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Suffer The Child

  • Jun 22, 2007
Does anyone enjoy "Oliver Twist" nearly so much when things are going well for the novel's young protagonist as when they are going badly? Do you notice how quickly you scan the pages when names like "Mr. Brownlow" "Rose" and "Mr. Losberne" are in the text, only slowing down when it's "Fagin" "Sikes" and "Mr. Bumble"?

Cruelty can be a positive quality when writing fiction. Dickens' torture test for his young hero saves the book from mawkish excess and, along with an uncompromising social conscience, gives it readability and drive.

Oliver Twist is a miserable orphan, his birth a mistake and his life a matter of no consequence to anyone but himself. Yet time and again, a guiding hand of mysterious providence suggests something of deeper importance connected to the business of his life. This is so even when he finds himself in the London underworld, under the guileful care of the master thief Fagin, who bestows praise upon Oliver's eager ears while coaching him down a criminal path where only a scaffold awaits.

A bit overlong, yes. "It is a tale told of grief and trial, and sorrow, young man, and such tales usually are; if it were one of unmixed joy and happiness, it would be very brief."

Though it is ironic how that formula works in reverse in "Oliver Twist", one understands what Mr. Brownlow means by that statement. The narrative of "Oliver Twist" covers a lot of ground, and presents a strong case for the reasonless cruelty of life even as it argues for humanistic compassion. If there is any release from life's savagery, it may only be found in death or dreams.

In his introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Edward Le Comte notes the "fairy tale" quality of "Oliver Twist" as a license for its sentimentality. That may be a hard sell for the casual reader. People come out of nowhere to sacrifice themselves on Oliver's behalf for vague reasons, often involving freakish coincidences. One fair maiden languishes under a life-threatening condition that can only be described as "acute Victorianism". Oliver himself soon becomes a helpless bystander in his own story, albeit one with perfect manners and diction despite his dirt-poor upbringing. Reading through this only works as a window to Dickens' time.

But the novel excels in the negative, in its conception of bad guys such as the homicidal Sikes, the engaging Artful Dodger, and especially smooth Fagin, the real center of menace in the story despite Sikes' bluster. You feel the soot and desperation of these people's sad lives in every bitter page.

With Fagin, Dickens plays with his audience's anti-Semitism mercilessly, always calling him "the Jew" and making Fagin's motives around Oliver obscure early on to recall the insidious "blood libel" of the time that supposed Jews guilty of slaughtering innocents.

Was Dickens anti-Semitic? No. He did write an anti-Semitic book, albeit not by design. It's hard to imagine Dickens' audience in 1838 making a distinction between the criminal and his ethnicity. Nor did Dickens think they would. He didn't care. He was on a mission.

And there's the rub. Dickens is not holding back anything grabbing his readers by the throat, which is why "Oliver Twist" worked then and still does today. It's not his best book, but it's a good one all the same, uniquely committed, maybe his most powerful. Seeing a debased world through the prism of middle-class morality has its flaws, but the focus is painfully keen and Dickens makes it hard to look away.

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Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #311
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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Oliver Twist was Dickens's second novel and one of his darkest, dealing with burglary, kidnapping, child abuse, prostitution, and murder. Alongside this gallery of horrors are the corrupt and incompetent institutions of 19th-century England set up to address social problems and instead making them worse. The author's moral indignation drives the creation of some of his most memorably grotesque characters: squirming, vile Fagin; brutal Bill Sykes; the brooding, sickly Monks; and Bumble, the pompous and incorrigibly dense beadle. Clearly, a reading of this work must carry the author's passionate narrative voice while being flexible and broad enough to define the wide range of character voices suggested by the text. John Wells's capable but bland reading only suggests the rich possibilities of the material. Restraint and Dickens simply don't go together. The abridgment deftly and seamlessly manages to deliver all major characters and plot lines, but there are many superior audiobook versions of this material, both abridged and unabridged. Not recommended.
-John Owen, Advanced Micro Devices, Sunnyvale, CA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 1904633080
ISBN-13: 978-1904633082
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Collector's Library

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