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Classic of the Month: Oliver Twist

As you probably recall, I started a new monthly series that will highlight a new "classic" every month. This month's classic is Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Again I am very loosely basing my idea of classic's on this "A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written." Due to the widely different views on what a classic is, these books may be considered classics by me but your opinion may be different.

 

What is Oliver Twist?


Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy's Progress is Charles Dickens's second novel, and was published as a serial from 1837 to 1839 and released as a three-volume book in 1838, before the serialisation ended. The story centres on orphan Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Oliver travels to London, where he meets the "Artful Dodger", a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin. Oliver Twist contains an unromantic portrayal of criminals and their sordid lives, and exposes the cruel treatment of the many orphans in London in the mid-19th century. The alternative title, The Parish Boy's Progress, alludes to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as the 18th-century caricature series by William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress and A Harlot's Progress.


In this early example of the social novel, Dickens satirises the hypocrisies of his time, including child labour, domestic violence, the recruitment of children as criminals, and the presence of street children. The novel may have been inspired by the story of Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose account of working as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s. It is likely that Dickens's own experiences as a youth contributed as well. Oliver Twist has been the subject of numerous adaptations, including a highly successful musical play, Oliver!, and the multiple Academy Award-winning 1968 motion picture. Disney also put its spin on the novel with the animated film called Oliver & Company in 1988.

 

Plot Overview (Detailed)

Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse in 1830s England. His mother, whose name no one knows, is found on the street and dies just after Oliver’s birth. Oliver spends the first nine years of his life in a badly run home for young orphans and then is transferred to a workhouse for adults. After the other boys bully Oliver into asking for more gruel at the end of a meal, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, offers five pounds to anyone who will take the boy away from the workhouse. Oliver narrowly escapes being apprenticed to a brutish chimney sweep and is eventually apprenticed to a local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry. When the undertaker’s other apprentice, Noah Claypole, makes disparaging comments about Oliver’s mother, Oliver attacks him and incurs the Sowerberrys’ wrath. Desperate, Oliver runs away at dawn and travels toward London.


Outside London, Oliver, starved and exhausted, meets Jack Dawkins, a boy his own age. Jack offers him shelter in the London house of his benefactor, Fagin. It turns out that Fagin is a career criminal who trains orphan boys to pick pockets for him. After a few days of training, Oliver is sent on a pickpocketing mission with two other boys. When he sees them swipe a handkerchief from an elderly gentleman, Oliver is horrified and runs off. He is caught but narrowly escapes being convicted of the theft. Mr. Brownlow, the man whose handkerchief was stolen, takes the feverish Oliver to his home and nurses him back to health. Mr. Brownlow is struck by Oliver’s resemblance to a portrait of a young woman that hangs in his house. Oliver thrives in Mr. Brownlow’s home, but two young adults in Fagin’s gang, Bill Sikes and his lover Nancy, capture Oliver and return him to Fagin.


Fagin sends Oliver to assist Sikes in a burglary. Oliver is shot by a servant of the house and, after Sikes escapes, is taken in by the women who live there, Mrs. Maylie and her beautiful adopted niece Rose. They grow fond of Oliver, and he spends an idyllic summer with them in the countryside. But Fagin and a mysterious man named Monks are set on recapturing Oliver. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Oliver’s mother left behind a gold locket when she died. Monks obtains and destroys that locket. When the Maylies come to London, Nancy meets secretly with Rose and informs her of Fagin’s designs, but a member of Fagin’s gang overhears the conversation. When word of Nancy’s disclosure reaches Sikes, he brutally murders Nancy and flees London. Pursued by his guilty conscience and an angry mob, he inadvertently hangs himself while trying to escape.


Mr. Brownlow, with whom the Maylies have reunited Oliver, confronts Monks and wrings the truth about Oliver’s parentage from him. It is revealed that Monks is Oliver’s half brother. Their father, Mr. Leeford, was unhappily married to a wealthy woman and had an affair with Oliver’s mother, Agnes Fleming. Monks has been pursuing Oliver all along in the hopes of ensuring that his half-brother is deprived of his share of the family inheritance. Mr. Brownlow forces Monks to sign over Oliver’s share to Oliver. Moreover, it is discovered that Rose is Agnes’s younger sister, hence Oliver’s aunt. Fagin is hung for his crimes. Finally, Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver, and they and the Maylies retire to a blissful existence in the countryside.

 

What genre is this book?


Oliver Twist is classified as a Novel, Coming-of-age story, Social novel. It was first published as a serialized work.

 

Was this book ever banned?


There’s only been one attempt to ban a book by Charles Dickens, and that was in New York in 1949.


The Rosenberg v. Board of Education of City of New York believed that Oliver Twist was racist towards and offensive to Jews, and tried to have it banned. (They tried to have William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice banned for the same reason.) Neither novel nor play was banned, as The Supreme Court for King’s County thought that the claim was unjustified. The reason why none of Dickens’s work has been banned is probably because it isn’t that controversial – other than being dense and sometimes dull, there’s nothing particularly offensive about it.


