Aaaaaaaaahhhhh. That is the huge sigh of satisfaction I always release after finishing a Dickens novel. Truly, if I were to pick my favourite author of all times, dear Boz would get the vote. This was the first time I had read Oliver Twist, and I was not in the least bit disappointed.
At its simplest, it's theme is that care for people makes you good and care for money makes you bad, but it is so much more than that, so many shades of grey in between the absolutes, so many struggles between good and evil, right and wrong. It is tragedy, comedy, high drama, farce and romance all tied up in one brilliant package. As an author, Dickens knows how to capture both his characters and his readers...
"...there he stood, reading away, as hard as if he were in his elbow-chair, in his own study. It is very possible that he fancied himself there, indeed; for it was plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the book-stall, nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but the book itself: which he was reading straight through: turning over the leaf when he got to the bottom of a page, beginning at the top line of the next one, and going regularly on, with the greatest interest and eagerness."
The plot is masterful in its unexpected twists and turns. Written in serial form, for monthly publication, it contains cliffhanger after cliffhanger, all winding inevitably to a wonderful happy ever after ending where the good and the bad each get what they deserve. There is poetic justice meted out to each larger than life character, and it is part of Dicken's genius that even the minor members of the cast attract our attention and sympathy. Poor little Dick, who wishes for nothing more than to join his little sister in heaven, where both can be innocent children together is as significant in his message as Oliver himself on his twisted path from rags... to riches... not material riches, for his eventual inheritance is quite moderate, but a surfeit of love, companionship and spiritual happiness which contrast so sharply with his earlier poverty, showing more truly than any dry sermon that man cannot live on bread alone. Dear, loyal Nancy, viciously murdered by her violent lover after sacrificing her chance of escape from the underworld for his sake, and hunted, hated Bill Sikes, dangling from a rope tied with his own hands when, in his attempt to escape from the bloodthirsty crowd, he finds himself condemned by his own guilty vision of Nancy's eyes. Rose, willing to sacrifice her love so as not to mar Harry's chance of fame and fortune, and Harry deliberately turning his back on worldly expectations to prove that Rose's love is the only treasure he desires...
More than anything else, I think I love Dickens for his dark sarcastic humour, the little digs and metafictional asides in which he pokes fun at the society, the characters, the reader and himself as the author. There are times when his moralising becomes overt and one is tempted to gloss over a few paragraphs and get back to the story, but it never intrudes for long, and there is so much symbolism to be unpacked from every element that long after the story is finished there is plenty to think about, connections to be made, contrasts to be appreciated and lessons to be learned.
As a historical and social commentary on the conditions prevalent at the time, it is educational, as a story that races the reader along from laughter to suspense to tears it is entertaining, and as an insight into the hypocrisy and heart of humanity it is enlightening... and above all, it is a purely enjoyable read that leaves me sorely tempted to plunge immediately into another of Dickens' tales... (although I think I will dole them out, saving them as the antidote for the next time a novel leaves me feeling that it had no meat on its bones - or should that be gruel in its golden bowl lol).
In the immortal words of Oliver: "Please, sir, I want some more."