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NA425912 - DICKENS, C.: Oliver Twist (Abridged)
Oliver Twist was first published in 1838. It was the young writer’s second novel, following the hugely successful Pickwick Papers. Oliver Twist, however, is much more clearly a novel, as we understand the term: Pickwick Papers is really a loosely connected series of picaresque adventures, while the second work is a single narrative, which traces the history of its hero from birth to adolescence. In addition, Oliver Twist marks the beginning of the element of social protest in Dickens’ fiction: its immediate satirical target is the working of the revised Poor Law. Well-intentioned reforms had led to economies, which left the objects of charity, young and old, far more at the mercy of meager budgets, and impersonal or corrupt care than they had been before. The first section of the novel is, in its narrative of the infant, orphaned Oliver, devoted to an attack on these evils.
But Oliver Twist is far more than (sometimes rather crude) satire. The novel contains elements of melodrama, Gothic fiction, early crime (or ‘Newgate’) novels, and theatrical comedy. This is a rich mixture which Dickens does not always handle with complete conviction: the sentimentality of which he is often accused is certainly evident in the ‘angelic’ unreality of Rose Maylie, and of course in the quite remarkable purity of Oliver’s own character in the face of hardships which might have corrupted, or at least tarnished, the virtue of a saint. The plot itself – dependent as it is on far-fetched coincidence and traditional fable-like ingredients such as illegitimate orphans and disputed inheritances – is something of a mess, requiring an elaborate chapter devoted entirely to explanations of its complexity at the end.
Yet the work is a perennial favorite. Why? Perhaps we might begin with Dickens’ comic powers, here almost entirely intermingled with the novel’s sinister portrayal of evil. Angus Wilson has pointed out that The Artful Dodger is really a criminal version of Sam Weller from the Pickwick Papers: even Oliver, horrified as he is by the society of Fagin and his boys, cannot help being amused by their stories and antics. When Oliver famously asks for ‘more’, the scene is both comic and dreadful. Mr. Bumble the beadle is simultaneously repulsive and entertaining. The nest of robbers is dominated, of course, by the old man whom Dickens in early editions of the novel referred to persistently as ‘the Jew’ – which brings us to the vexed question of anti-Semitism. Dickens, like some other great writers before him, takes it as a norm that Jewishness should be associated with cunning criminality, however uncomfortable that may be for modern readers. But Fagin is more than stereotype: his language is marvelously realized, full of camp ‘my dears’ and insinuating slyness, while the description of his plight in the condemned cell reaches heights of penetrating and disturbing psychological insight which far exceed the reach of conventional prejudice.
Fagin is also the center of that which in the novel is macabre, even supernatural. His footprints (and those of the melodramatically evil Monks) are invisible after their genuinely terrifying appearance at Oliver’s window. In this respect he is most unlike Bill Sikes, the most brutal figure of all: the passage describing his murder of Nancy – the reformed prostitute – is deservedly
celebrated. Sikes is emphatically an embodiment of crude physicality, yet his guilty haunting by his dead mistress’s staring eyes proves that even he is
susceptible to the workings of conscience – or is it merely retribution?
Perhaps Oliver Twist is best seen as a masterpiece of popular fiction, rather than a masterpiece per se: in our post-literate age it has achieved enormous popularity on stage and screen, as play and as musical. Few modern children will ever read the book – but at least it may live for them in other forms.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father was imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year-old Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory: these experiences influenced (for example) David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. Having learned shorthand, he became a Parliamentary reporter and began to submit magazine pieces. In 1837, The Pickwick Papers brought Dickens fame, and the rest of his literary career was almost uninterruptedly successful. His personal life was less happy:
eventually he separated from his wife, Catherine, partly as a result of his growing intimacy with Ellen Ternan, the actress, and he died relatively young in 1870, his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Anton Lesser has worked extensively at the National Theatre and is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company where he has played over the years many of the principal Shakespearean roles including Troilus, Romeo, Petruchio and Richard III. His many appearances on television include The Cherry Orchard, King Lear, The Politician’s Wife and most recently Invasion Earth and Vanity Fair. A popular voice on Naxos AudioBooks’ productions, Lesser also reads Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, The Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities,
in addition to the works of numerous other authors.
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