Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress is what you get when you (or Charles Dickens) start publishing your yet-to-be-completed novel in serial format, whilst working on another unfinished serial (known as the Pickwick Papers) that you started earlier: a bit of a mess, really.
But no, wait! I liked it. Kind of. Maybe. Well, Oliver Twist was better than Great Expectations in any case, with the latter leaving me with such, ironically, low expectations of Dickens’ other work, that… Never you mind, the point is this – Oliver Twist is like reading two different novels put together by some demented, and possibly blind, Dr Frankenstein of the 1837 literary world.
The beginning of the story follows Oliver Twist, an orphan cruelly mistreated by authority figures/ the workhouse/ other children/ employers/ aliens/ criminals/ mobs/ the government (pick whichever takes your fancy). Characteristic of this half of the novel is the strong satirical tone Dickens employs in order to say, whilst simultaneously jumping up and down and frantically pointing at everything around him, “Look here! And here! See this! This is what your amendment to the Poor Law did! Basing government policy on Bentham’s Utilitarianism is evil! Also, I hate fat people!”
It was at this point, however, that Dickens realised that there are limits to satire if one wishes to avoid repetition. Dickens’ response was to make the story take a decidedly different turn midway, by a) the clumsy removal of Oliver to some nice rich people’s house, and b) using secondary characters to shoulder the entirety of the plot.
This story shift, sadly, doesn’t stop the reader from beginning to smell the ending from several miles away (if you were wondering, it smells like the musty odour of hidden inheritance, the sweet aroma of coincidentally found long-lost relatives, and the saccharine scent of Good triumphing over Evil). Oh, I’m sorry, did I just give the ending away?
Make no mistake, the second half of the novel was brilliant and vivid in a way that the caustic narrator from the first half could in no way emulate. Yet, even to Dickens’ most hardened reader – and you’d have to be hardened to make it past the first few chapters of Oliver Twist – the sheer brutality reserved for the gang of thieves in the last part of the book was surprising.
To be honest, I really couldn’t see what Fagin had done that was so bad – sure, he stole stuff, forced kids to become part of his gang of thieves, and occasionally executed a plan to bring other criminals to the gallows – but the hatred Dickens afforded this man, both in Fagin’s description and in the thief’s ultimate, bloodthirsty, demise, is at odds with Fagin’s actions. Now, Sikes I can see; a horrid man who beat everyone around him for little, if any, reason, culminating in the savage murder of Nancy-the-prostitute. He definitely deserved what he got. But Fagin? I don’t buy it.
Regardless of my preferences on who should and shouldn’t have a homicidal mob chasing after them (actually, I think beating and starving a bunch of kids to death who were placed under your care is a far worse crime than stealing handkerchieves, but there you have it), the latter half of the book was fast-paced, full of suspense, and masterfully written. Unlike its beginning.
So now comes the time when I need to decide on a tag for this review; did I love or hate Oliver Twist? Did Dickens succeed in turning the story around? To answer those questions, I had to answer one other, perhaps the most important one of them all – would I read it again? Nope. Putting the awkward plot execution and conflicting morality issues aside, the story itself was pretty depressing. I’m sorry Dickens, it’s not my cup of tea at all.