Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Oliver Twist

Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.

It is 1837 and Charles Dickens has catapulted to stardom in his native Britain. The public has fallen head over heels for his collection of adventures known as the Pickwick Papers. They love the humorous stories and can't wait to get more laughter out of Mr. Dickens' newest creation. But they are shocked to find that this new story is not a comedy. It is rather a story of crime, poverty, scandal, treachery, heartache, and blame. Instead of telling stories that will make the British reading public smile, Dickens instead holds a mirror to their face and shows them the blemishes that lurk on the countenance of the nation. In doing so, he sets the tone for the rest of his life's work and creates a legacy that remains with us today.

The Plot:

On a cold and stormy night, a baby boy is born in the Mudfog workhouse without a father, without a name, and very soon without a mother. The parish beadle gives him the name of Oliver Twist and his early years are spent in the squalor of the local "baby farm". Nine years later, he dares to ask for more food from the workhouse and is immediately sent out to live with the undertaker as an apprentice. Life is not much better for Oliver here and it isn't long before he decides to run away and seek his fortune in the grand city of London.

On the road, he meets young Jack "Artful Dodger" Dawkins, a street-smart lad who takes Oliver under his wing. He takes young Oliver to Fagin, leader of a criminal gang of pickpockets, prostitutes, and housebreakers. Fagin gives the boy dinner and a bed for the night and promises to train him to "work" with the gang. On his first "job", Oliver is horrified to discover what the Artful Dodger's true profession is and in trying to stop a robbery finds himself arrested. He is later released into the company of kind Mr. Brownlow who takes him home and cares for him. Unfortunately, Oliver's happiness is short lived when members of the gang find him and kidnap him. Will poor Oliver ever be able to truly escape the clutches of Fagin and his band of thieves?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is my ninth Dickens novel and it never ceases to amaze me just how wonderful a writer he was. Though I was pretty familiar with the story and the characters, Dickens' writing made it all seem fresh and new.

This is an early example of a social novel, not just from Dickens, but in English literature itself. It is clear from the get-go that Dickens has something to say to his audience. More than anything, it is a cry against the Poor Law of 1834 which led to horrible conditions in "workhouses" across the country. The conditions created by the laws led young people like Oliver to be trapped in a world which led to either crime, prison, or death. The middle and upper classes of English society were almost blind to the abject poverty that many of their fellow citizens lived in, and Dickens was determined to change this. He shows life in the slums as it really was: filthy, dark, decrepit, and dangerous. Back alleys filled with thieves and murderers, entire streets where the houses are in a state of ruin, and people who meet death in the filthiest conditions imaginable. Through the characters like Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, Dickens encourages his readers to look beyond themselves and extend a kindness, even a small one, to those who are forced to live in the worst of circumstances.

There is an inconsistency in this work that probably says more about Dickens' times than anything else. Through all of the hell that Oliver is forced to live through, he never succumbs to the darkness and evil that surrounds him. His kind, gentle nature leads him to do the right thing in every situation he finds himself in. But Oliver's past reveals that he is of a higher birth than many, and thus is incapable of falling into crime. This does not do a lot for Dickens' message and in a way seems to make the case that one's birth is the sole determent of one's character. And yet, in the same story we have Nancy. Born into the same poverty and led into the same life of sin, Nancy still has a kindness and strength that sets her apart from the other thieves. She pleads her case to Rose and tells her that it is only circumstances and kindness that have set their lives on the completely different paths. In Nancy, we have an example of a strong character that shines forth despite its dark surroundings.

Oliver Twist cemented Dickens' fame as a writer and even today it is probably his best known work (with the possible exception of A Christmas Carol). It is much shorter and less intricate than his later novels which makes it great for those just starting out with his stories. If you are wanting to try your hand at this master of English literature but aren't sure where to start, I highly recommend that you give this one a try.

The Movie:

There are many versions of this story that have made it to the screen. From the 1948 version starring Alec Guinness to the 2005 version directed by Roman Polanski, Oliver's story has been made famous many times over. I have seen two versions.

The first is the 1968 Academy Award winner starring Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, and Ron Moody. This is the musical version and is very good in many ways. My only complaints is that some of the song sequences are WAY too long and it also lacks much of the dark and filthy atmosphere of Dickens' original. Lot's of fun moments though, so check it out if you get the chance.

The other is the 2007 Masterpiece version starring Timothy Spall and Tom Hardy. I really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it. See my full review here.

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