09 February 2010

1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

My second Dickens novel! I have read Tale of Two Cities a couple of times now, and have taught it once (you really get the feel of a book's structure after teaching it. I highly recommend it!). But while I had never read OT, I was kind of familiar with the story.

Here were my expectations: an orphan asks for more porridge, he gets kicked out of the orphanage, and he is impressed (in the Navy way) into a band of thieves.

What I got was much, much more.

Young Oliver is born in a work house, not an orphanage. And he does ask for more of the thin gruel the boys are barely fed in order to keep them barely alive. And he is kicked out and sent to work for a coffin maker. But even there he is met with more cruelty and abuse, and so he runs away to London. On the way to London he meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger himself, pickpocket extraordinaire, who takes him back to what I would call the Thieves Guild. And here is where the real narrative begins, with all its Dickensian twists and turns.

For the gamer, you have a great book for research on pickpockets and rogues of all kinds, especially Fagin, the evil, manipulative, and exploitive Guild Master. You get descriptions of the seedy side of the city: thieves hideouts, great pubs, and the back alleys of a grand urban area. And there are quite a few bad guys in here for any kind of campaign: Sikes, Fagin, Monks, and Noah Claypole.

For the English teacher you get essentially three kinds of narrative twisted into one challah of a story (and I am borrowing heavily from the essay by Janet Larson in my Norton anthology, because she puts it so succinctly): basically, OT is three parables. The first is the story of the triumph of good over evil, that Virtue will be rewarded and Vice will be punished. This is true of many of CD's novels. Second, we have a long-running parable of the Good Samaritan. Dickens uses this to demonstrate to his readers that there is a big gap between saying you're a Christian and acting like a Christian. And finally, the critique of social conditions. Dickens showing just how deplorable the conditions of the workhouses are and the absolute misery and hopelessness of 19th century poverty.