Oliver Twist tells the story of abject poverty from the mean streets of London, England in the early 1800s. Published in serial form from 1837-1839 by Charles Dickens, the story focuses largely on the abuse of indigent orphan Oliver after his years of mistreatment in a private workhouse. Oliver flees the workhouse after being beaten in response to a rebellion among the malnourished orphans. In that request for proper quantities of food, Oliver was chosen by the orphans to ask for more food to ease his famine level hunger.
(Oliver asking for more food)
Oliver Twist is a largely autobiographical piece written from the point of view of characters with dark and cruel intentions towards the poor and downtrodden. The major action after leaving the orphanage are especially true of Dickens‘ background, though much of the adventure was contrived for the serial reader. Think of the novel as having been written for an audience of television viewers in a time before there was television.
Much of the action for this novel occurs when Oliver is roughly 10 to 12 years old. The moralizing that Dickens aims for was to challenge the Victorian age notion that the poor were born to their lot from birth, were essentially born in a criminal status owing to this, and to challenge the injustice of this societal treatment of the poor. Many will recognize this theme from other works of Dickens, with the novella A Christmas Carol as seen on stage and in movie format across many adaptations.
In Oliver Twist, Oliver joins company with John Dawkins, The Artful Dodger, and Fagin, the head of a group of criminals who teach Oliver to act as a common criminal by picking pockets. Oliver goes out with Charles Bates and the Dodger, struggling with his conscience as he is forced by necessity to act in a thieving, morally objectionable way.
Oliver gains his freedom when rescued by a benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, who notices a resemblance that Oliver bears to a portrait of a young woman in Brownlow’s home. This happenstance bears fruit much later in the larger narrative of bringing the tale to resolution. In the meantime, Fagin has set his crew locate themselves in a new headquarters. Fagin elicits the help of Nancy Sikes to bring Oliver back to the band of criminals in order to continue in this ignoble trade.
(Nancy helping capture Oliver)
Eager to get Oliver completely in his power by entangling the child in deeper aspects of their criminal activity, Fagin convinces Bill Sikes to use Oliver in a major burglary. Taken west of the city, Oliver is used to gain access to a house that is to be robbed through a window. In the resulting scene, Oliver is shot in the confusion of the event while those responsible for the planning make their escape. Oliver is left for dead, though through happenstance survives long enough to be granted assistance by those he would have robbed. Before this assistance, the malfeasance of even these well-to-do benefactors is called into question.
Fagin makes inquiries after Bill Sikes when the above details are revealed. He then has an ominous meeting with a person called Monks, who is angry with Fagin, who he claims has failed in his obligation to ruin Oliver by tricking him into a lawless life. In my opinion, it is here that some modern day readers might lose Dickens. Following the many hustles and motivations tend to lose some folks. Keep in mind that were you to read this more like binge watching a television series, some of that confusion would be alleviated.
Fagin later discloses some double-dealing Nancy takes on behalf of Oliver, owing as her heart has sympathy for Oliver’s goodness in battling against evil. Meanwhile, Mr. Brownlow has been searching for Monks since the Oliver’s disappearance at Nancy’s hands.
With the help of Nancy’s change of heart and some discoveries Nancy herself made in service of Brownlow for Oliver’s benefit, Brownlow learns of Monks’ vindictive conspiracy with Fagin to destroy Oliver. Faced with this and other revelations of Monks’ criminal behavior, plus Brownlow’s reminder of Monks’ complicity in the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes, Monks agrees to disclose the truth in exchange for immunity. Monks makes restitution to his brother (Oliver) in accordance with the terms of a will in the death of a wealthy relative of both Oliver and Monks.
(Portrait of Agnes Fleming)
You might ask who was in the portrait that struck the fancy of Mr. Brownlow earlier in the book Oliver Twist. The image was none other than Oliver’s mother, Agnes Fleming.
I like classics by Charles Dickens. My rating is 4-stars out of 5.
Matt – Sunday, May 21, 2017