Having taught several times Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations I had serious doubts that Oliver Twist would be a satisfying text to teach, being, as it clearly is, inferior to this other novel. Why change the syllabus, then? The usual: my colleagues’ worries that Great Expectations is too hard to grasp for second-year students (yes, a patronising judgement, perhaps). Also, Oliver is reasonably short, though I am sure my students would dispute this claim. We agreed to give it a try and, fine, it’s worked reasonably well. Considering, of course, that possibly one third of our two classes did not have the book… and just listened to us babbling about it non-stop.
I must say that much of the satisfaction I’ve found in teaching this novel comes from my colleague David Owen’s decision to apply for an MQD (‘better teaching’) grant, which he received; so did we as part of his group. The idea is that in order to improve our Literature teaching we are to focus on the narrator (whenever we teach fiction, of course), which will supposedly give our courses more coherence. This has certainly helped in Oliver Twist’s case, particularly in contrast with our current novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as Dickens’s novel is a third person narrative in his typical flamboyant style whereas Tenant has two main first person narrators, in the style the Brontë sisters seemed to prefer. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s excellent article “Oliver Twist: The Narrator’s Tale” has provided not only a good model students can follow when writing their own papers but also valuable insight into the problem of why/how the protagonist of this book hardly deserves the name of ‘subject,’ being as he is mostly absent from the text.
Nonetheless, I miss Pip and Estella and, indeed, Miss Havisham in her tattered wedding dress. Every time Oliver opens his little mouth to speak in that impossibly sentimental language no living child has ever used, I think of little Pip’s tale of how he was scared stiff by the presence of that ogre in his native marshland… Oddly enough sunny Mrs. Maylie and her adoptive daughter Rose seem to mirror Miss Havisham and her own adoptive child Estella, a much murkier pair. They would heartily despise the Maylie women for being sentimental fools, which makes me wonder what happened to Dickens between 1837, when Oliver was imagined and 1860, when Pip was.
So, dear students, if you read this, just enjoy Great Expectations next summer. Perhaps, in the end, the best praise I can offer to Oliver Twist is saying that, if you loved it, happily for you there’s plenty of much better Dickens to enjoy.