Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:”Please, sir, I want some more.”

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys with fear.

“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.

“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”

Ah, yes, the famous wants-more-gruel kid. What a freak.

I actually picked up Oliver Twist and The English Governess in the Siamese Court at the same book sale in Maine one year, thinking I should try Dickens and also thinking that Anna Leonowens would be as good a writer as she evidently was a singer, and they were both such a depressing disappointment to me. I believe I gave the latter away years ago, but I kept the little orange copy of Oliver Twist, I suppose because it was small and portable, and now I am reading it for my Victorians class (lucky me).

When I read this book at age nine, I was vastly unimpressed, and it put me off Dickens for life. Apparently when I bought it in Maine, my mum tried to discourage me from reading it because she was afraid it would have this exact effect on me, and it really, really has. Apart from The Christmas Carol, I have never again had the slightest temptation to pick up a book by Charles Dickens. I have heard good things about The Pickwick Papers and a few people have had positive things to say about Great Expectations, and my mother has always maintained that David Copperfield is a genuinely excellent book, but I just haven’t bothered to read them. To be honest, if Oliver Twist is a fair sampling, I think Wilkie Collins had a vastly better grasp on the serial form than Charles Dickens (sorry, canon!), and I am much more in love with The Moonstone and The Woman in White than I believe I shall ever be with Mr. Dickens and his nonsense.

The only thing I remember about Oliver Twist from when I was nine is the scene where Bill Sikes calls and calls his dog and the dog won’t come.  That and deep disgust and a lasting annoyance that everyone in middle school (except me!) had to read Great Expectations when there were many better books from that time period (like Jane Eyre).  Actually I am still annoyed about that.

I liked Oliver Twist better this time around. I imagine that at nine I missed all the irony. There’s a lot of irony. It was funny in bits.  I loved the scene of the Artful Dodger in court.  I liked it when Mr. Grimwig says “It’s a trying thing waiting supper for lovers.”  So true, and I love the word “trying”.

I found the middle bits aggravating. All the stuff at the Maylie household – is it me, or was Mr. Dickens phoning it in to give himself some time in which to decide what he wanted to do with Nancy and Oliver and how (or if) he wanted to connect them with the Maylie family.  Damn boring to read.  And I didn’t like that entire thing with Oliver and Monks and his inheritance; went on for too long, and was much too contrived, as well as being boring as hell so you went through all this boringness hoping it was going to turn out interesting in the end, and it didn’t.

And now a word about soap operas and newspaper serials.

In soap operas, it takes ages for anyone to get to the point. For instance, on Guiding Light one time, Reva got cloned. I was completely hooked on this whole Reva clone thing (indeed it was the plotline that started me watching Guiding Light), because it turned out (shockingly enough) that the original Reva had not been killed in a plane crash but was alive and living on a desert island, from which she eventually returned. BUT while she had been gone, her grief-stricken husband Josh had had her cloned, and the scientist who cloned her also very conveniently had aging potion that would age the clone to proper Reva age, and the clone-Reva had fallen desperately in love with Josh and would do anything, anything to keep him!  And Reva finally got back to Springfield and the clone imprisoned her!  For a very long time in a secret cupboard and wouldn’t let her out, until! until! until Josh finally found her and they were reunited (joy!), and then the clone, seeing their true pure love, nobly took all the rest of her aging potion so that she aged to Very Old Indeed and promptly died, thereby leaving original Reva and Josh to celebrate their love forever.

But it took a long time for that to happen. In terms of plot advancement, very little would happen in one episode. Like, maybe in one episode the real Reva would hear the news that she had been cloned. Lots of dramatic music and talking about what she should do next. And that would be the plot advancement for that episode. Maybe the next day Reva wouldn’t even be on the show. Maybe that day would be completely focused on Harley and Philip (who I believe were together at this time). Maybe you’d see clone-Reva spending time with Josh.

Oliver Twist is exactly like that. Increments of plot advancement that aren’t very interesting in themselves, and then whole chapters where you’re just chilling with some characters that you aren’t awfully interested in because your main focus is when is Oliver going to get back to his old nursey. And then a few chapters where a very big thing that you’ve been waiting and waiting for finally happens.  Like Bill Sikes dying.

Basically, Oliver Twist would be better if it contained love-crazed clones. Hence the two stars – is it okay to give a classic two stars?  But I guess that’s true of everything.