Oliver Twist was one of the first two serious adult books I ever read (and re-read, and re-read). When I was about nine or ten, I found a battered edition at a garage sale down our street. It had a hideous orange and olive green depiction of Oliver getting beaned by the gruel ladle on the front cover, a page of notes comparing it to Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows (of which I had never heard at the time, but which I really like now) on the back flyleaf. How could I possibly resist? I paid my quarter, and I took my chances.
I buried myself in a tent made from beach towels and chairs, off in the far corner of the pool deck, and ate frozen Sugar Babies over its pages all summer. At home, I had insipid junior-high range books, paperbacks of baking soda experiments or biographies of Helen Keller, children's mythology books with fabulous pictures, ever-increasing volumes of The Baby-sitters' Club. This was different.
Squalor, poverty, abuse, deception everywhere. Soot clouding the air, thin gruel in your cold bowl every morning, a sole hapenny snatched from your clenched fist. Funny, bumbling policemen, whose funniness couldn't make up for their overall ineffectiveness, but in fact made it worse. Torn petticoats, glasses of gin, heady slang, the fine art of mending handkerchief with no light and a single broken needle. Actual descriptions!
Dancing Shoes et al went right out: I started to think of all my books as "light reading". Not that I didn't still read them -- I have most of them still on my shelves now -- but they became filler, something to read in between bits of the real kind of book, the real words and actions of people who thought in complex terms, who never worried about who stole Timmy's apple or whether Betty was still mad at them.
I sat in my bathing suit, wrapped up in a towel aginst the hot cement. I read Oliver all summer, and when I had finished, I opened up Jane Eyre. Yeah, I was a weird fifth grader.
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist from 1837-1839. It was only his second full novel, and after his first, the cheery, food-oriented Pickwick Papers, it came as quite a shock. Dickens took on the plight of the very poor in urban England, making no bones about their absolute misery, and the lengths to which they might go to in order to escape, or to survive at all. Fagin's pickpocketing ring and Bill Sikes' elaborately planned burglary are drawn starkly, without glossing over any unpleasantries. In fact, Dickens veers in the opposite direction: it can be difficult to read Oliver without finding his descriptions overdrawn and melodramatic.
On the other hand, we do know that urban life in the 1840s was pretty horrible, no matter what the country. Physical problems of pollution, overcrowding, and poor sanitation led to outbreaks of disease; wages were infinitesimal, while work days were 12 hours long, under appalling conditions, and child labor ran rampant. While the Reform Act of 1832 had redistributed electoral districts in England, making the overall representation in Parliament more fair geographically, and raising the amount of eligible male voters to one in five, things had not actually improved much yet. The middle class had slightly more say in government, but the poor were still silenced. So, although individual characters and actions may be overdrawn at times, it is not difficult to imagine such characters developing in such conditions.
Dickens addressed these social issues in a popular forum: the serialized novel. Such a novel was accessible to most of the literate population, and a good amount of the illiterate. Those who could would read chapters aloud to those who could not. And, as each chapter was published in the newspaper, it was easy and cheap to acquire. Even the destitute might hope to find a cast-off paper in the gutter. This was very different from, say, bound texts of political essays: not only could people actually get their hands on serialized novels, the stories were entertaining, even sensational. People were interested in a story, were personally invested in characters in situations like their own, while they might not be able to get through the first paragraph of a dry essay. Dickens simply used what was available to him to get his social criticism across to as many people as possible, and to affect those people as much as possible. Perhaps his melodramatic leanings were intentional; he was initially a reporter, after all, and knew how best to grab the public's attention.
Oliver itself follows the early life of an orphaned boy (Oliver, duh) who seems to be intrinsically good. He tries his best in his early days at the workhouse, only to be sold because he has the unmitigated gall to ask for more gruel one morning. So, at age nine (?), he becomes an apprentice to a coffin-maker, is relentlessly abused by his master's wife and other servants, and finally decides to run away to London. Oliver does not have the street smarts to get to London by himself, but is rescued on the brink of starvation by one Jack Dawkins, aka the Artful Dodger, who brings him into Fagin's den of pickpockets.
One would think that Oliver would be corrupted by his association with such a gang, but he remains the complete white-haired boy, and is astonished when it finally dawns on him that these people are thieves. As he shuttles between the upper and lower classes (not to give too much away here), we get pictures of all kinds of different social situations in the London of 1835. People in each class make huge assumptions about the other classes, judge each other based on flawed or nonexistent evidence, and build up all kinds of resentment toward each other. Oliver is thrown into each of these classes at various points, and sees how they think and act. He thus serves as the innocent observer for much of the book, reacting in a totally innocent and wide-eyed manner to nearly everything that happens to him, good or bad. Oliver's astonishment then makes the reader reevaluate their own casual acceptance of various commonplace problems, and question how society should function. This is a terrible place! It should change.
Dickens depicts an actual London, drawing sharp pictures of the actual people and their actual interactions. He asks the reader to pay close attention, to admit the accuracy of such description, but also to think about how the social situation might be changed. Oliver remains the white-haired boy throughout the novel, but others either slide down or climb up the social scale. People are capable of making their situations either better or worse (although it is much easier to slide downward, under such social problems); the political and social environment around them can be changed. Dickens is not exactly hopeful for an immediate positive change, but he presents social change as a necessity. His London is intolerable: it must be changed in order for Londoners to survive. The illiterate poor listening to stories read on the corner can see not only themselves and their current situations in his London, but that their situations might be different, and better -- that they should be better -- in fact, that they must be better.
Charles Dickens at Victorian Web, http://126.96.36.199/dickens/dickensov.html