The Darkness of Dickens: Oliver Twist

Reading Oliver Twist was like being stuck in a 447 page nightmare.

Even before picking up the book, I vaguely knew what I was getting myself into, having seen various movie adaptations, including the BBC mini series, the hit musical Oliver!, and Disney’s Oliver and Company

I certainly knew the book wasn’t going to be a light-hearted children’s story where an angelically blonde boy sings his way through the streets of London, picking pockets and sharing laughs with his street urchin mates along the way.  But reading the familiar story in Dickens’ own words, somehow painted a far darker and more depressing story than I had anticipated.  

It’s not that Dickens necessarily describes the horrors of child abuse, domestic violence, starvation, neglect, and beatings in particularly vivid details but the thing is, he is such a master storyteller that it’s impossible not to be there next to the character, feeling the sting of every blow, the pang of every hunger, and the chill of every curse.  Full of poverty, horrific crime, and spine-chilling gloom, some scenes left me feeling so uncomfortable, I had to put the book down and take a breather, digesting what I had just read before continuing.

Dickens is well-known for writing about the squalid life of the poor, the horrors of the workhouse,  the injustice of the law, and the greed of the wealthy – usually at the expense of a young boy – but I never felt such a dull ache inside myself upon reading his works until now.  Perhaps because, as I’m rediscovering the story as an adult, I’m realizing that Dickens isn’t describing a thing of the past at all.  The misery of Oliver Twist is sadly a reflection of our current society – even if slightly less extreme.  

My heart wept for Nancy, who despite bearing the physical marks of Bill’s cruelty, cannot leave her abuser even when given a safe getaway.  To me, this was both heart-wrenching and frustrating and I think Stephen Chbosky in The Perks of Being a Wallflower said it best: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”  My heart cried for every unloved child – those who have never known a kind word or a loving touch –  and those who fall victim to the system, finding themselves forced or pushed deeper into a life of crime, of prostitution, of substance abuse, with little chance at redemption.  

A story as grim as this deserves a happy ending, even if only to reward the characters (and the reader) for the horror and misery they had to endure to get there.  But when I finally reached the novel’s “happy” ending, I didn’t feel the relief or satisfaction I had expected.  Instead, I just felt…sad.  Because despite the story ending well for Oliver, Dickens is quick to remind us that the horrors of the world rage on as he tells us that young Dick has died.  With this, the trend of darkness continues: every glimmer of light being snuffed out as quickly as it was offered.  

The death of Dick struck me as Dickens’ way of telling us that although he was able to save Oliver, there are countless other boys and girls destined to die – both in the book and in real life. And if this isn’t a criticism of how we’ve failed our youth, our poor, our women of the street, I don’t know what is. 

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