Yesterday I wrote a short review of the last two Toni Morrison novels I read last year, today I’m writing one for the last three novels by Dickens (before I start forgetting even more of the details than I already have – I really should write up my thought on the books I read a lot sooner).
So, Oliver Twist. I’m pretty I’ve read it before, but I couldn’t really remember anything except that scene where Oliver Twist asks for more. That whiny Oliver, I’m sure it’ll be a bore – that’s what I thought. Oh so wrong! Oliver, an orphan (as we all know), badly cared for by the parish he was born in, had a hard lot and was rather plucky. It was a miracle he survived his infancy at a nasty “baby farm” (we get a lot of Dicken’s social criticism about the treatment of orphans during the Victorian Age – it was horrific and serves as a reminder that while the age may have spawned a lot of great classics, it wasn’t the greatest time for working class or destitute people).
Oliver had to start working as a child of eight and the parish basically sold him as an apprentice to an undertaker (he just avoided being apprenticed to a chimney sweep and having to climb up inside chimneys to clean them, a very dangerous trade). When he ran away from the undertaker because of ill-treatment, he ended up in London in the clutches of the infamous Fagin, who wanted to turn Oliver into a criminal street child at the instigation of a mysterious character… Oliver escapes, is caught again by Fagin’s crew, and escapes again, managing to keep from turning criminal, a point that is very important for the eventual happy end of the novel, where Oliver finds a new family and is set up for life while the villains get their just deserts.
The evil Jew Fagin is one of the worst depictions of antisemitism in English literature (together with Shakespeare’s Shylock). In another, later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created the character of Mr. Riah, a kindly Jew who helps one of the young women in the novel and who gives a moving speech about how Jews are routinely despised. I actually read this novel in December 2019, as the first of the novels of my Dicken’s project, and was struck by the positive characterization which appears to have been a reaction by Dickens to the criticism he received for his antisemitism as embodied by Fagin. There’s an interesting article about Fagin on Wikipedia.
The other main villain in Oliver Twist (apart from the mysterious stranger) is one Bill Sikes, a robber and a murderer, whom Oliver is forced to accompany on one of his criminal endeavours. Sikes has a dog, and as a dog-lover, I’m sorry for the poor animal who comes to a bad end along with his master. Nasty masters make nasty dogs, but it’s not the dog’s fault.
All in all, while not my favourite of Dickens novels, I enjoyed Oliver Twist.
A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel about the French revolution, was a reread for me and I definitively remembered liking this one when I first read it. I still love it. It consists of three parts set in 1775, 1780, and 1792. The first part is centered on Alexandre Manette, a French medical doctor who had been imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial for almost twenty years. He is very infirm and has become an obsessive shoemaker, as that was his only occupation all those years in his dark cell. He is set free and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who had thought him dead, and builds up a new life with her in London.
At the beginning of the second book, a French immigrant, Charles Darnay, is acquitted of treason against Britain with the help of one Sydney Carton, his doppelgänger. Charles is apparently the nephew and heir of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a stereotypically evil French aristocrat, who is murdered by the father of a child he had killed by recklessly driving his carriage through the narrow Paris streets. Charles renounces his uncle and stays in London where he marries Lucy. In 1792 he travels to Paris to help one of his uncle’s servants who had been looking after the estate and was imprisoned by the French revolutionaries.
In the third book, Charles is also imprisoned for being an emigrated aristocrat. His family travel to Paris to somehow save him from prison and death, but instead he is put on trial for crimes his uncle committed and sentenced to the guillotine. He is saved by Sydney Carton, who had been in love with Lucie and who saved her husband for her sake.
The novel is very thrilling, full of gothic elements, murder, imprisonment, madness, revenge, daring and last-minute escapes. What’s not to like! We see how the cruel subjugation of the French citizens by the aristocracy was one of the causes of the French Revolution. How the desire for justice became corrupted into a desire for revenge, leading to the Terror of the French Revolution (as shown by Dickens; I’m sure that the historical causes where more complicated, varied, and nuanced).
I also read Great Expectations back in October 2020 and didn’t get around to writing up anything about it, but I loved it best of these three. It also has very gothic elements, an orphan (Pip, the main character) who gets an inheritance from a secret benefactor. This turns him into an egoistic little shit, but he is humbled when he finds out whom he has to thank for his windfall. It’s a tale of escaped convicts, lost or misguided loves, petrified lives, and a dawning understanding of what’s important in life. I’m afraid I’m too lazy to write a more detailed review after all these months.
Here’s my final ranking, after having read all of Dicken’s novels:
- David Copperfield
- Bleak House
- Great Expectations
- A Tale of Two Cities
- Barnaby Rudge
- Our Mutual Friend
- Little Dorrit
- Nicholas Nickleby
- The Old Curiosity Shop
- Oliver Twist
- Hard Times
- Martin Chuzzlewit
- Pickwick Papers
- Dombey and Son