Get it from Amazon.com: Oliver Twist
I had read several abridged "kiddie" versions of Oliver Twist when I was in middle school, and as a teen I was semi-addicted to the 1960's musical adaptation Oliver! so I thought that I knew all there was to know about this famous British literary urchin. Not so. Actually sitting down to read the full version of Oliver Twist has shown me that the original story is much more clever, and much darker, than I had anticipated.
Young Oliver is born in a workhouse, and although his single mother dies in childbirth and leaves him with no one to give him true care or attention, Oliver thrives, in a certain sense. He grows up in this workhouse, and the horrors of his childhood can seem all the worse because of the light comic tone of the narration. Charles Dickens is always a wonderful author for pointing out hypocrisy, cruelty, and social injustices, but though it's good to be made aware of the evils of the day, it can still be hard to read about children starving and being beaten. 9-year-old Oliver's situation is so dire, it's a relief when he escapes to London and finds himself trapped in a life of crime! At least when he's with the criminal gang of pickpockets, he gets to eat.
Notes on Oliver: I notice that Oliver speaks just a tad on the aristocratic side, when compared with the other boys in the book. He just doesn't have the same penchant for slang and sauciness as his peers. On this read-through, I also perceive for the first time that Oliver himself isn't all that interesting. He's 100% sympathetic--you want to save him and nurture him, but aside from his general goodness, he's a bit of a blank canvas. He's so incorruptibly pure, it's like it doesn't occur to him that anyone could possibly be deceptive or dishonest, which is why he's no good at thievery even after receiving some training.
One thing that hasn't changed for me while reading the book: I'm still ridiculously fond of the Artful Dodger. He wears a jauntily tilted hat and a gigantic tail-coat with rolled up sleeves, and he's altogether grubby, which makes him look like the coolest homeless middle-school-aged kid in literature, aside from Huckleberry Finn. He's got this big store of worldly knowledge and Oliver relates to Dodger like he's a bizarre type of grown-up, but as you're reading, you know that Dodger's really just a kid.
Things that surprised me: There's an entire main character in Oliver Twist that didn't appear in any adaptation I read or saw until now--Monks, Oliver's half-brother! Wow. I scarcely know what to do with the fact that there's this whole important person in the book itself, and yet he's so ultimately inconsequential to the heart of the story. Monks isn't much of a villain when compared to the murderous, abusive awfulness of Bill Sikes, and just adding more family drama to Oliver's origin story isn't all that interesting. I think the adaptations had the right idea when they removed him.
Also, things for the Artful Dodger go rather differently in the book than they do in the films and abridged books.
Well, Dickens is never anything but good reading, but I wound up liking the real Oliver Twist a good deal less than I thought I would. Maybe I should stick to re-reading A Christmas Carol instead. Grade: B
"It's all over, Mrs. Thingummy!' said the surgeon at last." (pg 3)
'A clean shirt,' thought Oliver, 'is a very comfortable thing; and so are two pairs of darned stockings; and so is a penny; but they are small helps to a sixty-five miles' walk in winter time.' (pg 63)
Artful Dodger's first line: 'Hullo, my covey! What's the row?' (pg 66)
Fagin, to Sikes: "I'm afraid that, if the game was up with us, it might be up with a good many more, and that it would come out rather worse for you than it would for me, my dear.' (pg 110)