Book Review: Oliver Twist

Image from Amazon.com

It is only February, but the first book that put me behind schedule to read 102 books this year was Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. It’s a classic. I had always intended on reading it. And when Lyddie referenced it over and over in my middle grades Language Arts class, I decided to embrace the moment and stick it on the 2021 reading plan. While there were a couple mammoth novels in January, I stayed on track because they were easy-to-read page turners that kept me up well into the night, turning those pages. Oliver Twist, however, takes more time, more mental energy, and more patience. Therefore, it bled into the reading for the two weeks following its slot (and I have now postponed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—a book larger than my head—for my next vaca).

Let’s just get this out of the way, straight away. There is some problematic, negative, racial typecasting in this book. Not only is one of the main villains Jewish, but he is often just called just “the Jew” (though there is a proliferation of nicknames in this book) and there are many disparaging comments made about him that are clearly related to him being Jewish (and some not). There are also a few other racist terms used, and also very importantly, women are problematically, negatively, gender typecast and commented disparagingly about in relation to their being women. Fagin, the Jewish character, is wily and materialistic, brutal and ugly and dirty. Women are unpredictable, stupid, easy, incapable, and best ruled with the rod and controlled very tightly. (They’re also either angels or whores, as the issue goes.) So there’s that. While Oliver Twist could be read as a reflection of the time—which it is—and I wouldn’t want us to forget history or where we have been, I would have a hard time recommending this book as required reading for the reasons I just gave, or to put it at the top of Dicken’s cannon. I don’t know that Dickens was especially racist for his time or place, but Oliver Twist certainly comes across as anti-Semitic and not a little misogynistic.

As for the rest of the book and reading experience: I thought Oliver Twist was okay. As I mentioned, it was a slow read, largely because most of what I read these days is not especially old. When one reads old classics, there is an amount of translation that needs to occur, across the time and space. Dickens uses words that I am unfamiliar with, occasionally (including many low-brow expressions and Victorian English accents in this book), but the real issue is the sensibility of the modern reader versus the Victorian reader. Books were paced slower, back then. They had more patience for description and exposition (though he does remarkably little of that, comparatively). And not regarding pacing, but at the time, drama could be far-fetched and dynamic in a way that we don’t currently expect in realistic fiction. (As the story wore on and plots wove together left and right, it felt like I was watching black and white theater, arms thrown dramatically across brows, characters bursting into rooms with news that immediately brings down the house or incited an insta-mob, etc.)

There’s an element of relief and excitement to reading a book like this, however. The good guy is always going to win. The poor will be avenged. The powerful will be mocked and made fools of. Innocence will be preserved. Etc. This is a story as we expect a story to be told, including the twists and turns and the ludicrous coincidences and the nail-biting suspense. It’s also a very funny book, at least if you are a Victorian Brit. There are chapters at a time that are told with Dickens’ tongue solidly in his cheek. As a modern reader, you could just float right past it and think what a dull boy that Dickens is, but this is very heavy satire: Dickens lays it on thick and as a reader, you can’t take much of what he says at face value. (In a perfect world, this is what he was doing by casting negative Jews and women—socially commenting—but I don’t know about that.) Dickens was very conscious of his writing as social commentary leading to social reform, and Oliver Twist is meant to cast a light on the abduction of orphans into crime rings and the general plight of England’s urban poor. He also spends a lot of energy, here, on ripping Church and State a new one, largely through comedic and grotesque characters. (The reasons Katherine Paterson references it so much in Lyddie is because her main character is a Victorian-era, American child laborer, working in the squalid conditions of an urban factory. She relates to Twist and other characters.) I mean, the whole story is set off when an orphan boy askes his stingy, state benefactors for a second helping! (“Please sir, can I have some more?”) It’s farcical and revealing at the same time.

I guess that’s about all I have to say. I would give the book 3 ½ stars because it’s a solid classic, though not as good as some of Dickens’ other stories. It is satirical, funny, and really dramatic, as long as you tolerate Victorian writing. It’s about characters as much as about a story, and it’s about society as much as it is about characters. Eventually, the reading pays off and you get to gasp many times in the concluding chapters, which leads me to my very last thing to say: man, did it get gory at the end. Surprise! Here’s some dashed out brains, etc. (Not that there’s any lack of brutish behavior up until then: children especially are beaten regularly in Dickens’ Victorian England.) So you might want to know that’s coming, depending on who you have reading this book and, I would suggest that that reader be pretty quick on their toes, mentally and morally.

MOVIES

I deemed that there are four movie versions of Oliver Twist worth seeking out and watching. At this point, I have watched two of them: the 1948 version (frequently, the most highly recommended) and the 1968 musical version, Oliver! I have yet to watch the 2005 (Roger Ebert) version and the Disney animated Oliver and Company. I will try to get to those, in time, but I was fall-up on Oliver Twist. I’m also curious about the 1997 version with Elijah Wood. If you want to go really far afield, there are two movies titled Twist from 2003 and 2021. There’s even a South African version, Boy Called Twist.

Image from IMDB.com

Oliver Twist (1948) is just as you would expect. Black and white. Somewhat slow and boring. Just like all the other movies of the time period. But if you really want an Oliver movie, this might be your best option. It’s pretty straight-forward, well-enough-acted, and basically true to the story, except that it cuts the long, winding plotline WAY down to size, lopping off a few of the main characters in the process. (All versions do this to some extent.) Fagin’s nose—a caricature of his Jewishness—is outlandish, as Fagin is somewhat offensive. There are some beautiful scenes, though, which I’m sure made it pretty exciting for its time, but not pandering. The kid that played Oliver, by the way, just wasn’t a real match.

Image from IMDB.com

Oliver! Has been on my radar for a long time because 1) I love musicals and 2) it won best picture at the Oscars. It was too long. At three hours, I found myself annoyed that they felt in that time they couldn’t retain some more of the plot or more of the characters (which would provide the romance that they then, instead, pumped into another relationship that was underexplored in the book (I think because of Victorian conventions and modesty)). There are some really fun scenes, with London street people dancing every which way, waving around slabs of meat and roses and chimney brooms, but the horrible conclusion of the story isn’t handled nearly as deftly as the 1948 version. If you’re an old musical fan, then yes, you must watch this. And if you’re viewing your way through the Oscars, then I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed, you’ll just wish they had been more judicious with the film scissors. As in the last version, the choice of Oliver was disappointing to me.

QUOTES

“His heart was waterproof” (p272).

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