Monday, March 18, 2013

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens

The famous tale of the titular orphan, born to a mother of uncertain origin but assumed to be low-born, who grows up mistreated and half-starved in the workhouses of the time. He is apprenticed out to a coffin-maker, where the contempt and bullying he undergoes impels him to flee to London. There, he is taken in by master criminal Fagin, who trains streets urchins to be pickpockets to enrich his own coffers. Fleeing Fagin and the harsh, brutal house-breaker Sikes, he is taken in by a gentleman and then a young lady in succession, where his lot improves, but the mystery of his parentage, and how he figures into the nefarious plans of Fagin, Sikes, and the mysterious man Monks, remain to be realized.

This novel is of course widely regarded as a classic, and though I don’t believe it to be of the same quality as Great Expectations, it’s not hard to see why it has endured: the villains of the story are vivid, fully realized, horrifying at times, and almost noble in their way at others. Dickens set out to present an honest account of vice with this novel, and he certainly succeeded: his willingness to give motives, fears, and conscience to the villains, rather than simply making them cartoonishly evil, is fairly modern. (Fagin is an absurd anti-Semitic stereotype, but I overlook that as a reflection of Dickens' time and place.) The novel also succeeds as social satire; especially at the beginning, with its descriptions of 19th century England’s treatment of the poor, he comes off as sharp, angry, and as full of black, biting wit as Twain or Swift. The book has its flaws, however. Despite his upbringing, young Twist himself is nearly a cipher, cartoonishly beatific and good; his personality borders on mawkishness, even sanctimoniousness. The same can be said for Miss Rose, the lady who takes him in, which makes them uninteresting as well as unrealistic. It’s no accident that Fagin and the Artful Dodger are as well-known to the general public as the titular hero himself. Finally, Dickens’ social satire is rather cut off at the knees due to his decision to make Twist the son of a gentleman, as if actual lower-class paupers don’t deserve happy endings and decent treatment. It’s a terrific story in its essence, though, with rich characters, suspense, and broad humor, as well as a righteous social satire and invective against hypocritical power mongers.

four stars

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