We interrupt this regularly scheduled Meal-Plan-Monday to bring you – at long last – an actual, real, full-on book review. Meal-Plan-Monday has been reschedule for Tuesday.
Original George Cruikshank Illustration
Oliver Twist. A undoubted classic written serially between 1837 and 1839. A well known story by even those who’ve never picked up a single Dickens’ novel. If you check out the International Movie Database (IMDb) you’ll find 24 different titles, spanning 100 years. TV mini-series, feature length films, musical & stage-plays – this novel has been resurrected into almost every genre of theatre art imaginable. From memorable quotes such as “Please, sir, I want some more” to toe-tapping ditties like “Consider yourself at ‘ome, consider yourself one of the family” and “Food, glorious food,” the story has woven itself into the very tapestry of our culture.
And yet – I don’t really care for this novel. I’ve been reflecting for a while on why this is. Anyone who knows me – or has read any number of my reviews – knows I’m an avid Dickens reader. In my book (ha ha), Dickens can practically do no wrong. So what happened with Oliver Twist? Honestly, I think I don’t like young Dickens.
Charles Dickens was only about 25 when he wrote Oliver Twist. He’d become well-known enough with Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers to start his own serial, which was the vehicle for publishing Oliver Twist. Certainly most of England recognized that young Dickens was a promising pen with great thoughs to share. Yet I feel all of the devices used in Oliver Twist – the coincidences, the caricature, the humor, the symbolism, the social commentary – they all smack of inexperienced, hot-blooded youth almost unable to control his expressions.
I must be alone in my criticism, for I discovered at book club last night that there was a certain bailiff – a Mr. Lang – who was a model for a certain Mr. Fang briefly mentioned near the beginning of the novel. Said Mr. Lang lost his job after Oliver was published – whether it was because someone discovered he was the rather embarrassing model for Mr. Fang, or because of some commitment to social change I cannot say.
I feel as though Oliver is a bit of a preview for many of Dickens’ other works. Consider these similarities:
- Oliver is an orphan raised in poor circumstances. So are David Copperfield, Pip Pirrup, and Esther Summerson. Although not orphans, Nicholas Nickleby, Amy Dorrit, Tiny Tim Cratchit all come from poor circumstances and have similar experiences to Oliver’s in poor houses, workhouses, and times of need and want.
- Rose Maylie is a young woman of questionable background, taken from an unkind living environment to a place of care and comfort. She is unshakably good and beautiful. Esther Summerson is practically the fulfillment of Rose Maylie’s character. As the ideal woman, Rose Maylie appears again and again in Dickens’ novels.
- Mr Brownlow is a Mr Jarndyce prototype, even down to their cantankerous friends, Mr Grimwig and Mr Boythorn respectively
- Unlikely circumstances abound – Oliver’s relations to Mr. Brownlow, Rose Maylie & Monks are almost too coincidental to be believed. It was a device Dickens would develop and use well – the relationship between Lucie Manette’s family and Charles Darnay’s family; the relationship between Esther Summerson and Lady Dedlock; Smike & Ralph Nickleby – I almost feel like I should have prefaced this with a spoiler alert!
Perhaps I’m imagining all this. Perhaps not.
The ideal woman exists, as I mentioned above, in many Dickens’ novels: Rose Maylie, Esther Summerson, Lucie Manette, Amy Dorrit, Kate Nickleby, even Belle Fezziwig. She was not only a fixture in most Victorian literature; she was modeled after Dickens’ sister-in-law Mary. Mary was only 17 when she moved in with Charles & his wife, Catherine. She died in Charles’ arms after a short illness, and many biographers speculate that Mary was Charles’ true love instead of her sister Catherine.
One account tells that after she died, Charles removed a ring from her finger, placed it on one of his own, and never removed it. He immortalized her as the eternally unchanging, wholly good, beautiful, young woman, the epitome of Victorian ideal womanhood, in his novels’ heroines, from Rose Maylie to Lucie Manette.
Dickens’ sense of humor seems a bit under-developed in this novel as well. Dickens is a master of humor; he a true grasp of the ironic and used it to its full advantage. He used it to break up the seriousness of his social commentary, but never failed to take advantage of a humorous moment for a bit of instruction. Perhaps the funniest moment in Oliver is Mr. Bumbles’ proposal to Mrs. Corney. If you’re not crying with laughter as Mr. Bumble edges his chair closer and closer to Mrs. Corney around a circular table – as she edges herself away until she is cornered… well… suffice it to say that I was crying with laughter. Mr. Bumble works up his nerve to propose as he counts the silver and inspects the furniture, and ensures that the house is provided with coal. If you haven’t read it – or haven’t read it in a while – go. Do so.
I would be remiss to not examine briefly Dickens’ use of contrast. Most novels use character foils to make a point, but Dickens’ is the ultimate master of drawing character contrasts. Perhaps he hit his peak with the comparison/contrast of Charles Darney and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. However, this is one thing that Oliver does exceedingly well.
Oliver is contrasted not only in an obvious light with Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger, but in a far more subtle way with poor Dick. Dick is the story of all the little boys who didn’t have Oliver’s luck. Dick is good, like Oliver, a heart of gold beaten down and worn out. Dick, however, doesn’t run away. He doesn’t encounter any good in people, as Oliver eventually does in Mr Brownlow and the Maylies. There is no relief for Dick and his end is tragic. He is perhaps the one character in Oliver who doesn’t “get what he deserves,” and we would be remiss to forget him.
Rose Maylie, a young woman of questionable birth and poor circumstances, is a perfect foil for Nancy. Had Nancy been found by old Mrs. Maylie instead of Fagin, perhaps her story would have been similar to Rose’s. Instead, Rose is the picture of goodness and light, while Nancy is the picture of all that is fallen and dark.
Mr. Brownlow is a contrast with wicked old Fagin. Both are older men with no families who take in a young orphan boy from the streets. Fagin trains him to be a thief, while Mr. Brownlow seeks to educate him.
Dickens uses his characters like mirrors, reflecting one back to the other. If you for a moment forget how truly wicken Fagin is, never fear, for Mr. Brownlow is just round the corner to remind you. If for a short while Nancy doesn’t seem quite so hopelessly lost and fallen, Rose Maylie will remind you of true womanhood. If you for one moment forget that the Artful and Charley are pickpockets and thieves, the innocent goodness of Oliver will remind you in short order.
Should you read Oliver Twist? By all means. Its a wonderful start to Dickens for younger readers, or for those just beginning to explore Dickens. If you’re familiar with later Dickens you may be disappointed to go back to early Dickens, as his skills aren’t quite developed yet. But should it be read – absolutely.
Wishing you good reads!