Last year I read Oliver Twist for the third time. It’s odd how a novel that you think you understand can turn on you and quietly insist that it is not really what you thought it was about.
Perhaps it was because I was using lots of extracts from it with a particularly interested Year 9 group. We pored over the beginning of chapter five with a keen eye for the gothic, noticing that state of mind that Dickens exploits so well in the novel: somewhere between dreaming and waking. He uses the same device elsewhere and it starts to lend the novel a nightmarish quality that has never been captured beyond the page. I’ve never seen an adaptation that is able to convey what Dickens does so well in his first novel proper: that existence for some of Victorian England’s most vulnerable was a literal nightmare. Yet Dickens is able to take this trope, and through his ironic narrative detachment (which, ironically, means that the reader can almost touch his passionate defence of the poor), he is able to propose a space in which little Oliver is both dead to the world, and at the same time very much suffering. As he sleeps in an undertaker’s shop:
‘he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep’
It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.
I think they understood.