Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist I know it’s the middle of January, but I still have a few books that I read towards the end of 2015 to write about – and Oliver Twist is one of them. I’ve been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year and having started 2015 with David Copperfield I decided to end it with another of his books. Of the two, I much preferred David Copperfield, but I did still enjoy Oliver Twist. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it difficult to think of anything new to say about books that are so well known and widely studied, so I’m just posting some general impressions of the novel here rather than attempting any sort of analysis.

I think most people, even without reading the book, probably have a basic idea of what it is about: an orphan boy who is raised in a workhouse in Victorian London – where he famously says, “Please, sir, I want some more” – and who later becomes involved with a gang of thieves and pickpockets. Maybe you have seen one of the many films, adaptations and musicals and so will know a little bit more, but the only way to discover the whole of Oliver’s story in the way Charles Dickens intended is to read the book!

This is the first time I have read Oliver Twist in its entirety and I was surprised by how much of it was completely unfamiliar to me. I had either forgotten or was unaware of whole chunks of the plot and of the roles played by characters such as Rose Maylie, Noah Claypole and Monks, so I was in the unusual position of reading a story that I both knew and didn’t know!

While this hasn’t become a favourite, I found Oliver Twist an enjoyable, entertaining read (one of the easiest to read and to follow of all the Dickens novels I’ve read so far) and as you would expect from Dickens, the pages are populated with colourful, larger than life characters, from Mr Bumble the beadle and the brutal Bill Sikes to the Artful Dodger and the villainous Fagin. The characters are mostly either ‘very good’ or ‘very bad’. Nancy, Bill Sikes’ lover, is the only one I found significantly more complex and she makes an interesting contrast with the novel’s other main female character, the pure, gentle Rose Maylie.

This is one of the earliest of Dickens’ major works, first published as a serial from 1837-1839, and it’s a relatively short novel by his standards (there are over 500 pages in the edition I read, but in comparison with books like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House that’s not long at all). The amount of social commentary in the book is also particularly heavy; it was written just a few years after the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed by parliament in 1834, stating that relief for the poor would only be provided within the workhouse. The idea was that conditions inside the workhouse would be so harsh and unpleasant that only those people desperately in need of help would consider entering one. Telling Oliver’s story gave Dickens a chance to express his own views on the Poor Laws and related issues such as poverty and child labour.

Oliver Twist was the final novel by Dickens on my list for the Classics Club, but I will continue to work my way through his other books, as I have about half of them still to read. I think either Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit might be next.

20 thoughts on “Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

  1. Karen K. says:

    I really liked Oliver Twist, it’s become one of my favorites by Dickens. I still have one more Dickens for my Classics Club list, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I don’t know why I keep putting it off, maybe because it’s unfinished.

    • Helen says:

      I actually really enjoyed The Mystery of Edwin Drood, despite it being unfinished. I can understand why you would be hesitant to read it, though. It was very frustrating not to be able to find out how the story ended!

  2. Elle says:

    Both Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit are marvelous chunksters, but I love Bleak House best. Our Mutual Friend is also very good, and this Christmas I read David Copperfield, which pleasantly surprised me–I was expecting rather more overt misogyny, but in the end there’s a nuance to David’s relationship with his wife, Dora, that I found rather touching (even though she is in other ways infuriatingly empty-headed, and Dickens is infuriating for making her that way and then making us disapprove of her.) Would really recommend any of the above!

    • Helen says:

      I loved David Copperfield when I read it last year. Dora was very annoying, but yes, her relationship with David was quite touching. I’ve read Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House (I particularly enjoyed the former) but I know very little about either Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit, so I’m pleased to hear you would recommend them both!

      • Elle says:

        Be warned, Dombey and Son contains a father/daughter dynamic that made me want to cry and throw things (Florence is constantly ground down and trying to “be better”, which is the very definition of abusive IMO), but it’s also got some great descriptive passages and more glorious seagoing shenanigans, if you liked those bits of Copperfield.

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I’ve still only ever read Great Expectations, but hope to read David Copperfield this year. I like that Oliver Twist is shorter and somewhat familiar so will keep that on the list too. It’s good to know that there is a complex female character in the novel.

  4. Alex says:

    I read ‘Oliver Twist’ during the Autumn as part of a course I was doing on Dickens and the city. It is years (decades, even!) since I last read it and I had forgotten great tranches of it as well. I think it gets better as it goes along. There are parts where I think you can feel Dickens padding things out to make up the episode. it’s never going to be one of my favourites , but I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

    • Helen says:

      I remember reading on your blog that you were doing a course on Dickens last year. I’m glad you thought being reacquainted with Oliver was worthwhile!

  5. Charlie says:

    I want to read this because of the whole already-know-the-story thing (thinking it’ll be an easier read for that) yet at the same time I’m thinking of putting it further down the list because I know the story – it’s nice to hear there’s a lot that was new to you because I guess that’ll be true for most of us. It’s more appealing for it. Glad to hear you liked it and well done for finishing the Dickens portion of your list!

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    This was one of the first Dickens’ novels I read off my Classics Club list. Like you I also found it was like a reading a new, familiar story. I think it is still one of my favourites after A Christmas Carol. I am currently reading David Copperfield and I also have Little Dorrit left on my list.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of David Copperfield. I’ve finished all the Dickens on my Classics Club list now, but there are still lots of his other books that I want to read at some point, and Little Dorrit is one of them!

  7. whatmeread says:

    I have read Oliver Twist several times, but remember being surprised last time I read it at the complexity of the plot. I had forgotten many plot elements and was remembering more of the movie than the book. But I agree that David Copperfield is much better. It is one of my favorite of his books, with Little Dorrit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend being right up there. Usually, I think I like David Copperfield best of his books.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Oliver Twist does have a more complex plot than I was expecting! I was surprised by that too. David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favourites (along with A Tale of Two Cities) but I still need to read Little Dorrit.

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