Oliver Twist: Origins of Popular Tale

There have been many stage and screen versions of “OLiver Twist,” including David Lean’s in 1948 with Alec Guinness and now Roman Polanski’s rendition, not to mention Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning musical Oliver! in 1968.

For those interested, here is some background information.

Origins of Oliver Twist

When “Oliver Twist” first appeared in serialized form in the monthly magazine “Bentley’s Miscellany,” in 1837, its subtitle was “The Parish Boy’s Progress.” For the first installments, Dickens described to his readers what it was like to be a “parish boy” after the passing of the new Poor Law Act of 1834. Dickens saw the bill being hotly debated when he was a parliamentary reporter for the “Morning Chronicle,” and he continued to attack it in his fiction and journalism for the rest of his life.

London in that period was the biggest city in the world and it was fast developing, with masses of people drifting to the city from the country, without any means of survival. As the first social realist writer of his time, Dickens depicted the workhouses, and the way the poor and orphans were mistreated. Dickens himself came from a poor family and he worked in a factory when he was a child. There’s a sequence in the film in which the boys are made to pick oakum, the fibers of a rope that had worn, so you could reuse the rope. It was the most awful, painful, agonizing, work, and they put kids and convicts in prison to do it.

Dickens dramatized every level of English society. In “Oliver Twist,” it starts at the lowest level in the workhouse, with pompous officials who are violently cruel to the poor kids. Then, Oliver slowly works his way up until he escapes to London and falls in among thieves. Brownlow introduces Oliver to polite society, before he’s dragged back to the savage world of Fagin.