Oliver Twist is probably Charles Dickens' most famous work - after A Christmas Carol - and it has numerous adaptations. Back in 2012 I was fortunate enough to see a touring production of Oliver! The Musical which I absolutely loved :) Now that I've finally got round to reading Charles Dickens' novel I realise that my love for that particular stage production was more to do with the Lionel Bart songs and Samantha Barks' performance as Nancy than its story. Oliver Twist is my fifth Dickens novel and it's my definitely my least favourite.
Dickens famously wrote Oliver Twist because he wanted to show the middle and upper-classes of British society the plight of exploited children and the appalling living conditions of the poor. You could very easily imagine that Oliver Twist would have real compassion for the outcasts of society. Well, in some ways the book displays that compassion (more on that later). But in a lot of other ways it doesn't. Fagin is a much more evil and sinister character in this book than he is in the musical (where he provides comic relief). He has no redeeming features whatsoever and is constantly referred to as "The Jew". Fagin isn't a villain who just so happens to be Jewish either. His villainy and Jewishness always seem to be linked. I know that prejudice towards Jews was rife in Dickens' time but I still found the racism in this book upsetting and hypocritical. Another issue that I had with this book was Oliver Twist himself. Dickens doesn't even seem to be terribly interested in him. Considering that Oliver Twist is supposed to be about Oliver's struggles and his mysterious parentage he doesn't get as much page time as you might think. Not that I'm complaining about Oliver's lack of page time though. Oliver is a very bland and boring character. He always says and does the right thing. He doesn't appear to have any flaws. He's completely pure and innocent. He even talks in a more refined way than the other child characters do in this book. Oliver is just too... good!
My third and final issue with Oliver Twist was its massive coincidences. Not only does Mr Brownlow turn out to be the best friend of Oliver's father, Rose Maylie turns out to be the younger sister of Oliver's mother! And Monks turns out to be Oliver's evil half-brother! I know that London was a lot smaller back in Dickens' time but how many long-lost relatives can Oliver keep bumping into?! I could have accepted Oliver meeting just one long-lost relative but three! No, no, no!
I had a lot of issues with Oliver Twist but I didn't hate this book. There were still things that I enjoyed about it. The writing lacks the polish and maturity of the other Dickens novels I've read but I still enjoyed the visual imagery and atmosphere in this book. I could vividly see every dark, filthy and dangerous alley that Dickens described. There's also some scathing satire and sarcasm in the narration that I also appreciated. My favourite thing about this book though was Nancy. Her character initially seems like a very unlikely heroine. She's a 17 year old heavy-drinking prostitute. But Dickens still portrays her with compassion. Nancy is the most well-rounded, interesting and complex character in the entire book. She has an inner kindness, compassion and strength that sets her apart from Fagin and the other members of his gang. I consider Nancy to be the female equivalent of Sydney Carton. She's the best thing about the book for me.