Oliver Twist critiques abject poverty from the mean streets of 17th century London

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 Twist 2 (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.

Oliver Twist 3 (Charles Dickens)

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.

Oliver Twist 4(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.

Oliver Twist 5(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

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The Year in Reading 2016 Part 1 – Five Favorites

As we approach the end of 2016, it seemed fitting to follow the lead of New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter) from December 20th and share my reading from the year. Five of my favorites for this year are included below. Maybe you found something that you can enjoy?

  • “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck on 7/22/16 – 4/5 stars

Travels with Charley strikes me as a semi-fictional travelogue and stream-of-consciousness tale of a style not unlike that of Jack Kerouac. The book is definitely of the Kerouac canon, though the depth of the contemplation is of a more mature nature than that of Kerouac. The two men were definitely at a different point in life as they wrote. Besides this, the racial discussion and commentary in the last roughly twenty percent of this book leaves the depth that Kerouac offers well in the rear view. I mean this more as praise for Steinbeck than as critique of Kerouac, though both meanings are intended.

Steinbeck exposes things of himself and his times in this book, which it frames a narrative of sectional “American character through sightseeing in 1960.” You get a view of people in Maine and Texas, as two examples. You sense the immutability of border crossings and self-importance. Lodgings moving from a motel feel with something close to personal connection to hotels with less interaction comes through at times.

The book offers this from a 60-something in 1960 compared to his view of America as seen with the vision of someone with an insight into the America of the 1930s (dust bowl America) or 1910 (northern California). A comparison of the worlds of travel, at least in terms of how the highway system and the character of travel, held more through the first half of the narrative, yet it does reemerge again later.

I enjoyed this tale more from an aesthetic quality of how Steinbeck saw, felt, and described the places, feelings, and quality of traveling. It was an interesting experience to feel this drive like a bachelor with his poodle. That Steinbeck traveled without his wife, and that she allowed this, in a few different ways really surprised and shocked me. Thinking beyond the immediacy of his health (which apparently was not good when these travels occurred), I personally am not at a place where I want to travel without my wife. I cannot imagine what would prompt me to consider a prolonged trip of such a character.

All this is part of the mystery, I think. I give this four stars for the enjoyment of seeing an astute, dry, if not curmudgeonly older man share one last experience of our country from a time before the Beatles made their name in America.

  • “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury on 8/04/16 – 5/5 stars.

As was said of Dandelion Wine and its writer, “[Ray] Bradbury is a lovely writer, and he pulls [the reader] into this mythical summer of 12 year old Douglas. Through his eyes the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”

The language is poetic and draws a picture few others I’ve read have. The story is sentimental, romantic, boyish. The thoughts and feelings and perceptions are those of a 12-year-old sensitive boy. The themes meander through technology not replacing the need for human interaction; fear and acceptance; old teaching young; experiencing fear and accepting it; contemplating the meaning of life, death, and mortality; and most certainly summer. The central metaphor for summer is masterfully executed.

While lacking the true social scope you’d get in Mark Twain, I would place this book right there in quality. The time period (the year 1928) gives a more naive waxing and poetry than Stephen King’s Stand By Me, for example; the language and imagery of Ray Bradbury is in a different class than King’s work.

I grant five stars for being sentimental though fantastically poetic and compelling; the painting of an engaging and nostalgic word picture for my imagination merits my recommendation.

  • “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane on 8/28/16 – 3.75/5 stars.

The Given Day proved to be an intriguingly written with realism to the facts that I had for the historical personalities fictionalized within this book. Dennis Lehane did a good job of offering tension with the typical central component of police subject matter. The political intrigue worked, though I didn’t walk away with a sense that the story told “was better than it had to be.” Overall, the tension and character definition were great. The characters had depth, and there was some growth within them…however, I found myself wanting more of that.

That the story didn’t “work out well” for some central, good characters saved the overall story for me. The interplay between stories speaks well to the planning.

Overall about 3.75-stars.

  • “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens on 12/02/16 – 4.5/5 stars.

A tale of richly drawn character and characters, The Old Curiosity Shop tells a truly heart wrenching and sad story of a time and place of abject poverty for Nell, her grandfather, and a prodigious cast of characters that share in that poverty, those that try to help yet fail, or finally others that aim to make it worse by a downright despicable sense for abusing the downtrodden.

John Irving, the writer of The Cider House Rules, once said in a television interview that he writes characters that he loves, and then does the worst thing to them that he can think of. Charles Dickens showed us here, in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” that he could have invented this notion. Dickens certainly mastered this (at least from the perspective as reader feeling for characters). Dickens made me love his characters. You’ll smile in the face of the misery.

My one primary exception to the “love Dickens’ characters” concept comes into play with the central antagonist, Quilp. If you managed to love Quilp, you frankly have a better soul than do I. I am not ready to love this character. The self-loathing truth for me is that Quilp’s outcome is one of Dickens’ central masterpieces in the notion of go on “smiling in the face of misery.”

4.5-stars out of five.

  • “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr on 12/12/16 – 3.5/5 stars.

I think I was more okay than others with the pace of the book, though I appreciate that folks wanted less background and more action from earlier in the book. The period where Marie and Werner interact was too spare, in my opinion. There is a good point to be raised that a book about Nazi Germany and the war without a compelling angle for doing so is strong.

Volkheimer was perhaps the one character that I found most relatable. 3.5 stars out of five.

 

Matt – Tuesday, December 20, 2016