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I looooooooved this book. Another Dickens...another favorite. 'Please, sir, I want some more.'

Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have been dueling inside my WOW center for some time in a titanic, see-saw struggle for the title of greatest word-smither/story-crafter in all of English literature. Ms Austen previously caused heart-palpitations and a slew of gasms with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility which left me spent like a cheap nickel. However, Sir Dickens, being a slick, wily devil responded in kind withA Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, a pair of wonderfully addictive, tingle causing joy blasts full of jaw-drops and breezy elegance.

Where this battle of master word charmers will end….I could really care less because I’m sporting a complete happy going through their respective catalogs with a perma-smile on my face.

Next up on the parade of mouth-watering, phrase turning feasts is The Adventures of Oliver Twist which is terrific on several levels. In relating the tragic (but ultimately rewarding) life of Oliver Twist, Dickens is at his most Austenesque as he employs with great effect biting sarcasm and dry, dark humor to scathingly satire the English Poor Laws of the 1830s.Of the novels I’ve read by Dickens, this is him at his most “socially conscious” and he strategically uses Oliver’s biography to harshly spotlight the greed, hypocrisy and let’s just say it…evil…of the society that organized and profited by the work house system of the middle 19th century.
So they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they,) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.
We follow Oliver beginning with his difficult birth that killed his mother and almost cost the young lad his life as well.
[T]here was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration- a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence…
From there we journey with the child as he is dumped into a workhouse where his early life goes from bad to horrendously shitty as he’s subjected to a systematic process of neglect, physical brutality and starvation along with the other children residing there.

Here is a passage from Chapter 2 that I think perfectly encapsulates the subtly sarcastic style Dickens employs to address his subject matter.
The parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food, or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week.

Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rapacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four and twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for the experimental philosopher of the female to whose care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.
I love the way Dickens can describe callous starvation and casual murder of children for nothing more than greed in such a way that I was actually chuckling because of his lusciously humorous phrasing.

This man could write.

Eventually, Oliver’s life takes another turn from horrendously shitty to mega-painful-chunks-of-misery-filled-crap when he has the temerity to utter the famous words, “Please, sir, I want some more." He gets more…
more beatings,
more starvation,
more verbal abuse,
more neglect,
…and ultimately finds himself alone on the streets with no means of survival. There, Oliver finds himself sucked into a life of petty criminality under the tutelage of “Fagin the Jew” who I thought was one of the most compelling Dickens characters ever.**

[**Note: I know there is a lot of controversy about the portrayal of Fagin being one of the most egregious cases of anti-Semitism in classic literature. I think the criticism is fair, but I also don’t think (based on what I’ve read) that Dickens’ had any malicious intent. It is what it is and everyone can make their own decision on that point.]

I thought the character of Fagin was fascinating and his signature phrase my dear (which he uses in almost every sentence) is still popping into my head more than a week after finishing the novel. Fagin, while irredeemably evil and in some ways a criminal caricature, Dickens draws him with such flair imbues him with a dimension and essence that I found very compelling. His psychology, his calculating intelligence and his soft words masking despicable actions is deftly laid out. At times, I almost got the impression that Fagin was intended to represent “the devil himself” with the way Dickens focuses on his corrupting influence.
In short, the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils; and, having prepared his mind by solitude and gloom to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it and change its hue for ever.
On one level, the life of Oliver Twist is one of the harshest, most depressingly sad tales ever put to paper. In lesser hands, the heartache and forlornness of Oliver’s birth and tragic early life could have swallowed up the story and made the book a real chore to get through.

Good news…these are not lesser hands.

Dickens writing is so melodic that the narrative glides over the horror at a safe middle-distance, allowing us to observe and absorb the surroundings without drowning in the pain that Dickens describes. I thought it was masterful.

Intimate yet detached.

Eventually, the plot takes a mysterious turn as a shadowy figure arrives on the scene who has a connection to Oliver and his past that is slowly revealed over the last half of the story. All of this leads to a marvelous ending that makes the rest of the story far more enjoyable in retrospect…sometimes positive, warm and fuzzy resolutions are exactly what a story needs.

Dickens prose is buttery smooth while his mocking humor is cheddar sharp. His balance is outstanding and his ability to poke fun at his readers’ society while avoiding making the reader themselves feel like a target is brilliant. I had such a wonderful time reading this that I am left wondering why everyone doesn’t love Dickens as much as I do.


Okay, Ms. Austen…your turn again.

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