Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Inspired by Will Eisner's Fagin the Jew, I decided to read Dickens's novel Oliver Twist this year. I've seen the musical Oliver! a few times on stage and on VHS (and maybe I'll revisit it on DVD--our local library has it) and liked it a lot. Eisner's book is based on the idea that Dickens's portrayal of Fagin reinforces a negative stereotype, specifically that Fagin is very often referred to as "the Jew" who is a scheming ne'er-do-well with no positive traits at all. So I came to the book with a lot of baggage.

The story follows the young life of Oliver Twist, an orphan born out of wedlock and left in a workhouse where he is raised by the local authorities under abysmal conditions. He's apprenticed to an undertaker, which does not work out (though plenty of comical and tragic events happen to Oliver there). He flees to London where he is taken in (both literally and metaphorically) by Fagin, who organizes young boys to pick pockets and commit other minor thefts on busy London streets and has a few young women (Nancy and Bet are the only ones Oliver meets) who are prostitutes (though they are never explicitly identified as such except in Dickens's introduction to the third edition.). He works for them until he comes to the house of Mr. Brownlow, who provides for his physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs. An unfortunate incident puts Oliver back in Fagin's gang. Fagin loans Oliver out to his compatriot, Bill Sikes, who is less the schemer and more the housebreaker. He and Oliver head to the outskirts of London to rob a home where more complications happen. The story eventually comes around to a happy ending for the good characters and a bad ending for the evil ones.

Only a few of the characters show growth or change through the book. Oliver is preternaturally good and remains true to his honesty and virtue, in spite of the influences of the workhouse where he grew up and the criminal gang where he spends a lot of time. He has good influences in his life too but they reinforce his good traits, they do not create good traits. The main villains, Sikes and Fagin, show little change. Both are rotten to the core and stay that way until their ends, though the hardness of their fates elicits some sympathy. Nancy is a bit more dynamic but remains true to her tragic course.

The narrative is a bit long and meandering. I found the first 300 pages slow going. The story started moving more quickly and the action became more exciting in the last 200 pages, especially when the focus switches from Oliver to Sikes or Nancy or Fagin. Some sections are slowed down by the narrator speaking in the first person about dramatic style or making wry, ironic comments about the situation and characters. While such prose is entertaining, sometimes it goes on too long. I have similar feelings about the unabridged Moby Dick--a bit of judicious editing would improve the narrative without sacrificing the point of the story.

Eisner's complaint about the novel is fairly justified, though Fagin is very different in the musical version of the story. There he has more joviality and considers going straight several times, something left ambiguous by the ending of the musical.

On the other hand, the novel is very frank about the squalid conditions of London and of the whole "workhouse" system. The high contrast between the better off and the poor is all the more shocking seeing the ease with which someone can fall or rise due to uncontrollable circumstances. The story is entertaining and sobering at the same time, not a small accomplishment.

I recommend it with the caveat that parts are slow going. Endurance pays off.

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