Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

Finished Reading: 02.2009

"Please sir, I want some more."

This innocent statement from poor little Oliver, a misunderstood and helpless young orphan, leads to his banishment from the charity poor house, where he is seen as an ungrateful troublemaker. He must now go elsewhere to receive his meals.

This is the first story of Dickens' that I have read, and I am thoroughly hooked on his wit, humor and clever description. It may be supposed that something written during the days of US President Martin Van Buren (who?) and the early days of Queen Victoria of England (after whom many old houses are named) would contain pages of fluff and might perhaps be printed on intricate white doilies for all I know.

But Charles Dickens shows us the real London of his day, the gritty part swept under the rug in our history books. Populated by curious characters, Oliver Twist takes us through the crowded and filthy cities where the poor pass their days, either slowly dying in the work houses or quickly dying on the streets, if they are not cunning enough to learn to steal, or fortunate enough to be offered a hand.

Oliver is always at the mercy of others, being quite helpless himself, blowing with the winds of fate. Whether falling prey to the sneaky and manipulative hands of street crooks such as the Artful Dodger and Fagin the Jew, who draft him into their shady dealings; or whether he is cared for with the kind embraces of wealthy Mr. Brownlow and sweet Ms. Maylie, Oliver seems to be pushed back and forth between the camps of good and evil, stumbling in the darkness over the line that separates these worlds. Even at the outset where the famous hungry quote is uttered, Oliver was chosen by lot to ask for more dinner at the poor house meal hall, pushed to his reluctant rebellion by the other hungry boys.

Many themes could be explored from this story, but I am intrigued by the idea of the young boy at odds with the world, who is in need of some grace just to live. Oliver is not able to work hard enough to escape his helpless situation of hunger and poverty, as he is just a boy, and would have been dealt neatly into the hands of the lowest society if not for a few kind hearted people with whom Oliver has more in common with than he could imagine at first.

The characters are richly described and I can imagine myself amongst the street characters who seem very real and who give life to the blocks and blocks of city filled with similar stories to the one told in these pages. Even an old tale can entertain today, for the characters of life don't really change...the hungry still want some more, and the rich often don't hear it.