Book Quote 2: Oliver Twist

As they passed Sunbury Church, the clock struck seven. There was a light in the ferry-house window opposite which streamed across the road and threw into more sombre shadow a dark yew-tree with graves beneath it. There was a dull sound of falling water not far off, and the leaves of the old tree stirred gently in the night wind. It seemed like quiet music for the repose of the dead.

Hello, all, and happy April! Let’s start off the month with a book quote. Last month’s was from Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring, to be precise). This one is from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which I reviewed last month. Needless to say, Dickens books are quite different from Tolkien books, though both were masterful writers. I particularly like this quote for its descriptive qualities, so that’s what I’m going to focus on today. What can we learn about descriptive writing from the quote above?

1. It suits the mood. At this point, Oliver Twist and a thief, Sikes, are on their way to commit a robbery, and Oliver, our main character, is afraid. Because of this, he (or, more properly, the omniscient narrator) does not see cheery light casting welcoming rays into the darkness, but light that sets a tree and the gravestones beneath it in shadow. You can sense the foreboding just by reading this one paragraph of description.

2. (Spoiler alert!) It serves to foreshadow a later event. I won’t give too many spoilers here, but near the end of the book, someone dies. Dickens has snuck in some very clever foreshadowing about twenty-five chapters ahead of time (yes, this is a long book) with his description of the graves and his comparison of water and wind to music for the dead. It’s smart to add moments like these early in the book so the climax doesn’t come completely out of the blue for the reader.

And there you have it! Lessons about description from a paragraph of Dickens.

What do you think? Have you ever read Oliver Twist? Can we draw some advice from this quote that I didn’t note here? Do you enjoy reading Dickens’s descriptions as much as I do? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An orphan raised in a workhouse runs away to London, where he rubs shoulders with both impoverished thieves and the well-to-do and finds out who he really is.

Welcome to my first book review post! This book is a bit of a departure from my genre, as described on this blog. It is not one jot speculative or fantastical, but I think all writers can benefit from reading and studying the classics, like Dickens. And Oliver Twist hammers Dickens’s mastery home.

The Story: This book is introduced as a biography of Oliver Twist, an orphan boy born and raised in a Victorian English workhouse for poor children. When his apprenticeship to an undertaker results in his being beaten, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls in with a gang of thieves. Although (spoiler alert) he gets rescued from them a couple times, his fate is woven in with theirs until he finds out at the very end who he really is.

This book is half mystery and half social critique, as you’ve probably heard. The narrator’s tongue-in-cheek comments about various characters kept me both chuckling and nodding at the reality of life for the poor in Victorian England. The mystery, meanwhile, kept me hooked, as was probably necessary, since Dickens wrote this as a serial.

A major problem I have with the story is that, once it got to a certain point, Oliver was left behind. It was still (ostensibly) about Oliver, but he didn’t figure as prominently as the rest of the cast. That being said, it was still a good read.

The Characters: There are a lot of characters in this book. Offhand, I can think of eighteen recurring characters, not one-time figures (like the magistrate, who is only in one or maybe two scenes). Because of the great number of characters, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who among the less important ones. That being said, the major characters are quite well written and thus memorable.

My favorite character in this book was Nancy, the prostitute girl who lives with the thief Sikes. She, along with Oliver, embodies much of the book’s theme of escaping from poverty’s degradations. Spoiler alert: Though she often acts as a double agent, working for both Oliver’s interests and those of the robber gang, her compassion for Oliver eventually wins out, defining the events of the last part of the book. In fact, I would say hers is the major arc of the story; she grows the most of any of the characters, though she still falls short of really changing. In short, she is a deep, interesting, and well-written character.

The Writing: Dickens’s writing is . . . well, let’s just say it’s very different from what we see in books published in this century. Consider the opening of Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born–on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events–the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

(The chapter is called “Treats of the place where Oliver Twist was born, and of the circumstances attending his birth.”)

A modern writer might boil this very long sentence, which makes up an entire paragraph by itself, down to this:

Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse.

This example just goes to show how different the writing of the Victorian era is from today’s cut-to-the-chase style. Today, especially in the common third-person limited point of view, it is most common to open with a character, maybe going about his or her usual business. But Dickens is not writing in third-person limited; his omniscient narrator knows what is going on inside each and every head involved and is not afraid to add some commentary. While this would not be accepted today, it works for Dickens. As I have already mentioned, his purpose is to effect social change while telling a good story, and the omniscient POV and his wordy style work well for that. Also, readers in the Victorian era were probably a lot more tolerant than today’s readers.

The one thing that most amused me, as a modern reader, were the chapter titles. They tend to be descriptive, and some poke sarcasm at the characters they mention. Others, however, are written as though Dickens ran out of ideas for titling his chapters. Consider this:

“Chapter XXXVI. Is a very short one, and may appear of no great importance in its place, but it should be read notwithstanding, as a sequel to the last and a key to the one that will follow when its time arrives.”

I can’t help thinking: Yes, Mr. Dickens, that is an excellent description of the function of a middle chapter.

Another writing topic for this book, which I won’t touch on today, is Dickens’s description. Look for a discussion of that in a forthcoming book quote post.

My copy of Oliver Twist.


Overall: All things considered, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. The unexpected twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat, and the characterizations gave me an idea of what life was like for the poor when this book was written. I definitely recommend it!