There’s few lines in literature as famous as “Pleasure sir, may I have some more?” But if there’s one thing Charles Dickens knows, it’s how to write a novel that, almost two centuries after its publication, is still going strong and being adapted. Oliver Twist (full title: Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress) tells the story of a young orphan, Oliver, who has some not-so-good luck. He’s taken in by several cruel “benefactors”, shuffled around and getting lost, until he finally lands at a place he might call him. At heart, though, he’s a kind boy who doesn’t wish to do ill. It’s all well and good, then, that he gets a happy ending.
Still, he did reach happily ever after easily. Dickens explores what the life of a young outcast was like in the early-1800s, illustrating the practice of child labor at a time where workers rights weren’t exactly the talk of the town. Poverty & social class are both major themes in the book. The highly stratified nature of pre-Victorian and Victorian times led to a divisive class structure that wasn’t easily traversed. While it was a time of rapid expansion and industrialization, it also meant that the least fortunate and able were left by the wayside, or worse. As in most cases, the well off were few and far between; most had to subsist or scrounge to stay alive. This, in turn, led to crime – another important theme. A naive Oliver is roped into schemes where, after they fail, he is left as a patsy.
One unfortunate aspect of Oliver Twist is one of the criminals, Fagin. Fagin is the leader of a cadre of pickpockets & thieves; antagonistic by disposition, but his portrayal has brought on criticism of antisemitism. Fagin was mostly referred to as “the Jew” in the first printings of the book. Dickens himself said:
“…it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew”.
In later editions, “the Jew” was taken out to a considerable extent.