all his sadistic horror he manages to become the most pathetic character of all when his new wife places him safely under her thumb. The darkest character is not Mr Bumble, but rather Bill Sikes the heartless burglar, who is written with such powerful black magic from Dickens' pen that he should come with a warning "may cause nightmares to the most sensitive people". There's the Artful Dodger, Fagin's top-of-the-class pickpocket who makes a serious match against Les MisĂ©rables' Gavroche in attitude. He takes the talent of "dodging" and sniggering at the society's rules to such a level that I wasn't even able to feel sad for him when he was transported to Australia to serve prison time – I'm entirely convinced that he either ended up running the whole prison colony or snuck into a ship back to England the moment he touched the Australian ground.

Robert Madge played the Artful Dodger, and Gavroche too!
And then there's Nancy, Bill Sikes' girlfriend who remains loyal to him despite the horrible way he treats her. For me, Nancy was definitely the character that I felt the most for. I couldn't help hoping desperately that she'd leave Bill even though I knew it would never happen, and when Oliver makes her long-forgotten conscience kick in, her character development is absolutely heart-breaking. Dickens seems to have had a very clear purpose in writing Nancy's character: through her, he argues that everyone has the chance for redemption, even a long-time prostitute and pickpocket. This was a fairly controversial point to make in the Victorian society, where the general consensus was that firstly, God decided which social class you belonged to and there was little or no chance you could do anything to change it, and secondly, that people in the lower classes were bound to become criminals and they had no knowledge of moral values. Dickens questions this view by giving us not only Nancy, but another young female character of humble birth: Rose Maylie, who was born an illegitimate child in a miserable home, but who grew up to be the sweetest young lady thanks to the care of Mrs Maylie who adopted her.

In addition to writing characters, Dickens is fantastic at creating an atmosphere. Even the possible structural flaws that I mentioned barely matter at all when you get to experience such emotionally powerful pieces of writing. I'll give just a couple of examples of the passages that gripped me the most: Whenever you're at the parish workhouse, you can feel the inmates' hopelessness and misery weighing you down; when Oliver, an 8-year-old child for goodness' sake, wonders if it would be better to die than to live in the cruel world, it really freezes your heart; the conversation between Rose Maylie and Nancy creates a stark contrast between the two young women, Rose being a well-cared-for and adored child with a happy future waiting for her, and Nancy having given up all hope of ever leading a decent life; and near the end of the book, when Fagin waits for his hanging in his cell, you can almost hear the clock ticking away his last hours.

Bill Sikes
I simply can't understand how Oliver Twist is sometimes described as "the famous children's tale". Not that this happens very often, but I really wonder why it happens at all. Having a child protagonist doesn't automatically make a book intended for children! Yes, Oliver is a child character you can easily sympathize for and yes, he does get his happily ever after in the end, but while Dickens is telling his story he really doesn't soften the image of East End London, or the lives of the destitute people living there. Oliver Twist features starving children, implications of prostitution, a girl beaten to death, lots of other gruesome deaths, and shameful secrets about illegitimate children. Does that sound like something a child would like to read? Any attempt of trying to make the story more "kid-friendly" would immediately lessen the point that Dickens was obviously trying to get across when writing this story. The effects can be clearly seen in the 1968 film musical version which I will also be reviewing soon.

Oliver Twist is a dark story, not just for its main character but for many others too, and not all readers will like it for that reason. However, there is a glimmer of hope in it too, and Dickens has the ability to make his readers really think about life and possibly question the way some things are handled in our society – yes, in our modern-day society, not just Victorian England. Which means Charles Dickens was a truly powerful writer already at the age of 26.

1 comment:

  1. "I wasn't even able to feel sad for him when he was transported to Australia to serve prison time – I'm entirely convinced that he either ended up running the whole prison colony or snuck into a ship back to England the moment he touched the Australian ground."

    That made me laugh! And it's true! I really like this review. I'm looking forward to what you have to say about the 1968 film : ) Funnily I'm actually reading Dickens' Great Expectations at the moment so I should be doing some posts about that book and its adaptations soon