Oliver Twist Readalong v.1: On Social Commentary

This is the first post for the Oliver Twist Readalong hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

My first exposure to Charles Dickens happened when I was attending grade six or seven back in Europe, and when my English teacher decided that Oliver Twist would be a profound way of practicing our language. Needless to say I hated the book. The reasons to these negative feelings are far from literary: the pace was too fast, and our vocabulary wasn’t nearly sufficient to understand the writing. All I knew is that the story included an orphan boy, and that I was forced to read about his hardships. Who would like a book in these conditions?

When I heard that Allie was hosting a readalong for Oliver Twist, I became curious if I could overcome this childhood fear of mine, and I am so glad I did. So far I am absolutely loving the book. The language is beautiful and fluid, the characters – believable and memorable.  I am also amazed at how cleverly Dickens is able to insert social commentary into his book without sounding preachy. His use of satire to bring attention to poor living conditions of common men reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal” (which I am planning to re-read soon). I was surprised at how much one is similar in style to the other. While Dickens is not suggesting English people to cannibalize on their own children, he certainly voices his opinion on starvation, poverty, and hard labor that are glorified as necessary by the privileged. Check this paragraph out:

‘Meat, ma’am, meat,’ replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. ‘You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am, unbecoming a person of his condition: as the board, Mrs. Sowerberry, who are practical philosophers, will tell you. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It is quite enough that we let ’em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.’ (p.48)

This kind of attitude prevails throughout the entire beginning of the story. In fact, Dickens often refers to these “philosophers”, poking fun of the social engineers that propose theories on how commoners are ought to live without any experience of their own rules. This distancing, class division, and cold observation in the name of some perverted science is what the author exploits to get his point across. Dickens seemingly joins the the views of Mr. Bumble, when Oliver is left in a ward crying himself to sleep, and declares: “What a noble illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!” (p.11). When I asked for a book version of Gregory House, I think I didn’t anticipate to find him right away in Charles Dickens. In some parts, however, the author takes on a darker tone:

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish. (p.29)

This paragraph gives me goosebumps; what a powerful message! How could I ever dislike the book? I am glad I could change my opinion of Charles Dickens (without my English teacher breathing down my neck at all times). My only wish is that I didn’t have school textbooks to read that take away my time from Oliver Twist right now. Please sir, I want some more!

2 comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying this! I know that I am so glad to give Dickens another chance, and have him prove to me how wonderful his writing can be. I’m still withholding judgment until I finish the whole novel, but I have a great feeling about this. I’m glad you brought up “A Modest Proposal.” I was also reminded of Swift’s sarcasm and views. Perhaps we need to bring this up in the next post so everyone else can read and see for themselves.

    Thanks for participating!

  2. Thank you for your feedback. I hope you’ll end up loving the novel!

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