Review: Oliver Twist

I have not read any Dickens for a fairly long time, and it seemed like a good time to read one.  Oliver Twist showed up in my trip through the Kindle Store, and it was hard to resist.

Dickens is Dickens, of course.  He tells a rollicking, twisty, yarn populated with larger-than-life characters using clear, crisp, expressive writing.  In the midst of all of that he fires up beautiful sentiment and clear ideas.  He’s easy to enjoy.

For better or worse, he is a product of his time.  Fagin, the criminal mastermind of Oliver Twist, is supposed to be reprehensible – Dickens says so in his introduction – but it grates on modern ears to hear The Jew constantly used as a synonym for Fagin.  I have no idea if Dickens was more or less anti-semitic than his contemporaries, but this is pretty jarring.  But there is a lot of this era that confuses me.  Why does everyone talk like Elmer Fudd?

Dickens’s sarcasm is unmistakable in any time.  He deploys it mercilessly throughout when describing the hardened criminals of London who heedlessly crush the bodies and  souls of anyone near them as well as when painting the self-serving church members who claim to be helping the poor.  This is high test, industrial grade irony and sarcasm, and its impressive that he is able to deploy so heavy and blunt a hammer with the skill and artistry he displays.  The compassion that underlies his rage here makes his anti-semitism more discordant.

I was also surprised at how passive a protagonist Oliver turns out to be.  “Refraining” and “fainting” are some of the more active verbs that Oliver is the subject of, but he does attract a formidable cast of villains and helpers, so the plot does move forward with Dickens’s highs and lows, false hopes and surprising reversals that keep readers engaged.  He does not waste any characters either.  Virtually every one introduced plays some role in the story, believably or not.  It’s not called Dickensian coincidence for nothing.

Overall a good yarn.

Strongly recommended.

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