Sunday, 25 October 2009

'Oliver Twist' (book review)

I recently read Oliver Twist as part of my Victorian Literature module at uni and found it.....interesting......


"Everyone knows the story of 'Oliver Twist', but very few have actually read the book. You get a whole new look at the story this way. And I'm sad to say it isn't a good one (at first glance).

My main issue with Dickens is his description - he often spends pages and pages describing in great detail the settings and characters. The reason for this is that 'Oliver Twist' is a Realist Novel. During the Victorian period, the aim of the Novel was to show the world as faithfully as possible. This meant detailed descriptions to show the reader exactly where this story took place. In this, Dickens succeeds. But as a modern reader, do we particularly care for a chapter that does nothing but describes fog ('Bleak House')?

Because of this intense attention to detail, what you get is a vivid image of Dickens' real world. But at the same time, you can't help wondering why a lamp is being described to you in such detail! The story could easily be told in half the time. Speaking of.....

'Oliver Twist' was published in Periodicals; you would read a number of chapters each week in a magazine. This meant that (not unlike television in today's terms) Dickens was forced to position 'act-outs' or cliffhangers to keep the reader hooked.

It's highly likely that Dickens himself was unaware of what was going to happen week-by-week. It's almost certain that he had no clue how the book would end. These two problems combined result is a poorly paced novel with seemingly pointless anti-climaxes and unlikely plot-points.

The hero of the piece is - as most will agree - little Oliver twist, the poor orphan boy never given a chance to achieve his full potential. But look closer and you'll see a clear problem with Dickens' protagonist. He is no hero. Heroes act - they take matters into their own hands and actually do something. Oliver is merely acted on . He is carried through the story by far more powerful and interesting characters. Dickens was aware of this; on many occasions, Dickens drops Oliver in order to pay attention to the other characters. He is constantly forced to revisit his 'protagonist' and the novel consequently suffers.

On the positive side, if you're looking to find out about Victorian London, look no further. Dickens accurately portrays 19th Century society, giving an insight into the most intimate of affairs (ever wondered how he knew so much about pick-pocketing and prostitution at the age of 24?)

It's important to note, however, that 'Oliver Twist' also acts as a social commentary of the time. London is always portrayed in a bad light and the countryside is idealised beyond words (literally). The only reason the plot develops in this way is to enable Dickens to comment about contemporary issues - the workhouse, The Fallen Woman, the class system/Poor Law, anti-Semitism, identity, imprisonment & power et al.

In summary, 'Oliver Twist' is a classic novel. Unfortunately, it's a book known for its story of a young orphan looking for a family. However, it is much better looked at as a Realist novel of the Victorian period, acting as a social commentary on many important issues."

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