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Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist Legolas Send a noteboard - 01/02/2011 08:55:22 PM
I don't know to which extent this is representative for those who have not yet read Oliver Twist, but in my mind, until last week, the book was defined by its most famous scene: young underfed Oliver walking up to a terrifying malevolent cook with his empty bowl and telling him "Please sir, I want more!". I vaguely knew a few more things about the book and its contents, such as the existence of a Jewish bad guy called Fagin, and the subsequent allegations of anti-Semitism, but the "I want more!" scene, being so very famous, seemed like it had to be a key part in the book.

Turns out that notion is very wrong, as I discovered when coming across said passage after just a few dozen pages. Fortunately so, I should say, as I do believe I enjoyed the real Oliver Twist more than I would've enjoyed the book I was expecting.

The opening chapters of the book are mostly notable for the rather extreme amounts of biting sarcasm Dickens uses in them, relentlessly hammering his contemporaries for the way they viewed - and treated - the poor. At times his wit is really quite brilliant, but after a few chapters I found myself thinking that if he was going to keep it up for hundreds of pages, I'd be sick of it soon. But Dickens clearly had a good sense of proportions, as he started to calm down somewhat soon after, telling his story through a somewhat haphazard but quite clever succession of PoVs, with only the occasional biting remark of his own added in. And a good story it is, if not always very original, particularly in its endings.

The effortless way Dickens makes the underbelly of Victorian London come to life is among the novel's greatest strengths, no doubt about it. But what really got me was the characterization - not, I regret to say, of the protagonist himself, but of most other characters. Oliver Twist is a rather forgettable boy himself, but a number of the supporting characters most definitely are not. Fagin, for all that he is depicted as pure evil, and indeed in a horribly anti-Semitic way, is a memorable villain and a great creation. Most of the smaller characters are quite one-dimensional, but some of them are memorable even so, like Charley Bates, the Artful Dodger (still can't see that name without thinking of the song) and Mr. Grimwig. But my favourite without a doubt, and the unquestionable heroine of the book, is Nancy. Hers is a somewhat thankless role, and Dickens rather ignores her in his happy ending, but she is both the most well-rounded character in the book, and the key character in the climax of the story. If the book had an emotional impact on me, it was largely if not entirely because of her, and during her chapters.

I find it very hard to think of this book without linking it to Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, comparing and contrasting, so I might as well mention that in this review (if indeed there is anyone besides me who has read the Faber book without having read Oliver Twist). It's not that Faber bases himself on this book or others by Dickens, but to me there is an obvious connection between the two, and I'm sure that Faber readily admits as much. The eccentric but highly effective way of switching between PoVs, often with witty commentary directed at the reader, is rather similar in both books, and of course both are set in the seedier parts of Victorian London, starring a "fallen woman" in their most memorable role. If Oliver Twist, in spite of its saccharine happy ending, left me with a rather gloomy feeling, whereas The Crimson Petal and the White is relatively cheerful throughout, the difference lies mostly in the very different outlooks of these two female protagonists - and, of course, in the fact that Dickens was writing about that horrible side of London at the time that it was actually there.

One cannot help but think that Dickens had the potential for a truly devastating novel, one that did not try to artificially create happy endings for characters who would've seen very little of those in reality, and that he chickened out of publishing it. But then, by caving in to the desires of his readers and giving them their happy ending, no doubt he reached far more people with his calls to action, while also having the satisfaction of having written an enduring classic, even if he didn't know that at the time. So I suppose it is silly - and possibly rather arrogant - to talk about things he should have done differently; I will merely say that, though I enjoyed the novel as it was and recommend it, I would have enjoyed and recommended it more if there had been more of Nancy, and less of Oliver.
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Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist - 01/02/2011 08:55:22 PM 7743 Views
I need to reread this one - 09/02/2011 06:06:06 AM 1500 Views
Finally! I was waiting for you to reply. - 09/02/2011 07:28:53 PM 1536 Views
Sorry. I have been particularly swamped the past couple of weeks. - 09/02/2011 07:36:52 PM 1543 Views
That's okay, I haven't been that active either. - 09/02/2011 09:16:59 PM 1509 Views
Re: That's okay, I haven't been that active either. - 09/02/2011 09:29:26 PM 1730 Views
I am rather surprised that nobody else is weighing in on this - 10/02/2011 10:23:24 PM 1330 Views
A Christmas Carol would be his most famous book, methinks. - 10/02/2011 10:29:00 PM 1405 Views
There are many candidates - 10/02/2011 10:29:54 PM 1275 Views
I think Oliver Twist is far more famous internationally. But maybe that's just around here. *NM* - 10/02/2011 10:30:22 PM 715 Views
It was the first one I heard about - 10/02/2011 11:21:44 PM 1303 Views
I agree - 12/02/2011 01:11:54 PM 1461 Views
I was busy with a work audit the days it was first visible here (3 day settings for me) - 10/02/2011 11:40:04 PM 1357 Views
Re: I was busy with a work audit the days it was first visible here (3 day settings for me) - 10/02/2011 11:44:21 PM 1405 Views
There is that - 10/02/2011 11:48:19 PM 1294 Views

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