“Please, sir, I want some more.”
Never before has a single sentence been catapulted into the realms of immortality like the above mentioned line. Dickens has been associated with many brilliant lines that underscore his worth as a literary genius, but never before has one been anointed with the kind of timelessness as this one. Oliver Twist is a story of a young boy, born in the parish, without a mother, or a father, or a clue of what he is on for.
The London described by Dickens, like always, shows a clear divide between the upper class and the dregs of society. Oliver is born in a warehouse and grows into a meek lad. Mr. Bumble, the beadle of the warehouse, is an obnoxious piece of character penned by the author. Actually he is among the many such characters in this narrative. The story of Oliver starts from the warehouse, and his first step in the outside world is to work as an apprentice to a Mr. Sowerberry. He is kicked, abused, given leftovers to eat and made to sleep among the coffins. After being abused with respect to his parentage he decides to flee. He arrives in London and is promptly baited by Jack Dawkins aka the Artful Dodger. This gentleman, as Oliver sees him, takes an inordinate amount of interest in Oliver and extends his help by promising him boarding and lodging by a ‘spectable old gentleman wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change…
From here he is introduced to an ugly old man who is the ‘spectable one providing Oliver with the comforts promised by the dodger. And, it was true for a few days or weeks. Fagin, the old man as that’s what he was called, never asked Oliver for anything in return. But, Fagin reared his head a while after. He sent Oliver along with Bates, another gentleman surely, to earn his bread. Oliver, finally thanking his stars that he’s getting an opportunity to repay the kind Fagin, enthusiastically follows them. When he sees what they do for a living he realises the importance of those handkerchiefs hanging by the dozen in old Fagin’s room.
Oliver flees yet again.
He is caught and apprehended. This is how he escapes Fagin for the time being. When his name is all cleared up Oliver is taken home by the kind gentleman (this one is really kind, I promise), Mr. Brownlow, and is taken care for. Mr. Brownlow is a man of sweet temperament and his affinity to Oliver is rather unexplained at this juncture, but it opens up as and when this well paced narrative takes us forward. Oliver has a pretty interesting history regarding his parentage. and it does surprise the reader with a gasp. He is retaken by Fagin & Co. and is then put to task with gusto. A man called Monks has a particular interest in Oliver being turned into a scoundrel like him, and, apparently he is a scoundrel of a higher calibre compared to the other crooks around Fagin and Sikes.
Dickens has written a piece so unlike the one we reviewed earlier. Where, A Tale of Two Cities was fast paced and furiously hard hitting Oliver Twist is more like a stroll in the park while it’s raining heavily. While the analogy might not hold but the story surely does. The story introduces characters at timely intervals and with enough innuendos to track the probable path they are to take in the story.
Som might call it a flaw with the characterisation but hasn’t Dickens always written like that? His need to tell a story is far more essential than his need for life-like characters. There are many who say that Dickens has a very black-white relationship with his character creation, and I would agree. His creations always veer towards the either ends of the spectrum. Either they’re simply angelic or they’re ruthlessly evil. He even names them like that. The Superintendent who interrogates Oliver for pickpocketing is named Fang. Mr. Grimwig, Mr. Brownlow’s friend is named, likewise, for his grim outlook at everything in life an his readiness to “eat his head” at the slightest chance!
Dickens has a thing for the work class and capital class divide and how it affects the basic everyday of the poor. When Oliver runs away from the Sowerberry’s and walks for 7 days until he reaches London, it was disheartening to see that all he got to eat were scraps. This is just one of the very explicit symbolism Dickens uses in the book. Bill Sikes’ dog is a character unto himself. His behaviour and his mannerism reflect Sikes’ character; the dog doesn’t even trust his master, just like Sikes doesn’t trust Fagin. Although what they share is better described as a team rather than sharing a hierarchical relationship. Of course, Fagin, who is depicted as a loathsome, sniveling, scheming old man, definitely lives in fear of Sikes.
Special mention, in regard to Fagin, is the last chapter of the book. Dickens gets inside the head of the character and, in spite of the horrors around Fagin, one feels disgust instead of sadness at the tragedy.
While we talk about how extreme Dickens’ characters are I cannot help, but pick out Nancy from the vichyssoise. Now, here is a girl who has lived all her life with people like Fagin and Sikes but still has a little bit of sunshine in her. I speak of her not to lay the drama open for the readers, but to just bring out the departure in Dickens’ display of unreal characters. She is a prostitute and a thief. But towards the end one sees that there are times when the company which one keeps not always succeed in drugging the mind into nonchalant acceptance of evil and thuggery. There is a window open from which the basic emotion of love and compassion rise and give way to actions completely alien to ones surrounding!
I would comfortably rate Oliver Twist a 6 on 10 for the simple reason that I’ve read Great Expectations and A Tale of two Cities before I chanced upon this one!