Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

November 5, 2010
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Shakespeare. Austen. Thoreau. Bronte. We hear the names of these famous authors every day, but for many they elicit only a yawn. Such classic literature is too frequently associated with long classes and boring hours of reading, but this is not necessarily true. Many of these stories are just as exciting and fun to read as anything else. One such example is Charles Dickens’ famous masterpiece, Oliver Twist. This novel, published in 1838, tells the story of a poor orphan named Oliver who runs away from a workhouse and ends up meeting a group of thieves and criminals. Anyone in search of a good book should read Oliver Twist, because of its exciting plot, delightful humor, interesting setting, meaningful symbolism, clever satire, beautiful theme and fascinating characters.

The first noteworthy aspect to consider is this story’s plot. Plot is very important in making a book interesting to read, and Charles Dickens does a superb job of adding various exciting events that will keep the pages turning. Take for example, the death of the villain Bill Sikes on page 391: “Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance and tumbled over the parapet. The noose was on its neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as a bowstring, and swift as the arrow it speeds. He fell for five-and-thirty feet. There was a sudden jerk, a terrible convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hand.” Since this passage tells about how one of the main characters is killed, it’s very important to the story and the plot as a whole, and it is told in such a way that will hook an audience’s attention. Therefore, the plot is one element of Oliver Twist that you won’t want to miss.

Secondly, the humor of Oliver Twist makes it a good book. Although the story tells about a lot of very dark and dramatic things, the comedic elements that Dickens adds makes it fun as well. One of the characters, Mr. Grimwig, is saying throughout the book that he “will eat his head.” After he says this for the first time on page 97, the following commentary is given: “This was the handsome offer with which Mr. Grimwig backed and confirmed nearly every association he made; and it was the more singular in his case, because, eve admitting for the sake of argument, the possibility of scientific improvements being ever brought to that pass which will enable a gentleman to eat his own head in the event of his being so disposed, Mr. Grimwig’s head was such a particularly large one, that the most sanguine man alive could hardly entertain a hope of being able to get through it at a sitting-to put entirely out of the question, a very thick coating of powder.” This demonstrates how Dickens took an already ridiculous line and made it even funnier by his description of it. Because of this, it is plain to see that the comedy in this book is one reason to check it out.

Also the setting helps to make this the great novel it is. Oliver Twist is set in the large city of London, and the different settings help to enhance the mood and paint a vivid picture of where the characters are. On page 56, it says, “The walls and ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt.” This quote demonstrates the dirty reality of some parts of London, and also affects the mood since Oliver has just ventured into the home of the thieves. Later, on page 258, a more pleasant location is described: “The rose and honeysuckle clung to the cottage walls; the ivy crept round the trunks of the trees; and the garden flowers perfumed the air with delicious odors.” The descriptive language and imagery used to convey the setting here makes it easy to imagine what Oliver himself was experiencing. For these reasons, setting is one aspect that makes Oliver Twist such an enduring classic.

A fourth incentive to read this book is the symbolism. Dickens uses a variety of symbols to hint at things to come and create a greater emotional impact. One example of this is one page 368. Sikes has just murdered the girl Nancy, and is trying to run away. “For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible than the one from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness; light in themselves, but giving light to nothing.” The eyes that Sikes is seeing are used to represent not only the dead girl, but his own guilt, which will symbolically haunt and follow him right to his death. Therefore, the symbolism in the story is one reason why everyone should read this book

Another reason that Oliver Twist is so amazing is the satire. Dickens chose a time period and location on purpose to be able to represent it and poke fun at society’s flaws through his story. This can be seen on pages 4-5, when Oliver’s caretaker is discussed: “Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened out of cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.” In this case, he is showing the badly thought out “philosophy” which so-called “caretakers” used, and thereby showing how the imperfections of our world through use of language. Satire is one element which makes Oliver Twist a must-read.

The sixth thing that makes this such high quality literature is the theme. The theme can be interpreted differently by each person, but I think that it is, “Purity and love are stronger than corruption and hate.” This theme can be seen in the following quote from page 415: “...how the two orphans, tried by adversity, remembered its lessons in mercy to others, and mutual love and fervent thanks to Him who had protected and preserved them...I have said that they were truly happy; and without affection and humanity of heart, and gratitude to that Being whose code is Mercy, and whose great attribute is Benevolence to all things that breathe, happiness can never be attained.” This demonstrates the theme by expressing how Oliver and Rose Maylie overcame their struggles through their love and humanity. In this way, the touching theme makes Oliver Twist an excellent novel to read.

Last but not least, the colorful characters make this book enjoyable to read. There are a great many different characters and forms of characterization used in this novel, but the use of speech stands out. Dickens uses how characters speak to reflect where they are from and what kind of a life they led, like on page 52 when the Artful Dodger says, “Hullo my covey! What’s the row?” By using terms like this, he demonstrates characters simply through the words the Dodger uses to express himself. This way of speaking contrasts with that of the more proper, well-bred characters, and so characterization can be seen in how they speak. The characters in Oliver Twist add to the story and make it all the more interesting to read.

All in all, Oliver Twist is one of those rare and wonderful books that deserves to be read by everyone. This can be seen in the engaging plot that keeps us on the edge of our seats. The humor adds to the story by making it fun and entertaining despite the serious subject matter. Setting reflects back the tone of any given scene and enables us to better see the world Dickens is describing. The symbolism provides meaning, food for thought and demonstrates emotions of the characters. Also the satire makes it a bitingly realistic portrait of life during that time period. The theme teaches us the importance of virtue over vice, and allows us to connect with the story more. And finally the unique characters are expertly conveyed through speech and make it entertaining and relatable. So go the nearest library, computer or bookstore and find yourself a copy of Oliver Twist. It’s far more than just required college reading.

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