Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
After escaping from the dark and dismal workhouse where he was born, Oliver finds himself on the mean streets of Victorian-era London and is unwittingly recruited into a scabrous gang of scheming urchins. In this band of petty thieves Oliver encounters the extraordinary and vibrant characters who have captured readers’ imaginations for more than 150 years: the loathsome Fagin, the beautiful and tragic Nancy, the crafty Artful Dodger, and perhaps one of the greatest villains of all time—the terrifying Bill Sikes.
The slice: the first chapter
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.
Words cannot describe how much I love this sentence. It’s one of my favorite first lines ever and it pulled me in immediately the first time I read it. I’m actually not a big fan of Oliver Twist (it’s a good book but it’s not one of my favorites), but the first chapter is one of the best openings that I’ve ever read.
And imagine how boring it could have been, if Dickens gave us the information that he declares as unimportant in the first line. If I knew the name of the city and the date on which Oliver was born, I wouldn’t have been so into the book from the start, but he says it doesn’t matter and oh, why say ‘a child was born’, when you can say ‘item of mortality’, and suddenly I’m all in.
The first chapter of Oliver Twist is called Treats of the place where Oliver Twist was born and of the circumstances attending his birth and I absolutely love the long and descriptive names of chapters that Dickens uses. I’m always happier when a book has actual names for chapters instead of just numbers – it’s more fun and if I’m looking for a specific part of the book, it’s much easier this way.
The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.
If there are two ways to write something, Dickens will pick the longer one. So many writers could not get away with this – I have wondered quite a few times why some author choose to go on and on instead of getting to the point. In this book, I love it.
What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.
Dickens is full of criticism for society and its treatment of poor people and especially poor children. The first chapter describes Oliver being born, his mother dying immediately after, and the two people who happen to be around, the nurse and the surgeon, obviously don’t have much interest in his well-being. Everything points to Oliver having a horrible future.
The story of Oliver Twist’s birth is not funny, but I can’t read it without a grin on my face. It’s been years since I’ve read the whole book, but I’ve read the beginning so many times 🙂