The second stop on my tour of Dickens’s novel-length fiction, Oliver Twist is not one of my favourites, but it is perhaps one of his most memorable. Its strengths lie solidly in its opening: Where the first of Dickens’s novels, The Pickwick Papers, began in a way rambling and bucolic, the opening chapters of Oliver Twist are a swift introduction to Dickens’s acerbic wit. He manages to elicit simultaneous laughter and disgust with his descriptions of situations, and people, so horrifying, like the unfortunate expiration of most of the orphans left in the care of Mrs. Mann, the woman who raises Oliver until he is old enough to enter the workhouse, just as she’s close to getting the poor mites to subsist on nothing but air. Every authority figure to whom little Oliver can look for succour is unflinchingly self-important and corrupt, and Dickens lays bare his contempt for the workhouses, the officials, and the New Poor Law that condemns so many, including orphans like Oliver, to starve in their halls.
Though not exactly like Oliver, because Oliver isn’t much of a person. Dickens is sometimes criticised for a perceived lack of depth in his characterisation, and it’s a criticism I tend not to agree with very much, because I think that most of his protagonists, be they Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield or Pip, have a distinct sense of corporeality to them drawn from Dickens’s own character. Oliver, though, brings little of that to the page. He begins his journey as a figure too saintly to be true, whose lack of agency is couched in piteousness too overwrought to elicit quite as much sympathy as it ought. It’s not a terrible starting point balanced against the fire of Dickens’s anger and the bite of his sarcasm, but I rather expected to see Oliver come into his own upon acquiring more worldly experience.
For a while, it looks like he will, with his introduction to the lively cast of Fagin’s crew. Fagin himself was a problematic character even to some of Dickens’s contemporaries, leading him to edit later editions of the book and be more conscious of his attitudes towards the Jewish community; to the modern reader, the blatant ethnic stereotyping and the literally devilish qualities assigned to the character are downright offensive. But the early days of Oliver’s time with him remain some of the better chapters of the novel nonetheless, because while the workhouse setting is the ideal channel for Oliver Twist’s social commentary, this is where it briefly becomes a character-led story, and what characters there are to lead it. I will forever wish the Artful Dodger might’ve had his own tale, though other authors have since walked that path; he commands every page he’s on, and for such a memorable personage, there are too few of those. I like to imagine a tale in which Oliver benefitted from exposure to his streetwise smarts and used them to seize some agency of his own, and find a way out from under Fagin’s thumb.
What we get instead is an Oliver who fades into the background of his own story until he is a pawn shuttled about so much that his passivity, his wide-eyed innocence, becomes grating. I think this is an area where the serialisation hurt the story, because that initial fire is given time to gutter out. Once the Maylies come into the picture it feels a little like Dickens lost interest in telling the story of Oliver Twist as opposed to writing one of his more painful odes to his late sister-in-law, complete with melodramatic laments from a fallen woman on never having the opportunity to be more like the character who represents her. Oliver is the means through which the latter half of the story comes about, but it is not his story.
I think Dickens also undermined his portrayal of the plight of the poor by giving Oliver a background of secret wealth, the better to tie things up in a bow full of happy endings. It suggests that the reason Oliver was worth saving is because he was someone all along, someone of money and society even if he didn’t know it, rather than supporting the notion that everyone’s essential rights, needs, and human dignity are worth recognition and support.
Almost everything that Dickens does in Oliver Twist, he does better somewhere else. That makes it difficult to articulate why it’s a book to which the memory clings so hard. Perhaps it’s the legion of adaptations it’s inspired, which gives more life to the sometimes lifeless page, though I then ask myself what made the book capture so many imaginations that it led to all of those adaptations in the first place. Perhaps it’s just the young man’s fire with which it’s written, since Dickens was only in his mid-twenties when he authored it. It’s certainly one of his angriest books, and after reading, it’s hard not to feel a shadow of that in your chest when you think of the phrase ‘Please, sir, I want some more’.