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Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens, Dominic Cooper

Oliver Twist. The injustice. The hypocrisy. The melodrama. 


There is something so satisfyingly symmetrical about reading Oliver Twist in the very week that one of America's most perniciously vicious public moralizers - and by that phrase, I mean the Duggar family - completely and hopefully irrevocably implodes. It is a reminder that hypocrisy is older than Dickens and that farce is just as common in real life as it is in fiction.


Oliver Twist, scholarship has it, was written in response to the Poor Law of 1834, which changed British law in such a way that those who were poor would only receive relief within workhouses, and "outdoor relief" was abolished. "Outdoor relief" was the practice of providing assistance to those in poverty in the form of money, food or clothing that was provided without the requirement that the recipient enter an institution. It was replaced with "indoor relief" which required that, in order to be eligible, the individual recipient must enter a workhouse or poorhouse. The idea behind the requirement of indoor relief was that the workhouses would be so miserable, so dehumanizing that only the utterly indigent would accept it as it would be - marginally - better than actually starving to death. To call it harsh would be to understate it dramatically.


When I started my classics club project back in September, 2012, I intended to read all of Dickens before it ended in September, 2017. I've not had great success with this endeavor - I've managed only The Pickwick Papers, David CopperfieldDombey and Son, and now Oliver Twist so far. In the interim, I've read a lot of other Victorian literature, though: Trollope (4 out of the 6 of the Chronicles of Barsetshire), Gaskell, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Doyle, and Hardy, George Eliot. I think that it has taken a while to accustom my brain to the language of Victorian novels, and Dickens seems harder than the others because he is more satirical and more melodramatic than the preceding authors. Because Oliver Twist was a much easier read to accomplish than the others, and I'm hoping that I've broken the back of my aversion to Dickens.


Everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist. It is one of those books that has transcended its boundaries and become part of our collective consciousness. Bill and Nancy, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Oliver himself are all characters who nearly seem to exist outside the boundaries of fiction. So, I'm not going to talk a lot about the plot, and am just going to mention a few things that I found interesting.


First, Dickens takes aim, particularly, at hypocrisy, and especially at hypocrisy within the framework of the workhouses. All of his parish government characters are rank hypocrites, from Mr. Bumble, the "porochial beadle," a minor functionary who assists with the parish workhouse (and the recipient of the famed request by Oliver for a bit more gruel) to Mrs. Mann, the matron of the workhouse who nearly starves her charges to death. As these officials are depriving the recipients of their charity to the point of incapacitation, they are, themselves, profiting from the misery which they inflict.


Second, the murder scene where Bill Sikes beats the prostitute, Nancy (one of few morally ambiguous characters in the novel) to death is based on the real murder of Eliza Grimwood in 1838. The Guardian published an interesting article on the subject here. The chapter which describes the murder is extremely graphic, especially given the time period of publication, and resulted in accusations that Dickens was being overly melodramatic, which apparently irritated him, since he toned down things a bit from the real murder.


Third, I found it interesting that Oliver Twist, in the end, is discovered to have an background that is upper-class, which, to some degree, is a cheap ending for me. The whole idea that, because of his gentle birth he is capable of resisting the moral decay of the slums may have resonated with Victorian readers, and even with Dickens himself, but it doesn't resonate to my more modern sensibilities that reject the notion of inherent nobility of character being passed through bloodlines to manifest regardless of the circumstances of upbringing. It is a primitive look at "nature" versus "nurture," and one that I found interesting but ultimately unsatisfying.


This is my 49th classic in slightly less than three years (you can find my complete list here), which means that I have only one more to read to finish my Classics Club challenge two years early (by September 1), although I still have 6 posts to write as well. I need a short one to put this thing to bed.