Like Pickwick, Twist suffers from some of the faults of the young writer
--an overabundance of characters, leaving the modern reader of the finished novel confused; it would be interesting to know if contemporary readers of the serial suffered as well given the weeks between installments, or if the less-hectic media landscape left more time for understanding.
--serial-paced plotting, which results in see-saw plotting too obviously reliant on cliff-hanger material to bring the reader back. The mature Dickens would arrive at a complex system of outlining and planning plots so that even in serial publication the result was a unified whole.
Where Twist differs (and excels) is in the darkness of the material. Pickwick's good-natured humor and picaresque asides are not found here as we follow the career of young Oliver from orphan to runaway to criminal apprentice. While Oliver would rise above by the end of the book in typical Dickensian fashion, from the start he is thrown into dark circumstances with darker companions than we would expect from source material that was turned into a Broadway musical (Oliver!) in the 1960s and a Disney animated feature (Oliver and Company) in the 1980s. Dickens draws the reader along with the "attraction of repulsion" for these evil events and criminals that keeps the reader engaged and interested beginning to end.
Indeed, Dickens found himself on the defensive when his story was lumped together with contemporary "Newgate novels" which were sensationalist and less well written novels glamorizing the criminal underbelly of London. On the other hand, he was also accused of "whitewashing" the dark side of his story by, for example, using euphemisms that disguised the true nature of Nancy's work and lifestyle; in a preface to a later edition reproduced as an appendix here, Dickens baldly states "the girl is a prostitute" while defending his original work as allowing it to be read by the broadest possible audience without offense.
Oliver himself, in contrast to his surroundings, seems sometimes too good to be true, or at least too naive for his own good. More than once I wanted to reach through the page and shake some smarts into the young lad. Such innocence, which may be a virtue to a point, becomes positively life threatening for Oliver (and for us in the modern world). Truthfully, and to Dickens credit as a great writer,the story really isn't about Oliver, but about the way fate places ill and good in his path, and in his consistency of character in dealing with it.
While the best of Dickens was yet to come, Twist provides ample proof of the literary genius we know today.
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