The Adventures of Oliver Twist and Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress
1837–1839 in Bentley's Miscellany
Publication in book form
1838 in three volumes
Approx. 166,000 words
A city of two tales
Oliver Twist is probably the novel most publicly associated with Dickens, though not nearly his best nor his most admired.
It may also be the first novel to take a child as the central character, which is extraordinary when you consider the great number of novels to feature kids ever since.
It's also Dickens's first real novel, discounting The Pickwick Papers as episodic, only slightly removed from his first book of stories, Sketches by Boz.
In my reading, though, Oliver Twist is really two novels.
Actually you could divide Oliver Twist into any number of sections: the hard early life of an orphan, his first adventures in London with the gang of petty criminals, his happy period of rescue and recovery, his subsequent recapture by the gang, and his subsequent re-rescue. Not to mention subplots involving the nefarious characters surrounding Oliver.
But for me there are two major stories uneasily intertwined throughout the novel, the one overshadowing the other in reader interest until the prominent one is snuffed out near the end and the background tale comes to the fore.
The main story is what we've come to know so well through films and has become a staple of popular culture, the guileless child taken advantage of firstly by institutions of the day, then by businesses, and finally by outright criminals. This is the orphan with the outreached bowl asking for more porridge. The boy making his ragged way to London by foot. The starving street urchin thrown in with the colourful Artful Dodger in the pickpocket gang schooled by the evil but pathetic Fagin. The innocent lad variously chased and shot as though he were a criminal. His involvement in the tragedies of the kind-hearted Nancy and her vicious lover Bill Sikes.
This is the story we are caught up in, following every vicissitude and victory in Oliver's daily life.
Yet, throughout all this, we are vaguely aware of a background story concerning Oliver's "heritage". There is found the melodrama of his mother who dies in childbirth, some mysterious thing she tries to leave him, the affair of Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney, who eventually join in the murky intrigues of a murderous Mr. Monks, plotting—we know not why until near the end—against the unaware Oliver.
Then, when at last the reader finds Oliver delivered from immediate evil-doers and into the compassionate household of Mr. Brownlow and his ward Rose, the background story takes over to raise Oliver to his true higher place in the world.
Yet these last chapters feel tacked on. They seem no longer to concern the Oliver we've come to know through the adventures of his short life.
Dickens is not content to leave us with the thrilling and moving story of the lost and redeemed poor boy. Oliver must be raised up socially to show that he was never intended to be a poor kid—like the pauper in fairy tales who turns out to be royalty. Note how throughout his miserable upbringing and his ordeals in London, Oliver always acts and speaks as a natural little gentleman. Honest, sensitive, kind, modest, trusting—no matter how ill-treated he is. Dickens is at pains to show a difference in manner and character between Oliver and the crowd he falls in with, for Dickens knows his young protagonist is not to meant to inhabit that social level. This is the old-fashioned conservative side of Dickens: blood will tell. So to accomplish the raising of Oliver to his rightful position (not just to a position given him by charity), the Monks conspiracy must be uncovered and defeated, lots of exposition about past history leading to Oliver's birth must be crammed in, characters never before mentioned must be brought in, and incredible coincidences of relationships must be piled on.
It's not that the two stories are not connected well. Several characters straddle both plots and it all makes logical sense. But I doubt many readers—at least today—care much about Oliver's rightful heritage. It's noteworthy that movie versions of Oliver tend to downplay that aspect of the novel, with at least one recent adaptation leaving Mr. Brownlow's saving of Oliver as an entirely philanthropic act.
Characters like bacon
Also drawing out the novel's conclusion, it seems for Dickens that every single character—from both stories—must receive his or her just desserts, good or bad. Though in truth this is something to be admired about Dickens and most of his nineteenth-century colleagues in contrast to many more modern novelists: they really know how to tie up loose ends satisfyingly.
So let's give Dickens a break. The necessity for Dickens of revealing Oliver to be of higher caste can chalked up to the temper of his audience at the time. The really significant observation about Oliver Twist is that it explodes with memorable characters in the widest dramatic range possible: tragic, comic, scary, suspenseful, pathetic, bathetic.... Dickens himself compared his mixture to the marbling of bacon.
This marbling is something new in popular novels. With Oliver Twist, novels can become Shakespearean in their human breadth. It must have been startling for readers of that time to be suddenly confronted with so many credible and vividly drawn characters ensconced in such a rich plot with such a diversity of modes, woven together in each weekly instalment of Oliver Twist.
Moreover, to find them in the gritty social setting of England's lowest classes. For we mustn't forget that Oliver Twist was also one of the most socially conscious and liberal (in the best sense of that word) literary productions of its time. Here we see Dickens's reformist side. With his other works, it helped create the public will in England that led to the elimination of workhouses, reform of child labour laws, and improvements to public welfare—and it exposed the new Poor Law of the day that cruelly broke up indigent families.
Now of course we read Oliver Twist with less immediate political urgency. For us it's the characters that live on, even if after nearly two centuries they have become cultural clichés.
But today's writers can still read Oliver Twist to try to figure out how Dickens managed to pull off this miracle of mood and characterization. Few, if any, can replicate it.
— Eric McMillan