Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837)

Despite the darkness and deceitful characters that hedge the story of Oliver Twist around, the core of it conjures up feelings of compassion and faith in humanity. I named my son Oliver. He is not like the poor boy in this narrative; he has two loving parents and a warm home. One thing my Oliver does have in common with Oliver Twist is the long tether of good souls that unconditionally love him beyond obligation. I became a mother while reading this novel and the slumbering maternal instincts in me drifted to the surface.

Every empathetic reader would feel helpless and at a loss for Oliver Twist. He had no control over his destitute and malevolent environment, yet he stayed “the same gentle, attached, affectionate creature” (304) and somehow met concerned strangers who eventually became his family. But pure and incorruptible Oliver’s life was actually saved by the opportunistic London dregs depicted pretty exclusively as horrible people, which shows that the so-called best and the so-called worst can sometimes need each other.

The heart-wrenching reality of this story from 19th century London, is that Oliver Twists exist, in the west and in the east and now. I don’t know how to help them but a fictional story steeped in human experience made me want to find out.

“It is a world of disappointment – often to the hopes we most cherish, and hopes that do our nature the greatest honour” (504)

Being that Oliver himself was relatively static and unchanged throughout the novel, I found Nancy to be the second most compelling and sympathetic character. The dreariness of the Dickens world has goodness in it, if goodness is well-meaning intentions and deeds. Nancy’s example showed how being surrounded by and associated with ‘evil’ is not an exemption from having to make moral decisions. She sacrificed her life so that Oliver could have a shot at a better one; a more selfless and noble act than some who darn religious garb ever manage.

The narrative voice was at its best when it ruminated over universal human concerns, like escaping regret:

We need be careful how we deal with those about us, for every death carries with it to some small circle of survivors thoughts of so much omitted, and so little done; of so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired, that such recollections are among the bitterest we can have. There is no remorse so deep as that which is unavailing; if we would be spared its tortures let us remember this in time (312)

Entertaining overall, albeit a bit contrived plot-wise, I still prefer Great Expectations to Oliver Twist, but some characters were full of heart and it touched me as a mother.

 

What I underlined:

There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast (86)

The man that invented the machine for taking likenesses might have known that would never succeed; it’s a deal too honest, – a deal (102)

But death, fires, and burglary make all men equals (263)

Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine (340)

Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse; the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness; the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child – midnight was upon them all (436)

 

Edition: Penguin English Library 2012

 

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