Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Nov 7, 2014

Last December as I was making my reading goals for 2014, I knew I wanted to include a Dickens novel on the list. I had just finished The Man Who Invented Christmas and felt like my experience with Dickens was woefully lacking. At that point, I had only read A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth, and A Tale of Two Cities.

So I made the goal and found that the most difficult part of it was just deciding which Dickens novel to read next. Everyone has a favorite, and almost everything he wrote is so well-known and well-loved. But I finally decided on Oliver Twist because, come on, it's Oliver Twist. How could I even call myself a reader if I hadn't read this classic?

There are enough adaptations out there, I’m sure the story is familiar to most everyone. However, just to set the stage for the rest of the review, here’s a brief recap:

Oliver Twist is an orphan. He spent the first 11 years of his life in a workhouse where life was hard and food was scarce (leading him to beg the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more”). In spite of his harsh upbringing, Oliver is a kind and thoughtful child. He tries his best to please his higher-ups but also has a strong moral code he holds tightly to. After a couple of failed apprenticeships, he ends up in company with the Artful Dodger who works under Fagin (a truly despicable man who makes his living at the hands of children). Oliver is saved from these circumstances, first by Mr. Brownlow and then by Mrs. Maylie, both of whom, rather remarkably, see the inherent goodness in Oliver.

In classic Dickens’ style (as if my vast experience of now four books gives me the right to make such assumptions), there is more to all the characters than originally meets the eye, and their lives end up being intertwined and connected in ways no one could have suspected.

For myself, I prefer listening to Dickens rather than reading him. Because of my rather obsessive tendency to try to perfectly understand everything when I read (a habit I'm trying really hard to break), I tend to get bogged down in all the details and descriptions. But when I listen, those difficult passages slip by easily, and I actually think I get a better understanding of the whole story instead of when I nitpick this or that paragraph (although I confess to listening to a certain five minutes (when Monks is telling about his father's will and his mother's selfish plans) at least four times because it just wasn't making sense.

But besides that, I also like to listen to Dickens because a good narrator really makes the dialogue come alive. The version I listened to was narrated by Martin Jarvis, and, oh my goodness, he was so good. I especially loved his voice for Fagin because he perfectly captured his wily and deceptively sweet nature.

But even if Jarvis hadn't found the perfect voice for him, Fagin would have still intrigued me. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I asked Mike, "Who do you think is more evil? Fagin or Bill Sikes?" What followed was an interesting little discussion, and one that I'd love for other readers to chime in on. Growing up on Oliver and Company, I feel like my original opinion was tainted because Disney casts Fagin in a sympathetic light (and to be honest, every adaptation seems to have their own interpretation of these two characters).

However, it didn't take me long in Dickens' own words before I was thoroughly creeped out by Fagin. And by the two-thirds point when I asked Mike that question, I had come to decide that the true villain of Oliver's story was, without question, Fagin.

On the surface, Bill Sikes is terrifying. He is passionate, prone to wrath and violence, and deals with all his emotions physically (as evidenced by Nancy's death). Would I want to meet him in a dark alley? Never. Even Fagin has a healthy fear of him and goes to great lengths to keep him placated.

Fagin, on the other hand, usually stays much more calm and even-tempered, but he is governed by really diabolical motives. He won't do the dirty work, but he has no qualms about hiring it out. He is selfish and duplicitous, and he lures in his victims with all his soothing "my dear"s. He is the mastermind behind everything, and if anyone ever tries to cross him, he sees that they're (quietly and quickly) taken care of. Although Sikes' wickedness is more noticeable, Fagin's penetrates quietly and doesn't let go. Doesn't that just give you the creeps?

Because it's loaded with danger and suspense, I would have loved to read Oliver Twist in its original serial format. For example, when Oliver leaves to return a book for Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Grimwig is convinced he won't come back. The two friends make a sort of bet about it and wait for Oliver's return. The chapter ends with this: "The gas lamps were lighted. Mrs. Bedwin was waiting anxiously at the open door. The servant had run up the street twenty times to see if there were any traces of Oliver. And still, the two old gentleman sat perseveringly in the dark parlor with the watch between them."

It would have been agony to wait the entire week to see what became of Oliver and how Mr. Brownlow reacted to his disappearance, but it would have been the fun kind of agony, full of speculation and anticipation. We live in an age of binge reading (or watching), but I think there's something to be said for letting a story unfold gradually with plenty of time to relish and absorb it.

For me, it would have been a perfect book, if not for the ending. And I'm not talking about the way everything wrapped up with Oliver finding a real family and such. Are you kidding me? That's pretty all-around wonderful. No, I'm referring to the very last paragraph, which says, "But if the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth to visit spots hallowed by the love--the love beyond the grave--of those whom they knew in life, I do believe that the shade of that poor girl hovers about that solemn nook--ay, though it is a church, and she was weak and erring."

Dickens is famous for many of his lines, but this is not one of them. In fact, since I was listening to it, I actually thought something had been accidentally cut off of the last track. I went and checked out the paper copy of the book just so I could see what I'd missed . . . only to discover that I hadn't missed anything. He bypasses all the notable and worthy characters (Oliver, Mrs. Maylie, Rose, Mr. Brownlow) and gives the last line to Oliver's mother? Sorry Dickens, but that's a major fail. Of course I'm sympathetic to her but not so much as to give her the last line.

So yes, without the last paragraph, it would have been a perfect book, but even with it, it's definitely near-perfect.

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