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.

my head
Charles Dickens at Victorian Web,

Oliver Twist - smokeless tobacco

Oliver Twist is the brand name for a Danish-made tobacco-product for use in the oral cavity, produced by a family firm in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. The firm reportedly dates back to 1805, the same year when Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish writer of fairy-tales (The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor's New Suit, etc) was born in the same city.

Directions for getting the kick

Oliver Twist comes in small (5 x 3 x 1 cm) plastic boxes, containing some 30 tiny (ca 9 x 4 mm) cylindrical pieces, cut from rolled and twisted tobacco-leaves. The user is supposed to put one of these pieces under herhis lip (between the lip and the lateral maxillary teeth) and wait for the nicotine kick. To renew the kick after some minutes, the user may with herhis tongue maneuver the piece to between herhis teeth, give it a gentle bite, then again place it under the lip with the tongue. Whenever the user gets tired of this progressively wet and unseemly foreign object in herhis mouth, which generally happens after some 15 - 60 minutes, shehe simply spits it out.

Addictive, but not cancerous

One piece of Oliver Twist contains marginally more nicotine than one cigarette, but its takes a much longer time to absorb this quantity of nicotine via the mucous membranes of the oral cavity - about one hour - than when smoking a cigarette and absorbing nicotine via the lungs. And it does not give you lung cancer, nor does it damage your pulmonary alveoli. Medical research has also shown that it doesn't give you cancer of the mouth. But Oliver Twist is, like all nicotine-containing products, highly addictive.

Alternative to facial disfigurement

The competition to Oliver Twist (and similar leafy tobacco products for oral use), comes mainly from the Swedish tobacco product "snus", which is also used orally. The word "snus" is sometimes translated as "snuff", which is not correct, as snuff is not used orally, but nasally. Snus consists of finely powdered, moist tobacco. The user takes a pinch of it between herhis thumb and index finger and places it between the upper lip and the front maxillary teeth. The snus under the upper front lip makes a visible bulge, thus disfiguring - or sometimes improving - the user's facial features. Also, as the tobacco powder gets wet inside the user's mouth, some of it begins to drool down from the corners of the mouth. Snus-users are thus an easily recognizable lot. Due to the small size of the Oliver Twist pieces and the fact that the original leafy structure of the tobacco-leaf is preserved, these esthetical problems do not appear when using Oliver Twist.

EU retreat

Snus is extensively used in Sweden and Norway, particularly by outdoor workers like farmers, construction crews and lumberjacks. When Sweden became a member of the European Union, the EU authorities required producers of snus to put a warning label - "Causes cancer" - on all boxes sold. The EU experts could hardly imagine that anybody would put tobacco in their mouth, and if they did, then they would probably get mouth cancer anyway, so they equated the health risks of snus with those of cigarettes. As a tobacco product, Oliver Twist was also required to exhibit the "Causes cancer"-label. Recently the massive medical evidence to the contrary has prompted the EU authorities to ease on this requirement, switching to a less scary warning label: "May damage your health and is addictive". This is the warning that I presently get from my recently purchased box of Oliver Twist.

About 3 million boxes of Oliver Twist are sold yearly and the sales are increasing, as Oliver Twist is gradually elbowing itself in among the Scandinavian ranks of snus-users. 80% of the production is exported from Denmark, mainly to Sweden and Norway. Oliver Twist comes in 8 different flavors, among them the black-currant-variety that I prefer. However, on the box this flavor is labeled "Sunberry", a cute mistranslation of the Danish word for black currant, "solbaer".


General information from the House of Oliver Twist A/S: www.oliver-twist.dk

Personal interview with one Oliver Twist user: montecarlo

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