It’s funny, but I had tried to read Oliver Twist before, but never got much further than the description of the workhouse and its residence. Reading it this time, however, I realized that it’s just a bloody good book. The story, although at times a little unrealistic, which we’ll forgive because it’s Dickens and he’s trying to make his point through exaggeration, is addicting. Never a dull moment, so to speak. It takes so many twists and turns that you can hardly help wondering what will happen next. It might have been quite the cliff hanger, if I hadn’t read, or rather listened to, it all the way through within a couple of days. It’s certainly a book I’ll read again.
Oliver is a boy who is born into abject poverty in a workhouse and remains a ward of the parish until the age of nine when some unfortunate circumstances lead to him being apprenticed out to a mortuary. Throughout the entire book, it seems as though his changing circumstances might night be as bad as all that for him, but for the greed of his fellow human beings. At every turn Oliver is ill-treated and ill-used, with only very few people willing to help him, and most of those are unable to do so to the full extent of their desire. As I said, it’s a little extreme, but most of Dickens works are and he uses this to highlight both the failings and the successes of society while raising up the attributes he feels people as a whole should be striving towards. Oddly enough, it’s really only the successes one finds so difficult to believe in. It’s quite obvious that no child would or could ever be as good hearted as Oliver, especially having had his start in life, but it’s quite easy to believe that the villains of the story are all as bad as Dickens describes them.
Part of what makes the book so good is that Dickens so accurately portrays the motives and interests of the characters, meaning that he seems to have given quite a bit of thought as to how each of his characters would react given the circumstances. Nancy, even when offered a much better life in exchange for allowing herself to be taken out of the gutter, refuses to grab on to her one chance because of her love for a scoundrel. It would have been to utopic for her to be grateful and to say yes. So while Dickens is willing to rely on a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, he’s not totally dependent on it. It’s his trueness to the characters themselves and not the exaggeration of their general dispositions that makes the book so intriguing a read and keeps it from becoming all together too soppy.
What I also like about Dickens in general, and in particular in this book, is that Dickens gives us a view into several different levels of society. You don’t just see the upper class, or upper middle class, but everything from the truly wealthy to wretched poverty. Not only that, but he also gives you insight into what each class thought of the other, be it by showing how Nancy reacts to Rose Maylie or though Mr. Bumble’s and the Board’s thoughts on the paupers. Granted, you do have to temper all of these scenes to get a true picture of what life was like, but reading the book with that knowledge proves very interesting.
So, truly Dickensian, excellent plot, good characters, and a good view of life in the age, in short, one really good read.