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A Simple Twist

  • Jun 3, 2013
Fate figures strongly in this, Dickens' second novel (or first, depending on how you count it) but the last one I had not yet read.  The rocketing star of Dickens as a serial writer was translating to publication demands for complete novels, which was satisfied first with Pickwick Papers, even though some chapters of Oliver Twist were finished first and Dickens later considered Twist his first novel. 

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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June 09, 2013
Thanks for sharing.
More Oliver Twist (Penguin Classics... reviews
review by . January 14, 2005
Oliver Twist is one of Dickens' early novels - he worked on The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously - and one of his best loved. It has what you would expect from him: memorable characters, evocative descriptions, melodrama, pathos (more often bathos) and a plot that relies on completely incredible coincidences. These latter are sometimes explained away by the characters themselves as being ordained by Fate, benign or otherwise, and must have been more acceptable to …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … 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: 0141439742
ISBN-13: 978-0141439747
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Penguin Classics

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