I read this book some thirty years ago and decided to refresh my memory by listening to it as read by Peter Wickham—probably one of innumerable out-of-work actors—when I saw it on offer for $3.95
The story follows the progress of the orphaned Oliver Twist, as he is taken from the orphanage to the workhouse and then to an undertaker as an apprentice. Cruelly taunted by another jealous apprentice, he is beaten when he lashes out, after which he runs away to London on foot—a distance of 70 miles, which he covers in one week. Upon arrival he meets the Artful Dodger who offers Oliver some food and a place to sleep and brings him to an old Jewish man called Fagins. The old man and his gang of pickpockets teach Oliver how to steal gentlemen’s handkerchiefs. Through a series of events, Oliver is taken in by a rich and kind gentleman who sees that Oliver is a sincere and gentle soul and decides to give the boy a home and offer him an education. But Fagins arranges to have Oliver brought back to him, and along with his brutal accomplice Bill Sikes, the orphan is forced to continue in a life of crime. Many many trials and tribulations and heartbreak ensue, and eventually, with a good dose of luck and serendipity all’s well that ends well.
I very much enjoyed the ironic tone of Dickens as he describes the conditions of the poor who were subject to the New Poor Law at the time, which in fact did little to help them and in many ways made their lives even more miserable. This novel is a powerful social commentary as is well-known, and it’s easy to see where Dickens’ sympathies lie. The lengthy narrative of this story, which was originally published in monthly instalments is best enjoyed in small doses, and I found that trying to listen to too many chapters at once kept me from enjoying the excellent quality of the writing and quickly became tedious.
With the exception of Nancy, a young prostitute and Bill Sikes’ girlfriend who decided to do all she could to help young Oliver—and came to a very brutal end for that reason—most of the characters were shown as being either all good or all bad. This was especially problematic for me in the portrayal of Fagan—usually referred to as ‘The Jew’—who was depicted as a reprehensible, cruel and grotesque creature throughout; a real caricature of the miserly Jew at his absolute worst. When he was accused of anti-Semitism, Dickens asserted that he had simply meant to depict a specific kind of criminal, who at that time just so happened to usually be a Jewish man, and he apparently tried to remedy to that by referring to him mostly as ‘Fagan’ in the last chapters of the serial. But even allowing for the fact that the novel was written at a time when prejudices were openly aired, the not-so-implicit anti-Semitism was hard for me to bear and took away from my general enjoyment of the story, to which I would have otherwise given a higher rating.