Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel. No longer is the plot disconnected and episodic like in The Pickwick Papers, but Oliver Twist has a much tighter focus and a stream-lined plot compared to its predecessor, while still possessing a few irrelevant, but interesting episodes (such as the humorous marriage of the arrogant beedle that tormented Oliver in his childhood, Mr. Bumble, to a wife who bullies him into submission that really has nothing to do with moving the larger plot).

Oliver Twist is an orphan born to a life of mistreatment. His mistreatment only grows worse when one day he grabs the shortest straw among the orphans and asks for more food, which incenses the wrath of his parochial masters, especially the beedle, Mr. Bumble. As a consequence, Oliver is apprenticed to an undertaker, with the goal of getting rid of him and having to feed him, but his mistreatment continues there at the hands of Noah Claypole, which forces him to run away to London. There a boy named the Artful Dodger finds Oliver and takes him to Fagin. Fagin tries to train him to become a pickpocket, and also has made a deal with a mysterious man named Monks that concerns Oliver. The first time Oliver goes out with the other boys he gets falsely accused of stealing from an old gentleman. The old gentleman takes the sick and weary Oliver to his home. When Oliver goes out again to deliver the old gentleman’s books he is recaptured by the criminals. He is then forced to help with a break-in at a house with the ill-tempered Bill Sikes. The break-in fails and Oliver finds himself back in the hands of wealthy benefactors who want to help him. Then Nancy, a member of the gang and Bill Sikes’ lover, turns traitor and tells them about the mysterious man Monks and his connection with Oliver’s past.

Dickens primarily goal in this text is right on the surface: to call our attention to the harsh social conditions of the orphan’s life in the parochial system and to explore the types of people that become criminals. Sometimes he hints at the reasons such people turn to thievery, while other times, he is content to simply show their nastiness. Certainly he never really gives a reason for Bill Sikes’ life in crime and portrays him to be a completely unsympathetic brute, but he does show Nancy thinking about how she got caught up in her criminal life.

Fagin, referred constantly in the text as “The Jew”, is a horribly anti-Semitic depiction. He is not merely a Jewish criminal, but descriptions of him follow typical racial and anti-Semitic tropes, describing him in terms of ugly animals and the devil. The text often talks about “the Jew’s cupidity.” Fagin is shown as conniving and willing to sell out members of his gang to save his own skin. If this were the only example of a Jewish character in the text depicted this way, a skeptic might be able to argue against this point, but there are a couple of other Jewish characters mentioned in the background of Fagin’s various haunts and they’re depicted as criminals too.

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