Well, I now see how he could scar children with this book. Though this book has a child for the main character, it certainly should not be given to children. This book was very much written for mature adults, and even then it's a bit of a stretch.
But something Dickens said reconciled me to the darkness and made me ready to recommend this book heart and soul.
When Oliver Twist has the audacity to ask for more, he brings down upon his head a rain of vindictive hate from the parochial officials. Here is a boy destined to be hung, they say, and they pack him off to a coffin maker for a trial period before he is apprenticed. Abused and neglected, Oliver runs away and sets off for London to better his fortunes, leaving behind the charity parish that gave him a home ever since he was born in disgraceful conditions nine years before.
Once in London, Oliver is taken in by the Artful Dodger, a street scamp who deals in a trade Oliver can't quite make out. Dodger takes him to a home with a bunch of other boys, and introduces him to Fagin, an old Jew who gives them bed and board in exchange for their work. Very shortly, Oliver is sent out with Dodger to commence earning his keep--but he's horrified to learn that he fell in with a band of pickpockets. Bad company corrupts good morals, and Oliver is arrested for pickpocketing that first day while the real scamp, Dodger, makes a clean getaway. Fortunately he's rescued by a nice gentleman who takes him in and gives him the first taste of home and family that he's ever had.
But Oliver's not destined for happiness yet. While on an errand for Mr. Brownlow, he's kidnapped and brought back to his former haunt by Fagin's partner Bill Sikes, and Sikes' girlfriend Nancy. And they're determined to break Oliver's good morals so that he'll be one of them for life.
This is perhaps Dickens' most well-known novel. Say "Oliver" or "I want some more", and people will immediately be able to place the author. Which always makes me mourn, because as good as Oliver Twist is, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, and Martin Chuzzlewit are where Dickens really shines. And frankly, I think Oliver Twist should come later in people's introduction to Dickens, after they've grown used to his humor and read a few of his plot lines that include a heavier dash of redemptive plot as well as tragic.
This, of course, is not a book for children. Child kidnapping, live-in girlfriends, murderous villains and tales of unlawful love all combine for a very good adult look about the faults of English society in Dickens' day, but they were written on an adult level, to stir adults to action, and frankly there were some sections with the criminals that even I had difficulty getting through.One particularly dark passage that some readers may wish to skip is chapter 14 of Book 3. The title should give you all you wish to know. Chapter 12 is also very intense, and the end of it is disturbing. Dickens also uses language and street scamp slang; just something to be aware of as you read.
Contrasted with the pickpockets are other people--pure, good people who reach out to those more unfortunate; who don't believe that a boy is bad simply because he is homeless, and who live in beauty; so Dickens doesn't focus only on one side, and you'll find that he draws a fair contrast, and gives emotional breaks when the reader needs it.
When I finished the book, even though the good characters were very good, and Oliver is a little boy who determines to hang onto his morals when the only people taking care of him are crooks and murderers, I wondered if Dickens had pushed a little too far this time. But I changed my mind when I read through the appendices in the back, with his introductions to the various editions. Here I saw that he did not put in darkness for its own sake, but for a very specific purpose:
I fully expected [this tale] would be objected to on some very high moral grounds in some very high moral quarters. The result did not fail to prove the justice of my anticipations. I embrace the present opportunity of saying a few words in explanation of my aim and object in its production...I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil....I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream....I endeavored, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspect, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could by possibility offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. ~The Author's Introduction to the Third Edition (1841)In other words, Dickens was concerned that thieves and pickpockets had grown to be a matter of entertainment in society instead of a matter of reform. With jolly robbers singing around the campfire and cavorting about for society's entertainment, he wrote Oliver Twist as a slap in the face to wake people up to evil's sorrow and real debasement. But he didn't shock for the shocking's sake. Even while he dug to the dregs of evil, he still showed restraint and an appropriate amount of disguising, especially in the story of Nancy.
The chapter headings were fantastically witty; the sarcasm in the text was more meant to cut and jab than to give rise to a laugh this time, so I didn't laugh quite as much, but I still found opportunities to smile. It's interesting to compare Dickens' earliest edition of the story which came out in the magazine with a later edition. He toned down the emotion here and there, so he could gain some more credibility. I'm glad I got to read his first edition, but I think he made some wise word changes in later editions to make his point a little more artfully. This was obviously a story very close to his heart.
I read the Puffin classics edition; the introductions Dickens wrote, an index of street slang, footnotes explaining cultural references and regions of London, as well as an appendix of later textual alterations Dickens made, were invaluable, and highly enjoyed. If you would like the full Oliver Twist experience, which greatly added to my own enjoyment, I highly recommend this particular edition.
Justice is done. Mercy is served. And though the dark is very dark, Dickens pulls off a masterful wake-up call to the people of his time on the difference between the poor who need help--and the poor who need to be taken down.
While I think the book is best, Focus on the Family did a wonderful radio drama of this tale. It does include scattered instances of language, but the story ratchets down some of the dark despair of the text, while still staying faithful to the plot lines. Altogether, I think I would introduce young people to Oliver Twist by giving them the drama to learn the story first, and then moving them on to the book. Well done, with a lot of actors I recognized from other dramas and even recent BBC period drama shows. It's definitely worth picking up.
I haven't seen the movies, though--so if any of you have, I would love a recommendation!