Oliver Twist was one of the first adult books I read as a child, although I believe that David Copperfield was the very first one. This book is, of course, Dickens’ famous indictment of the British treatment of and attitudes toward the poor, as followed through the adventures of Oliver Twist, an innocent and hapless young orphan.
Oliver is born in the workhouse after his mother dies in childbirth without identifying herself. He is named by the beadle and brought up at a baby farm, the intent of which seems to be to starve as many babies to death as possible. The story really begins when Oliver is 10 years old and is moved to the workhouse to begin an illustrious career picking oakum, which is unraveling and picking apart old ropes. There he is voted by the boys to be their representative in asking for another bowl of thin gruel at mealtime (or rather is the only one naive enough to agree to do it).
This act brands Oliver as a malcontent, and he is apprenticed out to a coffin maker with dispatch. His employer seems disposed to be kind, but he is bullied by a “charity boy,” Noah Claypole, as well as by the housemaid and the coffin maker’s wife. Finally, after being unjustly punished for standing up for himself, he runs away.
Oliver’s adventures lead him to London, where he innocently falls in with a gang of thieves lead by the infamous Fagin. Oliver’s struggles to make his way in life without becoming a criminal and the mystery of his identity are the focuses of the rest of the book.
Although this novel has a few amusing and lovable characters, it is fairly grim compared to some of Dickens’ later efforts. It is merciless in its satire of institutions such as the workhouse and the law courts. Oliver himself is more of a symbol for goodness than a fully developed character, yet we are touched by his plight.
It is a long time since I read this novel, and I found I had forgotten just how complex the plot is. Although I do not feel that it is as good as some of Dickens’ later works, as his first serious novel, it is compelling reading.