Oliver Twist: Nancy Steals The Show

Oliver Twist is a book I have been wanting to read for some time. I have always been familiar with the story but somehow reading it always slipped through the cracks; there were other, more exciting books to read, I suppose.

This year has plunged me headlong into Dickens works. A friend and I wanted to read a book together and we selected – okay, she selected – A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. I had never read anything by Dickens before. And, I will admit, A Tale of Two Cities was perhaps not the best introduction – I hated it. Shortly thereafter, I randomly decided that over the holidays, I would read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This, on the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed. Later in the year, Oliver Twist was assigned to me for school. So it has been a Dickens-y kind of year.

Where A Tale of Two Cities was cold and distant, Oliver Twist is up close and personal, emotional and lurid. In A Tale of Two Cities, I couldn’t have cared less about stiff, wooden characters like Lucie and Darnay; in Oliver Twist, I found myself irresistibly drawn into Nancy’s world. Though Rose Maylie and Brownlow, Harry, Mrs. Maylie, and even the supposed main character, Oliver, fall into the same category as Lucie from A Tale of Two Cities – characters that bored me and I did not care about – Fagin and Charley, Bill and the Dodger, and, of course, Nancy, more than made up for them.

Though the book bears his name, Oliver is a pathetic little weakling, too angelic to be interesting or even realistic. Described as sturdy when a little boy, Oliver becomes increasingly sickly as the story progresses, fainting like a woman at the least provocation. It is painfully obvious, from the moment they take the stage, that Nancy, or perhaps Fagin, is the true focus of this story. And while Fagin could never be called its hero, Nancy is most definitely a heroine.

Something I am finding to be true of Dickens in my limited experience, is that, while his dryly sarcastic writing style never varies, he writes characters that fall into one of two extremes – the saintly Rose Maylies, Olivers, and Lucies, and the startlingly lifelike Bills and Fagins and Nancys. It is obvious that there was a woman in Dickens’ life that he idolized somewhat, and, drawing from life as all authors subconsciously do, this woman has made her way, under different aliases, into Dickens’ works. So far, I have found her in Rose Maylie and Lucie Manette. I would assume that she appears in his other works as well. Similarly, one could probably find an “Oliver” in many of his books,  or a “Nancy.”

Obviously, the main attraction of Oliver Twist is its portrayal of the criminal element. The reason it has been either fiercely loved or intensely hated for so long is because Dickens – without apology –  humanizes the criminals. Shocking in his day, this probably tends to be more fascinating in ours. I certainly found it to be. But then again, I have always had something of a tendency to secretly admire the “bad guy.” Stories like Robin Hood were always particularly appealing, as they depicted the “good outlaw.” There is something magnetic about their charming, carefree, daredevil ways. Something about them that makes you care. I fell head-over-heels for the cast of Oliver Twist. The man-of-the-world Dodger, happy-go-lucky Charley, tough Bill, heroic Nancy. Dickens turns this motley band of criminals into actual people. People like you and me who have strong loyalties and affections, are afraid, get lonely, seek warmth, love, and companionship. Monks is scared of being alone, Bill shares his food with his dog, Charley despises Bill for the murder of his friend, Nancy refuses to betray her friends of leave “her man.”

I am left with only one question – whatever happened to the Dodger?

Have you read Oliver Twist? Who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? How do you feel about making crime romantic and criminals appealing?

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