The Short Version: Poor orphan Oliver Twist is subjected to the most cruel of lives, growing up in a workhouse in Victorian England. After a twist of fate sends him to London, he falls in with a group of thieves and ne’er-do-wells led by the Jew Fagin and Bill Sikes. His life then sends him back and forth between respectability and these vagabonds until, in the end, all comes together quite nicely.
The Review: I think I’m actually most ashamed to say that this, of all Dickens novels, has gone totally unread in my life. I don’t know the musical, I’ve never seen any of the films, and I did not read it (or even an abridged version of it) in school/as a child. And yet, I entered it knowing the names of the major characters and having more than a passing understanding of the plot (or at least its outline). What a thing, no?
So then: “please sir, may I have some more?”, The Artful Dodger, London and young pickpocketing boys, the creepy Fagin, the evil Bill Sikes, and dear old Nancy – they’re all here. But there’s quite a bit more, as it turns out, to this early Dickens novel and (dare I say it) not necessarily to the story’s benefit.
There’s a rather complicated subplot – or perhaps it’s the main plot, if we take for granted that the ‘story’ of the novel is Oliver’s life’s tale – regarding an inheritance and Oliver’s half-brother that I, honestly, never fully understood. It relied upon quite a bit of circumstance, including but not limited to: Oliver happening to be with the thieves breaking into that particular house, various individuals happening to see other individuals at just the right moment on the street, missed connections, old friendships revealed in the latter moments of the novel, etc etc. I mean, okay, I understood it – I’m exaggerating a bit for effect – but it all feels a bit convoluted and honestly rather slapdash, as though Dickens realized he didn’t have an ending and so decided to set up something relatively easy for him to pull off that would plausibly explain the hints he’d dropped earlier while also being something to which no one could really say “wait, I don’t think that would happen…” It was a great plan and, let’s be honest, the novel isn’t about the resolution anyway.
No no – it is, instead, a morality tale. It’s about what the people do on the path to the resolution. Otherwise, why would the resolutions be so damned black and white? I don’t believe, at this point, that it’s a spoiler of any kind to say that Fagin and Sikes die (and not well) while Oliver and Rose and Mr. Brownlow et al live happily ever after. The only character who doesn’t meet an end that really matches up to their characterization is Nancy – which is actually maybe the most affecting part of the book. When Sikes kills Nancy, it’s astonishing. I mean, downright shocking. I didn’t know it was coming, for one thing (true story) – so I was flabbergasted. I could understand why it kicked up such a fuss at the time. Sikes’ own death is nasty and brutish as well, which befits such a cruel man. The death of his dog brought a tear to my eye.
But mostly – and please, check me if I overstep my bounds here – I felt that this novel shows, well, a writer still unsure of himself. Hard Times is a far more vitriolic and damning incrimination of the situations facing the English middle & lower classes – that’s a work that shows Dickens at the height of his craft. This is his second novel and – and gods, do I feel like a ridiculous human being saying this – it shows. There’s far too much exposition at the end, a few too many rambling subplots, and his apparent intention of beating the drum about the Poor Laws seems to rather disappear before we hit the halfway point. Sure, this novel gives us some of the most enduring characters of all English literature – the Artful Dodger alone has inspired countless imitations and recreations – but they’re also rather caricature-y, if I may say so. I mean, let’s take Fagin, for example.
Although Fagin might be a bad example. A modern reader of this book is faced with the same conundrum as a theatergoer seeing The Merchant of Venice. Anti-Semitism is rampant throughout this book and it’s, honestly, a little jarring. To hear Fagin called “the Jew” and to see him described as this creepy, hook-nosed, evil guy… it’s unsettling. I know this book, as with Shakespeare’s play, is a product of its time and I wouldn’t have that changed for the world – but that doesn’t make it an entirely comfortable reading experience. While all of Dickens’ novels are, quite understandably, ‘of a time’, this one feels far moreso than its brethren in the “Great Works” boxset I’m reading from.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I have to be honest, I was rather nonplussed in the end. It was all a little too simple in terms of good and evil while being a little too convoluted in terms of trying to add on several more plots than it really needed. The characters are what make this novel a classic, not the story. I will be happy to let the salient details slip into the vaults of my mind while the indelible characters of Oliver, the Artful, Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, and Mr. Brownlow continue to exist in their (I shall be so bold) mythic forms. Because, at this point, the experience of reading this novel cannot ever match up to the patchwork idea of it that we come in with. I’d argue there are few other texts so consumed by popular culture – and I honestly can’t say if that’s for better or worse.