Episode 34: Comeback with a Twist of the Dickensian Variety

It’s been a long while since my last post but I have a good excuse. Old laptop, the one I got in 2006 when I started my year as an exchange studen,t was crapping out on me. Let me give you an example, I was writing a Word Doc and it completely froze just on the autosave function.  It was bad but I was able to get a good deal on a new one and it is working awesomely. Now I just need to get back on track of writing and reading. Classes have pretty much ended for everyone else around here so I need to at least mimic the effort that other students are going through in order to survive finals and keep that momentum from now until comprehensive exams.Since I haven’t written in a while, I figure I should post something about one of the most famous serials by a literary master. Oliver Twist by CHarles Dickens, considered by many to be one of his greatest novels, one of the best of all time, and one that my grandmother keeps reminding  me as to how it changed child labor laws in the Western world.

When you hear about oliver Twist the first image that comes into your mind is about this sweet little kid in an orphanage and the famous line: “Please sir, can I have some more.” (cool fact: you just read that in a British accent) THe serves is surprised and says “More?!?!?!?!” If you haven’t read the whole thing or if you vaguely remember it from an old Lit class then let me remind you that this event occurs in Chapter 2 of a 53 chapter novel. Also, it wasn’t an orphanage, technically it was a working house for people who are homeless, this one just specialized in people between ages 9 and 14. Another interesting point, Oliver did this because a bigger kid wanted more fod, bullied everyone else and Oliver got voluntold into getting more food and then got the crap beat out of him.

The story is fairly complex if you try to understand every sub plot but if you stick to Oliver then you realize that about a fifth of the novel is actually about him. The character is very passive, things happen around him and the spotlight changes while he sort of hangs out while everyone discusses what to do with him and resolve their own personal issues (and there are a lot of them). Oliver was very few actual lines of dialogue and if it wasn’t for the fact that his name is on the title or that important people are going out of their way for this little kid then you’d forget that it was about him. The best way to summarize my feelings toward Oliver Twist the character is that he isn’t the protagonist so much as he is the MacGuffin (plot critical item).

When I first got my hands on the book, I crossreferenced it with another book that told me where each of the original installments ended and started and marked chapeters accordingly. I then tried to read the ecquivalent of one installment, read other things, go on with my normal life, and read another installment later in order to mimic the original serail reading experience. As you can imagine, this process ended up taking way too long relative to the reading discipline that is expected of an Enlish PhD student. Dickens sesquipedalian loquasciousness style of prose was also a particular challenge to overcome, as overly elaborate descriptions that your eyes kind of gloss over happen alongside plot critical moments and character interactions and you find yourself halfway through the book asking who hell is that guy and where did he come from? And the novel has a lot of characters not named Oliver Twist all over the place and since it is a serial you don’t know whether person who shows up in chapter 3 is actually really important, filler material, or some sort of Chekov’s Gunman who will show up later and surprise everyone. Recurring characters are an important factor in all things serial literature but you can’t recognize their importance just on their first appearance.

Something I’ve discussed in my previous research and maybe in earlier posts is that serial reading is a lot different than reading the whole thing at your own pace. While I was reading the novel, moments of confusion didn’t lead to rereading previous chapters because I just imagined that somewhere down the line they will explain it and will figure it out. If not, then finish reading whole thing and check Internet/back of book for contextsand details I might have missed. When the rest of the book doesn’t exist yet two things will inevitably happen if you interested in the narrative.

1. You will go over early installments several times to attempt and find something that you did not realize upon your first reading (I calculate/guesstimate that you read the first ten percent of any given serial 100 times more than the last percent of it, don’t quote me on my fuzzy math).

2. You will fing other people that are also reading the serial or convince your friends to join in even if several installments have already been published. Serial reading is a communal activity but only as it is being published. The time between installments allowed for conversations to arise, speculations to be made, and an anxiety over what happens next. The best part is when you have a crazy idea that actually is what happens, or proving that your friend’s stupid idea continues to be stupid. If you have a varied enough group of friends you get a lot of different perspectives and a more complete reading of the serial as a result.

Let’s go over some potential discussions regarding the novel. First thing is that Oliver’s mom dies right after child birth. This of course raises the question of who is the father (something which I’m sure every male character got some speculation on throughout its publication). Somewhere down the line, someone has to ask whether or not other family members of Oliver are around. As I read the novel, an extended family never really factored in so the big reveal of having the mysterious Monks be Oliver’s half-brother and Rose Maylie actually be his Aunt was kind of a surprise to me. And yet, I imagine that somebody would have already asked that question and surmised that answer by the fourth installment and then loudly declare “I knew it!” once the official reveal was made.

Other characters that would have made a splash definitely include the two street wise kids. The Artful Dodger and Charley (aka Master) Bates (not even trying to be funny even in Victorian standards that was still technically PG language.  Both end up being mentor types to Oliver in the mean streets of London but you were really wondering whether or not they would stay in that dangerous and evil road for the rmainder of their lives. The Artful Dodger was sent to jail near the end chapters and was apparently sent off to Australia and nver heard from again. Master Bates (the 12 year old in me always chuckles when reading this) in the super epilogue final chapter of the book is shown to have learned the error of his ways and actually struggled to become a better person. Speaking of that Epilogue, everyone gets a fairly well extended explanation as to what heppened years after the end of the novel.

The most interesting character by far is that of Fagin aka The Jew. He is not even the only Jewish guy in the novel, the young one that shows up is rarely if ever called by name and has some sort of weird lisp. Based heavily on Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Fagin is a fairly complex character. Sure he is old and weird but training orphans without the tools to survive how to steal in an urban environment isn’t the worst thing in the world. Not exactly evil, fairly greedy, cunning as Hell, and one big nose comment in the entirety of the book is only mildly racist by my account. Fun fact: Dickens actually thought most people that were kidsmen (used kids to steal stuff and get most of the cut of selling the items) were Jewish. It’s not untilDickens was older that he had Jewish friends that told that they were actually offended by the character, much to his surprise and he actually edited a lot of the references to his faith. That’s right, Fagin the Jew was a lot more anti-Semitic during the early editions of the book. More contemporary adaptations may completely disregard that he is Jewish and some don’t even have him die in the almost last chapter. Also, if you are anything like me, you’ll go through the titles of chapters in the index before officially starting to read and you see that it is actually called “The Jew’s Last Day Alive”, stupid lack of spoiler alerts.

The best part of the novel was  the little asides done by the narrator or the chapter titles. Fourth walls were broken all the time in what I like to call paratextual moments, something like the preview of what’s coming in the next episode or the recap of earlier stuff. Chapters would often be called, “short but important for some reason” seriously. In the middle of the novel there was this cool moment when Oliver was coerced to accompany other thieves into breaking into a house and robbing it. As the would be robbers are escaping, an errant shot by someone in the house actually hits Oliver, thus the cliffhanger is that the protagonist has a massive bullet wound. The next installment focuses on the people in the house and introduces several new characters and subplots. Then the next installment has the thieves saying that they left Oliver in a ditch and went on their merry way to avoid capture. The end of that installment actually says something to the degree of, “don’t worry, next week we’ll reveal what happened to poor Oliver so stay tuned.” I had to wait six chapters to see what happened, original intended readers waited over a month to figure out what happened to the title character. I just feel sorry for the guy who bet with his friends that Oliver died and Dickens was just trolling the readership.

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