My second Dickens of 2016! I first read this when I was a teenager, though I now realise it was an abridged version. I also realise how much the musical and TV versions have become muddled in my head with the novel.
Before I read this, I would have said, “Yeah, it’s a good story but I find Dickens bit heavy weather.” Not now! It is a fantastic story which really keeps the pages turning. For me, Dickens doesn’t quite capture the characters of children as well as, say, Charlotte Bronte, but this is plot driven story about the fate of the orphan, Oliver Twist. Through the story of Oliver’s life Dickens offers a harsh critique of the Victorian welfare system and the corruption of the officials who direct Oliver’s fate first through the workhouse system, then into a brutal apprenticeship. When Oliver runs away he is recruited into a gang of London pickpockets led by Fagin, an old and corrupt villain who exploits boys to his own criminal ends. Dickens refers to him as the Jew, which does grate, reading this in the twenty first century! Oliver is an unsuccessful pickpocket though his failure happily leads him to a kind stranger who takes him in as an adopted son, until he is dragged away by Nancy, another member of Fagin’s Gang and put to work in the criminal world by Bill Sykes. All this happens in the first third of the book!
The remainder of the story keeps moving at the same place as Oliver seeks to escape the clutches of Sykes and Fagin. Sykes is a wonderfully created villain with no redemptive qualities even when he commits the darkest of deeds. His fate at the end of the novel is a heartstopping piece of writing. Most of the characters in this story are simply ‘on the make’ looking to exploit others to gain wealth or influence for themselves. But not all of the villains are unchanged by the events of the story, though not all who wish to change are able to escape their circumstances, such as Nancy, whose demise Dickens used to portray in his live readings.
I did find the references to Fagin as a Jew difficult to take. That is my only reservation about the story and I recognise the shifting historical contexts. Everything else about it I loved and I’m now just wondering which Dickens to tackle next, maybe Bleak House? Any suggestions welcome!