Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my Classics Spin #6 book, and I was supposed to have it done by July 7. Well, I missed that deadline by a little bit, but I eventually finished it, and it still counts towards my Cavalcade of Classics challenge. So there.

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed. In the latter chapters, the action picked up and Dickens did a great job of keeping the intensity up and leading the reader along, something I imagine would be especially important for a book published in episodes.

I also liked how innocent Oliver was, always trying to do the right thing despite the circumstances. He seemed a little too good to be true, but I liked him so much, I didn’t mind that he was a bit unbelievable. He just had so much spirit.

One thing I don’t quite understand in a lot of these 19th-century books is how easily people fall ill. Emotional strain or just a walk in the cold can put them into fits or lay them low with a life-threatening fever. Were people back then really that delicate, or were the pathogens present in 19th-century London just so dangerous and ready to pounce that people were always a head cold away from death? What were these mysterious fevers people were always getting?

The most unpleasant part about the book is Dickens’s insistence on referring to Fagin primarily as “The Jew”. According to the notes at the end of my version, Dickens responded to critics who claimed his portrayal of Fagin was anti-Semitic by saying that at the time the story took place, most of those in Fagin’s line of work were Jews. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the way that he calls him “The Jew” at least as often as he calls him by name suggests that he’s actually saying he’s in that line of work because he’s Jewish, which is a very different thing than just saying he’s in that line of work and happens to be Jewish.

In addition, there’s a scene in which Oliver sees Fagin and shouts, “The Jew! The Jew!” It seemed strange to me that Oliver would have referred to him like that because I thought other characters generally referred to Fagin by name, and Oliver would have done the same.

And then there’s the way that Dickens time and again describes Fagin in ways that suggest he’s less than human, like in chapter 47 when Dickens says that Fagin “disclosed among his toothless gums a few such fangs as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” I don’t recall Dickens comparing other non-Jewish characters to animals in this way.

I also considered the possibility that Dickens was just writing about Fagin as the culture at the time would have seen him, but I could buy this notion a lot better if these nasty things were said only by other characters in the story, but by and large, it’s not other characters who are saying these things; it’s our narrator (whom I read as Dickens). All of this suggests to me that Dickens’s portrayal of Fagin wasn’t merely a reflection of the demographics of a particular type of criminal in London at that time but truly was (and is) anti-Semitic.

But aside from this admittedly very large part of the book, I enjoyed the story. I nearly always enjoy Dickens’s dark storytelling and psychologically tormented characters, and I find the female characters in his book refreshingly strong-willed (refreshing because not every strong-willed woman is punished for it (though most of them are)).

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