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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Book Review
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
originally published in serial format 1837-1839
Lea and Blanchard Philadelphia edition of 1838/1839
Read on a Kindle

     I think the two contenders for most popular Author of all time are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, though if you would have asked in the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott would have them both beat. (1)

     Charles Dickens is  often called the most popular Novelist of all time, but this is an anachronistic view that doesn't consider the lasting popularity of his Novels vs. his other output.  Importantly, at the time Oliver Twist was being published in serial form over a two-year period,  the definition of a "novel" was restricted to one or three volume bound books.  Upon initial publication, Oliver Twist was literature, but not a novel.  Over two hundred years later we call Oliver Twist, "Charles Dickens second novel;" but it wasn't the second thing he'd ever published- his other work took the form of sketches, letters, and articles.  In other words, Charles Dickens is more what we would call a "writer/journalist" then a "novelist" during his early success.

   Oliver Twist contains the single most iconic image of all Charles Dickens works- and it comes right out of the box.  Of course, I'm talking about the scene that takes place in the workhouse where Oliver Twist spends his early years.   Twist is "elected" by the other orphans to ask for a  second helping of gruel, and the reaction of the operators of the work house to Oliver's request sets the entire narrative in motion.

   When discussing Charles Dickens, it is also important to recognize how far critical acceptance lagged behind popular acceptance of Charles Dickens.  Initial critical prejudice concerned the form of publication- in typical 19th century fashion, a serialized piece didn't satisfy the basic requirement of the Novel as an art form.

  After that, the popularity was itself counted against the possibility of critical acceptance.  It would take until the explosion of the humanities disciplines in America after World War II for Charles Dickens to gain the kind of critical penumbra that we accept as a given half a century later.

  Numerous questions surround the form of the text, a by-product of the form of initial publication and the fraught relatioinships between Charles Dickens and his various publishers.  The decision on which version of the text to use is so convoulted that  it takes on a scholastic quality, but it shows you how important Charles Dickens is to general audience members and critics alike.

  It has been said that Oliver Twist is Charles Dickens take on the "Picaresque" tradition exemplified by the work of Henry Fielding, who wrote Tom Jones.  This is perhaps true in terms of theme (the disinerhited "secret" heir) and in story development.   In Oliver Twist the various locations run by like a slide show- an indiciation of the influence of the Picaresque on Dickens work.  At the same time, Charles Dickens produces a main character who is far more effective at "connecting" emotionally with the reader.  Oliver Twist is literarlly the archetype for the adorable 19th century Victorian orphan.  You can't get more sympathetic then that. 

 Consider Oliver Twist in comparison with Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.  Jones is more of a rake- prone to violent and sexual outbursts, whereas Oliver Twist is a virginal lad who can be a victim of, but hardly perpetrate violence, let alone sexual activity.  In this, he was a character who was right for the early part of the Victorian period, and in a sense, Charles Dickens invents the "Victorian Novel" in Oliver Twist itself.

  An off-putting part of Oliver Twist for a contemporary reader is the portryal of the villainous, Jewish, Fagin.  It's hard not to be a little put off by the portrayal, but I suppose it needs to be appreciated in the vein of Shakespeares Shylock in the Merchant of Venice- an occasion of literary anti-semitism that simply reflected the tastes and expectations of the audience at the time.  It's a fact, people were anti-semitic back then. What can you do?

Other Posts About Charles Dickens On This Blog

Book Review:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens11/20/14
Book Review: Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford. 3/25/13
Book Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 3/17/13.
Book Review:  Dickens Worlds by Humphrey House, 3/8/13
Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 9/21/12
Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 8/23/12
Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 7/17/12.
Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, 6/19/12.
Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 6/7/12.


(1)  Google ngram viewer comparing Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

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