Charles Dickens was an author I never thought I’d like, especially after reading him in middle school–I thought him boring, dull, and long-winded. Long-winded he might be, but at the tender age of twelve, I don’t think I had the proper appreciation for the sense of humor and the ridiculous that permeates his writing.
Oliver Twist is not my favorite of his books, though. It is a fairly early work–though still upsetting to think that Dickens was only a few months older than I am when he wrote it–but lacks the depth and maturity that characterizes his other books. The essentials are there: the grim portrayal of London life, the keen interest in social issues, the ridiculous ancillary characters with silly names like Mr. Bumble–but still, lacking something that’s there even in the next few books he published.
The story of the eponymous orphan, Oliver Twist is unabashed melodrama. Oliver is born in a workhouse and his unknown mother dies immediately after kissing him once. His life only goes downhill from there, calamity after calamity. After years of being starved in the workhouses, he’s apprenticed to an undertaker, but after the undertaker’s charity boy insults Oliver’s mother, the young boy ends up on the run again, where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger and led to the old man Fagin, who runs a gang of thieves… setting in motion the occasionally tragic events of the rest of the book.
Oliver is a fairly passive character, he doesn’t do much except tremble, react, and occasionally fall ill. Almost too good to be true, as are the saintly Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie, various ladies and gentlemen who attempt to help the lad out along the way. The real stars of the show, however, are the criminals that populate the pages of this novel, and the harsh, grim vista of Victorian London itself. The Artful Dodger is so cheerful and witty that you can’t help but like him; Bill Sikes is as terrifying a villain as you could hope for; Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Coney so awful that you can only laugh at them, and the way that Dickens describes London makes you feel almost as though you’re walking through its smoke-filled sidestreets.
The one thing I can’t quite get over is Fagin, though. I’m not alone in having this issue, especially among fellow Jewish readers. He’s every awful stereotype you can imagine: the hooked nose, a greasy coat, a thief and a pawnbroker with vaguely pederastic tendencies, a truly odious character in every way. And Dickens barely even refers to him by name: he’s always The Jew, as though his Jewishness is one of the most disgusting things about him. Dickens claimed, of course, that he didn’t have anything against Jews, and that “that type of criminal” was more likely to have been Jewish than not. (Amazing, isn’t it?) I want to believe that this was just a case of ignorance speaking, as when he actually got to know some Jewish people he regretted Fagin’s portrayal, especially after an interesting correspondence with the wife of a good friend of his, who made a passionate argument why Fagin was an insult to her people. But the fact remains, that reading it is occasionally like being slapped in the face.
But still, despite the over-the-top melodrama (Rose becomes deathly ill for no particular reason; Nancy, a young prostitute, comes to an ‘orrible end…) Oliver Twist is a classic for a reason; its characters timeless, even to those who have never read a page of Dickens in their lives.