As it is nearly Christmas I have decided to start reading Oliver Twist again, this was the second novel written by Charles Dickens, and was first published by Richard Bentley in 1838. It has also been the subject of numerous film and television adaptations, and is the basis for a highly successful musical play, and the multiple Academy Award winning 1968 motion picture made from it starring Harry Secombe and Oliver Reed.
The story is about an orphan named Oliver Twist, who is born into a life of poverty and misfortune, and endures a miserable existence in a workhouse in an unnamed town until he is nine years old, after which he almost gets apprenticed to a cruel Chimney Sweep named Mr Gamfield, but is eventually placed with an kindly undertaker named Mr Sowerberry, However this ends badly, thanks to an oafish fellow apprentice named Noah Claypole, so he decides to run off and ends up in London
During his journey to London, Oliver encounters Jack Dawkins, a pickpocket more commonly known by the nickname the “Artful Dodger”, although Oliver’s innocent nature prevents him from recognising this hint that the boy may be dishonest. Dodger provides Oliver with a free meal and tells him of a gentleman in London who will “give him lodgings for nothing, and never ask for change”. Grateful for the unexpected assistance, Oliver follows Dodger to the “old gentleman”‘s residence. In this way, Oliver unwittingly falls in with an infamous Jewish criminal known as Fagin, the so-called gentleman of whom the Artful Dodger spoke. Ensnared, Oliver lives with Fagin and his gang of juvenile pickpockets in their lair at Saffron Hill for some time, unaware of their criminal occupations. Still mistakenly believing that they make wallets and handkerchiefs.
Oliver Twist is An early example of a social novel, and is notable for Dickens’ unromantic portrayal of criminals and their sordid lives. The book exposed the cruel treatment of many a waif-child in London, and called the public’s attention to the large number of orphans in London during the Dickens era. Dickens also mentions various other contemporary evils, including the Poor Law, child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals. He also mocks the hypocrisies of his time by surrounding the novel’s serious themes with sarcasm and dark humour. The novel may have been inspired by the story of Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose account of hardships as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s. It is likely that Dickens’s own early youth as a child labourer also contributed to the story’s development.