Dickens has been accused of following antisemitic stereotypes because of his portrayal of the Jewish character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Paul Vallely writes that Fagin is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature, and one of the most vivid of Dickens's 989 characters. Nadia Valman, in Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, argues that Fagin's representation was drawn from the image of the Jew as inherently evil, that the imagery associated him with the Devil, and with beasts. The novel refers to Fagin 274 times in the first 38 chapters as "the Jew", while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned. In 1854, The Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathizing heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed." Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew." Dickens commented that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them." Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens's home in 1860 when he had put it up for sale, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. While Dickens first reacted defensively upon receiving Davis's letter, he then halted the printing of Oliver Twist, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which explains why after the first 38 chapters Fagin is barely called "the Jew" at all in the next 179 references to him.

 

Why is it a Classic?


Well, first and foremost because it’s Dickens. Second, because it is one of the earliest known books to take on social issues such as poverty and 19th century industrialization. It’s also one he earliest books to use satire as a vehicle for social commentary. For all of these reasons, Oliver Twist is a classic.

 

Adaptations


Film

  • Oliver Twist (1909), the first adaptation of Dickens' novel, a silent film starring Edith Storey and Elita Proctor Otis.

  • Oliver Twist (1912), a British silent film adaptation, directed by Thomas Bentley.

  • Oliver Twist (1912), an American silent film adaptation starring Nat C. Goodwin.

  • Oliver Twist (1916), a silent film adaptation, starring Marie Doro and Tully Marshall.

  • Oliver Twist (1919), a silent Hungarian film adaptation.

  • Oliver Twist (1922), silent film adaptation featuring Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan.

  • Oliver Twist (1933), the first sound production of Dickens' novel.

  • Oliver Twist (1948), David Lean film adaptation starring Alec Guinness as Fagin.

  • Manik (1961), Bengali film directed by Bijalibaran Sen which was based on this novel. The film stars Pahari Sanyal, Chhabi Biswas, Sombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra.

  • Oliver! (1968), British musical adaptation, winner in the Best Picture category at the 41st Academy Awards.

  • Oliver Twist (1974), an animated film co-written by Ben Starr.

  • Oliver Twist (1982), an Australian animated film.

  • Oliver & Company (1988), Disney full-length animated feature inspired by the story of Oliver Twist. The story takes place in modern-day New York City, with Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) portrayed as an orphaned kitten, the Dodger as a street-wise mongrel (voiced by Billy Joel), and Fagin (voiced by Dom DeLuise) as a homeless bum who lives on the docks with his pack of stray dogs that he trains to steal so he can survive and repay his debt to loan shark Sykes (voiced by Robert Loggia).

  • Twisted (1996), an independent film based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist set in the gay underground sub-culture of New York City in the 1990s and starring Emmy Award, Tony Award, Grammy Award winner Billy Porter and Academy Award nominee William Hickey (actor) directed by Seth Michael Donsky.

  • Oliver Twist (1997), directed by Tony Bill and starring Richard Dreyfuss and Elijah Wood.

  • Twist (2003), an independent film loosely based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist

  • Oliver Twist (2005), directed by Roman Polanski and starring Barney Clark and Ben Kingsley.

  • Twist (2021) - Modern day version directed by Martion Owen, and starring Michael Caine as Fagin.

Television

  • Oliver Twist, a 13 episode 1962 BBC serial directed by Eric Tayler, starring Max Adrian as Fagin and Peter Vaughan as Bill Sikes.

  • Oliver Twist, a 1982 TV movie directed by Clive Donner, starring George C. Scott as Fagin and Tim Curry as Bill Sikes.

  • Oliver Twist, a 12 episode 1985 BBC One drama directed by Gareth Davies, starring Eric Porter and Michael Attwell.

  • Oliver Twist, 1999 ITV drama adaptation starring Andy Serkis and Keira Knightley.

  • Oliver Twist, a five episode 2007 BBC One drama directed by Coky Giedroyc, starring Timothy Spall and Tom Hardy.

  • Saban's Adventures of Oliver Twist, a 52 episode animated American-French co-production that aired between 1996 and 1997, where the story is downplayed for younger viewers, where Oliver loses his mother in a crowd rather than being dead and the characters are represented by anthropomorphic animals. Oliver in this version is a young dog.

  • Escape of the Artful Dodger, an Australian TV series set as a sequel, where Dodger and Oliver are sent to the colony of Australia.

Theatre

  • In 1838 Charles Zachary Barnett's adaptation, the three-act burletta Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress opened at the Marylebone Theatre in London .

  • Oliver!, a West End theatre stage musical adaptation by Lionel Bart.

  • Oliver Twist is a 2017 stage adaptation of the novel written by Anya Reiss which premiered at the Regent's Park Theatre. The show was directed by Caroline Byrne.

 


 

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