Great Books: The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

The Adventures of Oliver Twist appears on the list of great books courtesy of Bloom's Western Canon. I think he just threw everything Dickens wrote on there.

Oliver has been a favorite for adaptation; there have been movies, the famous musical, and at least one Japanese animated series which I saw in Italian (long story).

The whole orphaned, mistrated child bit seems to be an enduringly popular theme. Oliver has a lot in common with Harry Potter. The difference is that Dickins used his narrative to expose the harmful public conditions in contemporary poorhouses and slums. Rowlings takes the Dursley family to the same absurd extremes of cruelty, but in a less public-spirited way. There's not much of a problem in England of maternal aunts making their orphaned wizard nephews live under the staircase, unless I mistake my case.

Oliver is an orphan, born of anonymous parents and brought up by 'the parish'. That parish is populated by a number of amusing, self-important characters, second in number only to the number of amusingly self-important characters resident in London. After Oliver is denied more porridge, and apprenticed out to an abusive undertaker, he runs away to London. He is taken in by a group of rapscallions and thieves. First, there's the Artful Dodger, a boy his own age, and various others of the type. Then there's Fagin, a horrible Jew who masterminds robberies, fences stolen goods, and acts as an all-around corrupter of innocent young minds. Bill Sikes is an adult housebreaker, Nancy his adoring teenage mistress.

Oliver falls in and out of the hands of this dodgy group a couple of times. In between he stays at respectable homes, where he is taken in because his countenance is so innocent and pure. Everyone who 'rescues' him ends up being related to him in one way or another, in a truly literary manner. Oliver, it is eventually revealed, is the offspring of two unhappy but high-class people, and the beneficiary of a large fortune which his no-good older half-brother conspired to keep from him.

The plot is, hem, thin. The characters are interesting - at least, all the bad ones are. The good people are disappointingly bland and anemic, especially Oliver and his aunt Rose. As bad as the Dodger and Fagin were, at least they took Oliver in and gave him a place to sleep when he was starving to death.

I was really shocked by the antisemitism in the descriptions of Fagin. I suppose I shouldn't be, but I can't get used to it. I am really glad to learn that Will Eisner wrote a graphic novel about poor Fagin, and I look forward to seeing his take on him.

2 comments:

Maxine said...

The story goes that Dickens was later very ashamed by his antisemitic portrayal of Fagin, and made amends by the portayal of the Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend. Unfortunately, the fact that I've forgotten the name of the man in OMF but nobody could forget Fagin says it all really.

Antisemitism was rife in England until quite late on -- Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers (1930s I think) is a nasty example and by no means untypical. There was even a faction among the English upper class that wanted to to into the WW2 on Hitler's side against our natural enemy, the French.

sallyrogers said...

There is also a story that Dickens modelled Fagin on a lawyer friend who was a thief and a vile person - and not at all Jewish. I go back and forth on this issue. Dickens is close to my heart and I tend to fly to his defense but Maxine is right that in the context of Victorian society racism in general and antisemitism specifically were commonplace. I would love to explore more of Dicken's reasoning behind making Fagin Jewish.

I remember reading Oliver Twist as a young girl and never thinking twice that he was Jewish... it brought to mind certain physical features but I never saw it as antisemitic. I miss being that blind.