Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Oliver Twist Readalong: Book 1

Allie at A Literary Odyssey is hosting this Readalong of Oliver Twist. The first Readalong check-in covers Book 1 (approximately 180 pages). Here are my thoughts:

This is only my second experience reading Charles Dickens (my first was A Christmas Carol, which I adored). Oliver Twist has been a surprising read so far. I don't love it as much as A Christmas Carol, but it's been an interesting experience.

My first reaction to the book was surprise. There is a lot of humor and wit in this book. His biting criticism is veiled in humor and irony, and I really like that aspect of it. Here's an example, which takes place immediately after Oliver was born:
Now, if during this brief period Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer, and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract, Oliver and nature fought out the point between them. The result was that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish... (4)
You can't help but feel the strongest sympathies with poor Oliver, who never seems to have a chance. As a boy, one of the men in charge of the workhouse declares that he is certain to be hanged one day, just because he had the audacity to ask for more food. The nerve of that boy!

Most of the adults (with the exception of those few good people who have made brief appearances in his life so far) in this novel so far have disgusted me. They don't want people to think the workhouse is an acceptable alternative to working, so they keep everyone there underfed and in rags, including the children who don't have anywhere else to go. If they ask for more food than the almighty board has benevolently provided, they get thrown in solitary confinement for a week. No one trusts a poor child, assuming the worst about him at all times. It's all very frustrating.

One thing that nags at me, though, is that Oliver is almost too good to be true. I could just picture his sweet little face as he talks with a woman who has been nursing him through an illness:
"Save us!" said the old lady, with tears in her eyes, "what a grateful little dear he is. Pretty creetur, what would his mother feel if she had sat by him as I have, and could see him now!"

"Perhaps she does see me," whispered Oliver, folding his hands together; "perhaps she has sat by me, ma'am. I almost feel as if she had."

"That was the fever, my dear," said the old lady mildly.

"I suppose it was," replied Oliver thoughtfully, "because Heaven is a long way off, and they are too happy there, to come down to the bedside of a poor boy. But if she knew I was ill, she must have pitied me even there, for she was very ill herself before she died. She can't know anything about me though," added Oliver after a moment's silence, "for if she had seen me beat, it would have made her sorrowful; and her face has always looked sweet and happy when I have dreamt of her." (87)
He is almost an angelic, sainted image, and the worst thing he's done so far on his own (without being forced or tricked into it) is to hit a boy who taunted him and said mean things about his mother (and deserved the punch). Otherwise, Oliver has mostly been a blameless victim of his circumstances, preyed upon by unkind and unsavory characters. Undoubtedly a sympathetic character, but almost a little too perfect nonetheless.

Another thing that kind of gnaws at me is the characterization of Fagin, who Dickens repeatedly refers to as "the Jew." Why this negative characterization based on the man's religion and heritage? Perhaps, as I have read, it is indicative of the anti-semitic nature of British society at the time. It certainly seems to hammer home the idea that this bad man is a Jew, and the way he is characterized is consistent with the negative stereotype that anti-semitism has cultivated. It is unfortunate, and I wish his characterization would have been more about the man and less about his religion and heritage, which really have nothing to do with the story.

Although I've found the book funny and compelling in places, I'm starting to have a hard time with it. It seems too long right now, and I'm starting to lose interest. Surely Dickens won't leave Oliver to a terrible fate, and I almost cringe to think about the terrible things to come that he will probably be subjected to before he is saved and given a life free of kidnappings and treachery.

On to Book 2, which I'll be posting my reactions to later next week.

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