Book Review: Oliver Twist – by Charles Dickens

I am starting to realize that I don’t like to read 19th century authors. Dickens is a giant in English literature. Oliver Twist is the first Dickens book I tried to read. I got about 40% into it and it just fizzled out. I found myself turning pages unread, just to get on with it more and more as I worked my way into the book. I realized I wasn’t reading, I was pretending to be reading.

Occasionally, when there was actually something happening, I got pulled into the story. But then Dickens would start another chapter, change the view-point, and promptly lose me.

His flowery language bothered me. I am more direct, I like the modern prose and I find myself annoyed when I see a simple thought expressed in a whole paragraph when Hemingway would have put it into eight words.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the filth of old London, the insight into the corrupt system of the haves and have-nots, where the haves brutally exploit the weaker and, of course, the children.

I don’t know how Oliver will fare in the hands of Sikes, and at this point, I don’t give a damn.

One thought on “Book Review: Oliver Twist – by Charles Dickens

  1. Mary Barnes

    I have been listening to a lot of 19th century fiction, mostly because I have a 30 minute commute and the audiobooks at are free. I’ve noticed two devices commonly used by 19th century writers that you don’t see much in modern fiction.

    The first is the extraordinary effort in getting the reader to suspend his disbelief: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me.” “The yellow, mildewed pages of the diary of a man long dead . . . .” “[W]hile making researches in the Royal Library for my History of Louis XIV, I stumbled by chance upon the Memoirs . . . .”

    By contrast, modern novelists tend to jump right in, assuming the reader is leaping alongside him. Robert Heinlein starts his classic 20th century novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, with, “Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.” Compare that to how Edgar Rice Burroughs started Princess of Mars: “In submitting Captain Carter’s strange manuscript to you in book form . . . .” I chose Heinlein as an example because I wanted to show that writers’ confidence in the reader’s imagination evolved sometime in the mid-20th century, not just recently. If I were getting a PhD in literature, I think I’d choose that topic for my thesis and try to pinpoint when the change occurred and what social events led up to it.

    I do have a theory for why writers had to drop the other device common to the 19th century: Showing the character’s emotion by changing the color of the face. Oliver Twist characters turn pale 46 times. The Three Musketeers contains the word “pale” over 100 times and some version of “blush” or “redden” over 50 times. While listening to it, I sometimes burst out laughing–I could visualize the faces flashing on and off like traffic lights. An example: “It is impossible to form an idea of the impression these few words made upon Louis XIII. He grew pale and red alternately . . .” Writers became more sophisticated in portraying their characters’ emotions sometime in the 1920s or 30s. Why did they have to abandon the cheap, easy device of facial color to convey mood? Here’s what I think: It’s the rare actor who can change his facial color at will in a cinema close-up. Writers hoping for movie contracts write what they think the actors can perform.

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