I finished Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens a while back, and I really enjoyed it. Be forewarned, though: if you can’t stomach reading about people living in dire poverty, skip this one. The basic premise of the story is Oliver Twist, a young orphan boy, gets sent to a work house outside of London. The work house was an invention by politicians of the day—the day being the 1800’s—to keep orphans off the streets. The problem with the work houses, however, was that they were severely underfunded, so the residents subsisted on the most meager amounts of daily rations imaginable (if you’ve seen the movie “Oliver Twist,” the musical version that won the Academy Award for best picture, think “gruel,” and the song with that title that the kids all sing when eating it in the work house). Added to that were overseers, people who managed the houses and also lived there, who were cruel to the children. This combination of a scarce food supply and overseers without a heart for children created conditions that made for a miserable existence for the residents.
Oliver does get out of the work house, however, and gets in with a group of thieving, miscreant kids and teens and their masters Bill Sykes and Fagin, who basically own the kids, providing them with food and shelter and taking almost all of the money and goods that they steal each day (what they don’t take for themselves they give to the kids). They basically own the kids because without them the kids would have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. Let it be known that Sykes is the most ruthless, most violent, and most heartless villain I have ever encountered in literature, and there probably is no book where a villain tops him in those three qualities. The words that come to mind when thinking of Sykes’ behavior and crimes are depraved and heinous. If you think it will bother you to read about Sykes, please skip this novel.
On the upshot, through reading the book the reader gets to see what living in 19th-century London and its surrounding area was like, and what the people were like who lived there during that time (what their dress was like, how they talked, their mannerisms, etc.). That is one of the great things about this novel and one of the great things about any novel that take place in the past: a novel that takes place is a snapshot of what it was like to live in that place at that time. I also really like the book because Dickens was a really masterful storyteller; he knew how to spin a yarn. He ended each chapter in a way that leaves the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen in the next one. Another thing I like about this novel and the other I’ve read by Dickens so far, Great Expectations, is that they both feature main characters (Oliver, and Pip in Great Expectations) who have tenacious perseverance and endurance in trying to improve their lives in the face of oppressive living conditions. (Dickens, it is well know, was a very outspoken social critic, and in Oliver Twist the point he wanted to make as a social critic was that the politicians of the day in London should have dealt with orphans in a good, life-affirming way, not by sending them to the deplorable work houses.) So, do Oliver and Pip improve their lives in the end? You will have to read the books to find out!