On First Looking Into Dickens’s Oliver Twist

(With apologies to Messrs. Chapman and Keats –but I needed a title)

By Bob McCrillis

Always on the lookout for a bargain, I found myself perusing the public domain table at Barnes & Noble. For those unfamiliar with these offerings, they are cheap hardback editions of classics that are no longer protected by copyright priced with the student budget in mind.

The copies of Mr. Dickens’s Oliver Twist were foremost on the table, which reminded me that no lesser eminence that Pearl S. Buck cherished Dickens and had given a complete set of the works pride of place in her library. How could this be? My reading of Ms. Buck’s novels and short stories impressed me with her spare, almost laconic style. From knowledge gained after being dragooned into reading portions of Oliver Twist during my undistinguished academic career, I carried with me a sense of long, long sentences freighted with bibble-babble, and phrases, and clauses, and modifiers as if the author was being paid by the word on piecework.

Nevertheless, I determined that an investment of seven dollars and forty-nine cents in my development as a writer could pay dividends – after all, I’d just expended a similar sum in sybaritic pleasure purchasing a latte and biscotti in the café. It was an unprepossessing volume for all that it was bound with hard covers, poor paper and numerous voids in the printing. An unlikely vehicle for enlightenment.

Imagine my surprise finding myself laughing out loud as I read of the “farm” where pauper children “rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing…” or “that this system of farming would produce any very extraordinary or Luxuriant crop.” Mr. Dickens was even snarkier than I.

And what can one say about the self-important Mr. Bumble?  The kindest comment might be that he got his just deserts marrying Mrs. Corney, receiving considerably more than the silver teaspoons and tongs, a silver teapot, and some ready cash he had assayed.

Mr. Dickens tongue-in-cheek style does not lessen the horror of Bill Sikes trying desperately to escape the shade of the poor murdered Nancy.

I put Oliver Twist down understanding better that ornate or antique language can skewer human frailties just as pointedly as the crisper modern style.

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