Charles John Huffham Dickens was born in Portsea, on England’s southern coast, on February 7, 1812. The Dickens family moved several times during his youth, and the boy attended several schools, received instruction from his mother, and read voraciously. In 1824 Dickens’s father, John, a middle-class naval pay clerk, was imprisoned for debt. Two weeks before this imprisonment, young Dickens was sent to work in a blacking warehouse pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He lived alone in rented lodgings while the rest of his family moved into prison with his father, a common practice at that time. His father was released after three months, but Dickens always remembered and hated the degradation of this period of his life.
Dickens, like Shakespeare, is one of those rare writers who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. Many of Dickens’s books were published, one part at a time, in popular magazines of the day. Whenever a new installment of a Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every book or magazine copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Dickens’s novels are still amazingly popular among both casual readers and scholars. Academic articles and books on Dickens appear at a rate surpassed only by Shakespearean criticism.
Dickens sets Oliver Twist in early 19th-century England, a time when long-held ideas and beliefs came under serious scrutiny. Profound changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, religious uncertainty, scientific advancement, and political and social upheaval caused many Victorians to reexamine many aspects of their society and culture.
Dickens’s story revolves around young Oliver Twist, an orphan brought up at a “charitable” institution “where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about on the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing.” After nine years Oliver graduates to a workhouse for young orphans. There his starving fellow sufferers elect him to ask for more food, in punishment for which Oliver is sold to an undertaker. Eventually Oliver runs away, making his painful way to London. Penniless and hungry, Oliver is befriended by a young thief, the Artful Dodger, who introduces him to Fagin and his gang, the evil Bill Sikes, and Sikes’s lover, Nancy. Steadfastly resisting the criminals’ attempts to corrupt him, Oliver eventually escapes, discovers his true parentage, and receives the respect he deserves. Dickens does a creditable job of making Oliver’s unshakable goodness believable. Despite the book’s title, however, Oliver has less to do with the story’s action than do most protagonists. Other characters act toward him or around him more than he acts on his own; his essentially passive role in the novel makes him less interesting than some of the other, more fully drawn characters.
Oliver Twist is Dickens’s second novel, written when he was still in his middle 20s, and does not display the brilliance of character, thought, form, and language that characterizes his most mature work. Nevertheless, the novel has much to recommend it. Dickens’s realistic descriptions of the London criminal underworld are fascinating and effective. He creates lively characters and situations and has a knack for finding just the right word to devastate a character, drive home a point, or create effective irony or humor. His social criticism still generates animated discussions about similar problems existing today, and the moral issues Dickens raises will probably always face us.
Some of Dickens’s original readers objected to Oliver Twist’s comparatively frank portrayal of thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But what was considered explicit then is quite mild today. Dickens carefully avoids direct quotation of offensive language and offers only the most oblique descriptions of objectionable behavior. The novel was written for a Victorian audience, after all, and as Dickens himself points out in the preface, “a lesson of the purest good may…be drawn from the vilest evil.”
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Is Nancy a morally complex character? What evidence supports your conclusions?
Oliver Twist has been the basis for several films, the most popular of which is the musical Oliver! (1968). Starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, and Shani Wallis, this version won six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Carol Reed and Best Picture. While many of the film’s characters and musical numbers are delightful, its general tone obviously departs from Dickens’s. The film’s characters, except Bill Sikes and possibly Fagin, are entirely too whitewashed, and the squalor and sordidness of underworld London are softened. Many events and characters are omitted, thus changing, and sentimentalizing, the plot considerably. The film excludes Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Corney, the entire Maylie family, Mr. Grimwig, and Monks.