Oliver Twist

Dear Mr. Dickens,

I’ve just turned the last page in the adventures of young Oliver Twist, and quite the adventures they were! Child abuse, theft, kidnapping, betrayal, unrequited love, domestic violence, murder, paranoia, bloodthirsty mobs, execution, and the triumph of good over evil – definitely all the ingredients for a good story. I should mention outright that this letter contains spoilers. Not for you, obviously, since you know how the story ends, but for anyone who has, wittingly or un-, stumbled across these letters.

I admit that I was worried, at the outset of our journey together, that the 175 years between your writing the novel and my reading it would make it difficult for me to understand the context of the story, or that I would find your style of writing too… ornamental. However, apart from your apparent devotion to the comma and semicolon, I’m happy to say that I found your writing very accessible, and I found myself eager to resume the narrative every time I picked up the book. And while some of the vocabulary and references were undoubtedly lost on me, the fact that I often found myself smiling and sometimes laughing out loud at your dry wit and sudden flashes of humor suggests that we will get along very well indeed. (Today we so often find ourselves laughing out loud that we use the abbreviation LOL – perhaps humanity has become much more cheerful now that we are threatened by neither the workhouse nor the gallows.)

Oliver uncharacteristically kicking some ass

Speaking of the workhouse: the fact that Oliver remains a creature of loving temperament and glowing innocence in spite of his abusive upbringing and some pretty slick efforts to turn him into a pickpocket, is something I would like to talk with you about. Is he, like Kipling’s Kim, somehow innately aware of his noble lineage and able to bear the ignominy of his environment in a way Sikes or Nancy are unable? But then, what of Monks, who comes from an even more legitimate background, and who seems to be the real villain of the story? He gets off pretty lightly, even you must admit. While his cohorts meet various grisly ends, Monks merely has to face a few awkward minutes when his evil plot is uncovered, and he still walks away with part of his inheritance! What’s the message here – if you can’t be a good person and of good birth, then you’d best be bad and of good birth, since trying to be good if you’re born poor will only get you clubbed in the head? And, really, was Sikes’ dog so irredeemable that you had to toss him off a roof to his death? Let me tell you, that would never happen in popular entertainment nowadays – when you’re not busy being dead, watch Independence Day.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I very much enjoyed your first novel, and I have developed a firm affection for many of the supporting characters. Mr. Grimwig’s constant avowal that he’ll eat his head, Mr. Bumble’s amorous advances to the future Mrs. Bumble only after he has estimated the worth of her goods, Mr. Grimes’ short-lived moment of glory as defender of the house against thieves, and Mr. Claypole’s attempt to find any employment that doesn’t require actual work all provide welcome levity in such a dramatic tale. And what drama! The last few chapters had me turning pages frantically as the net closed around your motley collection of baddies. I can see why you were so keen to include Nancy’s death scene in your public readings – it’s more than a little heart wrenching in light of all she put herself through.

Lest I bore or offend you with my opinions of Oliver Twist, let me sign off by saying that I have decided to go back to your beginnings and begin Sketches by Boz next. Since they comprise two volumes, we’ll have lots of time to chat about them.

Sincerely yours,

Melissa

P.S. Independence Day isn’t a very good movie. Please don’t feel obliged to watch it.

5 comments on “Oliver Twist

  1. Blair says:

    Interesting entry. I haven’t read Oliver Twist but have seen one or more film adaptations. My dad tells a story about being for several years absolutely terrified of Fagin as portrayed by (I think) Alec Guinness. To this day he can’t discuss the book or film without shuddering!

    Question: how do you feel about the portrayal of Fagin and his Jewishness? The last book I read contained some mild anti-Semitism in it, unsurprising in light of the era in which it was written, but interestingly I was less able to write it off as contextually acceptable than I was the racist elements of the same book. It could be because I spent a lot of time working on Jewish issues in literature so I’m particularly sensitive to it. What say you?

    • melissa says:

      I was disconcerted by the portrayal of Fagin, and how often he was solely referred to as “the Jew.” I actually put on my historian’s cap and did some research. Emsley’s “Crime and Society in England 1750-1900” states that the Jewish community in London had its share of thieves and pickpockets, as well as coiners and receivers, but so did other immigrant groups at that time. I think Dickens very much shared the prejudices of his time, and Fagin plays into commonly held stereotypes.

      Interestingly, I read that Dickens ended up selling his house to a Jewish banker and his wife and they became friendly. When they told him how offensive they found the portrayal of Fagin, he began to remove references to “the Jew” from the text, and said, “there is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”

      If only everyone could be so ready to admit they were wrong. 🙂

  2. Blair says:

    That’s reassuring. I suppose as a reader, I fall into the habit of wanting literary geniuses who, like Dickens, clearly transcend other prejudices of their time to do so with all of their society’s shortcomings. At least in Dickens’s case, as you said, he saw and acknowledged the error of his ways in this instance.

  3. Laurie says:

    One of my earliest childhood memories was listening to my Dad do his imitation of The Artful Dodger, belting out, “Consider yourself one of the family!” (1968, apparently?)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNapDkz1urc
    I wonder if the original story, in Mr. Dicken’s imagination, included frequent musical breaks?

    • melissa says:

      Hahaha – wow, what a scene!! Even if Dicken’s had had musical breaks in mind, I suspect he would have had a hard time convincing his readers of the abject poverty and destitution of London when all the newsboys and chimney sweeps are singing and dancing! “No, really, they are a sad and miserable lot! Desperately poor! Ignore the singing fishwives!” 🙂

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