More Than A Musical: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Oliver TwistOliver Twist by Charles Dickens

A confession: I’ve never seen the Oliver musical. But I know of it, like more or less everyone I know. And like them, I hadn’t read the book either. But as part of my ongoing quest to read all of Charles Dickens novels, I dove into it earlier this summer.

You could make a good case that Twist is his first proper novel. At the time, Dickens was just coming off an unexpected success, The Pickwick Papers, a story about a group of rich old guys and Sam Weller, who gave his story a spark of life. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that book wasn’t a planned one: it rambles and goes on and eventually winds down rather suddenly when Pickwick takes ill. I’ve always felt it ended simply because Dickens wanted to move on. And what he moved on to was Oliver Twist.

Thanks to the popular musical, it’s arguably Dickens best-known novel, although it’s far from his best. It follows the life of the titular orphan, who moves from orphanage to a life of crime to living with a well-off family. It’s the kind of read where you can tell right from the get-go things are going to be alright for Oliver. But then, they’d have to: the famous “Can I have some more” scene happens right at the beginning and things go down for Oliver from there, having him dragged into court, to a family who don’t want him and eventually, begging his way to London and it’s criminal underground.

Even at 25, Dickens had a knack for memorable characters. Here we’ve got career criminal (and general asshole) William Sikes; Fagin, leader of a gang of street kids; the Artful Dodger, who’s colourful, more or less amoral and doesn’t appear as often as you’d think. And those are just the self-acknowledged bad guys. What about the people who think they’re doing good? Here, Dickens rips into them, the social critic he always was.

One standout is Mr. Bumble, a self-important beadle and generally spineless coward. He’s the kind of jerk who looks to have power over people who aren’t strong enough to fight back, puffing himself up with this authority. In the 19th century, he was a beadle; today he’d probably be a mall cop. He’s completely full of himself and completely unaware of how much of an ass he is. He’s constantly saying darkly hilarious lines about setting an example for everyone else, which means he’ll have to get the best of things. An example: he makes his poor, underdressed companions ride outside the coach because what good would it do them if their beadle got sick?

But when facing people who aren’t poor or children, Bumble folds like a cheap suit: when confronted by someone with real authority at book’s end, he throws his wife under the bus and says “Well, the law is an ass.” He’s not evil on the same level as Fagin or Sikes, who generally make a living at breaking the law, but he kept making me think of Hannah Arendt, who I’m sure would’ve had something to say about him.

As for Oliver himself, he’s actually the least interesting part of the book: he’s dull, generally there to comment on how evil or nice someone is and has things happen to him, rather than setting things into motion. When he’s at the forefront, he’s almost a cartoon of a well-meaning person. When he sees someone pickpocket, his reaction is outrageous shock: just look at Cruikshank’s illustration (no wonder he translates so well to theatre). In the second half of the book, he eventually fades to the sidelines as Dickens focuses on more interesting characters like Sikes or Fagin. After all, if he’s not suffering for our pity, there isn’t much else for him to do.

I think you can tell how inexperienced Dickens was when he wrote this: it’s less episodic than Pickwick Papers and feels like something he was learning as he put it together. It starts off kind of heavy-handed. But he was a quick study: it picks up quite a bit as it goes on, mostly when it goes away from Oliver, and gains a certain melodramatic quality in it’s latter stages.

Rating: 7/10. It’s not a major Dickens novel and it’s got one of his weakest characters in Oliver, but like bad pizza, a dull Dickens novel is still pretty good. Recommended.





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