Oliver Twist (1837)

by Charles Dickens

Dickens was only 24 when he began writing his first real novel, Oliver Twist, and his mastery of the novel form would come in later books. The plot of Oliver Twist is outrageously coincidental; the two strangers who at different times rescue Oliver from a criminal gang turn out to have close connections to him. And how young Oliver maintains his sweetness and goodness through appalling hardship is unexplained — as well as incongruous coming from the great campaigner against destructive environments.

Yet Oliver Twist is still a popular book in the Dickens canon, with such unforgettable characters as the criminals Fagin and Sikes and the exposition of his great themes of childhood poverty and child abuse.

Oliver Twist’s happy ending doesn’t reduce the bleakness of the story. The orphaned Oliver endures a miserable juvenile home, workhouse, and apprenticeship and unwittingly falls in with a gang of pickpockets. Although he escapes from their clutches — twice — he comes close to losing his life when forced into involvement in their schemes.

Just a few years before Dickens began the first installments of Oliver Twist, England passed the 1834 New Poor Law. Dickens was critical of its attempt to reduce the number of people claiming relief by making conditions in workhouses as miserable as possible. The most traumatic experience of Dickens’s own life was his father’s sinking into debt, sending him to a debtors prison and Charles, at age 12, to a “blacking” (shoe polish) factory. The experience became the underlying influence of Dickens’s novels.


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